Saturday, December 25, 2010

Daffodils & Dandelions

Tara stood outside the glossy glass door for a moment, not sure if she was to follow Latika Didi or not. This was the first time the whole family had taken her to a fancy restaurant. 

She watched Latika sashay ahead, then followed Latika Didi’s Mummy ji and Daddy ji. Som bhaiyya was the last one to enter and he held the door for Tara. This was her sign to propel the pram with the twins and join them inside.

Tara had worn a blue Salwar-Kameez. She thought she looked nice yet she felt so out of place here. It surely didn’t have anything to do with her clothes.

Three days back she was asked to go and get vegetables from the nearby market. It wasn’t her job. She wasn’t here as a domestic help. Her job was to take care of the twins. That was the deal between her mother and Mummy Ji.  “Self-respect, my foot!” is what her mother would have said too. So she went to buy the vegetables.

Many men eyed her that day in the market. She could feel a million eyes devouring her. She knew what they wanted and why. The openly flouted cross border flesh-trade between India and Nepal had left little for the imagination.

Tara went inside the restaurant and took the corner seat. There was space for the pram and she wouldn’t be in the way of anybody. 

No one asked her what she wanted to eat. Mummy ji enquired, “Did you eat before we left home”? She didn’t know she had to. She said, “No”. A glance was exchanged between Mummy ji and Latika Didi. “Just order extra na, she will have from that”, Didi sanctioned.

Tara smiled at Didi and Latika smiled back.

Latika was a happy go lucky, rich kid. The only condition she had put forth for further studies was that the university had to be either in the US or UK. Finally Leeds is where destiny lead her to. There she met Som Shreshtha and then began a love story that had over a while progressed into a fulltime family drama. She landed up at her parents’ house in Delhi one month after she delivered twin baby girls along with their twin British Passports. If she had to work at it, she wasn’t going to be alone. Som visited once in every four months. It burnt crisp holes on his pocket but who cared.

Mummy Ji and Papa Ji knew this would happen. Latika was the tender Daffodil they had raised who found it difficult to function without help. They had bumped into Tara’s mother who worked with a Travel Agency in Tawang, on their trip to the north-east. "Must see Arunachal Pradesh before excessive tourism spoils it or the Chinese want it for themselves", was the general buzz in the tourism circuit. A beautiful Indian state. And what a happy co-incidence it was for them to know that the local guide with the Agency was in desperate need of money. She agreed to send her daughter, who was getting to be quite a handful, to them in case they needed a nanny.

Tara looked at the decor. Everything was made of solid wood. Big chunks of rosewood. No cushions or velvety covers. If one was going to pay handsomely for a meal then at least they should be able to dig into comfortable sofas. Wood and glass were for cheap joints. That’s what it meant from where she came from. “Why were red lamps hanging on every table?”, oh they were the only Chinese element apart from the food that would be served here. She hadn’t realised in her nervousness that they were at a Chinese Diner.

Free flowing Jasmine tea arrived at the table.  Small little tumblers were passed around. None reached her. Who said invisibility cloaks don’t exist? Tara felt like she was wearing one right now.

She believed it was her fault that she was here. If only she had listened to her mother and completed school. But no, she was too tired of reading up about things that were never going to affect her life. What was the point in knowing how many states America has or who invented the television. She was happier selling Tibetan artefacts to tourists. She liked moving from one tourist location to another in her state and dreamt of one day making it to 'Mainland India'. That's what they called the rest of the country.

Still lost, she sat at the dinner table looking at the snugly sleeping twins.

Mummy Ji was hungry so she started polishing off all the sauces and accompaniments that were laid out on the table. Latika interrupted her flow with a glare. Papa Ji asked the waiter to refill the vinegared salads by the double.

“I like the Indian Chinese food better than authentic Chinese”, exclaimed Latika.

“What do you mean?”, Mummy Ji refilled her plated with salads and roared.

“It is much spicier here”, clarified Som Bhaiyya.

