Chapter 10, Pt 5 of 5

MY FIRST VISIT HOME

I tried to keep the flies away while my father had his food. They were a thorough nuisance, you could not leave anything uncovered for a minute. They would fall into your food even while you were eating it and you had to eat a lot to satisfy your dear ones.

“Have a little more,” one of our relatives would say to Vijay. “Yes, do have this especial savoury piece,” would add another, not once but several times. Then the boy would get bewildered and irritable. I remember during one meal he had just about had enough of this pestering. He stood up like an agitated statesman and shouted in his own tongue, English, “Mummy, cannot you tell them I do not want any more?”

There was complete silence after that. Of course I knew and understood our Indian ways. They were over anxious to please us and look after us.

One thing shocked me in Montgomery at that time and that was the mounting tension between Hindus and Muslims. Even my own brother and his friends would argue with me for hours and tried to convince me that Hindus and Muslims could never live together and that some sort of war between them was inevitable.

“But why?” I would argue. “If it was possible for us Hindus and Muslims to live together happily in a foreign land then why couldn’t you live like brothers in your own country and that it was ridiculous to say that we belonged to different races, having nothing in common.”

It was new to me to see such bitterness between Hindus and Muslims. It wasn’t like this when I had left for England in 1932. My father used to have many Muslim friends and we were all very fond of them. Why had the relationship changed so much for the worse?

I put that question to my father one day. He simply shrugged his shoulders and became very solemn all of a sudden. He seemed to be at a loss to explain the cause of this animosity.

On the whole it was good to be back in this small (it seemed that now) but very familiar town of Montgomery. Electricity had been laid on but the sanitary system in general was still bad. The street and bazaars of the town were the same as before and so were the well-built spacious bungalows with beautiful gardens full of prodigious flowers of Indian and some English varieties, I visited quite a few of my old friends and acquaintances in those bungalows. Some of them were very elaborately furnished and provided every kind of comfort. The roads leading to these bungalows were lined mostly with tall eucalyptus trees.

Kaushalya, one of my old friends who lived in the centre of the town invited me to her home one day. It seemed like a small boarding house to me. I saw at least a dozen children of all ages playing in the courtyard, and in the large drawing room I was introduced to four very attractive young ladies.

“They are my sisters-in-law,” Kaushalya informed me, “and our mother is in the kitchen looking after the catering part for all of us. You see ours is a joint family. My father-in-law is a well-established jeweller and his sons, our husbands, work with him.”

“Fancy all of you living together. Don’t you get tired of each other’s company and start quarrelling?” I said laughing.

“Well, we do, but it doesn’t last very long. The mother keeps the peace; she is very wise and understanding. On the whole we are quite happy together and our children simply love this kind of life. They all sleep in two bedrooms and we have one bed-sitting-room each so that we can have privacy if we want to. The food is cooked in one kitchen and the servants are shared. It is definitely more economical than living separately.

“You see, my husband is the eldest of the lot and so I am the second in command, next to mother,” she said with a twinkle in her eye, “and these young ones have to respect me. Mind you it does need a lot of tact and often self-sacrifice to make this system work. We share and share alike. Our children have equal opportunities and they feel quite secure. We try to instil into them that they belong to this large family and that they are all brothers and sisters.”

“It sounds very nice,” I said, “but I doubt whether I would be able to follow this joint family system now.”

The society of Montgomery was made up of barristers, advocates and the Government officials with a sprinkling of doctors and teachers. The small Girls School, of which I had held the headship for two years, had become a Girls College in a completely new building, which was quite beyond recognition. One of the veteran managers of my time came to ask if I would give away the prizes at the College.

“Don’t forget,” he said smiling, “that you nursed that institution in its infancy.”

Would I be able to make a speech in Hindustani as I used to do I wondered. And he guessed what was in my mind.

“It would be quite in order if you inserted a few words of English here and there. We would rather like that,” he said.

The occasion went off without a hitch and I was happy to be there.

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