There was pin-drop silence as Anya paled and Poo looked as if she would pass out there and then.
This time both Arnav and Kshitij started. “Manorama!” cracked Nani’s voice across the room.
Manorama faltered; perhaps she had gone too far?
Chotti came to her rescue, “But Bami,” she butted in innocently, “I don’t understand, why did you say Di is not is ghar ki beti? Isnt she the eldest daughter of this family?”
“Hehehe, Angel bitiya,” Manorama grabbed the lifeline, “Yes yes aaaff course aaaff course, wohi toh, that is what I meanz,” Manorama tried to pour oil over troubled water and backtrack from the arrows released from her quiver.
There was a perceptible lessening of the taut explosive silence but still there was an aura of watchful silence; Chotti was looking unconvinced so Anya tried to drag her over to where the boys were busy with a boisterous game on the lawns of GM, “Haan come Chotti let’s see what the boys are upto, I sure hope they don’t trample on the flower beds in their frenzy,” she rued, unwilling to continue the verbal fisticuffs that was clearly brewing, and certainly not on her account and more so because Poo’s expression broke her heart. Even though Anya had been busy at the party it had not escaped her notice that Poo was extremely self-conscious and on her guard throughout and Anya had tried to make her feel at ease by introducing her to her friends. Anya had been gratified to see her efforts pay off and see Poo relax and laugh at the jokes and even participate in the conversation as Sherry tried to draw her out. But it had been a fragile shield of confidence and Mamiji pointed taunt instantly shattered it and went to the very core of her anguish – her face and it was there for all to see.
Anya’s blood boiled and belatedly she realized that she shouldn’t have crossed swords with Badi Mami but then she had never expected that Badi Mami would ever retaliate so viciously; she was taken aback by Mamiji’s vitriolic outburst but it was the Poo directed comment which was the most cutting, “Come Chotti,” she pulled at her hoping to at least spare her the shock of being caught in the midst of a full-fledged verbal dual that was about to erupt and who knows perhaps even defuse the bomb that was ready to burst.
But Chotti was not so easily distracted and neither was she old enough to understand societal cover-ups or adopt a hypocritical approach – if Bami could call a spade a spade so could she, “No Bami,” she explained patiently, “That is not what you said, you said Di is not ghar ki beti, that means you are saying she is not part of this family? But why would you say that?” Chotti was justifiably curious and determined not to rest till she got to the bottom of things.
There was silence all around, Mamiji didn’t really want to put it into words, oh to destroy the fun of her poisonous taunts by explainiyaing them – nahi nahi yeh unse nahi hoga – and of course the rest knew what she meant but to spell it out for Chotti would mean rubbing salt over Anya’s wound, not to mention Poo as well.
Arnav’s face darkened and his fingers clenched – all this was so unnecessary, his blood boiled, sab Di ki galati hai, he fumed, she and her out-dated ideas of one big happy family, ek try karne toh do Chotte, she had pleaded and roped in Khushi to plead her case – he should have never listened to either of them he regretted.
Khushi slipped her fingers into his hand and he crushed her fingers in his, Khushi winced, he instantly loosened his grip; it was Khushi’s turn to clasp his hand warningly; deep dejection filling her heart, when had all the bitterness crept in? Or had it always been there but she in her happiness had been unable to see it? True Jiji had spoken to her in her usual soft manner and interacted with the children as well but the warmth, the apnapan was missing; tears clogged her throat, she swallowed hard and searched for a plausible explanation for Chotti even as her heart broke for Anya, more so for Poo – she was just learning to accept her deformity, be comfortable with it and now this – perhaps for the first time felt a slow poisonous anger simmer against Mamiji, it was one thing to pass barbed comments to an adult but to drag the children into this – so not done, she swore to herself.
Heaving a mental sigh of relief that at least Chotti hadn’t caught the oblique reference to Poo, Anya took it upon herself to clarify matters, “Chotti, the thing is that my mother, I mean the one who gave birth to me, isn’t part of the Raizada family, all the rest here are related to each other by blood, I think that is why Badi Mami said what she said,” there was only the faintest quaver in her voice.
There was a sound of distress from Anjali and she moved forward, the tigress protecting her cub, but Chotti wasn’t done yet, “Oh I know that Di,” she dismissed the facts of life airily, “but then Mamma is part of the Raizada family by marriage not blood and you are Mamma’s niece aren’t you? So that would in any case make you part of the Raizada family wouldn’t it?” Chotti was pretty clear in logical associations, she was suddenly struck by a thought, “Naani,” she called in her high clear voice, “Or does it mean Mamma is not part of Raizada family?” There was a faint approving look on Nani’s face but before she could respond, Chotti continued, “Then Bami too wouldn’t be part of this family because she is not related by blood to anybody!” There was a crack of laughter from Khsitij who hastily converted it to a cough but the damage was done, Mamiji’s face paled and she was all bluster, “ooo, hehee naaahi naahi.”
Nani relaxed and sat back, she marveled at Chotti’s ability to go to the crux of the matter; plus coming from an adult, this aspersion would have been unacceptable and guaranteed to set off another mahayudh, but the innocent questioning and reasonings of a child was quite another thing – Manorama had finally met her match, she thought rather smugly.
Basking in all the attention, Chotti was on a roll and not at all ready to give up the centre stage quite yet, besides she hadn’t finished untangling all this complicated relationship-blood-marriage thing quite to her satisfaction yet (err she had had to make a family tree as part of her school assignment and that had triggered off many a confusion and she was determined to get to the bottom of things and what better time than when the whole family was here?), “Daddy,” she turned to her book of answers, “Who or what is a family? Is it relationship by blood or is it marriage? How does marriage make someone a part of a family? And why did Bami say Di isn’t part of this family? And what about Boo?”
Arnav’s face was a study, his hand once again crushed Khushi’s but then she barely noticed – all eyes had swung to Poo who was standing to one side trying to make herself as inconspicuous as possible. She flushed a beetroot red and mumbled a hasty excuse, “Better go and oversee the kitchen,” she tried to escape. Ever since the discussion had started, knowing Chotti (and her homework and the associated questions), she had been dreading this moment and had been constantly urging herself make herself scarce, yet perversely had been unable to move. It was as if she were rooted to the spot. She wished the earth would open and swallow her as embarrassment flooded her, she dearly wished she had had the foresight and will to avoid boxing everyone into a corner – all because of her. You idiot! She swore at herself, you knew this was coming yet you hung around! Dammit koi akkal hai nahi?
“Punya!” Nani’s voice rang out authoritatively and Poo’s heart sank ‘uho now Nani too was mad at her’ but she stopped automatically, “Kahin jaane ki kuano jaroorat nahi, kyunki agar aap is ghar ki naahi,” she paused and sat up straight, looking regal, “Toh hum bhi naahi,” she said proudly.
“Nani!” everyone spoke at the same time.
Cutting across the emotional hulabaloo, Chotti was the one like the dog with a bone, she continued on her logical trip, “I don’t understand Nani,” she complained once again.
“Bitiya,” called Nani, “Traditionally, a ‘family’ constitutes of those who are related by blood but only on the male side; upon marriage, the daughters and sisters of a particular family automatically becomes part of the family that she is married to and stops being part of her original family, understand?” Nani smiled faintly and said, “Pata hai Chotti, actually on the basis of this understanding of a family, my family constitutes your Bade Mamaji, Bami, Poohpahji etc etc, and I am technically not a part of this family for I am your father’s mother’s mother,” she adjusted her pallu in a satisfied manner and sat back.
Chotti heard her out in round-eyed silence trying to work out the family dynamics, “Oh! So you mean to say that once I get married, I will stop being a part of this family?” her lips trembled and tears came into her eyes.
