It was their magnum opus. She didn’t major in the creative arts. Fresh out of high school she was tossed on stage, with her composer.
Mom seemed to have it all under control. The master conductor, she did the planning, strategizing, and delegation. Dad worked hard on financing the team, setting the broad goals, his third eye always on the budget and silently cheering from the sidelines. Us four, we were no symphony orchestra. The total was fluid-six, plus one or two cousins who boarded with us at various times, a grandchild or two. We had a riot of a time.
The road is narrow, with houses packed on either side; each two stories high. The only greenery in sight is an occasional jackfruit or sampige tree lending its draft of strong fragrance to the summer breeze. Children are enthralled in a gripping game of street cricket, dodging cars, bikes, street vendors and many walkers. On this sweltering hot day, windows open, you can hear the neighbors whisper. As for us, mere murmuring is not an option. Ours is the fourth house upstairs on the right. “House #152,” rented.
Mom didn’t seem to do it deliberately, but the kitchen was an instant hit from the day we moved in. A large area with no furniture, windows always open, this was our war room at dinners and lunches. Here, stories were told, advice traded, judgments pronounced, and justice served. The ritual continued with empty plates, until Dad who always was done first, unceremoniously called an END to it.
The menu was lean and consistent. With no refrigerator, no appliances and no processed food, we were healthy by design. Mom, considered progressive, was traditional when it came to the art of dining. She cheerfully served us before she dined. We wondered if visitors ever discerned the times she feigned fullness for the benefit of the company of friends, relatives, and even friends of relatives. We took pride in our skillful entertaining abilities, as artless as it might have seemed. It was always Open House.
The two bedrooms had half the furniture we owned-the parent’s bed and a steel cupboard. The other half was in the living room: a cane set of four chairs and a coffee table. The oldest four in any group earned the chairs. The younger had strong limbs. Here in this 15 x 12 feet space, we relaxed during the day, entertained most evenings and slept at night on our mats. This was our window to the world at large. Here we discussed sports and politics, wove conspiracy theories, planned weddings, and mourned losses.
It is 2 a.m. and Dad wakes me up with a whisper, standing by my bed (mat). I have a robotic reflex to this-wake up, listen for water drops down the stairs, pick the empty buckets, take my position on the stairs. Dad gets the other bees in position between the house and the water outlet down the stairs and around the house. For the next two hours, we pass buckets of water to the next in line, alternating with quick power naps on the stairs, while the dripping water fills the next bucket. The fresh morning air is a bonus.
Living upstairs came with its perks. The main door opened onto the balcony. We spent long hours there, savoring vivid flash backs and magical fast-forwards. From up there, we were part of a larger family. The drama unfolded in this rich milieu, chapters being written in an Open Book.
Mom’s monthly budget had a modest three columns-description, expenditure, and running total. Money came and left swiftly, with little need to hop in and out of a bank. The top priorities were grocery, rent and school fees. If this balance was disturbed, Dad brushed aside one course from the meals until further notice.
Life was easy. We got bored once a month. When we got bored, we went to the movies. When we went to the movies, we ate out. When we ate out, we ordered either a plate of idly or a dosa. When we ordered either an idly or a dosa, we spent a little more moolah. When we spent a little more moolah, we couldn’t afford boredom for a whole month.
Not everything was so well orchestrated. Often, stuff played hooky-water, electricity, milk, sewage, plumbing, the bus or any combination thereof. There were the spontaneous visits to the doctor, the ration, or the cobbler.
The strategic daily trips for grocery, schools and work had to be woven in. Festivals were merrily fast forwarded in inverse proportion to the budget. We never let the numerous volunteer opportunities pass by. For, that was the form of giving we could easily afford. We swung between chaos, uncertainty and an element of surprise. We could easily pass off as a novice rowing team with one Bow, a Stern, and many a Cox. This boat sailed the rough seas.
We have all moved on and lived in many cities and homes around the world. One thing we do with regularity is dig into our treasure chest of memories that “Home #152” afforded us-our masterpiece.
I ask my 14 year old for his definition of happiness, looking for the definite link to money. He does not care about the rung of the financial ladder, he responds, he would be happy as long as there was status quo. Upwards would be good, not necessary. But downward, he says, is a sure path to unhappiness. He did get it right.
Dr. Seuss: Do not cry because it’s over, but smile because it happened.
A technology entrepreneur, Usha Rao is influenced by her children’s flair for writing. She lives in Seattle and can be reached at Ushats.email@example.com.