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Authors: Unknown

First Darling
of the
Morning
Selected Memories of an Indian
Childhood - THRITY UMRIGAR

To JBU, HJU and ETK

With endless love and infinite
gratitude

One

I
AM OF THAT GENERATION of middle-class,
westernized, citified Indian kids who know the words to Do-Re-Me
better than the national anthem.
The Sound of Music
is our
call to arms and Julie Andrews our Pied Piper. It is 1967—Hollywood
movies always come to India a year or two after their American
release—and the alleys and homes of Bombay are suddenly alive
with the sound of music. No matter that the movie has reached us over
a year after it is a hit all over the Western world. All the piano
teachers in Bombay are teaching their beginner students how to plunk
Do-Re-Me until it seems as if every middle-class Parsi household with
a piano emits only one tune.

I am six years old and suffer from an only child's
fantasy of what life with siblings would be like.
The Sound of
Music
gives flight to that fantasy, provides it with shape and
colour. The laughter, the camaraderie, the teasing, the
close-knittedness of the Von Trapp family ensnares me, forever
setting my standard of what a perfect family should be. The Von
Trapps are as light and sunny as my family is dark; they whistle and
sing while the adults in my household are moody and silent; the
children are as shiny and healthy and robust as I am puny and sickly
and awkward. To see those seven children up on that large screen,
standing in descending order of age and height, is to see heaven
itself. My heart bursts with joy and longing; I want to leave my seat
and crawl into the screen and into the warm, welcoming arms of Maria.
Take me in, I want to say, give me some time and I will be as witty
and playful and musical as the rest of you.

I have already seen the movie once but now I want
to go again. Dad and his brother Pesi, whom I call Babu, decide that
the entire family should go see the movie together. As always, my
reclusive aunt, Mehroo, refuses to accompany us. ‘Come on,
Mehroo, it's a nice, wholesome family movie. You will enjoy
it,' says my aunt Freny, Babu's wife, but to no avail.
Pappaji, my grandfather, has recently had a heart attack and Mehroo
refuses to leave him home alone even though he is perfectly mobile.

Mehroo is my dad's unmarried sister who
lives with us. The oldest of my dad's two siblings, her
childhood ended on the day her mother died. Mehroo was then eleven.
Not only were there two younger brothers to raise (my dad, the
youngest, was only four) but there was a father to protect from the
razor's edge of his own grief. She took over the family duties
as though she had been born for that role. Her father was a kindly
man but he was so wrapped up in his own sorrow that he failed to
notice the sad look come into his daughter's eyes, a sadness
that would stalk her for the rest of her life. I suppose that from
her father's lasting grief and devotion to his dead wife, from
his endless mourning, Mehroo formed her own notions of what love
should be. And what family became for her was a profession, a job, a
hobby, an avocation. Family was all. Outside of its protective
borders lay the troubled world, full of deceit and deceptions and
broken promises and betrayals. It was an as-tonishingly limited
worldview but it made her irreplaceable within our family structure.

Mehroo's love for me is legendary throughout
the neighbourhood. So are her eccentricities.

She won't go to the movies—an amazing
feat in a movie-crazy family.

She won't buy new clothes for herself. If
someone in the family buys her material for a dress, she will save it
for years before she will take it to the tailor.

She uses the same comb even after three of its
teeth fall out, until my father finally throws it away in a pique of
anger. But she frequently slips money to me when I leave for school.

She is a vegetarian in a household where chicken
and meat, being as expensive as they are, are treats. If a spoon
that's been in the chicken curry accidentally touches her
potato curry, she will not eat it. And yet, she will cook meat for
the rest of us.

She will eat food cold from the fridge without
warming it up, although she will spend hours in the kitchen cooking
for the family.

She refuses to pose for pictures, covering her
face with her hands to avoid the camera. When she is compelled (by
me, when I'm older) to be photographed, she refuses to smile.

Every picture of her shows a serious, unsmiling
woman. In some of them, her lips even curl downward.

She is miserly, cheap, teary, sentimental,
thin-skinned, fiercely loyal, eccentric, indifferent to the world
outside her family and devoted to her loved ones.

How do
you solve a problem like Mehroo?

My cousin, Roshan, once mutters that if Mehroo was
the next door neighbour, she wouldn't like her very much. The
remark tears me up. I fancy that I understand Mehroo, in all of her
contradictions, better than anyone else; that somehow I have X-ray
vision that allows me access to the innermost chamber of her warm and
soft heart. There is something elemental and primitive about my love
for Mehroo and when I think of her, I think of her in animalistic
terms—as a dog or a horse or a giraffe or a zebra, animals with
sorrowful, kind eyes.

Now I decide that the movie situation calls for my
brand of lethal, irresistible charm. ‘Please, Mehroofui, please
come,' I beg her. ‘Just once, please, for my sake. I love
this movie the best of all. You will, too, I promise.'

She shakes her head no, her brown eyes looking at
me pleadingly. I sing a few lines from the movie, hoping to entice
her that way. But she will not budge.

Pappaji finally erupts. ‘Ja nee,' he
says. ‘Bachha ne dookhi karech. Making my little one unhappy
like this. Nothing is going to happen to me in one evening. Treating
me as if I'm a six-year-old schoolboy in half pants.'

