‘The wig that was caught for stealing’ and other stories by Shashi Shukla
From my father’s side, we are six cousins; four girls and two boys all born between 1978 and 1985. My father and his older brother were working in jobs away from their ancestral village, and annually, we would travel from our respective homes to the region of Awadh, where both sets of grandparents lived. This was common practice among many families at that time, where holidays were spent in rural areas with close relatives. When I look back on those annual visits, I realise how deep our connection with the village was and continues to be. Through this piece, I hope to weave together some fragments of our lives in those days, when holidays always meant a homecoming, and we were blessed to have many homes.
In retrospect, these episodes seem so ordinary; perhaps that is what makes them so special, because despite being so, they had a profound impact on our lives. We used to have so much fun running around the house, the courtyard, the village streets, playing with other children, climbing trees, going off for a village mela, or to the fields, just spending time without much on our minds. Most of all, we were liberated from the constant supervision of our parents, who seemed to have a lot more interesting things to do, and didn’t mind being unaware of our whereabouts for hours together. If we needed anything, we would go straight to our grandmother, who we, for some reason, addressed as Didi, the kin term for older sister.
Every morning, we woke up to the heavy fragrance of a chulha fire, much after the elders had got the household running. Their early mornings were occupied in the processing of milk and milk products. After collection, the milk was cooked and by the time we woke up, the hot, thick liquid was ready for consumption, with its characteristic muddy colour and flavour from baked earthenware pots it was cooked in for hours. That taste was so distinct to the village. I have intense recollections of some of our activities, among them was the feel of the damp, warm mix for uplas in our hands. We used to prepare the mixture from fresh cow dung, some clay or mud and straw, and then pat down lumps in an arrangement around the courtyard to dry in the sun. These would then be stored for later use as fuel. Although this was very much household work, I remember ‘playing’ with this and enjoying myself immensely. Another fun task was the weaving of hand-fans from strips of dried grass, a local craft. I doubt if I ever finished making a single fan, but I remember intently attempting the weave on my own.
My paternal grandfather had a very distinct personality, and we used to all vie for his attention. Although us girls would spend most of our time around the house, playing, assisting others, listening to the older women chatting, we would long to go to the fields with our grandfather. He was just in his dealings with us, and believed that girls and boys were equally capable. Although our grandmother would urge us towards an early marriage, he always said that we would someday become “collectors”. In order to catch his attention in the mornings, we would compete with each other to fetch his stick, or umbrella, or hand him some water or his gamchha so we would be picked to accompany him on his bike-ride to the fields on a given day. It was mostly the boys who went with him, but we would get chances too, especially when we were noticed.
Dada’s early morning routine was fixed. He would check on his cattle, even have a small conversation with Shyama, his favourite cow. After this, he would get ready for the day, cycling his way to the fields that seemed like a very long distance to us. There, he would supervise the farming work and return home late in the evening. On his way to and from the fields, he would stop to speak with others, and we loved watching the respectful way in which people addressed him. Dada had been a wrestler in his youth and was affectionately known by two names, one of which was Pehelwaan baba. Upon his return, and after a brief rest, Dada would start a daily ritual that earned him his other title. With practiced precision, he would portion out the ingredients of his favourite drink, thandai: almonds, pepper, some jaggery and poppy seeds, onto the flat stone of the silbatta, slowly grinding the mixture to a fine paste. This was then dissolved in milk or water to make the drink that was reputed to keep the summer heat at bay. The decoction would then be strained through a thin muslin filter before it was ready for consumption. Daily, we would sit around watching his meticulous moves in the hope of getting some leftovers, with frequent success. In the end, he would spike this mixture with a special substance: Bhang! This mild dose of bhang would have a curious impact on Dada. Gradually, he would start to mutter to himself. His conversations with imaginary creatures gradually became louder, a transformation that earned him his second name: Bhangedi baba. Till today, long after his passing, villagers will still direct you instantly to the home of Pehelwaan baba aka Bhangedi baba, if you visit our village.
