Ma was a shrewd judge of character. She would say, “Malika is a kaari saap, and Raazia and Zareena are Lila saap.” Which translates as “Malika is a black snake that strikes without warning. Raazia and Zareena are green snakes that you can see and strike openly.” Ma had to judge the family spats and quarrels and the inevitable squabbles between the daughters-in-law.
I remember one day when I was four and home alone with her. She had woken up at seven to pray and make breakfast for everyone. I sat at the table and ate before Dad rushed off to the family Shop and Mum and Raheel to school. I wondered to the fariyo gate in my nightgown and told Ma, “I want to go to school, it must be fun,” I said.
“You will go next year, Shaza. But I need you to help me at home. What will I do alone at home without you, Shaza?” That was true; Ma needed me at home. Ma went to a corner of the back garden and picked some leaves of a small plant. I tried picking some as well, but Ma stopped me. “Don’t touch that. Didn’t I tell you not to come here?”
“But why, Ma?”
“I use this plant for making a medicine,” Ma said mysteriously. “It can help someone have a baby, but the leaves are not good for children. There are lots of other plants you can pick.” Garlic, ginger, mint, dill, coriander, cilantro, neem, rosemary, and henna plants flourished. Jambu trees with purple fruit towered over the mango, banana, and papaya trees.
“Go and get some kari leaves for me,” she said, and then we both left the garden followed by a wayward chicken. Ma went into the kitchen to start cooking. She phoned her twin sister Kheru and said, “Kheru, I am making kitchdi. You make the khadhi, and that will do for lunch. I will make some cabbage curry as well, okay, Kheru.” Kitchdi was a mixture of rice and green mung bean lentils that would be boiled together until soft. Ma mashed them with a heavy wooden spoon and added a generous dollop of butter.
I got bored and went to play with my doll. After a while, Ma came out to sit on the stone bench in the courtyard and talked to me.
“So Shaza, are you ready to go to Kheru Maasi’s house with me.”
“Yes, let’s go, jaaldi, jaaldi, fast, fast.”
Ma laughed at my eagerness and went to comb her hair. The cook left carrying half the kitchdi for the next-door family. At eleven, Ma walked into the shady back lane holding my hand, followed by her dog Willie. Kheru Maasi’s house was the second house over with a large Hindu clan living in their own mansion between our homes.
We entered the backyard, and Kheru came forward to embrace Ma, she was thinner and frailer than Ma. The tea leaves and cardamom were already simmering in a pot.
“Did you hear about the Virjee family, Kheru?”
Slowly Kheru added the milk, not letting it boil over. She poured two cups for each of them and a small cup for me.
“No, what happened?” Kheru asked.
“They saw twenty girls in Nairobi for their son, and they didn’t like any of them. Twenty! Now they have gone to Bombay to find a girl.”
Ma said the tea wasn’t quite right, and so Kheru walked over to a cupboard, brought out a tin of condensed milk, and added a heaped teaspoon of the milky liquid to each cup.
“Bombay. They won’t know the families, and they will end up with a girl that has something wrong with her,” Kheru said, while we dipped Marie biscuits in the tea.
“And by the time they find out, it will be too late as the girl will have married their son,” Ma laughed.
“It serves them right for being so big-headed. Our Nairobi girls are such good girls; they should have chosen any one of them.”
Kheru Maasi had borne fourteen children, which, even for those days, was a lot, but in the sixties, she was sickly with many health problems. The two sisters talked about the troubles of family life: the servants and who had the most annoying daughter-in-law.
“She fired her shamba boy again, after only two months. So now I have to find her another one. She said he wasn’t doing any work. Well, what does she expect when she doesn’t want to pay them more,” Ma said about her oldest daughter-in-law.
Then Ma went to taste the khadhi, which was simmering in an iron pot. She tried the liquid, which was a yellow custard made with yogurt, chickpea flour, mustard seeds, and the kari leaves I had picked.
“A little more lime juice,” she said. Kheru reluctantly added the fresh lime juice to the khadhi.
“Now, it’s good. I am going back home,” she said, kissing her sister goodbye. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Kheru Maasi sent her servant with us; he was carrying a saucepan of khadhi for our lunch. Every day they cooked enough for two households and shared the dishes, cooking one or two each. Ma was followed by Willie and I bringing up the rear.
“So, what did you learn at playgroup yesterday?” Ma asked as I helped her chop potatoes.
“I learned how to sing, “Humpty Dumpty Sat on A Wall,” and I proceeded to sing it loudly for Ma.
“You are so lucky to learn English.”
“Didn’t you learn English, Ma?”
“No, I only learned Gujarati in my school. Then when I was twelve years old, I was going to study English, but they took me out of school to get married. So I never learned English.”
“You got married when you were so young?”
“That’s how it was in those days. Now, let’s finish the curry,” she said deftly changing the subject.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish