An Absurdity Called Love

The first memoir, An Absurdity Called Love, is about my childhood and adolescence in India. My parents passed away at my birth, and the years leading from birth to the age of 25 were extremely tremulous, but I persevered and prevailed.  This memoir draws inspiration from A Tree Grows In BrooklynGone With the Wind, Great Expectations, and Fierce Attachments (Vivian Gornick)

An Archetype of An Orphan, Carl Gustav Jung


The south facing veranda smells of Sunday. Of shoe polish and tiny winter sunlight. Of bougainvillea, pomegranates, and roses. Of squirrels, monkeys and langurs – the unwelcome visitors that hang out around us as unwanted as my playmates from the neighborhood.

          Bhaiya[1] is sitting cross legged on the red concrete floor of the veranda, in white pyjamas, polishing his shoes, which can only mean he is planning somewhere special. I am four and he is eighteen.  I sit next to him and he tells me he is going to see a movie called Cleopatra, a movie about Kings, and Queens, and their subjects. I want to go too, but he says I cant, because he is going with his friend Raju. But I can go with Raju Bhai and him, can’t I?

“No, you cant,” he says.

“But I want to see the Queen …Clo….Clopa…I want to see Queen Clopita!”

“Too bad,” he says, “go with Papa,”

I start wailing, softly at first, and my sobs grow louder as they bounce against the brick wall of his countenance. He continues to shine his shoes, utterly unmoved. I run inside, only to collide with the aluminium bucket full of freshly washed clothes that Mummy is lugging out to the front yard. She puts the bucket down,  “Bittoo, why’re you crying beta[2]?”

“Bhaiya is going to see queen Clopita, and he doesn’t wanna take me with him,” I sob, hiding my tear stricken face in her damp petticoat and wiping my runny nose on it.  Bhaiya explains to her.

“Bittoo, he’s going with a friend, you can’t go with him,” she says. My sobs escalate into loud cries. Where is Papa? Why isn’t he here? I wail louder so Papa can hear me wherever he is, “I want to go. . . please make him take me”

Mummy picks up the bucket and heads for outdoors to hang the clothes on the drying line, utterly unmoved. My wails eventually bring Papa rushing to the veranda.

“To.tha,” he says, with the familiar reassuring lilt, picking me up in his arms. Papa always called me Totha in endearment.

“Pa…pa,” I bury my wailing face in his shoulder that feels strong and smells of jasmine oil.

“Why is she crying?” he asks no one in particular.  No one responds. “Why is she crying,” he asks again, more sternly. Bhaiya tells him why. Papa softy puts me down and bends down to peer into my tear laden eyes, “stop crying Totha,” He offers to take me to the movies, but I want to see the Queen. He disapproves of English movies due to the nudity, and I know he will never take me to see Cleopatra.

 “You will take her with you,” he tells Bhaiya

“Lala, I can’t, she’s too small, and I’m going with a friend. Besides, she doesn’t understand English, and she wont be able to walk so much” he says, looking at Mummy for support, but she doesn’t want to get into conflict with Papa, and she avoids his pleading gaze.  

“I will walk,” I speak thru my sobs, but no one hears me. No one hears Bhaiya either.

“Bhabi[3], you tell him, she can’t go with me,” he says again, to Mummy.

“You will take her with you, not buts….else you shan’t go,” Papa thunders. Both Mummy and Bhaiya know better than to cross him in such mood.

“You spoil her, you’ll regret it when she grows up,” Mummy mumbles under her breath as she walks past him to finish hanging the clothes on the line.  Bhaiya lapses into silence, helpless rage pouring onto the shoe he’s been polishing. My sobs begin to subside in satisfaction. I know Papa loves me.


