This Indian life by Shoba Narayan: Map of the soul
“Shimmie shimmie ko ko bop. I think I like it,” I croon.
Jasleen aunty smiles but doesn’t move. The ‘Dancing Queen of Rajouri Garden’ sits in her chair, her empty eyes gazing at me.
Does she recognise me, I wonder. Does she realise how beloved she is to the legions of kids who haunted her home summer after summer?
“It’s a band called EXO,” I explain. “Korean pop. Huge in Delhi. All over India. Do you like it?”
“Of course,” says Jasleen aunty, with the false enthusiasm of someone who is faking it.
Jasleen aunty is not well. Her kids won’t say it but I think she has Alzheimer’s.
I turn up the volume. I change the song. Bangtan Boys never fail, do they?
“Oh my my my, oh my my my, I’ve waited all my life,” they sing.
“Come on, aunty, let’s dance,” I say and hold her hand.
She smiles widely. “Too old, puttar (child),” she says.
I sigh. “Let’s take a selfie,” I say.
She stares at the camera. I smile obligingly and send the photo to the 17-strong ‘Summers in Rajouri Garden’ WhatsApp group with members all over India.
I don’t care if you grew up in Manali or Mulund or Maharani Bagh. You know that one neighbourhood aunty who was like a ray of sunshine in a sea of adult cussedness? Well, that was Jasleen aunty for us. When I visited cousins in Rajouri Garden, Jasleen aunty was the only one who would return the cricket balls that flew into her tiny garden. Her lips didn’t curl with disdain when we knocked on her door to get the house key or a glass of water.
“The Lilliput brigade is here,” she would announce.
It took us years to figure out that the Lilliputs she referred to were from Gulliver’s Travels. So we read the book. Jasleen aunty told us about other books she loved: Treasure Island and Swiss Family Robinson, which prompted us to borrow these books along with our usual Tintin and Amar Chitra Katha from the lending library. We played all summer long – imaginary games in which we were a shipwrecked family, sharpening wooden knives. A cycle of books and fantasy, nourished by her homemade masala chai and butter biscuits from Khan Market.
We loved her with that unabashed sincerity of starving little kids who saw sunshine in a samosa and rainbows in the raw mango slices she fed us.
What Jasleen aunty did best of all was dance. Not just the bhangra or Bollywood, both of which she did brilliantly, but also the salsa and the samba. Her swinging generous hips moved with style and rhythm.
One rainy evening, after feeding us hot parathas, Jasleen aunty asked the question that would change our college lives, “Would you kids like to learn how to dance?”
Of course, we said, burping. And thus it began, our dance lessons.
She turned on the gramophone player. A few seconds of dust-like noise. The music began. Sometimes it was Cole Porter or Doris Day. Other times it was instruments and rhythms we didn’t recognise. Every time, we lined up in front of her, imitating her moves.
“Shake it, shake it, shake it,” she said as she shook her hips.
Some 10 of us kids with wide eyes followed suit.
Years later, in college, when we could shimmy and shake it with the best of our romantic crushes, we would all silently thank Jasleen aunty for teaching us her moves during several unforgettable summers.
So here I am in Rajouri Garden, to report back to our WhatsApp Group about Jasleen aunty. The bungalows are gone now. In their place are apartments. Jasleen aunty lives in a small room in a two-bedroom apartment that belongs to her son. Shawls are stacked on her single bed. Ek Onkaar plays on loop from a corner. I turn off the spiritual chanting that is so unlike her. I play – on Spotify – all the songs she taught us. She doesn’t move. This woman whose body was her instrument will not dance.
Finally, I play a YouTube video of Super M’s No Manners.
She watches intently. Unbidden, her fingers begin moving.
Hallelujah! The Dancing Queen is back. Korean pop to the rescue.
I grip her hand. I crank up the volume so the street noises and spiritual chanting disappear.
“Come on, aunty. Let’s dance.”
This time, she doesn’t say no. She struggles up. I hug her and gently move her body, enfolded in mine, her heart beating against mine, her head cradled on my shoulder. I inhale the smell of her Cuticura powder mixed with agarbatti incense. It is the smell of summer – and home.
Time slows as I play Map of the Soul, by the Bangtan Boys.
“Alright, alright / Oh, oh I can make it right.”
(This column addresses the issue of parenting our parents and other unique facets of This Indian Life and our culture. If you have stories about the weird and wonderful relationships that enrich or enervate your life, write in.)
This Indian Life appears every fortnight
From HT Brunch, March 15, 2020
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