Fear takes physical form in our neighbourhood in Hyderabad: it is embodied in a man who seems a hundred years old. When he is sighted round the corner, bent and frowning, heading with rapid steps for our cul de sac, we stop playing on the latest mountain of sand or rubble and scoot out of sight behind the houses.
The houses are his, the sand and rubble are his. He is universally known as Tataiyya, or grandfather. The local laws give him the right to evict tenants overnight. If the tenant refuses to leave, he sends thugs who ransack homes and fling belongings into the street. You didn’t want to be on Tataiyya’s wrong side, not if you wanted a roof over you: this has been dinned into us by our parents. We were never to risk his displeasure. My father has been a field geologist and our early life was lived in tents. He says that felt more secure: the tent and the patch of sky above were your own.
There are five houses in the cul de sac. The one we occupy overlooks the big rectangle of dirt around which the houses are built. On our left is a garden with a stone-walled well and guava trees. At the back, a narrow yard with an outdoor latrine. On the right side, a patch of grass in which a drumstick tree stands in one corner, all by itself.
It’s an old-fashioned, two-storied house with flagstone flooring, deep verandahs. A Punjabi joint family has the upper floor. The new daughter-in-law spends all morning practising romantic songs from Hindi movies: first we hear the original played on the record, then her uncertain voice picks up a fragment of the tune, then the record comes back. Late at night, after her husband is home and the rest of the quadrangle has fallen quiet, her voice floats downward, still pinched and off-key: “Tum duur nazar aaye, badi duur nazar aaye…”.
In the room below I lie awake, mystified. Is this romance? On our recently acquired television set, buxom Jamuna in a bandage-tight sari approaches her marital bed to the rhythms of a languorous song. She’s holding a huge glass of milk and as she hands it to Akkineni Nageswara Rao, trembling and simpering, something significant passes between them. I don’t know the meaning of that glance. I don’t know yet that this glass of milk in Telugu movies signifies plenitude, fertility, sex.
We look around ourselves, my friends and I, at women who are different from our mothers. Mrs Batliwala lives alone next door. She spends all day in sleeveless maxis, no children or husband in evidence. She tries enticing us with ludo and fried goodies but we don’t like going there.
Outside our quadrangle, in an affluent house that doesn’t belong to Tataiyya, is a woman more intriguing. She lives with her parents. She had been married to an African, goes neighbourhood lore, whom she left because he beat her. Her little daughter plays in their lawn. They never let the child out to make friends, as if by being sequestered this half-Black child remains a secret.
In the Number 74 public bus to school, my best friend and I notice a boy: the mandatory laughing eyes, floppy hair, cleft chin. He is probably in college—while we are merely in Class 7. We wait for the day he will—he must—look at us. What will happen when he does? Who will get him—she or I? We agree to share him, and name him Fifty-Fifty.
In school, the principal’s son, the only young man on the horizon and therefore imbued with mystery and desirability, leaves a trail of cigarette ash on the piano at which (he knows) we will later congregate for singing class. Each girl in the class is secretly convinced the ash is meant as a subtle romantic message for her alone.
My friend next door, a Telugu girl called Suchitra, has revealed not long ago that under the chaste round-necked blouse she wears above her ankle-length lehenga, she has a chemise whose front she fastens tightly all the way down with seven safety pins. If she’s flat-chested, boys won’t look at her, is her prim reasoning. And yet, if a boy does glance at either of us, we parse every last meaning of the look, Suchitra and I.
Suchitra is from a poorer branch of Tataiyya’s family. Her father is a stocky, glaring man, flamboyantly moustachioed in the manner of Telugu movie policemen; but he is only a municipal inspector. He is always in khaki shirts and trousers and at his paunch is a brass-buckled belt. When Suchitra or her sister Sulekha do anything he considers wrong, he whips off this belt and lashes them with it.
Every evening, Suchitra and Sulekha wash their faces with soap, dust them white with talcum, line their eyes with kajal, place a tiny dot of red Shringar on their foreheads and a bunch of orange flowers in their long plaits. They call for me to come out and play. The only hiccup in this routine occurs if they have had the belt.
Since Tataiyya is an indefatigable builder, those heaps of sand and rubble are a fixture in our quadrangle. One year, he adds a new, posh (mosaic-floored, attach-bathroomed) floor to the house opposite ours and rents it out to a pilot called Mr Andrewes, a fair-skinned Anglo-Indian as tall as a door and as solid. His wife wears trousers and has short hair. Andrewes Uncle goes off in his blue peaked cap and gold-braided jacket to fly his planes; Aunty bakes cakes. They have two angelic toddlers.
Andrewes Uncle believes in cleaning his own car. This inspires Bhargava Uncle, the floor below, to dismiss his car-cleaning boy and emerge twig-legged in shorts identical to Andrewes Uncle’s. Bhargava Uncle looks smug as he strokes his Premier Padmini with a sopping rag. This is one aspect of the Andrewes no one else can emulate because nobody else in that quadrangle has a car.