There is a noise at the outer gate and the little 5 year old bedraggled girl Noor, with light grey eyes, dark and dirty skin, unkempt ratty hair and clothes to match, comes to the veranda where Papa is standing with me in his arms. The room is suddenly filled with the sombre smell of poverty. Noor is from the neighbourhood muslim family, where she lives in the red brick parcel of land commonly called a compound in India. It adjoins my friend Beenu’s house. In addition to her parents, there are six brothers and sisters, three hens, nine chicks and a rooster that share her home with her. Their house has no roof or ceiling, no flooring, no furniture, no front or backyard -only the brick walled dirt filled compound that smells of chicken, droppings, and cowdung. It has weeds, lizards and bugs crawling the dirt ground and walls. One tiny little corner of the open compound is covered with two rusted sheets of corrugated aluminium sheets, that conceals from view a tiny area in which they all huddle together every night. Their mother Fatima collects cowdung and makes cowdung cakes with her bare hands and plasters these cakes on the wall to dry off. They have a mud choolah[4] on the dirt floor in the compound. During the day, the older children scrouge the neighborhood for twigs and sticks, and food, while Fatima stays home with the baby. In the evening, while Noor and her siblings take turns to hold the baby, Fatima makes chapatis on the choolah, using the sticks, twigs, and dried cakes of cowdung for fuel. The smoke from the choolah fills up the whole house, and if they are lucky, there will be some saalan[5] too. I am not quite sure how they cook when it rains, or why the cowdung cakes on the wall don’t dissolve into the rain during Monsoons. I don’t know who Noor’s father is, nor what he does, for I have never seen him. In the evenings when I go to my friend Beenu’s house to play, she and I often slip away to her terrace. Sometimes, we will look down upon Fatima and her family from the terrace. Because they don’t have a roof, we can see them going about their chores within their compound. This vantage of height gives us an uninterrupted view of the inside and we will often sit and chat with Noor and her brothers and sisters, while their mother cooks for them, and the children run around playing. On these occasions, when it gets very dark, I can see one lone naked bulb in a mesh of naked wires, hanging from the ceiling like a man hung for a crime that he may or may not have committed. The bulb very dimly lights up the musty, unplastered room with bare walls.  On some of these occasions, Fatima blesses me, and tells me that I am like her own child.

          Many people in our neighborhood, including all shopkeepers in Tajganj, the suburb of Agra where we live, say this to me. Most times, the shopkeepers give me anything I want without charging Papa for it. “No money,” they’ll say, “consider it as a gift for your granddaughter,” running their hand over my head and giving me a look of love. I know everyone loves me. Everyone does not love Beenu or her sister.  I am special. Only I am special. Like a princess. But somehow, when anyone calls me Papa’s granddaughter, it also makes me feel ashamed. And guilty. I don’t know why, although I know the shame comes from a secret that no one talks to me about. But I know the secret. And no one knows that I know the secret. The secret of my mother and father. The secret that Papa is my grandfather, and Mummy is my grandmother. My teachers often ask about Kuldeep Maama[6]. No one has told me, but even though I call him Bhaiya, meaning brother, I secretly know he is not my brother. I don’t remember how or when I came to know, but I know. I can’t remember a time that I never knew. But I cant think about it. I just can’t. I don’t know exactly what that means. Just that I know. And when I hear someone talk about it, I feel a sense of shame envelope me from head to toe, I can feel my face burn, my hands get clammy, and a lump rises to my throat. I feel shame drenching me all over. I don’t know why. As if being a granddaughter of Papa, rather than being his daughter were a disgusting thing. Something as disgusting as lying, or being a bad girl. I want to run away from there. But because it is a secret, I stand bravely when grown ups talk about it. I cannot run away. Nor can I cry. Nor can I ask anyone what it means, all this that they are trying to hide from me. It is a secret. It must be disgusting and shameful, that is why it is kept from me. To protect me. But I know the secret. And no one talks much about it, except in hushed tones, behind closed doors. And everyone becomes quiet when I come into the room. Noor is carrying a brown egg in her hand.

“Our hen laid an egg,” Noor says, “Amma asks if you would like to buy it for 50 paisa?”  My eyes light up with joy. I love eggs. Everyone knows that, including Papa. But 50 paisa? Papa gives me 10 paisa everyday so I can buy ice crème at school. Sometimes he gives me more. I can buy the long candy for 15 paisa, and a lollypop for 5 paisa, but I don’t usually buy  candy or lollypop, because the candyshop is too crowded. So I buy an ice crème everyday, for 10 paisa. I don’t know of anyone,except me, who gets 10 paisa everyday. Mummy and Bhaiya think Papa is spoiling me by giving me money everyday. I have heard  them argue about this. But Papa always gives me 10 paisa before I leave for school. Orange bar is for 30paisa – only for special occasions. Mango ice crème is for 50 paisa. Only twice have I been able to buy Mango Ice Crème at school. Will he buy the egg for 50 paisa?

“Girl, what is your name?” Papa asks her.

“Noor,” I say immediately.

“Noor,” she says, shyly, looking up at Papa and myself towering over her.

“Do you go to school, Noor?” Papa asks

“No,” she says.


“Because………. we…… have no money,” she says, haltingly, reluctantly, with downcast eyes.

I feel sad for her, and want to hold her hand and play with her and share all my toys with her. She and her  six brothers and sisters have no toys – no one in our neighborhood has any toys except for me – but they are always having such fun at home. Unlike me. I have no one to play with. Bhaiya rarely plays with me. mummy restricts my time with Beenu everyday. I can only go to her house from 5PM to 6PM. I eagerly wait for 5PM everyday. And often, even at 5:00 pm, Beenu’s mother doesn’t open the door. “Beenu is asleep,” she says, “come back after half an hour.” 

So I patiently wait outside their door for what seems like a long long time, until her mom opens the door. Neither Beenu’s, nor Noor’s mom stops them from playing on the street. Me – I am never allowed to go out alone. Beenu and others have also learnt to ride a bike. An adult bike. I am not allowed to ride a proper bicycle. I can only ride a tricycle. With training wheels. It makes me look like a baby and everyone teases me. I feel so ashamed. Noor and her brothers and sisters would always welcome me into their house, unlike Beenu’s mom, but Mummy would have a heart attack if I played with them. Mummy doesn’t like me playing with children from poor families. In facts, she thinks everyone apart from Beenu’s family in the neighborhood, is unsuitable for me.  Even Anita, Gita, Santosh and their family. Even Pappi and Gudiya and their family. “You don’t know whom you belong to,” she always says on such occasions.

“I will have to talk to your father about that,” Papa says to Noor, “you should be in school.”

“Would you like the egg for 50 paisa?” Noor asks, again.

“Does your brother -whats his name – go school?

“Ahmed,” she says, “his name is Ahmed. He sometimes goes to school,”

“Tell him to come and see me. I will give him money if he come again to polish our shoes,” Papa says. “he did a good job last time. . . . .and he should also be in school, everyday,”

Noor nods her head “I will tell Amma to send him,” she says, “Amma asks if you would you like this egg for 50 paisa?”

Papa nods his head and gently puts me down on the floor. “Give it to Bittoo” he says to Noor, “50 paisa is too much for an egg, but you’re like my daughter, I’ll give you 50 paisa” he says, and goes inside to get the money.  I carefully take the egg from Noor’s small hand covered with dirt and soot from the choolah. I wonder where she and her brothers have a bath in their house? And how often? Papa forces me to have a bath everyday. I hate having a bath. I bet Noor doesn’t have to have a bath everyday. I wish I had been born in Noor’s family. I would have so many brothers and sisters to play with.  Holding the egg in front of me with both my hands, I carefully walk indoors to the kitchen where Mummy is sitting on the chowki[7], as she toils over a kerosine stove, cooking the aromatic peas and potato curry.

“Egg,” I say, holding the egg out to her.


