Tea and art of conversation with 80-year-olds

There's aana-jaana, as it's called - coming and going. She's come over.

By Nivriti Butalia

Published: Sun 17 Jun 2018, 8:00 PM

Last updated: Sun 17 Jun 2018, 10:15 PM

The only neighbour whose number is in my phone book is an 87-year-old whose details are saved as 'Aunty N'.
There's aana-jaana, as it's called - coming and going. She's come over. We've been to hers. A long-time Dubai resident, she lives by herself. One son lives close by, in the neighbourhood. But she likes her independence, and isn't hot on the idea of living with her kids. She's told me this. I cheer the idea, the independence, the wilfulness. Why must our elders conform to the wishes of their children?
I meet her in the building lobby often, sitting on the sofas, arms on armrest, sunning herself, looking at the raunaq, the crowds. I see her mostly on my way out of the building, in the morning, to work. She'll sometimes clasp my hands when I say, Hi aunty, how are you, to which she'll say something wry and we'll share a laugh.
I met her earlier this year when we moved into the building. The security guys were making things inconvenient, not letting us move in on a weekend, and generally being unhelpful. She was sitting in the lobby, overheard the commotion and stepped in, telling the security guys to cool it. She then apologised(!) on behalf of the building(!). I later said nasty, matter-of-fact things about their attitude and she mollified me saying, Nahi, beta. Like, don't say that.
Last week, her sister, Rafat aunty, who lives in Delhi, was in Dubai. My husband and I met her in Delhi some months ago when we delivered a parcel to her from our neighbour. It's such a small world. Rafat aunty, something of an Air Force First Lady. She still drives everywhere. She, too, doesn't live with her kids. Still social, she knew my grandparents, has seen my mother grow up.
To hear a friend of my grandmother's invoke a memory of her long after she's gone is a strange warm feeling. "Kamla would always call when they came to Delhi, saying aur sunao Rafat, kya ho raha hai?" - i.e., what's up, Rafat?
My mother, when I explained my connection with her Dubai sister, told me that Rafat aunty and her husband were the most striking-looking couple in her memory.
Last week, the sisters said to me that they'd come over for a cup of tea at 7.30pm on Tuesday and would leave at 8pm because "we old ladies sleep early".
For the evening, I instructed my husband to pick up samosas and jalebis and khandvi, if available. There's a place in Barsha - they also have a branch in Oudh Metha - that makes the thinnest, crispiest jalebis, and excellent samosas. We were prepared for our guests.
By 7.33pm, they were seated, greetings out of the way. I was getting coffee ready and organising plates for the jalebis and samosas. I told them, I'll just get the tongs for the jalebis. Rafat aunty disabused me of any such notions: Ajji chhodo, hum Hindustani log hain, haath se khayenge - i.e, "Forget about this business of tongs, like good Indians, we will use our hands."
Everything she said from that point was a winner. I would have loved to have it on film. The stories, so rich. About the old days, about the times before there were taps, the nuisance of drawing water from a well. Who knew! Tales of the Indian Air Force in the 1950s. These weren't stories I get to hear often. I suggested penning memoirs and received the same gleeful self-deprecation I knew her sister to possess.
Aunty N, our neighbour, spoke of days when they could drive from Lahore to Amritsar over the weekend to eat mangoes! I suggested memoirs-penning to her too. More ha-ha-ha. Not taken seriously.
The sisters, both widows, hadn't met in four years. The last visa neighbour aunty N - who married a Pakistani - got to India was 10 years ago. They're both in their 80s, facing a probable reality that this is the last time they're meeting. And here I am, in the face of that sobering reality, grateful that they could take the elevator up and come home for tea. No tongs next time. 
- nivriti@khaleejtimes.com

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