Not child's play
If there was anyone I feared in childhood, it was Deepmala Rai - Mala aunty to us children. She was already middle-aged when I was a kindergartener. Mostly, she wore stiffly-starched saris and her steel-grey hair was coiled into a bun with a protruding silver piercer. Mala aunty taught English at St Xavier's College and spoke in crisp tones with a cut-glass accent.
We children played in the vacant spaces around our building everyday. In hindsight, I now realise that our squeals could have woken the dead, and the dust we raised might well have rivalled that of an army on the move. Our favourite game involved throwing a cricket ball at a pile of stones.
We invariably missed our target and hit Mala aunty's windowpanes or chucked our ball into her balcony. We then had to work up courage to ring her doorbell with shaking fingers. A stern lecture would be followed by a novel punishment. She would make us write on a sheet of paper, "I am sorry, I will not do this again". But she would only hand over the ball to us three days later, by which time we would have had to pool in money to buy a new one anyway. That happened to shuttlecocks and Frisbees too. Sometimes, her husband, Keshav Rai, cheerfully returned our confiscated toys on the sly.
The couple were empty-nesters; their only son lived abroad and seldom visited. Before visiting the Rais with our parents, we were always tutored in advance not to touch showpieces or speak out of turn. "Why must we be nice to her when she is so scary?" I would ask. "Because she is well-read and much older than we are," my mother told me. I wasn't convinced.
When Keshav Rai died of a heart attack, Mala aunty was devastated. Everyone said that she would not be able to cope, because the couple had been so close. As predicted, she fell apart once her son and other relatives left. My parents and our neighbours grew worried. They talked her into giving English tuitions to the children by turns. Teaching English was Mala aunty's abiding passion. Between her correct turn of phrase, the thoughtfulness of neighbours and the noisy companionship of the children, Mala aunty overcame grief. We warmed to her, called upon her to settle disputes and even begged her for jugs of ice water in the midst of play. But if we chucked a plaything into her verandah, out would come the punishment sheet with the legend, "I promise to be more careful in future."
On my daughter's 13th birthday, a by-now-frail-but-spirited Mala aunty gifted her a T-shirt and a unique keepsake a framed, laminated four-line sheet with the childish scrawl, "I shall break no more window pains." My daughter hugged her beloved Mala naani with a whoop of delight. The frame finds a place of prominence on our bookshelf, to my eternal mortification.
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