I looked determinedly at the pile of rubbish lodged into the loft. Used high-school textbooks, old broken toys stuffed into polythene bags of unseemly colours, a torn worn out Spiderman school bag, all stored away by Renee to preserve the memories of her childhood. This sentimentality seemed unnecessary to me, especially since I, as the eldest among four siblings had been used to passing my things forward to the younger ones. Often it was a prized object, a doll or a favourite illustrated book, handled carefully to be of use to the subsequent owner. When the youngest had outgrown it, my mother would pass those on to relatives with younger children or to the domestic help. With a large family, space was at a premium. Though Renee, as the only child had more of that to her disposal, a government flat in South Delhi did not afford any more room than a bursting-to-the seams bungalow in North Calcutta. And now, that we were moving to an even tinier flat to the suburbs, after my husband’s retirement from work, I had put my foot down and insisted that we rid ourselves of all things we did not need. Renee grudgingly agreed when I told her over the phone. I could have had my way even if she did not-she was away studying in Mumbai.
It was taking longer than I had hoped. While I was mechanically taking things out, dusting them and passing them out to my husband for him to sort into boxes, even the slightest scrap of paper seemed to evoke a string of reminiscences from him. The book that Renee had won for being a class topper at the annual day in school, the answer sheet for the first geometry test she had flunked, a ‘magazine’ she had made as one of her holiday projects. And when he discovered an art book at the bottom of the first pile, I found myself, squatting on the floor beside him, and looking through her childish drawings.
The men seemed to have square bodies, the women unnaturally long hair, and a rainbow marked the background for most of the pictures. She was six I think, when her class teacher suggested that we encourage her towards art, because she seemed to have a certain flair for it. Ever the dutiful parents, we hunted for one until we concluded that the good art teachers were either too expensive, or lived too far off for us to take Renee to, every week. Then Ghoshal Da, my husband’s senior colleague and neighbour suggested that we let Abhijeet, his twenty-year old son, be Renee’s mentor. I was not averse to the idea. Apart from the convenience of the set up, Babu (Abhijeet’s nickname) also had the credentials. He was a student at the Delhi College of Art-enough credentials for an aspiring artist anyway. Plus Renee, not the most agreeable of children, seemed to like him.
Every Sunday, she would wait eagerly for her Babu Dada to arrive and sit beside her, while she first drew a line, than laboriously erased it, then drew again and repeated the procedure with the eraser, progressively dirtying the page. It was only when working with crayons, that she showed any sign of the flair her teacher had noticed. Babu taught her to stay within the lines, use colour and shades, and she learnt fast. My husband was happy because the only ‘fee’ Babu charged was Sunday’s breakfast, and I did not really mind cooking. For one, Babu relished whatever he ate, and was generous with his compliments. Sometimes, if his mother were not home, he would come for lunch after college, and show us his drawings. And even though I was his ‘kakima’, I got along better with him than with his parents. I enjoyed our conversations, for he was aware and well read and could talk about politics as intelligently as he could about cricket. His idealism was contagious, and I remember how he persuaded me to go vote in that year’s general elections (his first), when my husband said he would not because all politicians were corrupt anyway.
Another neighbour in the colony that Renee and I both loved was Meeta. She was married to Ranjan, a young engineer from IIT, Kharagpur- and a poster boy for affirmative action. The perfect example of how a poor boy could ensure a better life for his parents and future generations with the help of more opportunities. Meeta herself was from the same town, but not as educated as her husband. She was frail when I first saw her as a newly-wed, and three years in the city, albeit with much better means than before marriage, did very little to help. Kharagpur may be more than a sleepy little town now but even the Delhi of the nineties, before the Metro and before the malls, with its traffic, pollution and people, intimidated her. I empathised with her, because even though I was from a metropolis, I too had battled unfamiliarity with the language and the culture, when I had first arrived. I knew Meeta looked up to me and I enjoyed showing her around. I familiarised her with the shops, with the Hindi names of the vegetables, and the markets where fish could be bought. Renee loved Meeta’s cooking. The mutton and the prawns she made were brilliant no doubt, but even her rajma, a hitherto alien ingredient for her, eclipsed mine. And every time she made something new, or something she knew Renee liked, a bowl of it would unerringly sit on our dining table.
Meeta and her husband, the Ghoshals and we, were the only Bengali families in the colony. Naturally, since she knew very few people in Delhi, and certainly much fewer Bengalis, I introduced Meeta to Mrs.Ghoshal. The latter was cordial enough but presumably with her job and domestic chores, found no time to reciprocate the visit. Babu saw Meeta sometimes at my home and showed her some of his paintings. She liked most of them, especially the landscapes, but the two of them did not really get along as well I had thought they would, which surprised me since she was only a little older than he was. Admittedly, their interaction was limited, and their backgrounds disparate, so I resisted any further attempts to get them and their families better acquainted.
Babu was still a favourite with Renee though, and their art lessons continued through the year, until one day when Mrs. Ghoshal called to ask if I could accommodate Babu for lunch. Normally that would not be a problem at all, but I had made only pulses that day, something I could hardly serve to a guest, even if it was Babu. My own daughter had been making dissatisfied noises at the menu. Meeta was at my side when I attended the call and she immediately offered to get me some of the fish curry she had made. I protested half-heartedly, but she waved those off, happy to see Renee jumping around, celebrating the favourable turn of events. After dutifully dropping the bowl of the deep brown coloured curry off, she left, just as Babu came in, giving him a quick smile. I went inside the kitchen to heat the food, hearing Renee excitedly tell Babu how good the curry looked. I could not agree more but when I took up the bowl to serve him the fish, he sheltered his plate with his hand and said he did not want any of it.
“What will you have then? I have only made daal! I thought you liked fish!” I exclaimed.
“I do”, he replied, “but I don’t want anything she has cooked”.
For a second I looked at him in disbelief, then regained enough composure to rustle up an omelette.
The following Sunday, in the most uncharacteristic manner, Renee refused to come in front of Babu. My husband was embarrassed. Babu was after all his senior’s son. He tried to scold Renee into complying, but she started sobbing into his arms. He held her and melted immediately, assuring her that she didn’t have to take art classes any longer.
“But why don’t you want to colour any more with Babu dada?” he asked Renee later, when she had regained her calm.
“He doesn’t like Meeta aunty”, she replied simply.
As I smiled at those drawings fourteen years later, my husband looked at me sideways and suggested that we could save some of Renee’s old things.
“At least those that nobody else would have any use for”, he hastened to add. I agreed.