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  • Delsi Bameker Syngkon

The Caretaker

Blog Stories - People Called Shillong

Wrapped in a thick self-knitted quilt and an intoxicating smell of kwai (betel nut) and duma (tobacco), Duh sat in the middle of the living room ready to begin her plethora of tales of the days gone by. She was surrounded by her grandchildren who were eagerly waiting for their Di’s (a nickname for Duh) routine of igniting their imagination by unfolding the mysteries of what used to be. They spread out on the carpet, basking in the joy of not having to follow the curfew for bedtime as the winter holidays had just begun. Di began with the usual and inevitable “During my days…” and continued, “We didn’t have time to play during the holidays. We had to go all the way to Mawroh on foot to plant fruits and vegetables with Bei (her mother). We dare not complain about the sores on our feet. We saw how hard she worked and we wanted to help in whatever way we could.” She added coal to the almost dying chula and an aroma of winter filled the room.

The youngest of fourteen siblings, Di was brought up to look after the well-being of the family. Earlier she would take care of her parent’s and siblings’ needs. Now, all her brothers and sisters had moved out of the house. The brothers moved to their wives’ home on getting married and the sisters had gotten homes of their own; with sons and daughters and grandchildren of their own. So, at the age of sixty-three, Di had taken it upon herself to look after all her grandchildren during the holidays. She sat on a mula with an air of accomplishment. She had been running around the house all day, devoting herself in entirety to each task she took on; from watering the flowers to cooking her daughter’s favourite dish to ironing her newborn granddaughter’s clothes. She took pride in all these accomplishments; they gave her a sense of success. She looked at her grandchildren and asked them, “Do you like to study?” They resonated a loud, “No!” She blurted, “Do you want to go to work one day and earn money?” A loud, “Yes!” was heard this time. She paused for a minute and resumed. “I studied and I got a Bachelor’s degree in Arts, but I could not go to work.” With puzzled faces, the children waited for an explanation.

Khasi society is matrilineal. In earlier times, the youngest daughter inherited the family’s wealth, but also inherited the responsibility of taking care of all the members of the family. It was expected that she would cook and clean; represent the family in gatherings, at funerals and celebrations and above all, uphold tradition. Such was the life of Di. It is not to say that she did not enjoy what fate had bestowed on her. No, she loved it. Now and then, however, she would waver and recede into a world of ‘What ifs?’

Her parents had thought it best if she did not go to work. She was the caretaker of the family and in turn, the family would look after all her needs. She could not fathom why people complained about the hustle and bustle of going to work. She would have loved to leave the house at ten o’clock every morning; each day wearing a different coloured jainsem; and each day a different experience. As she delved on these thoughts that never escaped from her lips, she realised that her audience was staring at her with curious eyes. She tightened her upper lip and said sternly, “You don’t know how blessed you are! All you have to do is be good children. Everything is given to you.” The children, of course, disagreed. Each one had something in mind that they did not have or could not get. They knew that Di was too old to understand how difficult it was to grow up in the present world.

Di narrated how her childhood days were spent. Along with her sisters, she had to work before going to school and after coming back. She had to prepare meals for at least two dozen people every day. “Di, how many people did you have to cook for?” Da-me asked. A huge smile appeared on Di’s face as she spoke with pride. Her home was not home only to herself, her parents, brothers and sisters. It was home to anyone who was a relative, a friend, a neighbour or an acquaintance. Anyone who wanted to stay or eat or just pass their time there was welcomed. Di could not remember a time when they did not have a guest at home. Such was life “in those days”. The present no longer offered such hospitalities. Family and friends rarely had time to visit, let alone neighbours and acquaintances. Di’s mind drifted to the time when her family would host the New Year’s Eve party. The whole locality would show up and loud music echoed in the white and red painted house. Conversations and celebration in each room welcomed the New Year. Everyone feasted on an array of ethnic cuisine – putharo, doh neiiong and tungrymbai – that left the palate ecstatic.

Di was interrupted by the cry of one of the children. She stood up, arranged her jain-kyrshah, mumbled something about too much noise and looked at the time. It was eight o'clock already. She had to heat the food up for dinner and make the bed for the children. Di would never admit that she looked forward to the children’s winter vacations. Instead, she would rant about the work load of having the children in her house, the messy rooms, the noise, the chaos, but she would never tell a soul that she loved the prattling, the tremors of running feet, the preparation of different food items, the laughter and even the cries. They gave her a warm fuzzy feeling of being needed, of being the pivot that held the generations of her family together. She identified herself as the caretaker of the family. She was not just upholding tradition – she was becoming part of it.

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