Arnav stepped forward and knelt beside her, he cupped her face and said fiercely, “No matter what happens, the girls in this family will always be a part of this family, be it Nani, Di, Anya, Poo or you, okay?” Chotti nodded her head happily, oh well if Daddy was saying then it was fine!
Nani too nodded her head, but she wasn’t done yet, “Haan bitiya, traditions and customs have changed over the years – do you know when a girl gets married and leaves her parents house, she throws five handfuls of rice over her shoulder into her mother’s outstretched pallu? Do you know the meaning of that rasam?” she looked around at everybody, but except the Lucknow elders the rest were quite blank, even Khushi, “Ooo ka matlab hai, that the bride is paying back or returning, whatever her parents have given her in all these years of her stay with them and from now onwards, she owes nothing to this family and all her loyalties lie only with her husband’s family.”
“Oh but that is preposterous Nani!” Anya was shocked and sat down with a thump beside Nani, “How is it possible to return whatever one’s parents have done for us with a few handful of rice?”
“That is just symbolic bitiya,” Nani said gently, “But yet my guess is, these customs were included in the wedding rituals from ancient times to emphasize the finality of cutting ties with her parents and dedicating her life to that of her husband’s family, to bear his children and care for his family and only his family,” Nani caressed Anya’s face, “But of course now for various reasons the dynamics have changed,” she smiled, “Look at me, I am staying here,” she said once again, looking at Mamiji. To give her credit she flushed.
“But Nani!!!” Chotti wailed, she still had her assignment to do, “Then what is a family, I have to draw my family tree and I don’t know how to fit in everybody,” she said a bit sadly.
Nani smiled affectionately, “A family is one which shares the same blood line or is joined by marriage, but,” she raised her finger, “but” she caressed Chotti’s cheek, “Unless there is the bond of love and a feeling of ‘apnapan’ a family is a family by name only, do you understand?”
Chotti stamped her foot frustrated, “Now I am all confused,” she complained, “Who is family?” She liked things to be in black and white.
Nani held Chotti’s face tenderly in her hands and said softly, “Beta family constitutes those who are related by blood or marriage but above all there is another more important bond without which a family is meaningless,” Nani paused and said to a wide-eyed Chotti even as the entire gang gathered over there in case they missed Nani’s soft voice, “And that is love, always remember bitiya, without love, any relationship is meaningless and worthless, be it of marriage or,” her voice faltered, “blood.”
Chotti was thrilled, “Nani! Yes now I understand – and that is why Boo is part of this family, hain na Nani, because we all love her so much that blood relation or marriage is not needed to make her part of this family.”
Tears slid down Poo’s cheeks, healing and cleansing, while Mamiji suddenly got an important phone call, she dashed off to attend to it in privacy. Mamaji continued to look uncomfortable and embarrassed while Payash flanked him with blank puppet like expressions.
Chotti stood there looking satisfied yet confused; Anya understood her concern – all this was fine but how to fit in Boo into the family tree?
She leaned forward and whispered into Chotti’s ears; Chotti clapped her hands and nodded her head happily, “Yes! Thank you Di! I I will do like you said – I will use a blue line for those linked by blood, a red line for those linked by marriage and a pink one for those linked by love,” she skipped over to Poo and threw her arms around her.
Poo smiled through her tears, for one Chotti she was willing to take on a million Mamiji’s. And then there was Anya, Guddu, Khushi Bhabhi, Arnav Bhaiyya, Nani…oh the list was endless.
Ultimately Anya helped Chotti draw a colorful family tree where Poo was encased in a pink balloon flying high with a pink thread linked to each of the RMwasis. Needless to say, Chotti’s chart was much appreciated and put on the notice board of the school. Arnav requisitioned its framing and it occupied a place of pride in the RM lobby.
If it looked a bit faded over the years, it was because Poo had looked at it so often.
Click here for Chapter 319