Embracing My Roots
~ Admin Diaries ~
A crowded chawl settlement. Narrow lanes. So narrow that not more than a man could walk through them at a time. Houses built unevenly with no architectural planning in mind. The ugly sight of a dirty gutter swarming with mosquitoes flowed right outside my house greeting everyone that entered the chawl. There was a police station right outside my chawl, at the right side of which lay the Thane Khadi(Creek). The area was named Koliwada after the community of Maharashtrian fishermen, but there were not many fishermen in that area. And, ours was the only Malayalee family in the entire Chandani Koliwada population.
Not the best place for a child growing up, as you can imagine. But, it was the only place where my parents could afford to buy a small 200 sq. feet one room kitchen, where my family of four lived, cramped up for the initial nine years of my life. Owing to my dad’s clinical paranoia, he was delusioned that mom was having an affair with our next door neighbour. My mother was as innocent as a cow, but that didn’t alleviate dad’s suspicion about her. After a few years of hearing my dad accuse mom of infidelity & all the domestic violence, I wished that she would really have an extramarital affair so she could get the happiness my dad was unable to give her. But, that never happened.
Mom had neither the courage to refute the allegations nor turn them true. Instead, she resumed her work after I turned a year & a half for the salary of a meagre two thousand rupees per month just so that she could clear dad’s suspicion that she was going to work & not having any affair because she simply didn’t have the time for it. It,however, did nothing to reduce the fights at home. Instead, I was sent to another neighbours’ home to be babysit. They were only too happy to have me & babysat me for free.
The Gargote family was Koli by origin, but they weren’t fishermen. They were vegetable sellers. They brought vegetables they grew in the farms in their village & sold them in the city. A simple family, they had 5 children, who were in their early twenties & adored me. Except one boy whom I called Mama, the rest of their children were girls whom I called Didi, Akka, Tai & Mai, literally exhausting the list of Marathi synonyms for ‘elder sister’. I called their parents as Aai & Appa (Mother & Father in Marathi). And, it was only fair to call them that since I spent more time with them than with my own family, whom I saw only in the nights & mornings. They were the ones who even gave me my nickname ‘Pammu’, which my parents too got accustomed to calling me.
Marathi naturally became the first language I learnt, staying with them from such a young age. Dad, who was poor at understanding Marathi, had to learn it in order to converse with me. I learnt basic Malayalam after I turned four, when my dad’s mother visited from Kerala during my sister’s birth. And, to this day, I’m still struggling to learn fluent Malayalam, which is ironically my mothertongue.
Growing up with the Gargotes gave me more happy & safe memories of my childhood than I can remember with my parents who were busy in their own world, constantly quarreling & fighting. Even during the little time that I was with my parents during the nights & mornings, I had to run to the Gargotes & ask them to intervene & stop my parents’ fights, afraid that dad would kill mom. The Gargote household was frequented by many people in the neighborhood, since they were an amicable & welcoming lot. And, all of those visitors mollycoddled & pampered me, fussing over me with chocolates & candies.
As I grew up & started school, the Gargotes would dress me up daily for school & for other school functions. For my school’s fancy dress competitions, they dressed me up as Shakuntala & Krishna on consecutive years & when they had finally run out of ideas, they dressed me up as a Vegetable seller the next year, wearing a Nauvari(Nine yard) saree & holding a wicker basket filled with some vegetables above my head. That day, dressed as one of them, I felt a wierd bond with them I had never felt with my own family.
Though they belonged to a lower middle class family & weren’t very well off, they celebrated every festival with splendour & grandeur. I especially looked forward to Ganesh Chathurti, when they brought home the Ganesh idol & held a feast for everyone in the neighborhood. In those days, I still believed in God & considered Ganesha as my best friend. And, for all the ten days of the festival, I would wake up early in the morning & rush to the Gargotes’ house to meet my friend, provide the sweet curd & sheera prasad to the ones who’d come to pray & chat with the idol endlessly.
Beside the Gargotes lived another family which sold mutton & chicken. Their family too was very fond of me & I had no qualms visiting their house despite the foul smell of mutton & chicken that filled their entire household. I still have warm memories of sitting in uncle’s lap & eating chocolates happily even though I had seen him butchering those helpless animals. It strikes me as a funny yet sad anomaly that a child was less afraid of a butcher than of her father.
After turning nine, I started feeling ashamed of my life – my roots, my family’s poverty, my dad’s illness, the fights, my tiny house & the neighborhood I lived in. I began cooking up stories & lying to my friends about them all. In my mind, I had only one dream. Distract my mind from what was going on at home, study hard, get a job & fulfill all my dreams that my parents couldn’t afford to.
After my granny’s death, my family moved to Mulund. I got admission in a sophisticated convent school, which took me a step closer towards my dream. After school ended, I throttled my dream of taking up Arts & took up Commerce so that I could earn soon with little investment on my studies. As I graduated this year, I got a job in a reputed firm through my campus placements & finally succeeded in fulfilling my plan.
I visit the Gargotes without fail every year on Ganesh Chathurti, despite having turned into an atheist. And, they still fuss over me every single time, worrying & gushing about how I have got thinner & more tanned than the last year I visited. Appa points me out to almost every visitor I’m unable to recollect at the feast & asks them,”Hila olakhla ka? Bagha, aamchi Pammu kiti mothi zhali aahe!(Do you remember her? See, how grown our Pammu has become)” And, I have a hard time swallowing the lump in my throat, trying to contain my love & gratitude towards them for giving me a childhood that still has some happy memories in it. And, I fight my wish to give them all a tight hug because hugging is still a very explicit way of expressing love in their conservative & simple minds. Instead, I simply touch their feet before leaving & promise to visit again next year.
Never the one to settle for less, I rejected the job I had landed through campus placements & moved to Bangalore for a better job in a startup. It was another step closer to my dream but another step away from Mulund, Thane & all the memories Mumbai held. And, it was only after I left Mumbai that I realised what it meant to me. Today, I’m no longer ashamed of my roots. I am what I am only because of my experiences & I love the person it has turned me into. I only make friends with those people whom I can be completely honest with & who can accept & respect my truth.
Today, it’s been more than a month since I landed in the city of my dreams, but I’m still terribly hung over Mumbai. I love travelling, but I’ve been locking myself up in my rented room ever since I got here, except for going to work. And, I just don’t want to get out of it & see new places or make new friends. It’s just a phase & everybody thinks I’m being silly, but how can I explain to them that I can’t find happiness here when I left it in the place where I came from?
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