My first memory of any kind of neighbor was Adrian Aunty. A large Anglo-Indian woman, who’s constantly puckered lips either had a cigarette in them, or were looking forward to their next one. Every evening, she was either at the window with a glass of port wine or tucked away in her air-conditioned bedroom playing Rummy with all the aunties in the building- the aunties who were supposed to be watching their kids play in the compound to make sure they didn’t get too close to the street.
She was the only one in the building who used to cook pork. It wasn’t a conservative building by any standards, but the smell of a vindaloo simmering on her kitchen stove would often waft to the upper floors and our open balcony. My mouth would water unabashedly while my maid would crinkle up her nose, mutter a ‘tauba tuaba‘ and send me back inside the house while she collected the clothes drying for the dhobie. On Sundays, I would sneak to the back door of Adrian Aunty’s house, and eat sorpotel with paav till I couldn’t breathe anymore. She introduced me to Simon and Garfunkel and I would later listen to ‘For Emily, where ever I may find her’ for years without even knowing the lyrics or what it meant because the voices and melody were so comforting.
Her curly mop of hair translated into a curly mop of hair on her son as well. Nikhil or Nikku had a large, lopsided smile that he used to charm his way into pretty much anything he wanted. He taught me how to say “bhenc***”, “maadarc***” and made me use both on my mother. (If I recall correctly, the sentence was, Ma, this bhenc*** is not allowing us to play badminton, can you come out and tell him to give us the rackets and net? He’s being a real maadarc***”) My mother got the arm workout of the century while I howled like a dog. When I finally told her I learned them from Nikku Bhaiya, she dragged him out from under the staircase where he had been hiding and watching me get beaten up. Adrien Aunty had beamed with thinly veiled pride at the sheer gall of her son when my mother told her what had happened.
My mother was at work a lot, so I was always in the custody of various aunties who’s houses I would freely wander in and out of, eat lunches at, come home ready for bed for another day of playing and screaming on various landings of the building. There was also a substantial amount of ringing of door bells and running away before someone came to open them. My mother was also very good friends with Adrian Aunty. One of the more skilled Rummy players, I would sit beside my mother and be in charge of stacking up the chips by color and separating her large earnings into piles. It would break my heart to have to empty them back into the box of chips that was packed up once the game was over. They would go to Vaishnu Devi together every year, in trips that would end up lasting weeks, with photographs that will still slip out of an old book from the book shelf once in a while.
When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she had a mastectomy without mentioning it to anyone. When an aggressive round of chemotherapy left her balding, she finally told her friends.
“Is she going to die?” I asked my mom.
“Yes she is.”
The immunity to death and endings that childhood affords kept me blissfully unaware for a long time. Adrian Aunty had 5 glamorous wigs on thermacol heads on her dressing table by then and after school, while I waited for my mother to get back home from work, she would make me try them on and we would laugh till our cheeks hurt. I’d get to put on red lipstick and rouge and perfume and everything else that my mother absolutely forbade me to touch. She came to pick me up from my drawing classes in a rickshaw one day. It was a rainy day and a particularly strong gale was blowing. It whipped her long-haired wig right off her head and made it land smack on the head of the rickshaw driver. We both had tears of laughter running down our faces while the rickshaw driver, disgruntled, tried to get rid of his new hair-do and hand it back to its owner.
It’s some idiotic cruelty of boarding schools where you have to prove that it’s someone close enough to you that’s sick, for you to get permission to leave campus for a few days. My mother tried, but rigid codes and rules did not allow it. She didn’t mention Adrian Aunty’s passing to me till I came home for my summer holiday.
And even with the immunity to death and ending wearing away a little because I was a little older, there were no tears. Just a dull ache that dissipated into a wave of relief and exhaustion that made me sleep well that night.
The new neighbours are nice, they sometimes cook large vats of mutton curry, a common enough occurrence and the smell wafts to the upper floors and our open balcony. The maid, who collects the drying clothes for the dhobi mutters, “tauba, tauba.”