Bajai,” as we called grandmother, was the best storyteller in the world. Her tales of jewelled ladies and brave warriors, of civilisations that ended due to famine, floods, war or volcanic eruptions, filled our young lives with fantasy.
Nestling in the foothills of Mussoorie is a tiny village called Johri Gaun (Johri village) where we spent part of our summer and winter vacations every year. They were fun-filled days of sun-kissed air and raucous laughter, when we cousins met and had a great time. On our long walks we would nibble berries or catch colourful dragon flies, which we had nicknamed “helicopters”. I always collected red ones. If anyone caught a whirring red helicopter they would yell out for me and I would run and open my shoe box to put it in.
By the time I really discovered Bajai, she was a very old woman, with countless wrinkles on her face. My mother was her youngest daughter. Bajai always wore white and smoked Batman cigarettes. I never got to meet Bajee (Grandfather). He was a prisoner of war in Italy, during the Second World War (1939-1945).
He returned home alive but riddled with asthma, to which he succumbed. Bajai never remarried. Nor did she let her maternal relatives pitch in to help a young widow and her seven children survive. Instead, she started tilling her land and growing her own foodgrains and vegetables
Now, when I think of it, Bajai always smelt like the first shower on freshly tilled earth. Her hands were always calloused, but even in their roughness there was a gentleness she could not disguise.
She always started her stories with a saying, “To the listener a garland of gold, to the story teller a garland of all forest flowers and this tale that I tell you today will be heard in heaven.”
When she told her stories, we always crowded around her. Each one of us fought to be the closest to her as she took out a burning twig to light her filter-less cigarette. She would clear her throat looking at our eager faces. The kitchen fire would throw our dark shadows on the mud-washed walls. Our eagerly nodding heads would appear large and distorted in the lantern light.
And so would start a magical journey of words creating images larger than life. Even now, 30 year later, I just need to close my eyes to get that smell of a wood fire and dung cakes and Bajai’s voice lilting as she imitated the sound of hooves on which the handsome prince rode…
Looking back, I think Bajai loved telling us stories. Just when the hero or heroine was caught in a difficult situation, she would fumble for her cigarette. And all of us would jump to hand her a smoking twig to light her cigarette so that she could continue with her story. Whoever succeeded in handing her the twig laughed in sheer happiness.
We would often fight amongst ourselves on whom Bajai loved the most. When we asked her she would laugh and say, I love you all. If we insisted, she would spin out a long story of how she would love us till the red necked parrot came home or the rains came home to make the tiny rice seedling grow big and strong. We would laugh loudly, jump up and down, stick out our tongues at each other or thumb our noses. In our hearts each of us felt that Bajai loved her or him the most.
Bajai’s stories were so much a part of our lives that even her last day was like a story she had once told. It wasn’t yet dawn, when a sound woke me up. All of us slept in the attic, but no one else stirred. Everyone was sound asleep. I opened the window. There was a little rain and mist. I gaped in open-mouthed wonder at a beautiful chariot which stood in the courtyard. It was drawn by two white horses and a pretty woman in white was helping Bajai up the chariot.
“Wait for me Bajai,” I yelled. Bajai looked up and smiled. She looked beautiful. There were no wrinkles on her face. Her gray hair was open and a few tendrils lifted in the wind. Bajai waved and smiled, and the soft wind carried her message. It was what she always said to me, “I love you till the rains come home…”
I do not know if it was a dream or Bajai’s final farewell, but I woke up and my pillow was wet.