I was middle class before being middle class was cool

I lived a major part of my life thinking we’re a poor family. It started when I was really young, like 5 or 6, was confirmed by the time I was 7 or 8, and stayed until I was done with my 10th (15 years). By ‘poor’ I don’t mean unable to afford meals, but more like we have the bare minimum and nothing more. Of course we weren’t anywhere close to rich, but I was young and I didn’t know there existed such a thing called ‘middle class’.

Yes we were middle class before being middle class was cool.

(Although I thought we were just poor).

I mean we’d lived in staff quarters since I was born (Engineering quarters till I was 4 and then Medical college quarters), I never owned more than 5 presentable (to non- relatives) clothes at a time, 4 cousins shared one double bed during summer vacations. That might be enough for a regular child but me being the self-centred kid I was, it was the more personal stuff that convinced me we were poor.

My parents were of the opinion that Manichechi (my aunt) already spoiled me by buying everything I wanted so they were under no obligation to make matters worse.

For starters, I never got any dolls from my parents – Barbie or otherwise – the fact that I never wanted any doesn’t matter. All little girls need dolls, okay? Buy your own daughter some dolls, for my sake. And when they paint monsters on the faces and detach all the limbs like I did is when you stop, knowing that she doesn’t deserve any. I also innocently checked under the frock for underwear (there wasn’t one), probably would’ve highlighted them as well.

In the evenings, Maami our maid cooked us snacks. On Maggi days, she boiled a single packet of Maggi and apportioned the noodles onto three plates. One packet for three okay?

These were only subtle hints my parents were throwing at me. There were more cruel ones.

I don’t think anybody could relate to Swamy (from Malgudi Days of course) more than I could. (Well maybe Achu Annan could). When Swamy prepared the Shopping list for Swamy and had to think hard to make sure those few things he jotted down were the only ones he needed and reflected at how his needs were so little, I must tell you I already knew he was stretching it a bit too far. Of course only to have the list brutally dismissed by his father’s “Take whatever you want from my drawer, I don’t have money to spend on all this.” I was relieved to know there existed other households like mine, if only in books.

The first time I asked my father explicitly for pencils (I don’t know why I remember it this way but it was really explicit) he cheerfully replied “Oh why didn’t you tell me you wanted them” and bought me a whole packet of Apsara HB. The next time I decided to cheerfully ask since I had such a considerate father, he asked me what I’d done with the bunch he bought me the last time.

You needed to reason for everything. Buying groceries at the Margin Free Market, he’d stand in billing queue with the full basket and say “Now go grab whatever else you want quick”. Pleasantly surprised (it was my first time, how would I know?), I picked up no less than what my tiny arms couldn’t carry. My father cross-checked the items and only what I really needed went in, plus 3 kitkats.

Next time on I had to pick things up before he stood in the queue so he could filter out Paru’s excesses. Trips to Margin Free ended that way, me attempting a critical examination of my own choices (really I was only trying to decide what I could hope to coax him into buying).

We always bought new clothes for Onam and Christmas and Deepavali but it was usually my uncles and aunt who took us shopping so I assumed we probably didn’t have much money to spend on that, or whatever grownup reason they had. And we never owned anything fancy at home or to wear.

At British Library we could pick 5 books among the 3 of us from WonderLand kids’ section (alright 2 since Achu Annan hardly cared about it) and I was under so much pressure to finish reading as many books as possible while we were there so I could take home other books. And I would negotiate with Kannenan, how many do you want to take? 3? Why are you picking THAT it doesn’t even look nice – if you’re taking 3 today it’ll be my turn to take 3 the next time. (*scrunches up face* you HATE books, why’d you do that to me Mr.Kannan, why?)

British library taught me I should always space my kids properly.

Also our Medical college quarters was so stuffed with all the furniture. During powercut nights you could hear Lagaan songs playing from Achu Annan’s Walkman and I would be choreographing my way through all the clutter, dancing wondrously until my toe hit against a stupid tea-pow. I’ve learned over the years that no matter how big/small the living room or even the house, my father will find a way to fill it with furniture.

So the time that I was very young I don’t know if I thought we were poor as in poor poor (‘tight’), but I knew that our lives had a lot of constraints. Also read : you can’t always get what you want, you may almost never get what you want unless your parents are in a good mood, ESPECIALLY if it involves spending money. And I took it upon me to correct them if any friends had the notion that ‘college professors and doctors earn reaally well’. (I don’t anymore since they revised the Pay scales).

I only realized when I was 15 that I’d vaguely thought of us to be people without money. (Some things you don’t realize, they’re solemnly understood, or something like that.) What happened when I was 15? My second brother went to college somewhere poor families probably don’t send their kids – no it wasn’t somewhere superposh but you don’t know how unresourceful I thought we were. You should’ve seen my face when I asked Amma if we could afford it and she replied with a suddenly formal ‘both your parents have been working since before you were born, we should be able to afford education’.

I was furious with her for almost a month after for letting me believe we were poor (it’s still true we didn’t have a lot of money) but of course I was happy we weren’t anymore. Not that we lived any different post-realization.

