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Every summer of my childhood, my brother and sister and I would leave our home in Dubai and spend two months at my grandma’s house in Hyderabad in southern India. Those were carefree months of bliss that I yearn for today.
My mom has nine brothers and sisters, so considering that birth control was not all that popular at the time, we were approximately 24 cousins, and twice as many extended-family members.
Everyone converged at Nanijaan’s house. She always had a boarder, too, whom she fed and clothed for free so that he or she could attend university. So the grand total of people spending the summer there at any one time would be 50-plus.
The house had two large, interconnected courtyards, a passageway along all the rooms on the first floor, and three terraces at different levels. Cooking was done in large cauldrons in the courtyards, and the aroma of the day’s meal would waft through the entire house. Our play areas were varied, and we never tired of our make-believe games.
I learned how to handle people of all ages and temperaments, to get what I wanted, but also to give when needed.
We would play hide-and-go-seek in the tire shop attached to the front of the house. To this day, I love the smell of new tires: It does for me what the smell of new leather does for some. It was there that I discovered a 10-year-old can fit inside the groove of a tire where the tube would go, but to get out she would need three people to pull and tug.
I learned that asking for help is nothing to be ashamed of; everyone needs help. Just make sure you are there to help as well when someone else needs it.
Cricket was our favourite game. The teams would remain the same for the entire summer, and we played right beside the cauldron. If you hit the ball into the family meal, the game was over and the other team won. Of course, no one would ever admit to having hit the ball into the pot. Many times, the grownups just ignored the tainted round object and ate as if nothing were amiss.
I learned that kids will always do something they shouldn’t. Unless it’s a matter of life and death, you sometimes just have to ignore it and let them figure it out for themselves. They will.
There were only four bathrooms, so everyone had to be extra co-operative. Imagine 50 people in the morning all waking up within 15 minutes of each other and heading to the bathroom.
It worked like a well-balanced, highly tuned orchestra. Grandma didn’t have to yell or solve bathroom disputes. We just took two-minute showers, and multitasking was a given – brushing teeth while bathing was nothing new.
The most amazing sight was when three women would bathe 30 kids. One would soap and wash, the other would dry, and the third would clothe.
I learned how to be tolerant and accommodating; mostly, I learned that privacy is a privilege, one that I will not give up easily.
Sleeping was like camping. Everyone had a blanket under them. If you were lucky, you got a pillow; otherwise your arm would have to do. We slept under the stars on one of the three terraces, divided by age group. When I was 10, I got the middle terrace.
Mosquitoes, bugs, traffic, stories, someone pulling my blanket from under me, these things I would not have traded for a million bucks – or a mansion. Our nights were the highlight of our summers. When it got too hot, everyone would still be up at 2 a.m., and we would start making homemade ice-cream using ice blocks, salt and a churn. It was the best-tasting, salty, liquid ice cream I have ever had.
Everyone would take a turn churning, and taste after each turn. So before the ice cream was set it was all gone.
I learned that it is not the result that is the goal, but how many people make the journey with you, love you, and cherish you.
Independence Day was the climax of each summer. For weeks, we would prepare decorations and flags to put up all over the courtyard and terrace. Grandma’s house was on the Hyderabad parade route, so our house would be on TV, and we vied for a spot to be captured by the cameras.
We never in all the years I remember bought a single item of decoration. We made everything. The flags were cut and sewn by the ladies, the kids made paper chains, triangular paper flags, painted banners and a few kites to fly on the day.
I learned that the things you spend time making and building with family and friends are far more satisfying than paying someone else to do it for you.
My grandma died the year I left for university in the United States. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye or hug her one last time. I never told her how much those summers meant to me, or how much I enjoyed her cooking. I never told her how much I learned about life when I was 10 years old.
Thank you, Nanijaan. I wish my kids could visit you this summer.