Childhood Memories, Garba and Bitty Mausi – Zeba Imam

Zeba imam

It was a newspaper story this morning that brought back memories of Bitty Mausi, and almost brought tears to my eyes

Bitty Mausi was the younger sister of Ek Number Wali Aunty, so referred to by us because of our system of referring to our friends’ moms by their house numbers. My mom was Saat Number Wali Aunty. And we lived in the Duplex quarters (“duplacs”, we’d say) of the University colony in Aligarh. A few days before Eid, Bitty Mausi would reassure us – the little girls of the colony – that she had stocked up on mehendi and other ingredients for the big night. Then, on the night before Eid, Bitty Mausi and Ek Number Wali Aunty would apply henna on our hands, and we’d all giggle and be excited and compare patterns till late.

The next morning, as we dressed up in new clothes, complete with a new sling bag for all the eidy we would be collecting over a full day of fun, we couldn’t wait to rush to Bitty Mausi, our first stop, to show how well the colour had turned out, to get her advice on how to keep it from fading for a few more days and of course, to find out what we would get for eidy. Her enthusiasm would match ours as she examined our little hands, appreciated how lovely we and our new dresses looked and brought out the little necklaces or earrings or whatever new fancy trinket she would have gotten for us.

A week before Diwali, we would gather at their house to start rolling cotton for diyas. Those were the times when clay diyas and hand-rolled cotton wicks still held the place of honour. The day of Diwali, it was our job, boys and girls of the colony alike, to make sure that none of the diyas ran out of oil, so that no wall, nook or cranny had a dark spot that would break the beautiful, sparkling chain of light. A few days earlier we would have soaked all the diyas in water and dried them to make sure they did not devour oil too quickly. All of us had our own share of firecrackers that we would pool together and have fun with till late in the night.

One holi, Bitty Mausi helped me get over my fear of being drenched in coloured water. While kids and adults alike went wild emptying  buckets of colour on each other’s heads, she cajoled me out of my hiding place, hugged me and said, see, nothing will happen, and then poured a mug full of coloured water over me.

My mom once told what a fuss I used to make when our rickshawalla would come to pick us up for school. Bitti mausi, witness to the drama one day, apparently reprimanded me for behaving like that in spite of being  such a “big girl”. Since then, Mom said, I stopped being difficult every morning. Bitty Mausi’s approval was important to me, as it was, I suspect, for many other kids in the colony.

That childhood was left far behind as I grew up, left Aligarh and went to Delhi for higher studies and then moved around cities, countries and continents.

Bitti Mausi is no more but I still remember her reassuring smiles, friendly reprimands, careful instructions and her warmth.

Why did I get on this train of thought? Why did I suddenly start missing Bitti Mausi?

I guess she was an important part of my childhood. She was an important part of what Indian festivals and celebrations meant to me. They were loads of fun, they were community events when kids and adults all revelled, when we got liberties as kids that were not routine, when adults made us feel important by granting whatever we asked for and by involving us in all sorts of seemingly important activities. All festivals meant the same to me and the rest of the bunch growing up in “duplacs” quarters. Their association with one or the other religion was something that I became aware of much later. But even then, they were community affairs.

Things have changed.

Soon after I’d started working at my first job, I was discussing the official holiday calendar with a colleague who also had his own consultancy. He told me that besides some common holidays, he let each employee have holidays for the main festivals of their own religion. I was shocked. For me, festivals were always celebrated with friends and neighbours irrespective of their faiths. How could such an arrangement possibly work? It made no sense to me.

And today, 27th September 2014, this is what I see in the newspaper: NO NON-HINDUS ALLOWED IN GARBA PANDAL. Somewhere in Madhya Pradesh.

What a long way we’ve come from my childhood! And in a completely wrong direction.

I am no Garba enthusiast, but because of my name, I would be kept out of Garba pandals. There are boards asking me to stay away.  There would be people at the entrance checking my identity card to ensure I don’t enter. There are authorities announcing that they have taken precautions to keep “undesirable” elements out.

I’ve become used to the feelings of anger, sadness, or complete resignation that reading the newspaper every morning brings about. The news, local or global, doesn’t offer much that can make you feel good about being a human being in the times we are living in. Acts of unspeakable brutality and violence, the rhetoric of hatred, fear and distrust, and the complete cynicism with which it is being encouraged and exploited by the powers that be, have all become a staple these days.

And now there are boards ordering people of other religions to stay out.

Usually, my response to such news is to politically analyse and discuss what is happening with our world. But for some reason, that faculty has deserted me today. I just feel sad. I suppress my tears while my domestic help carries about her tasks, chatting away in her reticent manner  – Didi ye, Didi voh – and my mind drifts…I miss my childhood days…and Bitty Mausi.

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