We would also travel to our mother’s natal home fairly regularly. These visits were different because it was just us three kids, and Nani made us feel very special, she was very gifted at narrating kissas. Here I would like to distinguish between kahani (story) and kissa (anecdote or tale). Although the folk stories from Awadh region were very engaging, sometimes we would want to hear kisse, or real incidents about our parents and grandparents. One particular anecdote was our all-time favourite: The wig that was caught for stealing! This is the story:
As a young man, Nanaji was posted as a police inspector in Lucknow. One day, he happened to be in hot pursuit of a thief who had snatched up a traveller’s bag at the Charbagh railway station. He was chasing after the thief who was himself running, away from Nanaji and towards a departing train. As the train picked up speed, Nanaji lunged forward to try and catch the thief by his hair so that he could not escape. With full force, he yanked at the hair as the man stepped onto the train. Suddenly, to his great dismay, he found that he had been successful in securing the hair, but the man was safely on board the train, and out of reach. The man was wearing a wig! This item stayed on display in his home ever since. I must have heard this story a hundred times, but the magic of the moment when the wig slips off, letting the thief escape, held us spellbound for years to come. That was the first time I had heard of false hair.
Somehow, listening to these ‘real’ kissas gave us new perspectives on our parents and grandparents, and we would pester both our grandmothers endlessly. Another story Didi would tell us regularly, was about my father’s journey to school. The school was across the river from their home, and every day, he (my father) would cross the river with the school bag on his head since they did not have enough money to pay the boatmen to get to the other side. She narrated this with great pride, and also perhaps in the hope to drive home the importance of austerity and caution regarding money. I don’t think that worked very well, at least not in my case!
We also heard from Nani that my mother used to love to dance. One day, when she was asked to go to the market to buy some vegetables that were needed for dinner, she got distracted along the way. When she reached the shop, a catchy song was playing on the radio and my mother, forgetting all about the task she was assigned, started to dance to the music. Soon, her older brother was dispatched to find out what had happened; what was taking so long. When he found her at the shop, dancing with gay abandon, she received a serious warning and was punished, forbidding her to dance ever again! Well, my mother retained her love for dance throughout her life, and continues to be her liveliest in every family function.
Nani also had a very effective strategy for getting us out of her hair when we annoyed her with endless demands for more stories. She would say that stories should be told only after nightfall, or else “your Mama (mother’s brother) would lose his way and get lost somewhere, never to be found”. This clause would never apply to her choice of moral stories! I don’t know why we believed her, but it was immediately successful in getting us off her back. Both agreements and refusals were communicated obliquely to us, couched in indirect references to take off the edge, I suppose.
More recently, I watch my nieces with my parents, and I see them (my parents) transform in their company and I realise the precious nature of these relationships. For everyone in the circle of influence, these relationships are enriching, deeply nourishing emotionally when there is mutual respect and affection. Sometimes grandchildren say things to their grandparents that no one else is able to. There must have been undercurrents of resentment and conflict, but when we were young, we were not tuned into any of that. Recently, when my father was recovering from an accident, he was advised to start walking despite the pain it was causing him. One day, my niece, who had watched the physiotherapist with great concentration, stepped up to her Nana and said “Agar jaldi chalna hai to exercise to karni hogi”. My father, who was not paying much heed to the advice of others, began responding to her words instantly. She helped him gather the motivation to heal himself.
Humans are among the only species where adult males and females survive well beyond reproductive age, and that makes them an important resource in the care of babies who are the most dependent in the animal kingdom when they are born. In this blogpost, we attempt to consolidate the value of multi-generational relationships among Indian families. Please note that we are avoiding the term joint family because this leads to an artificial separation of families and fails to capture the jointed-ness among modern nuclear families in their functioning.