From time to time I complain to Amma about how I had to compress all my Shopping Lists for Paru just like Swamy did, and how having 3 kids was a bad idea and they should’ve had just me. Well you turned out fine (define fine? :D), she says, now get a good job and you can have kids and raise them the way you want.

She only says that cos I already told her if I ever have kids I’ll leave it upto her to raise them.

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Also, 2 kids maybe fun but 3 is the best 😀

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Back when we were kids

Before college and high school, before crushes and heartbreaks, before Science got split into three different subjects and Social Studies into two, even before we were taught integers and fractions.  Back when we wanted to grow up. Back when we were kids.

If you ever followed the road opposite to the Ganapathi temple in Medical College back then, you’d reach the Medical College quarters. It’s where more than half my childhood lies, it’s also where I decided I didn’t want to marry Kunjacko Boban after all.

I was the annoying little sister who cried on cue and made sure my elder brothers were scolded and punished by my parents for mischief that I’d worked up – that’s what my brothers would tell you anyway. Served them right too, they called me fat all the time. But either way I was still the little sister, with a tiny potbelly I’ll admit, and could always be seen seated on Achu Annans shoulders or carried by Kannenan on his back 😀

Biju chetan and Aju chetan were the neighbours Kannan and I spent most of our time with. (yes they’re brothers). We were undeclared best buddies, with a share of harmless details of our exploits to be kept secret from both our parents. We were always present at each other’s birthdays. In those days it meant Birthday cake with icing from Jayaram bakery, the quintessential puffs and cutlets and samosas, homemade chicken curry/parotta, juice and icecream etc.

We usually waited for our parents to leave before kicking off with cricket in their compound. We bowled with the 8rs pink/white rubber balls or the more expensive optic yellow tennis ball for 30 rupees that was handled with more care. I was always the underdog, Kannan never took me on his team. Achu annan occasionally joined us, he was nicer and always picked me. I’m sure the rejection scarred me for life. Though it made more sense when we played football, cos I always ran away with the ball, err, in my hands, that is. Football was too boring for me anyway.

I owned like one doll or two whose faces I had disfigured in an attempt to beautify, you don’t sit inside playing with those when everyone else is outdoors. At times when I got bored I’d sell fish on the back steps of our house. Different shaped and sized leaves painstakingly stacked and arranged neatly, I’d diligently make sure no flies sat on them and that my customers got the best and the freshest picks. No none of the boys ever visited, even my parents never visited though I always invited them very nicely. I don’t think they were all that impressed.

When corporation people unloaded sand in front of Biju chetan’s garage, the others would jump from the low sunshade onto it while I would nonchalantly prepare mudcakes using cherattas (coconut shells) and coax anybody who’d care to taste them. Yeah nobody ever did.

When it got too hot to play outside, we played Video games (cartridges and joysticks, people?) at their place. The four of us would huddle in front of the tv. Countless runs of Mario and duck hunt and I don’t even remember the names of the rest of the games we played. Afternoons meant more cricket/video games followed by cycling/badminton at our place in the evening. We usually went back home only for lunch and in the evening when it got too dark and the games were over. Sometimes we’d fall asleep on their beds, nobody was ever home in the day, even otherwise it was okay I think. Anita aunty was always so sweet (still is), she gave us the best birthday gifts and even had me cutting her son’s birthday cake once.

During vacations when everyone else left for holidays, we’d be in empty quarters abandoned by their residents, plundering the guava and mango trees there, checking intermittently and listening intently for any sign of intruders, other than us, of course. At times we’d bring back home the fruits of our labour the parents never noticed. We made tons of envelopes using newspapers and cooked rice –it was our mini project-, wondered what to do with it and eventually sold it to the lady fishmonger who routinely visited our homes (she gave us 2rupee coins each)  😀 Any spare change we ever got was spent in buying and stocking pink rubber balls, once we started playing they got lost so often, and eating the round pedas at the Milma shop in the main road.

When we weren’t playing or searching for the umpteen lost cricket balls on the other side of the road, Kannan and I were busy fighting, physical mental material psychological every kind of possible damage included. Following which I obligingly cried to let my parents know. They knew, I think.

All our plots had mango trees and during summer seasons we’d eat fat and ripe orange and yellow mangoes raw and pulpy in the morning, noon, evening and at night.

We were forever sweaty and covered in dirt, always running around and shouting to each other loudly, sometimes across goalposts (always a distinguishable rock), or from opposite sides of the wicket (3 aluminium rods each) or the court net (that we had a proper one though), or even across compounds. We always got home after dusk, exhausted and happy. We’d shower, eat, watch Doordarshan and fall asleep somewhere in between. Unless we decided to fight, which was twice a day, followed by my drama.

Those were the days when happiness meant wearing your favorite dress on your birthday, and the prettiest and nicest strangers were the ones that smiled at you. When soiling your clothes was the way to be and nobody minded except the elders. When summer didn’t mean heat as much as it meant cricket and cousins and mangoes. And spending all the time under the sun were 4 (and at times 5) tiny people forever playing and fighting and laughing.

And I’m mighty glad we were loud enough for a lifetime 🙂