‘I was terrified to return home without the missing tooth’

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Illustration: Samia Singh

I SPENT MY childhood in Calicut, a small town in Kerala. The pesky nuisances that we were, my cousin Reshma, my brother and I were dumped at our grandparents’ so that our parents could pursue their medical degrees in peace. The house in Calicut brings back a flood of memories. The mahogany table under which Reshma and I would scramble when my grandfather emitted one of his deafening, earth-shattering sneezes. My grandmother would then have a tough time trying to pry us out.

During the day, when my brother went to school, Reshma and I would follow my grandmother around the house as she went about her daily chores. Sometimes she’d hand us over to Valsa the maid. Valsa would sit us on her lap, put oil on our hair and tell us stories of sultans and boatmen and Rajput princesses.

When my grandfather returned from work he would summon us for the daily meditation. “No noise, no movement,” he’d caution. According to him, meditation would turn us from noisy, boisterous brats into disciplined, decorous and law-abiding citizens. Sitting still was torture for us. We’d start fretting, fidgeting and stealing glances at each other. Gradually gaining confidence, we’d progress to whispering. My grandfather would then look up from his newspaper. “Quiet,” he’d holler.

One day, I fell from the cycle while returning from Nazrath Bhavan Nursery School — a little tin-roofed building where they taught us to draw stick figures, gave us ice lolly that turned our lips orange, red and yellow depending on the flavour and forced us to sleep from two to four in the afternoon. Other than scraping my knee, the only other consequence was severing a tooth. I was terrified to return home without the missing tooth so I scrambled on all fours, scouring the street for the missing item. “Did you see my tooth?” I asked all the astonished passers-by. Unable to find it, I sat quivering in Elias’ (who used to be an employee at my grandfather’s office) tea shop. I suspect Elias might have given me away but an hour later I turned to see the thundering figure of my grandfather silhouetted against the doorway. “I couldn’t come home without my tooth,” I explained meekly. I’d never seen him so angry. At home, in the furore over the missing person’s return, I was let off lightly for losing my tooth.

To this day, my grandmother attributes my aunt’s fair skin to the time she spent covered in mud

Occasionally, my grandmother would take us with her on her visits to Velyangadi, the 600-year-old commercial centre city, where the Muslim merchants and the Gujarati and Marwari moneylenders can be seen busy with their businesses. Or the bustling lanes of SM Street where, if we whined enough, my grandmother would buy us Cassata ice-cream and magic pop that would explode like firecrackers inside our mouths. But Calicut today is no longer the Calicut of my childhood. The building boom of the past few years has ensured its steady decline into squalid cosmopolitanism. Where there used to be mangrove forests and marshy wetlands, now there are high-rises, malls and IT projects like the upcoming 100-acre Satellite City.

My grandparents no longer live in Calicut but like an unyielding heritage, they carry the stories with them wherever they go. They still regale us with tales like the one of how my aunt, in her childhood, fell into a marshy tract near the house and nearly died. Fortunately, a field worker saw her flailing arms and hauled her up. My grandparents got a fright at the sight of their mud-covered daughter. To this day, my grandmother attributes my aunt’s fair skin to the time she spent covered in mud.

Calicut might have received a drastic facelift but a city exists as it does in the crevices of the mind. To me, it’ll always be a maelstrom of memories. Of forgotten certainties and a lost definition of self. Where, if I close my eyes, I can still hear the distant crash of waves against the shore and my grandmother’s gentle chiding not to wade any deeper into the sea.

Anjuly Mathai is 22. She is a writer based in Mumbai

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