Tara liked spicy food too. She was happy they were going to eat that. At home, since their father had a stroke, they cooked with minimal oil and spices. The fact that their mother had to move to another end of the state in tourist season didn’t make things any easy.  Tara had to take care of her father and three siblings while she was away. When Mummy Ji sweet talks, she can drip barrels of honey. No wonder mother agreed to send Tara for a year. On one condition though – she was to be just the nanny, not a maid.

Piping hot soups arrived. Bowls full of steaming lemon grass flavoured broths were carefully passed around the table. None reached Tara.

Every act of ignorance made her question her existence.

Her only solace was the amount of money all her bitter experiences were going to send home. It was quite a packet and that was worth everything she was going through right now. They needed the money.

“I can’t have this”, Latika declared that the flavour of the soup was overwhelming and made her nauseous. She kept it aside. Tara prayed no one pass that onto her. Thankfully no one did.

“If it weren’t for the Chinese, we would have missed out on a world of culinary marvel”, mediated Papa Ji.

“If it wasn’t for the Chinese, we wouldn’t have had the war in 1962”, thought Tara as it was very close to her heart. Her motherland lad borne the brunt of it and was still reeling under its aftershocks, almost 50 years since. But she kept quiet. “Don’t speak much and don’t try to show off what you know”, were her mother’s strict instructions.

“Order something else for me na”, Latika’s manicured hands fluttered in Som’s direction.

“Who was our waiter?”, confused Som tried to place him.

“They all look the same. I can never tell,” Mummy Ji backed her son-in-law.

“Of course not, they don’t look the same!”, Tara almost growled in her mind, “ One is a Khasi from Meghalaya and another a Kooki from Manipur. They are not same.”
She could tell by the looks and the mannerisms which of the neighbouring states they belonged to..

“Let it be. Let’s just order food now”, said Som and signalled in the air.

A large amount of food was ordered.

Latika looked over the sleeping angels in the pram across Tara and threw an open invitation, “Papa once I join Som back in the UK, you and Mummy must come and stay with us,”

“Of course Beta,” agreed Papa Ji, oblivious to the turmoil this treaty had caused in Mummy Ji’s mind.

“Will you be able to get a Nepali girl to move with me there, just like Tara,” Latika came to the point hoping Tara would take the bait.

“I am not a Nepali!” Tara wanted to scream but didn’t. Instead, she spoke softly, “ Didi I am not a Nepali. Did you know China is very close to where I come from. Just a trek away. Nepal is very far. You have to cross the states of Assam, West Bengal and Sikkim to reach there.” Her self-respect had taken a blow but then again, who cared.

No one acknowledged her. The food had arrived.

Papa Ji nodded a postscript supporting Tara as he dug in, “The girl is right you know”. This open ended conversation and praise for Tara had caused many a heartburns, much more than the spicy food.  

Latika wanted to join Som at the earliest, but not without a help.

Som  was worried about the drain on his finances an additional person was going to cause.

Mummy Ji didn’t want to go and babysit the twins in UK.

Tara realised people had not bothered to know about a part of their country they felt they didn’t have much to do with, just like she did with her studies.

This gap had to be bridged. Someone had to speak up. Better her than anybody else. Disobeying her mother for the good of her motherland was a blame she was willing to take.

(A tribute to all the brave soldiers and civilian casualties of the War of 1962, who rest in the Dandelion speckled Mishmi Hills as the gentle Lohit river flows by, in Arunachal Pradesh, India.)


  1. Hi! That was a very visual depiction of the life of a care-giver/nanny. As a working mother I have often had my help accompany kids to the birthday parties. The affluent hosts who spend close to 20k on a single birthday bash don't offer them any food. They sit between the over fed kids forcing them to eat some more. Ironically the children waste most of the food.I could relate to the story and empathise with Tara.

    I feel you could have built the "motherland" connect a little more strongly. But then( and we have discussed this) a short story also needs to leave it to the reader's interpretation.

  2. Vandana, I've arrived here quite late, but I am happy I finally got here

    As SM said ... your depiction is very visual... I believe that is your forte

  3. Yes SM, I felt so too. Have added a few things pertaining to the motherland.

    Thanks Shriraj.

    Not many people know that the botanical name for the Dandelions is Taraxacum Officinale :)