Winter afternoons were precious. They would surrender to darkness sometimes as soon as 4.30, the impending night a guest that had come too early while we were still uncombed and disheveled. The silken sunlit theatre of these afternoons began with lunch, which everyone would pile on their plates carry outside to the nearest sunny spot.
It was the season of greens and salads and local citric fruits – like the tangy chakotra – and varieties of hilly daals – like tore – that we waited for from autumn onwards. The mooli salad with soft new leaves would make an entry on a huge plate, sprinkled with lemon juice that made it glisten in the sun, and red chilly powder that lent it a festive air; in the corner languished an accidental lemon pip with a secret sorrow. Then came the steaming daal, challenging the sun with its yellow heat, making rivulets amid mounds of white rice. Then the accompanying dish, which proceeded to raise the quilt-and-comforter feel of familiar food to the level of high art: Rich green paalak, cooked the Garhwali way, thickened with rice paste. Crisply fried mustard leaves laced with layers of besan. Golden kadhi, sour to just the right degree. “Aaaah, kafli today…”, an uncle would sigh – as one whose tantrum-prone lover had turned up after much beseeching – though kafli was made every Wednesday like clockwork.
Conversations over lunch often took an unexpected but fascinating turn. This usually stemmed from the fact that Dadaji was hard of hearing but reluctant to admit it, Chacha was hard of hearing but refused to do anything about it, Baba was absent minded but didn’t know it, and everybody’s mouth was full.
“I think Api can go stay at Mrs Sharma’s while studying in Delhi”, Dadaji would propose.
A chewy silence would prevail while everyone who had been able to hear him clearly commiserated with the unsuspecting family of Dadaji’s old friend, Dr Sharma, and tried to figure how to get them out of hosting my young cousin for 2 years. Dadaji got along perfectly with Dr Sharma who had short-term memory loss, and when she said “How is the rice Saklani sa’ab” and he replied “Tuesday”, neither of them felt they had lost anything.
“Dr Sharma’s will be convenient too; the metro line between her house and Connaught Place is starting in a year, I read in the paper today”, he’d bolster his argument.
“The Delhi Metro is excellent”, Chacha would opine, never having been on it and blithely unaware that his son’s future was being discussed.
“No, it’s starting in a year”, Dadaji would repeat his information.
“It started a looong time back, Pitaji,” Chacha would say with gentle pity, referring to the entire Delhi Metro project and looking at his father, the best-informed member of the family, with a patronizing smile. “Ask Juhi”, he would rally support as the family always did while arguing with the patriarch.
“Juhi? Api can’t stay with Juhi”, Dadaji would try to keep up gamely, “her house is too small”.
“No , no, it’s not small at all”, my father would unexpectedly enter the conversation, utterly oblivious of the context, bristling at the idea that anything regarding his daughter was being judged not good enough. “She deliberately does not want a big house, she has very different ideas.”
“Why would Api stay with Juhi?” Chacha would ask confused.
“Api? Stay with Juhi?”, my father would ask in alarm.
And both would look for explanation to their father. “Right, right…” Dadaji would strain to understand his sons, and fail, as he had much of his life.
Api meanwhile would be getting a military dressing down by our aunt’s husband, “Young man, you have nothing to say for yourself! It is your future they are talking about! Don’t slouch! When I was your age I was taking the responsibility for much of my family and paid for my own studies. I remember, when I went to Greece in 1952…”
Lunch over, the whole menagerie would disperse to find, quite literally, their places in the sun. Those whose rooms got sunlight went straight to warmed quilts. Those, whose rooms didn’t, would tarry, linger and delay, with perhaps a cup of coffee, in a chair that had already been dragged around the lawns and verandahs in determined pursuit of sunny spots for half the day.
In the sun it became increasingly hard to move. Through half-closed eye lashes we could see the bare movement of the shadow of the bottlebrush tree. A butterfly would flit past underlining the inertia of everything else. The warmth would become hypnotic. Very soon mumbled conversations about how sleepy rice could make you feel would die down.
Then the whole tableaux would find its fulfillment in a gentle open-mouthed nap. A benign sun would fill that valley of ours, a little bowl amid the gently pretty Shivalik hills, with its slanting rays. With Dadaji’s oiled skin shining a healthy red, Baba’s silver hair catching the light, an orange cat curled up near Chacha’s green socks, ma’s banana-yellow shawl, the family looked more than anything like a Dutch still-life oil painting of a fruit bowl.