The Chenthitta House, November 1945

November, 1945

I was a five year old girl at the time.

I was startled awake from a deep sleep by the hustle and bustle of unusual activity, doors opening and closing, and many footsteps back and forth outside my Ammoomma’s, grandmother’s room, where I slept alongside my three year old sister, Shanthi. Footsteps hurried across the floor. Listening closely I heard more footsteps that paced back and forth outside my bedroom.

The clock said 2, O’clock. I was glad that somebody remembered to leave the blue night light ‘on.’

Suddenly a new sound pierced the night. A wailing sound of a baby crying. I got up and walked out of the bedroom and straight into the arms of my maternal aunt, Ammachi.  She explained what I heard was a baby’s first announcement of its arrival, a demanding cry which was a craving for attention.  The craving was quite evident-(a craving I have come to believe ends only with our last breaths) – and I knew we had a baby in the house. I ran towards the room where the sound came from. I could not wait any longer to be called. (An obedient child never interrupted adults unless expressly summoned!) Thank God everyone was too busy;  too happy to be strict at that point. I barely heard my Ammachi’s voice, something about a new sister. And then I saw her- a squiggly baby, shining wet after her first bath, still screaming, and oh so small.

So, this was my new baby sister. I pushed forward to see her face. I was sure she looked straight at me. My five year old heart swelled with love for her instantly.

The adults were still bustling around preparing an official welcome for the new addition to the family. As was our custom in South India, the oldest member of the family present, my Ammoomma, was going to feed the little one three sips of honey and gold. I saw Ammachi rub a piece of gold, my mother’s wedding ring, into a few drops of honey placed in a little white marble boat. I recognized it as the  marble mortar in which our medicine pills were ground up to feed us medicines. The sweetest food of all, honey, and the most precious metal of all, gold; a mixture that is a symbolic offering of the best in life to new and smallest member of our family, by the senior-most family member, Ammoomma.

But- not this time. I was vehement; she was “my” sister. I wanted to officially welcome her, and boy I wasn’t going to settle for a nay answer, and, I must have won my point. Because this time they waived tradition. Soon I had the squirming little sister in my lap. My small hands needed help to keep her there. I held the bundle of joy while grandma had to lean down to feed her the gold and honey. Everybody smiled. Dad shook his head in disbelief.  My Ammoomma was not one to give in to anyone. But she did for me, her special kochu-mol, grand-daughter.

The sweet stuff must have made an impression on the little one- for she soon settled quietly in her big sister’s arms as I sighed in relief and sat back basking in the sunshine of all the attention I was sharing with my own baby sister.

That was the very special place, where my two sisters and I grew up with my parents, and my Ammachi, my maternal aunt, when I was five years old.

Seventy one years later, I really believe that the sense of belonging, the sense of unconditional love and the sense of ultimate trust in placing a live human being in my hands—-all these add up to what I became when I grew up from my five year old self.

 Shakuntala
Shaku and her siblings
Shaku, Jayee and Shanthi

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