Mummy combs my golden curls, and tucks my hair behind my ears, putting a clip to prevent it from falling into my eyes. I feel like a princess, in my favorite clothes, and shoes, ready for the Queen. I run to Bhaiya’s room, singing at the top of my voice, a lullaby that Mummy sings to me “chanda maama door ke, pooe pakaye poor ke…”

“Stop singing so loud,” Mummy yells. “Behave like a girl ! You don’t know whose you are !” I lower my tone but continue singing. Mummy always says girls aren’t supposed to sing. Only bad girls sing. Or dance. I never comply with her singing restrictions. Bhaiya isn’t in his room, I find him in the dining room, ironing his clothes on the dining table, with the old rusty Rowenta. He does this every weekend, covering the dining table with layers of duvet covers, and ironing his clothes for the week. Papa hates him ironing on the dining table, and they often argue about it,but there has been no solution. To keep peace, Bhaiya chooses to iron when Papa is away. And when Bhaiya irons, Papa has learnt to stay away from the dining room and kitchen.  I ask him how long before we leave.

“In an hour or so,” he says. I run out of the room but suddenly, I’m afraid, and return to him, “You won’t leave without me?” I ask, “you will take me with you, wont you?” Bhaiya is still cross, but he tells me that he would let me know when Raju arrives. I skip out of the room singing the Chanda mama song.

“For God’s sake, stop running, and singing so loudly,” Mummy shouts from the kitchen, “you’re a girl.”

Papa is sitting on the couch, and reading a newspaper in his room. I nudge to draw his attention to my new dress. “See?”

“Totha looks pretty,” he beams at me,”isn’t that what we bought recently?”

“Yes,” I say. The two of us gone to Kinari Bazaar, and bought the dress on our way back home. He had carried me and all the stuff in his arms from Kinaari bazar to the bus stand because I had been too tired to walk. Papa smoothens my hair, kissing the top of my head. The doorbell rings. Papa and I answer the door. Raju Bhai is Bhaiya’s best friend. He is so handsome, I have secretly determined that when I grow up, I will look for a husband as good looking. I always feel shy in his presence.

          I hear Bhaiya softly talking to Raju Bhai in the living room, explaining about me. Soon, the three of us leave for the movies. Over my protests, Mummy has given Bhaiya a small blanket for me. It makes me feel babyish. I’m a big  girl of 4. I go to school now. They should’nt treat me like a baby. I shan’t use it, never, and then they’ll know not to bring a blanket next time.

The bus takes us to the Bhagwaan Theatre. A vendor is selling Madhu Ice Crème. Bhaiya points to it and says to me “hey look, its your ice crème !” I feel the familiar feeling of shame surging thru my body. All children at school call me Madhu Ice Crème. Or they call me Madhu Makkhi[8].  I hate my name. I wish I had a nicer name, like other children in my school. Pinkie, Prachi, Renu. And I wish I was darker, that I had black hair and black eyes, like everyone else. I hate my white skin, golden hair, and hazel eyes. Some children at school and neighborhood tease me for being an alien monster disguised as a girl. Others call me monkey-face. I always want to cry, but I pretend to be brave. 

          Bhaiya leads me to the bathrooms before the movie starts, but can’t decide which one. I can’t go to the one which boys go to. And he can’t enter the girls’ bathroom. He asks an older lady to take me with her, “she’s my little sister,” he says, “and she needs to go”. The woman agrees. 

          Back in the theatre, bhaiya spreads the blanket around me. I want to protest, but it feels nice and warm, so I pretend I haven’t noticed it.  I like the handsome royals on the screen. “Where’s Queen Clopita?” I ask. “Shhhhh” Bhaiya says, and quietly points her out to me on the screen. She looks beautiful, but all others look beautiful too. I try to follow what she is saying, but it is too difficult.

