A letter to a sisterFemale friendships lost to patriarchal feuds
You must have heard by now— Aji is no more. They took her to hospital in the middle of the night after she complained of chest pain and she passed away at around 4AM. Yesterday, Aji had been calling up everyone, apparently, and seemed perfectly alright. Her passing was sudden. I hope it was peaceful for her.
It has been very hard for Maa. She is always talking about her childhood with Aji when we are together-- everything she does is punctuated by family anecdotes now. She says she feels like her childhood has been lost forever with Aji’s passing-- she was the last remaining to witness childhoods in Maa’s generation.
All the children in the family grew up together. They were in a joint family before they built the new house in the front and the two brothers decided to become separate nuclear families. Before that, everyone lived in the old house, and all the girls slept on one floor and the boys on another. Parents on different floors. Also, I have never understood how the two ajis birthed so many children and still carried on with life.
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They were very close, the two ajis. People always said they were like sisters and not sisters-in-law. They depended on one another for everything. It must have been an alliance of comfort. Two women from two completely different families, united by their marriages, united by the kitchen they shared and the clothes they washed together and the aela they brewed together, no?
When we were kids, they used to go shopping together. To New Road and Asan. I think they always started from New Road and the spree ended with a stop at Sweet Valley Indian eatery in Ratna Park. From there, they took a taxi home. As kids, we used to wait for them eagerly because the day they went shopping, we would always get a samosa each and nimkis and a barfee. Now, I think back and I imagine two excited women in their 40s, stopping with their many shopping bags at the Indian eatery to slurp down sweet milky syrups after gobbling down the mithai and digging their fingers into dosas, as they chatted about their expenses.
Also, as a child I did not realise ajis were sisters-in-law. I think I was used to thinking of them as two elderly women who always did everything together. They were always buying lots of sarees, too. I have no idea, for what joy! Chirikama Aji also had these hobbies-- she would ask the children to paint her nails or to braid her hair. She liked to nap during the day and wake up to a snack of fruits and then order other people around the house.
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They were matriarchs in their own ways, you see? They handled finances and brought up half a dozen children each, like it was a fun thing to do. But the men in that house failed them, I think.
I have never really been able to figure out all the property wars they had in that house. I lived there more than I lived with my father’s family, so some memories are so vivid to me. It all began with a wall coming up swiftly in the centre of the courtyard. When the school bus dropped us home one evening, we were told to use the back door to enter, and not the front gate.
From being one home, we went to becoming two families. Suddenly, the elders were not talking to one another, relatives had started taking sides. Nothing made sense to me as a kid. Only, that the courtyard where we played marbles and hopscotch was suddenly divided by a wall and none of our games would be the same anymore. Schools were changed. But at that time, I probably grieved the swing-- which was now on the other side of the wall-- the most.
As years passed, distances started to fade and people came back together for weddings and funerals. But the awkwardness stayed in some ways. I have often wondered how it might have affected the two ajis who went from being best friends to being confined to two different sides of a wall because their husbands decided not to speak to each other.
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As I watched others bend down turn-wise to touch late Aji’s feet, I wondered about all those fights. I wonder what her thoughts had been on those events. No one talks about these things, you know? We now go about as if nothing ever happened.
When I went forward to touch her feet, I noted her nails were painted bright red-- her fingers were so cold. Then I noticed that in the hall, on a table, bouquets had been laid out. Not fancy ones, just wild bunches. They were lying on a pale pink table cloth. I recognised it instantly.
The two ajis had made it together. I recall them looking at a catalogue and following every step carefully. They had removed the threads in rows and then sewn them back in to make patterns on the cross-stitch fabric. So delicate, it strained their eyes. I felt like their stories must have converged when doing that kind of work. And it was when I was staring at that table cloth that my eyes welled up.
When I go to funerals, I feel like I do not know how to react to the loss. I guess I was mourning the loss of a friendship the two women had shared. Such a big impact the decisions made by the patriarchs had on all our lives. I guess they were only matriarchs in the space that they had created for one another-- such a remarkable gift to give a sister.
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The two ajis died twelve years apart, but in the same week. Maybe January was their favourite month.
Just a long, rambling piece of family history for you. Speak soon.
Suburban Tales is a monthly column in Nepali Times based on real people (with some names changed) in Pratibha’s life.