Evenings, a group of milkmen arrive with their buffaloes. Just before milking them they slap a syringe the size of a broomstick into the buffalo’s backside. The leathery hind, raw from daily injections, bleeds afresh. The animal lows with pain and then milk spurts into the pails. In the monsoon months, the milk smells so urgently of buffalo hide that we cannot drink it without gagging.
Milking time is when the women from all the houses stand around in groups, gossiping but vigilant, their gazes fixed on the buffalo’s udders. Gossip thrives on a couple who have just moved in.
They are young; the woman is pregnant and a source of intense curiosity for us too. For if the singing woman upstairs demonstrates a staid breed of romance, this one provides a potent, dangerous example: she has eloped with her first cousin. “Unthinkable,” the adults cluck, “perverted”. Their families have cut them off for incest.
Not one relative or friend in this new city, the pregnant woman tells us: three girls listening wide-eyed. She scrubs her spotless two-room set. She gives us boiled tea and biscuits.
Which of these women are we going to be? Saturdays, Shanivaramma arrives, flower-dappled tray of rice in hand, coin-sized kumkum on her forehead. Black magic abounds here: wayside packets of lemon smeared with turmeric, clumps of hair. Step on one and you’ll die a lingering death. Shanivaramma exudes menace too. We give her money to keep her from unleashing the dark planets. In return she tells our futures, says keep my predictions secret or they won’t come true.
Once the Andrewes house is done, Tataiyya begins on the next one, adding a floor. Soon it feels as if Kunja always lived in it. When she has her first period, it is both thrilling and scary. She must live on a rough mat in one corner until her five days are done. After that there is a wedding-like feast in her honour. Kunja looks unfamiliar and bride-like in a glittering half-sari and her long plait is a jasmined rope with flowers woven so thickly into it that you don’t see her hair at all. It seems obvious that a glass of milk, a groom with curled moustaches, and a silken bedchamber are only a matter of time. Kunja does not touch the baghara baingan and dabal-ka-meetha at her feast; she looks aloof, as if she’s above greed and hunger.
At school I exchange my lunch box for the ones with gunpowder-smeared idlis. The littler Muslim girls from nawabi families eat at long tables in the assembly hall. Their ayahs come with hot food and spread out a meal with proper plates and cutlery. Once a week, they have religious instruction class with a maulvi. When the girls are older they rebel and the ayahs vanish, though maulvi sa’ab doesn’t. The girls now stand around the corridors like everyone else, sharing their saalan and kababs.
At Suchitra’s, the food is humbler but there’s plenty when her father is away. Her grandmother sits with needle and thread stitching sequins into calendar pictures of gods and goddesses, raising her eyes from her work at times to watch us eat. There is fat-grained rice with a lime-sized scoop of vegetable blazing with chillies. Its merest touch is heavenly agony. At home a crisis occurs when my brother complains that the delicately-spiced Bengali food we eat is insipid compared to the volcanic sambar served at his school.
It isn’t just the food we find insipid. My brother and I have enough Telugu now to follow the movies and their songs. On radio there are Babban Khan’s comic, rapid fire snatches from Adrak ke Panje in Hyderabad’s Dakhni dialect, which we speak just as everyone else does. Andrewes Uncle plays The Silver-Tongued Devil and I on his hi-fi. Bengali songs grate, dully lugubrious, on our re-tuned ears.
One foolhardy afternoon, the two sisters, Kunja and I steal into Tataiyya’s house. It is a bungalow down the road, surrounded by orchards. At this time, green young totapuri mangoes hang like tear drops from its trees. We have been observing them grow. Soon they will be too ripe. It’s the raw mangoes we’re after, tart but sweet, their flesh white and crisp. The acid usirikaya berries we stole from another neighbour’s tree are no match for totapuri mangoes with salt.
It is after we have broken off the fourth or fifth mango that someone spots us in the tree. It’s hard to clamber down before they reach us and Tataiyya’s men scuttle out from the corners, shouting. They have long lathis and it does not matter to them that two of the mango thieves are Tataiyya’s kin. Or maybe it does, because we don’t actually get beaten.
There’s probably no connection, but soon after, the sand heaps arrive at our door. Men come and chop the drumstick tree down. Labourers begin digging up what we think of as our garden. A new two-roomed set comes up, shutting off one side of our house.
When I’m 16, my father announces that he’s been transferred again, this time back ‘home’—to Calcutta. My parents are overjoyed. The relief of going back home! Our own house, and no threat of eviction! My brother and I are heartbroken. Home is supposed to be Calcutta? Because we were born there?
Twenty years after leaving Hyderabad I go back there on a work trip. I search for that quadrangle, but there are shopping malls and apartment blocks where it used to be.
I’ve been counting the places I’ve lived in over these years: those many servant quarters, barsaatis and houses in many cities. Not one exists as it was any longer. They have turned into office blocks, builder’s flats, high rises. There are no familiar geographies, no family homes to return to, no remembered landscapes that survive. Home is wherever the tent is pitched for the night. We are migrants forever.