During the ’70s, we lived in an apartment complex in one of the western suburbs of Mumbai. There were 15 flats in our building. Each of us knew every other family in the building. There was lots of gossip with neighbourhood aunties speaking nineteen to the dozen and evenings were filled with laughter and banter. Despite petty differences among neighbours, there was great bonhomie and bonding among the residents.
My dad and other male members had a two-hour card session in the nights, from 9 to 11 p.m. On Sundays, the card sessions went on till midnight. There was no television then and Vividh Bharati was the sole source of in-house entertainment. Going to Juhu beach was like a picnic then.
Raji Aunty, who stayed on the first floor with her family (which included a number of children), was full of verve, energy and chutzpah. She was vivacious and the memories of her innocence and naivety are fresh after so many years. Her laughter was infectious. She was loquacious and often lost track of time when chatting with neighbours. In the ’70s, neighbours in Mumbai were more than relatives – unlike today, when one does not know who is staying in one’s neighbourhood.
One day, Raji Aunty was busy conversing with her neighbour. So immersed was she in the conversation that she forgot that she had kept oil in the gas stove for frying appalams (papads). Soon, the oil got over-heated and caught fire. Our building was located bang opposite an industrial colony. All of a sudden, the colony’s residents started shouting “Aag, Aag” (‘fire’ in Hindi). Raji Aunty and her neighbour were curious as to what the hubbub was all about, until it dawned on Raji Aunty that the fire had erupted in her own kitchen. That was Raji Aunty for you.
One particular incident deserves mention. In those days, women in the neighbourhood had the practice of going on shopping expeditions together – in particular grocery shopping. The Malad market was famous for pulses and edible oils that were available cheaper than at the neighbourhood kirana store. The housewives in our building decided to go to the Dadar market to shop for vegetables and fruits. It was an idea that caught the fancy of the womenfolk in the building.
They decided to travel by the Mumbai suburban rail network. Long distance bus journeys in Mumbai can be boring and tiresome. The group decided to catch a slow train to Dadar. Maybe they had not anticipated the peak hour traffic. So when the train arrived at the station there was a rush to board the train (as it always happens, even now). By the time the women had boarded the train, it began moving. Alas, Raji Aunty was the last to board the train. She firmly clutched my mother’s hands trying to hop onto the train.
My mother was standing on the footboard. One of the fisherwomen travelling in the compartment hit my mother’s hand. Raji aunty fell on the platform. Fortunately, she did not get hurt as the pace of the train was slow. As the train picked up speed, the fisherwoman explained to my mother that had she not intervened, my mother would have fallen from the moving train.
Now the housewives were in a dilemma. They did not know what to do. What was the fun in shopping if one of the group was not with them? Anxious about Raji Aunty, the housewives decided to wait for her at Dadar station. They expected she would join them at Dadar by catching the next train.
The wait proved to be interminable -- Raji Aunty was nowhere in sight. There were no cell phones in those days. So the group had no clue about the next course of action. After waiting for a good one hour, they decided to return home without shopping, as they were hardly in a mood to shop. They also worried about how they would face Ramachandran Uncle (Raji Aunty’s husband).
When they reached home, they went straight to Raji Aunty’s home. When they rang the bell, one of her children opened the door and what they saw shocked them. Raji Aunty was comfortably sitting on the floor and sorting out the vegetables. She saw us and exclaimed, “Oh, all of you have come back. How was the shopping?” The group was left dumbstruck.
What had happened was that Raji Aunty had caught the next train to Dadar. This train happened to be a fast train that reached Dadar earlier than the train the group had travelled in. Not wanting to waste time, Raji Aunty had made enquiries about the location of the Dadar market and went about shopping as usual. She thought that the group had already left and so she caught the next train back home.
There were similar such hilarious incidents regarding Raji Aunty. But, apart from anything, it was her innocence, kindness and charm that bowled everyone over. She had an inimitable style of speaking Tamil and was a mother figure to everyone in the building. This was what made her special. For a long time after Raji Aunty moved to another house, the residents felt a void that was hard to fill.
(Venkatesh Ganapathy is presently pursuing his doctoral research in supply chain management from Alliance University, Bangalore. He is a freelance writer and an avid blogger. In this column, he shall be sharing the memories of his childhood in the 70's.)