I must have dozed off, because the thunderous sounds are sudden, and unexpected. I see war, destruction, wounds, blood, death, men killing each other and they are terrible. A feeling of doom, and fear pervades my body, and I feel so alone and frightened in the expanse of darkness, with my heart beating like a propeller jet. What if some of these men come out and kill us too? I want to leave. I want to hide. I want to run away. Suddenly a soldier throws a spear at me and I scream, trying to dodge it, grabbing onto Bhaiya’s sleeve and hiding my face there. Bhaiya immediately puts his arm around me and covers my eyes with his palm. “Its just a movie, its not real,” he says swiftly. But I continue to shudder, without understanding what Bhaiya means, “but he’s throwing a spear at me!” I say, trembling in fright. My feet are chilled. The blanket has slid away to the floor. Bhaiya makes me bend over in my seat, to hide my face in my lap. I pick up the blanket from the floor and hand it to him. He drapes me in it. I don’t think anyone can find me now. Somewhere out there the battles continue to rage, the arrows, swords, spears keep clashing, men keep killing each other, as I try to shut it all out, the terror and doom, but I can still hear the muffled sounds of death and dying. Until the sounds subside.

Bhaiya wakes me and picks me up when the movie ends. “I will walk,” I say to him thru the sleep drenched eyes. He ignores me. I don’t want to walk but I don’t want to be a bad girl either, and I don’t want to break my promise. Promise breaker is a shoemaker. “And you are not a shoemaker,” a small voice inside tells me. “I will walk,” I say to him again, more forcefully this time “put me down.”

“Its ok, there is too big a crowd,” he says, leading us out of the theatre. I pretend to be cross at being carried, but am secretly thrilled. I don’t really want to walk.

For my bravery, I am treated to a softy ice cream cone. I absolutely love softy ice cream cones. They are more, much more expensive than Mango Ice Cream, I know. Raju Bhai comes from a family with a lot of money. That is why he can afford softy Ice creams. And chocolates. On my last birthday, Raju Bhai had gifted me a game of Baggertails, the largest that I had ever got, and a gigantic box of very expensive chocolate covered caramels.

“Bittoo, did you like K-lo-pita?” Raju Bhai asks with a twinkle in his eyes. I know for sure that he’s making fun of me. “Yes,” I say solemnly, almost crossly, licking off the cone.

Afterwords, we take a bus in the chill of the winter night. The stars glitter like bright lights sowed onto the fabric of night sky. I fall asleep, and am woken up at the Taj Mahal station.  A peacock sings somewhere far away, and his partner responds. Three of us walk home huddled together our shoulders pulled up to hide our exposed necks, taking in the whiffs of night flowering jasmine from the Taj gardens, our hands dug deep into our pockets. I am too tired to be afraid of the bats, my legs hurt, but only Papa carries me for such long distances.  I am not a shoemaker. I am a big girl, not a baby anymore. I will walk.


          I am too tired and sleepy, my legs hurt, so mummy presses my legs to relieve the pain. She then tucks me up, and feeds me dinner in bed – rice with yogurt, peas and potato curry. I soon drift off to sleep without changing into my nightclothes. And I guilt that my beautiful pink dress is smeared with mud. “If only you had changed into my nightclothes,” the small voice says to me, “the dress would not have been spoilt.” I am sad and Mummy is shouting at me, “Bad bad bad girl, spoilt and bad.” Papa lifts the watering hose “bad bad bad girl, always troubling everyone,” I feel the searing heat and pain of the hose slashing across my back. Again. And again. The hose turns into a sword like those held by the Queen Cleopatra’s armymen. Papa lifts the sword with all his strength, chopping off both my arms. Fountains of blood flow from where my arms had been. I feel the blood flowing everywhere. “No,no,no,” I am crying, “I am not a bad girl….I did not do it on purpose…..please don’t, please, please, please, I will never do it again, I will never do it again ! ” I scream with pain. My heart is breaking. I am not a bad girl. I did not do it on purpose. I did not know the dress would get spoilt. I want it all to stop. Stop. Stop.

