It is Aunty J’s 80th birthday tomorrow. I am not sure when was the first time I met her. I do remember a party. I was tipsy and she stood there, and I, gawky even in my 30s, went to her and said, “If I have even an iota of the grace you have when I am 70, I’ll be so happy.” I was unsure of what she would say. And she smiled and said, “Thank you, beta.”
Aunty J was the principal of a school in Delhi. Once it seems, a minister was invited to be a Chief Guest during sports day. The minister came late, and then demanded he be served tea, immediately. Of course, Aunty J made sure he had some tea - she is considerate that way. After the event got over, and they were in her office, Aunty J said — Minister, I am older than you, and so I am going to tell you something. As a Minister, you should set an example — people should look up to you. Does it look good you turning up late for a function with school children and then throwing a tantrum? The Minister was a bit stunned. And then he became a lifelong admirer of Aunty J - no one had ever spoken to him that way. He even used to send her fresh milk from his farm every now and then.
(There’s another story involving a gangster, guns, and death threats, but I can’t do justice to it. You need to hear Aunty J say it.)
Aunty J’s saree obeys her every command, as I am sure her students did, and lovingly so. She has that assurance of knowing what’s right and also the kindness in knowing that what’s right is not always important. She will indulge and forgive her dogs anything, and they know it. Jogi gets away with a lot. She makes the best pickles; prawns, mangoes, lemons, tomatoes, and even haldi transform with her alchemy. She never swears and even if she is horrified at someone, she would say something like, “She is a witch with a capital B.” I keep trying to get her to say vagina. It makes her blush every time I say the word vagina. I love making her blush. It used to shred me when I couldn’t hug her because of COVID restrictions. She laughs till she tears up, and then gently mop the edges of her eyes with her kerchief. She always carries a hand kerchief.
Once Aunty J and I were the only ones in the campus for some days. The campus is large, with trees, and the neighbourhood scorpion. (I wouldn’t even know a scorpion even if it came and sat on my lap.) At night, I woke up, with a sinking feeling. I switched on the light, and there it was - the stain. Growing up, period stains were a perpetual problem. However I configured the pads, I would stain. The bleeding was always heavy, and somehow something would always snap, slide, or shift. I used to be filled with shame — everyone around seemed to be managing ok. Even though I left childhood behind, the stains and the shame had seeped deep. In the middle of the night, I washed the sheet. Changed, and put two towels where I slept, and went to sleep. Next morning, I told Aunty J what had happened. I was mortified. She laughed and said she had raised four daughters; I was silly to worry. As a friend too reminded me recently, sheets will wash. Something inside me loosened up.
For her birthday, L is making her favourite, laksa. And Aunty J’s special request is that she wants eight prawns - one prawn for each decade of her life. I find that adorable. I wish her many more bindaas decades and heaps of prawns. Happy birthday, Aunty J!