'Once upon a time in Mumbai'...My PG Aunty


Update: 20/12/15 I went back to my PG as my cousin moved in there.
PG aunty fed me parathas


All this talk of Punjabi food suddenly made me nostalgic about my PG (Paying Guest) digs where I first lived at in Mumbai.

I had lost my phone contacts. So I did a very nineties thing. I tried to remember the number and call. It was around 1030 PM. The phone rang. No one picked up. I tried again. Then the familiar hoarse yet cheerful voice of  my PG Aunty came on 'hello'.

Much as I hate 'guess who' games, I went, "can you recognise this voice?"

"No, not really"

"OK I want pakoda, daal and rice on Saturday afternoon".

"Raja" (my nick name, all of this was in Hindi).

I'd probably called her after two years. Yet seemed like I had seen her in the morning before setting off to work. The last time I called her, I'd received some very unfortunate news. Her husband had passed away. This time was different. Got to know that her son had got married and had a three month old baby. To think that we had to be around to supervise him at one point as he burst crackers on Diwali at the terrace.

I was one of their first Paying Guests. And this was the first time I was staying away from home. Uncharted territory for us both. I was trying to get used to the concept of sharing a room and a bed (which I never had all my life). Sharing loos, that too Indian (which I had never used all my life). Vegetarian dinners which were part of the deal.

They were trying to understand the connect between 'paying' and 'guest'...and the boundaries begun to fade. There were special Sunday dinners - chhole bhatoore, Sindhi kadi chawal, kheer, jelly. Breakfasts of samosa, poha, idli which I would scorn and ask for bread and butter and go into the kitchen and make coffee shunning the proffered hot milk. This is where I got introduced to 'maa ki daal' which till a day back I used to think of as 'mother's daal'. Then I learnt it meant udad daal. But my interpretation made more sense for me.

We were entitled to meals from local restaurants if we were late at work. Which we always were. Yet, I would come 'home' and have dinner paying a precious 30Rs (late 90s) from my pocket. At times, I'd look at the yellow insipid cauliflower fry and stodgy daal with despair...but then the hot piping rotis would begin to come from the kitchen. Mine without ghee. Aunty seeing that we ate properly. I would sleep well at night.

And so it continued. I returned to Calcutta after my training. Came running back to Mumbai. Uncle said nothing was free when I had earlier called from Calcutta.  An aspired to flat with other bachelors turned out to be a flat from hell. I called Aunty the night I landed. Aunty heard me out. Said, "get your suitcase and come". They had just partitioned the hall with wooden sections. I got my own 'room' in Mumbai. A pentagon. A little cot and a dresser cum writing table. A little section of the floor. Not enough to lie down and exercise on. A little cupboard. And a window which looked onto the Bandra Talao (pond). My lake view room at Rs 4,500 (50 USD today) in '99. In Nootan Nagar, Bandra W.

I lived there for three years. I would come home tired to clothes neatly folded and put into the cupboard. Girls I worked with could never figure how I was OK with aunty tidying my cupboard. I couldn't see the problem though. The grand meals of the early days became more spartan as keeping PGs became a business for them. But I was assured of my meal whenever I came back at night.

 Aunty, barely literate, a plump Punjabi Hindu matron with no idea of our world, would tell me 'tension nahin lena ka' when she would see me stressed at work. I had ridiculous hours then and she would occasionally tell my boss I wasn't at home when the phone rang as she would she see me work desperately work on an assignment. Nightmarish days when I would carry work home everyday.

'Himmat mat haro' (be brave) she told me one night when she saw that I was very emotionally high strung and distraught. She had an arranged marriage herself and never questioned her fate. Yet, she made hot daal, rice and pakoras for me and sat across the table as I tried to make sense of what was happening in my life.

Her alu parathas were the stuff of lore. My colleagues at work loved them when I got them to work. She would pack them for me when I would set off on the 40 hr train ride to Calcutta. She was happy when she saw me getting phone calls from the same girl everyday on the house phone, talking late into the nights, skipping meals to go out...happy to see that the stormy night she saw me through was a distant memory. I stopped eating at home in the evenings as we ate out every night as we hurtled towards matrimony and bankruptcy...but weekend afternoons would be daal, pakoras and rice and K would spend time with her granny and her parent. Uncle and Aunty used to refer to Kainaz as 'Cannon'. Symbolic?

She giggled when she heard that 'Cannon' loved her alu parathas. There was a time when there was a bread strike in Mumbai and I took alu parathas to Dadar and sent it through 'Cannon'. I hadn't met my mom in law yet but I heard that she enjoyed the parathas too.

At times I'd get hassled with the rules. 'No getting friends'. Though my brother and a friend from Cal stayed over. 'No getting outside food'. But she knew I would smuggle in a bag of fried rice from Stomach on days when I was really beat. Loo and bath to be shared with ten people - family, other PGites, domestic help. Yet she would ensure that I would get a 5 min window to take a shower at 8.30. I would get fed up a couple of times and look for flats. Sign on and then cancel at the last moment.

I finally moved. When I was about to get married. After three years at their place. I still went there for a month to get my laundry done (300 Re a month, everything ironed) We have been in touch since. The months in between almost stretched to years but there's always a tremor in her voice when I call.

Yes, there are no pictures of her or of her food or of my 'room', which is still 'Raja's room' in her mind, in this post. But she did ask me to come over for a meal so hold on ...
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