It works. Mehroo comes and there we are on a
Saturday evening, sitting in the comfortable seats at Regal Cinema,
waiting for the red velvet curtain to rise and for Julie Andrews to
burst forth onto the screen in full-throated glory. We sit in a long
row: myself, Mehroo, Roshan and her parents, Freny and Babu, and my
mom and dad. I can barely stay still on my seat because of my
excitement. Even before the curtain has lifted, the magic, the
promise of
The Sound of Music
has come true. Here I am with my
own family, all of us looking as close and loving and happy as the
Von Trapp family. For months now, I have had this recurrent fantasy
of my entire family lying together on a big bed, all of us happy and
cosy, and turning to each other for shelter and warmth, as if the bed
was a ship tossing on tumultuous waters. All of us under the same
roof, together. This is the closest I've come to duplicating
that feeling outside of dreams and my heart throbs with love and
happiness. I feel swollen and large, as if I could elongate my hands
to touch the back of their seats and embrace the long row of family
members.

At this moment, I have no prescience of how the
currents of life will pull me away from that idealized dream of
family; of how long and far I will travel and how my travels will put
that dream forever out of my reach. No idea then of how I will
unwittingly be yet another loss in my family's chronicle of
losses. There is nothing in this carefree moment to tell me that I
will someday trade love for freedom, that I will turn my back on
Mehroo's example of self-sacrifice and devotion to family, and
instead choose self-preservation and independence. That I will build
my life and dreams on the back of their sacrifices.

Yes, I will return to them over and over again but
it will never be the same. I will come as a visitor and a tourist,
will return with stories to show Mehroo the stamps on my body from
the different places I have travelled but she will not be impressed.
For they will only serve to remind her of what is missing from my
life—the rootedness of home. And Mehroo's questioning
eyes will follow me and the bewilderment in them will never diminish,
will forever be the lump in my throat.

But before there is all that, there is this
heavenly night at Regal Cinema. For this glorious moment, here we all
are at the movies, just like any normal family. Mehroo's warm
hand is in my lap and when I sneak a peek at her in the dark, she is
smiling. Everybody seems to realize that this is a special occasion,
with Mehroo accompanying us, and I feel the unspoken admiration of
all the adults for having been the catalyst for this outing. During
the intermission, Dad is characteristically generous and comes back
loaded with chicken rolls, Sindhi samosas and bottles of Gold Spot
and Coke.

Munching my chicken roll, singing along to the
songs as familiar to me as my name, I am struck by a beam of pure
happiness, a drop of golden sun. When Christopher Plummer sings the
line, ‘Bless my homeland forever,' my hair stands up, as
it always does. When Ralph betrays the Von Trapps in the abbey, I
turn to assure Mehroo, ‘Don't worry. Nothing bad
happens.' She nods and squeezes my hand.

For one blissful evening, I am no longer envious
of the Von Trapp family. I leave the theatre that evening, knowing my
place in the world. I am a member of a family that is large and
loving and goes to the movies together. I am loved by a sad-eyed
woman who loves me above all else. I am the daughter of a father who
buys everybody Gold Spot and chicken rolls and a mother who held my
hand tight on our way to the movie theatre. I am the reason they are
all here, I am the one who has drawn Mehroo out of the house, I am
the one responsible for the smiles on their faces.

I step out of the theatre and into the world
feeling fluid and grand and irresistible.

Dad has enjoyed the family outing to the movies so
much that a few days later, he suggests a picnic. I am thrilled. I
have never been on a family picnic before. But before he can announce
his idea at dinner, mom pulls him into their room for a quick talk.
He emerges a few minutes later and tells me that on second thoughts,
he'd like it if just the three of us—mom, myself and
he—went on the picnic together. I am surprised but am too
excited at the prospect to disagree or complain.

We are to go to Hanging Gardens. We plan the
picnic for days, with dad even promising to skip his usual practice
of spending most of Sunday morning and afternoon at the factory.

Either Babu or dad visit the factory everyday,
even on the days the machines aren't humming. The ritual is as
much a gesture of respect and superstition as it is demanded by
necessity. At home, Mehroo chides me if I accidentally refer to the
business as being closed for the day. ‘The factory is never
closed,' she says. ‘Just say, “We're not
there for one day.”' But on the day of the picnic, dad
leaves for the factory at eight a.m. and is back home by ten, to pick
up me and my mom. He honks the horn but as always, mom is running
late and I lean over the railing of the balcony to tell him that she
needs another half hour. Even from two floors up, I can sense his
irritation. ‘Okay, I'll come up then,' he says.

By the time we leave, it's almost eleven and
dad is in a bad mood. ‘How much I told you yesterday about
wanting to leave on time. Now what's the use of being out in
the noonday sun,' he mutters. ‘Our skins will be black as
coal in an hour.' Like many light-skinned Parsis, my dad
treasures and protects his lemon-coloured skin as if it is the
Kohinoor diamond. While walking, he will instinctively duck for the
shade and when driving with the windows rolled down, he puts a yellow
duster cloth over his right hand as it rests on the window, to
protect it from the sun's angry rays.

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