“Bittoo….wake up…wake up Bitoo…why are you crying..? Did you have a nightmare? Wake up……” and then to Papa “Can you turn the lights on.” Gentle hands shaking me, repeatedly, asking papa to turn the lights on. I am lying on their large wooden bed, on faded but clean blue sheets, between Mummy and Papa. It is dark, but I can see her silhouette, sitting up in bed. Behind me, I hear Papa swing out of the bed, and he turns the lights on.

“What happened?” Mummy asks softly, “why’re you crying?” 

The suddenness of her actions, the glare of the tubelight blinding my eyes, and the sadness in my heart dumbfounds me. I can feel the tears on my cheeks, the sobbing convulsions still fresh in time, and the palpable fear flowing thru my veins. I squint to see thru the pain, and cover my eyes with my hands. My arms are still intact. Then it all comes back. The dress. The black hose. The beating. The swords. The blood. In helplessness, I begin crying even louder.

“My dress is spoilt,” I say, still sobbing, “it is not my fault,”

“What? No, its not spoilt at all…..see for yourself ”she says, pointing to my clothes.

I remove my hands from my eyes, and try to look at the dress I am wearing. The lights are too harsh,but I see me wearing the Pink dress. I try to search for the soil marks. There are none. But they were there just a few moments ago. I saw them. Did Mummy hide them? Did she clean them already? Are they mad at me for spoiling my dress? I am confused, but I neither Mummy, nor Papa seem to be  angry.

“It……………. spoilt,” I say, at last, still sobbing, and confused. I am not a bad girl. I don’t want to be a bad girl. I will take care of my dress. Please don’t hit me.

“Its ok, Bittoo, it isnt spoilt. My jaan[9], just go back to sleep,” Mummy’s creamy voice whispers from above me. I continue sobbing, with my hands on my eyes.

“Will it make you feel better if you change before you go back to sleep?” Papa asks.

“Yes, it is spoilt,” I sob, stricken with guilt. I am not a bad girl. I don’t want to be a bad girl. Please don’t hit me.

“OK, we’ll change then,” Papa says, as he leans forward and lifts me up in his arms and wipes my tears. “shhh….” He says, taking me to the adjoining store room, where my clothes are kept in a metal trunk. And he takes out a fresh pair of green cotton nightclothes, and helps me change into them. He shows me the pink dress, holding it straight, turning it from side to side, assuring me it wasn’t spoilt. Afterwards, he folds it and leaves it on the trunk for Mummy to wash. Then he takes me to the bathroom so I can pee before I sleep. We return to the room, to the bed, to Mummy and to the night.

“It is the movie,” Papa says to Mummy as he turns off the lights, “there must have been fight scenes in the movie,” he says as he lays down to sleep. “She’ll be ok,” he says.

Outside, I see the silent silver moonlight draped around the shadowy trees that resemble scary monsters lurking within my heart. They remind of something, or someone, I know, but can’t quite seem to recall. The unthought known. Mummy puts her arms around me and pulls me closer, trapping my icy cold feet and legs between her legs. I can barely move, but the confines, the familiar warmth, and the smell of ginger and spices on her blouse is reassuring. You may be a bad girl, the small voice says to me, but Mummy loves you. At least a little, anyway. “Chanda mama door ke…pooe pakaye poor ke….” And the soothing stillness softly melts the monsters away for the night…

[1] Hindi for brother.

[2] Hindi, for darling.

[3] My uncles used to refer to their mother, my grandmother, as Bhabi.

[4] Cooking contraption used in India, an indigenous oven.

[5] Any meat or vegetable based side eaten with rice or chapati

[6] Maama is a maternal uncle, Mother’s Brother, in Hindi.

[7] A low wooden bench

[8] Madhu Makkhi = honey bee

[9] To be loosely interpreted as my darling.

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