Childhood = cousins
My cousin was the sweetest boy when he was little. He was even-tempered and curious and laughed easily with his mouth wide open, a talent that is as shockingly attractive in small children as it stops being so, soon after. He also possessed three of the noblest qualities a younger cousin can have in the eyes of a bunch of older, unrulier cousins — he didn’t speak very much, which meant that he didn’t complain or snitch on us; he had a head full of the lushest, most impossible curls; and he had a toy-train engine that vroomed and whirred and clanked in a most technologically inappropriate fashion, but which was large and impressive to us nonetheless.
Driven in equal parts by his uncomplaining nature, our own boredom and the desire to expand the boundaries of human knowledge, we — the older, unrulier cousins — decided that his head of curls was the final frontier his own train needed to conquer. All went well; till it didn’t. The curls refused to provide a hospitable environment for the engine, but we vroomed and whirred it determinedly around and managed to colonise vast swathes of his head before giving up. By then, it was almost time for dinner and we realised that his appearance would not bode well for us. But he was stubbornly uncooperative on the subject of missing meals and staying out of the sight of adults for, perhaps a few months, to oblige us. When he lurched to the table, wearing his toy engine as a crown of rare and original beauty, the adults reacted as if he had walked in with a steak knife attached to his forehead.
Suffice it to say that all of us got the hiding of our lives (those were dark days with no indoor plumbing, no phone videos and the only creed of parenthood was spare the rod and spoil the child). However, it turned out badly for him too — all his assets were culled after this incident — his gorgeous curls had to be shaved off and never grew back the way they were; his engine refused to whirr or vroom after its derailment; and urged by all the adults that he had brought this upon himself by being quiet, he became the most voluble, garrulous person we knew.
This happened several decades ago, but last week, at a family wedding, the incident was brought up and recounted to everyone as all the cousins gathered again — now no longer drivers of trains through heads, but upstanding members of society with mutual funds, annual health check-ups and the beginnings of lovingly tended potbellies. It was, obviously, a very accurate retelling of the actual incident because all of dramatis personae present disagreed vehemently on the details and cast themselves as the real victims of the episode.
Even as our bums tingled with the heavy weight of parental disapproval delivered so many years ago, other heists were brought up and reminisced about. Stealing Quality Street toffees from our grandmother’s locked puja room was an oldie and a goldie — something we did as often as we could get away with. This was an act that was rife with spiritual suspense — it was done in front of the two million all-seeing eyes of the one million gods in the puja room, who would definitely send us to hell for it when we died — but we all agreed that the temporal fear and suspense was far worse. If we had been seen by the all-seeing eyes of even one adult, we would have been dispatched to hell there and then, without even the dignity of being transferred to the afterlife first.
Stealing unripe grapes from our grandfather’s lovingly tended vines, stealing litchis that had been pre-sold to the fruit contractor, stealing til laddoos our grandmother left on the kitchen counter piled in an Eiffel-Tower-like construction of crumbly goodness — as we talked about all the things that gave our lives meaning in those days, we felt compelled to congratulate ourselves on our finely-honed criminal instincts that had served our third-world hunger so zealously.
The thing is, we don’t see each other often. We don’t keep in touch regularly (no family WhatsApp group for us — we prefer to be dysfunctional in a pre-industrial-revolution manner), we rarely pick up the phone and speak to each other, we learn of where we are in life when our parents who are siblings and far closer tell us the news. But the beauty of being cousins with my cousins is that we always come together when life’s currents push us close and we laugh. We remember the way our grandmother’s kirtan party would sing like a chorus of bullfrogs on heat and how their off-key wailing used to startle the dog so much that he yowled in sympathy. We talk about the Rs 10 that a tight-fisted grandaunt gave my sister when she went to the US to study, with the brisk advice that she save it to buy something nice with. We roll on the floor recounting the time a choleric uncle failed to recognise us as his own flesh and blood and chased us off his property, wielding a long stick, yelling and spitting. We remember the jars of guava jelly that glittered like burnished gold in our grandmother’s pantry and which, slathered on tava toasts, is the taste of our childhood.
And we know that not speaking for months and years and not knowing much about each other as adults — that fact shimmers and fades into the distance when contrasted with the experiences and memories we share. Our pasts are like trees that are intertwined with one another in the magical forest of our childhood. And no matter where the present and future take us, there will always be a place where we will love each other easily and uncomplicatedly — this is the gift that our younger, unrulier, more criminal selves give unexpectedly to the busy careworn adults we have become.
And with a sharp feeling of love and delight, this strikes us every single time — no matter how far apart geography, interests, and the messy business of life may take us in adulthood — cousins that have run a toy train through a field of curly hair together will always stay together.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines