There were kids of all ages; we learnt to observe how they managed their life and difficulties. Unconsciously we had been to a special school…
What could have epitomized our sense of family more than the coming of Deepavali? We children would, on the eve, gather around our paternal grandmother, the matriarch, along with her three daughters-in-law, while her sons would keep in the background. The old lady would, for once, be more demonstrative in her feelings, taking pride to demonstrate her culinary knowledge in preparing all sorts of Indian sweets and salty cakes.
Being on vacation, we would give free rein to our enthusiasm. We would wash the sweet potatoes and onions, help to grind rice, maize, coconut and other spicy ingredients that go in the preparation of ‘ketitorpon’. The girls would be seen grinding some other spice on the ‘roche Kari’ at eleven at night. And soon, by midnight we would watch our grandmother and her in-laws cooking, stirring in boiling oil, and draining all sorts of sweets.
Some of us, trying to be part of the fun from beginning to end, struggled to stay awake. But the matriarch’s order was out: a special traditional early morning warm bath with dholl soaked in oil followed by soap. After that, we would have to bless all the cakes and our new dresses, and pray to the lord to render this Deepavali great for us all.
The paternal grandmother, surrounded by everyone, could have felt proud of her family, but for the grandchildren the bottom to top view of that set-up was surely very different, because our sense of family was just limited to opportunities to play and tease each other.
Being the second child of the family, what had marked me most was perhaps the birth of all the younger siblings. Perhaps the pregnancy of one of the three women of the family had finally become a routine matter to me. As the time of delivery drew near more relatives would be dropping by to enquire about the health of the expectant mother. We children went about our routine school and homework with some suspicion of the impending happy event; yet, for many of us, it was just another of the “déjà vu” event.
One good day the atmosphere would gradually change as the ‘femme sage’, a lady living opposite our house, would be coming regularly to visit the expectant mother. Later there would be a spate of activities in an atmosphere of seriousness and concern in the house, as the lady to deliver would be barricaded in a room and containers of hot water would be ordered.
Some babies advertised their arrival by their piercing cry that would resonate throughout the house, while others were more quiet. Our maternal aunties and grandmothers would drop in one by one again, always with some degree of concern, lest something had gone wrong.
Meanwhile we children were happy to go easy with our homework. How could anyone prevent us from rejoicing at the happy event that had fallen on the mansion at Pasteur street?
As the days went by, the “femme sage” would come every night; some grown up would prepare a stove with red hot charcoal. We guessed that warmth had to be applied to the mother’s belly to help her recover. Should it be winter, we children were happier, never too far to capitalize on the opportunity, to sit and talk and giggle around the warm stove after the ‘femme sage’ was done with her duty.
The lucky baby and mother
However for me the fun would really start in the following days. I would hear about the talk of ‘pigeon soup’ – a totally rare recipe which kept my expectation high, but I was almost always disappointed; was it possible that that prescription was only really for new moms? Still, on other occasions there were hushed voices referring to ‘L’eau de Vie’, purchased from the round-the-corner bar; I never could appreciate the relationship between that magic potion and childbirth. Days later, my grandmother would insist that a special Madrassi ‘Curry Venyion’, consisting of a heavily loaded spicy masala of whole garlic, bomli (Bombay duck) and brinjal, be cooked for the benefit of the new mother. We were not invited to the feast, the elders believing that our intestines were too weak to stomach such a curry.
Of course, then there were the bitter leaves of “Lilas de Perse”, to be crushed and made into small balls to be swallowed by the nursing mother. No wonder Lilas de Perse, unlike pigeon soup, was never on my priority list.
Only years later I would realize that all those folk prescriptions were either to stimulate maternal milk secretion, help the uterus contract, and to evacuate the ‘bad’ blood still coursing inside the new mother’s womb – that is after dilatation of blood vessels by that ‘Eau de vie’ stuff.
Suddenly our world underwent a change: we had a new sister or cousin to care for; someone to fondle with, to start pampering; we had to be ready to help the weak mother look after the newborn, to bring the ‘cuvette’ or ‘baké’ of warm water for the bath of the tot, to look for the towel and special baby’s soap. The elder girls were naturally more enthusiastic than the boys, and in a way that could be said to be already formatting our liking or indifference to the newcomer.
As the eldest of the lot, I could gauge the routine to come; as babies would not be able to belch properly, they were prescribed ‘Gripe Water’. So it was not rare that I would have had a go at it myself when no one was around; its fragrance still lingers in my memory even after decades. The baby, besides being breastfed, would soon be weaned off and fed arrowroot paste. It was bland and tasteless stuff, not to my liking.
Later there was something different: a brownish, thick pasty sweet preparation, concocted from roasted flour and milk. Many prayed that the newcomer would not be too greedy… and would leave some for us. Or when it came to sweet yellow custard, again we children would remain on the lookout for our share. The growing baby would soon be switched to powdered milk. How about a few spoonfuls of the same when the elders had their back turned? The birth of all these siblings had always kept our childish expectations high.
Our Common Bond
That’s how we grew up in the joint family – from our childhood’s perspective. We would wonder and marvel at the milestones our younger family members would go through, such as grasping with the hands, their crawling capacity, their first few steps unaided, their smiles and evolving blabbering talent. How fast they picked up the language was always a source of amazement and juicy comment. We had a good laugh when one of the elder children blurted out “Mo toutt so li tou” instead of “Mo coup so li cou”.
Years later we would realize how all of us had gained from each other, how we had relived our own babyhood by watching so many newcomers since their very birth. We exchanged feelings, language and all sorts of bugs too; we came to realize how the family could be a shock absorber during times of stresses and doubts. There were kids of all ages, each with their own problems characteristic of the age; we learnt to observe how they managed their life and difficulties. Unconsciously we had been to a special school without any blackboard, school bench, or teacher.
Many years later we went through the same experience when nephews and nieces came on the scene. Unfortunately, by then we had become adults, and some of the elders were no more. And when our own children came, the joint family had disintegrated; they would never have the occasion to elicit so much wonder, comment and gaze from a dozen children gathering around simultaneously, as in the olden days. Sadly, those children just no longer live under the same roof.
- Published in print edition on 25 August 2017