We do not wish to make exclusive or universal claims about Indians. In fact, the close nature of the relationships can intensify animosity and resentment in the absence of acceptance, understanding and mutual respect. Further, grandparents are greatly valued in all cultures, but the ways in which families are organised tends to be different. Increasingly however, the isolation of the elderly from others marks a shift that we estimate to be a cultural loss, not just for the older person, but also for the in-between and the younger generations, who miss out on the experience and opportunity to be cared for by, and care for a loved one. It is a responsibility that can be profoundly challenging and greatly rewarding, densely packed with personal and social significance and sacrifice.
From Shashi’s story and other readings, we are able to glean some of the benefits of co-residence of multiple generations providing valuable benefit to everyone concerned. Apart from the more obvious advantages of mutual care, there are subtle outcomes that greatly impact our lives when vertical arrangements are expanded, whether temporarily, periodically or permanently. However, the linear, neat sequence of the family life-cycle is completely overturned when this happens. We learn from text-books that the trajectory of development moves from independence to intimacy, followed by expansion, the launching of children and finally, the isolation of old age. Well, in multi-generation households, the family life cycle is transformed into a family merry-go-round of sorts!
Multi-generation families have an important objective: to provide each member of the family with a sense of purpose, however young, and however old, unable and fragile a person may be. Children who are cared for by grandparents will in turn be depended upon as a source of support as they grow older. How many times work is ‘created’ for the elderly to provide them with a meaningful place in the household and family life; tasks that could very well be completed, sometimes more efficiently as well, without their presence or assistance. The industrial aspect of family life in a functional multi-generation household is thus aimed towards making everyone useful, and more importantly ‘feel’ useful. We deliberately chose the expression ‘depended upon’, realizing fully well that in many cultures, it is construed as a bad word!
The temporary retreat of parental responsibilities, is another outcome to be noted. In this a situation, parents can get a much needed break from their constant supervision of growing children, and children can explore their worlds somewhat differently and experience different kinds of care, form many attachments. In her doctoral dissertation, Shraddha Kapoor found that the choice of grandmother as an additional caregiver was at the top of the list for Indian mothers employed outside their homes (Note that we’re NOT calling them ‘working mothers’, all mothers work!). The use of the term ‘additional’ as opposed to ‘substitute’ is significant here, and Indu Kaura needs to be credited with this observation. Care by one does not only imply the removal of the other, sometimes a temporary relaxation, otherwise a welcome addition. Research points to us how important this support is for young mothers. Returning to the grandmother as carer, Kapoor found that the older women have a sense of authority in childcare that was not likely to be questioned, even when there were differences of opinion. In the words of one of the mothers, “What better childhood could I expect for my child, than for her to have the same experiences as I had?” The dynamics with paternal grandmothers had a different flavour, Kapoor found, but as far as the care of the child was concerned, there was little doubt about its quality. We can also see this in Shashi’s story. Throughout the post, she mentions her parents only through descriptions of the grandparents, they were not absent, but they had temporarily receded in the background. In terms of active intervention, they didn’t feature during vacation time. For all concerned, this shift of power had significant importance, giving meaning to the lives of the elderly, children greater freedom and some change to parents.
A child’s search for multiple perspectives on her parents is natural. What were they like as children? How did they spend their time? One of the pleasures of visiting grandparents is seeing parents’ spaces and articles from when they were children. Perhaps, along with the benefit of an extended knowledge of their own parents, it is also possible that the larger-than-life presence of parents is somewhat mitigated in these conversations, thereby allowing a more realistic, reasonable and multi-dimensional perspective on parents. Everyone has a boss, the children realize very quickly.
Sometimes, children and grandparents accept things from each other that they may otherwise refuse. For example, children sometimes accept food from grandparents that they may not otherwise agree to. In Shashi’s story, we read how effective her niece was in communicating with her grandfather about the need to keep moving for his recovery.
Relationships between grandparents and children are also a playground for examining the politics of family life, and a great source of ethnographic data on relationships. In a project for which we were visiting households with young babies to ‘listen in’ on conversations addressed to children, we found clear patterns in the direction, content and functions of speech to babies that would mediate their orientation to different people: Who was to be spoken to, who should be ignored, and who should be given priority! Mila Tuli found that the middle-class educated mothers in her study were carefully interceding in how and how much time the child would spend with whom. This sort of play was not in evidence in Shashi’s story, although this does not imply its absence. Perhaps these differences could be attributed to rural-urban patterns of family life.
