An Ode to Aunts

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Last week, I had my Phuppi (my dad’s sister) staying with us for a few days. Phuppi completely matches the description of the stereotypical Aunts I read about growing up, like Aunt Alexandra in To Kill a Mocking Bird or Aunt Izzie in What Katy Did: she is formidable, sharp-tongued and very spick and span and proper, and she has the biggest heart in the world. I grew up in a joint family with my cousins and Phuppi pretty much took over our childhood. She bought us clothes (and matching socks and shoes and clips and even matching underwear!), she cut our hair, she planned our birthday parties, she entered us into fancy-dress shows and she took us to the ‘poshest’ places in town like Sagar Plaza and Ashoka Executive (which is the Pride Hotel now). That woman was a cracker, there was nothing she could not do. She cooked amazingly well (made us doughnuts in the 90s when we hadn’t ever heard of them!) she dressed like a style icon with that stylish bob and those dark lipsticks and ‘goggles’, she set off alone on shopping expeditions with the driver and three kids in tow and made us participate in a cat-walking course (yes, really!) She was just so cool! We were petrified of her and simply adored her.

When I heard she was coming, I was really happy but really nervous too. I wanted to show off to her, for her to see that I’m managing my house pretty smoothly. I kind of wanted to make her proud. It is so strange, no matter how much we grow and evolve, there are certain people from our childhood, that make us turn into children again, with all our old insecurities and petty fears. No matter how many people say it to me, no matter how well I know it from within, I just wanted to hear the words “you’re doing well” from her. I also mentally prepared myself for all the chiding, nudging and corrections that were going to come my way (that woman is so loving but so demanding!). I knew enough to expect comments on the following issues: Rumi’s thinness, the quality of cooking, my low-maintenance T-shirt-salwar-ponytail look at home and the lack of servitude towards my husband (like Abhi wakes up and makes his own tea or sometimes serves me dinner too (Oh God, must warn him before she comes!)

When she came, I was amazed to see her. Gone was that spry, active woman from my childhood. Her face was lined with anxiety, the hair greying. She was exhausted from the Rickshaw trip and was carrying a big bag of food items on her shoulder as a gift. I felt stupid at my surprise, obviously she was expected to age. But I had simply lost track of all the years that had flown by. In my mind she was still that intimidating, sharp woman in the bright yellow nylon dresses.

It was wonderful to catch up. We spent hours talking and laughing and looking at old pictures and shrieking with laughter (“Oh my goodness, is that really us?”) Our relationship dynamic had completely changed and she was able to talk to me about all her problems and longings. I told her all my wonderful “business ideas” and unlike my Mom who only snorts when I get a new idea and doesn’t really get taken in unless I actually do something, Phuppi listened with a lot of patience and even gave some really awesome advice. I made her cook all my favorite dishes and she even taught me a few tricks. I watched Pakistani soaps on TV with her. We were heartbroken when she left for home and the house just felt empty.

I feel so lucky to have an Aunt like her growing up and I am overjoyed that Rumi too has an amazing playmate and confidante in her adored Smita Kaku.  Smita Kaku is fun and glamorous and fearless. She paints Rumi’s toenails neon. She takes Rumi for bike rides and they come back windswept and flushed and laughing. She takes Rumi into the kitchen and deftly swings her on one hip as she cooks and introduces her to the different spices. She massages Rumi’s head with warm oil. Whenever we are all together, Rumi is Smita’s faithful shadow, trailing after her, wanting to open her purse, play with her hair and climb all over her. If Smita disappears from her line of vision for even a minute, Rumi’s eyes well up and her lips quiver with separation anxiety as she asks “Kuthe geli Smita Kaku?” (Where is Aunt Smita?)

 

Seeing them together is a delight. It is as if I don’t need to be there at all; they do everything together. In fact Rumi cries if I interrupt them and likes to sleep in Kaka-Kaku’s bedroom. When she is away from Kaku, she tells me stories that her Kaku tells her about a good blue fish called “Rumi” and a naughty red fish called “Tumi” and waits impatiently to meet Kaku again. Their bond is heartwarming and I love to watch them play and reminisce about all the times I spent with Phuppi.

What is it about Aunts and little nephews and nieces? I think it is nicely summed up in the quote “Only an Aunt can give hugs like a mother, keep secrets like a sister, and share love like a friend”. In the book “Committed”, Elizabeth Gilbert talks of how authors like Leo Tolstoy and the Bronte sisters were raised and influenced by their aunts. John Lennon’s aunt told him he would be an important artist someday and it was Coco Chanel’s aunt who taught her how to sew!

It is these amazing aunts who bandage our knees and kiss our tears. They spoil us silly with ice-creams and cuddles. They are our stylists and fashion icons. They keep all our secrets and partner us in our crimes. They are the joke-tellers and shoppers and great cooks. Thank God for the “Aunty Brigade”, without whom childhood would have lacked its magic and charm. Thank God for Aunts.