MIDWAY: Portrait of a Phoenix

Namita Nepal

She was the first being on whom my eyes rested the first time I opened them. She waited on my mother as she lay in the post-delivery room, fed me sugared water, changed my nappies and welcomed visitors.

Guddi, as she was called, was already in her eighties when we met. She had been in my grandmother’s family for a long time after granny adopted her from a neighbour who did not appreciate Guddi’s culinary skills.

As a cook, Guddi was a failure but granny turned a deaf ear to her family’s remonstrations to dismiss her. She made the most disastrous meals you’d have ever eaten. And the store room, a mysterious dark place, which seemed full of strange stories to us children, absolutely ran amok with lizards and roaches. When my mother, who is finicky about cleanliness objected to the roaches, Guddi would say, “Don’t bother, aama. Lakshmi dwells in the house with roaches too.”

Having been around for too long, Guddi had invariably learnt to realise her indispensability and her right to be the boss. She loved to have her finger in every pie. Whenever she wanted something, she’d never unleash a sob story as her’s might as well have been, but simply claimed a piece of the pie. When it were slippers she needed, she picked a nice pair from the hoard in the hallway. The owner, host or a guest, had to meekly buy a new pair.

One day, Guddi mistook mosquito repellent tube for toothpaste. Once she started brushing her teeth with it, she screamed the roof down and the one who misplaced the repellent tube had to bend over backwards in a bid to placate her.

She would sit us children and tell us stories from the Ramayana, as she served us food. She brought us lunch to school and my friend would laugh at this old lady with betel-stained teeth and bare torso and I was fiercely proud of her and the smell of our smoky kitchen that wafted along with her.

And one day see kicked the bucket. When granny did not hear her in the kitchen that morning, she went to the verandah looking for her and Guddi lay there with her mouth open, peacefully still. Nobody cried, but not that others weren’t saddened, as we children huddled in a corner and whispered. It took me a few months to stop calling for Guddi to tell me a story or run an errand. Then, the elder would slush and I would creep away to the store room in my heart, where I had generously let Guddi enter, for in this inner realm, there were no lizards or roaches but only people and memories.