Regarding grandparents as gatekeepers, in her freshly released “All you need is love”, Shelja Sen argues that grandparents keep a close watch on family life. They supervise and balance excesses or insufficiency in different dimensions of parenting, whether it is information, indulgence, accounting or disciplining. Several adolescent participants in Indu Kaura’s study claimed that their grandparents were allies during conflicts with parents over relationships, studies or mobility.
Anandalakshmy once wrote about roving grandparents, the rather lost-looking elderly Indian couples that one usually encounters at international airports. (They don’t look as lost anymore). Many of them are following their adult children to faraway places, especially after the birth of a child. A successful life in Silicon Valley may be very well for a young couple, but for a new born baby, it is believed to be inadequate and isolated. Such visits can of course become a nightmare in case of serious difference of opinion about child care practices, but a solid, practical training in joint family dynamics can come in handy in such situations. Not much has been written about these aspects of moving populations.
Several writers have noted that grandparents themselves change a lot between their parenting and grandparenting, usually becoming far more easy-going, talkative and demonstrative in their dealings with children. For the adult children who are parents, this brings to the fore new aspects of their own parents, sometimes greatly enriching this relationship. In a delightful essay, Wajahat Ali writes humorously about how grandparenting transformed his own father.
Life with a grandparent resonates with a much older way of living, for every subsequent generation. A beautiful example of this is provided in Kamala Das’s short story ‘Summer Vacation’. We wish to thank Punya Pillai for the reference. In the story, the passing away of her daughter leaves Muthassi in despair that is broken by the annual visits of her daughter’s daughter, Ammu. For the child, these visits strengthen her connections to the mother through the formation of a deep, permanent bond with the older woman. The gentle tale of a summer vacation with Muthassi is imbued with a slowness that is also evidenced in Shashi’s essay. Not all questions find answers, and not all demands are fulfilled, yet the bond is strong and resilient. In this extract, the child is exploring what her presence means to the older woman:
“Muthassi”, I called out. “Mmmm” she stopped her reading and turned to me. “Will you be unhappy when I leave?” “Yes.” “Terribly unhappy?” “Why should I be terribly unhappy, Ammu? You’ll come again next year, won’t you?” “But if you die meanwhile..?” Muthassi brushed aside my fears with a laugh. “I won’t die so soon, Ammu. I will live long enough to see you married and have children. Isn’t that enough?” “Muthassi, please tell me who I will marry?” “Who knows…….” It was very comforting to put my head in Muthassi’s lap. Gradually my eyes closed. I could hear the humming of a bumble bee from some part of the verandah. Muthassi explained “The bumble bee is building its nest”. Very much later, I woke up….
As Ammu was leaving, overcome with the fear that the old woman would not be there the next summer, her father reassures her that Muthassi would never die……“‘Will never die, will never die’……the wheels of the train seemed to chant”.
Perhaps that is exactly how grandparents feel when they are with the young: “We will never die, never die, never die…..”.
 Cooking hearth made from bricks, mud and clay
 An administrative officer in the local government
 A scarf that he would wrap around his head when the sun got too strong
 Edible preparation of cannabis
 See Anthropology of Childhood by David Lancy. https://works.bepress.com/david_lancy/69/
 The Kept Woman and other stories by Kamala Das http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11465025-the-kept-woman-and-other-stories
Splendid article and commentary. Re:
” The industrial aspect of family life in a functional multi-generation household is thus aimed towards making everyone useful, and more importantly ‘feel’ useful” –
In Glen Elder’s classic study of families during the Great Depression in the US, this sense of being useful — of “mattering” for the family’s well-being if not survival — was critical in fostering resilience despite prolonged economic stress.
Thanks for the comment Suniya. The blog is becoming a bit of a serious exercise and I realise there is so much to be said. Thanks for your comment.