WonderBa: the Cinderella years

Aged 16, newly married, Ba travelled with Bapuji to the village of Gunda, a small farming community nestling among bajra fields. Orphaned at an early age, he had grown up here, under the care of his older brother and his wife, MotaBa- literally, older mother; Bapuji’s brother had died a few years previously and now only MotaBa was left. The month that Bapuji spent in his childhood home, stealing looks and quiet words with his new bride under the watchful eye of his guardian, flew all too quickly, and too soon he was once again Africa-bound. Ba, reluctantly, was left alone with MotaBa, who in turn had no choice but to accept this naive young thing at the very beginning of her new adventure. She resides in Ba’s memory as an equal to Cinderella’s wicked stepmother, hungry for recognition and control, a sari-clad dictator.

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The woman and the girl lived uneasily together in a small bungalow, one of many clustered around a large, dusty yard. The run-down building had a tiny kitchen adjoining two rooms. They slept in the larger of the two rooms, on simple mattresses on the floor, which were piled against the wall in the daytime. A ‘hitchko’ – the wooden swing popular in Indian homes- was the only seat, situated in an alcove next to the utility room. ¬†Every day the two would venture to the hand-dug well in the middle of the yard, to fill multiple containers with groundwater.

In the mornings, Ba waited for MotaBa to choose her clothes for the day, and for MotaBa to dress herself first, before she could get dressed. On her sister-in-law’s instructions Ba made hot, sweet chai on the wood-fired cooker in the kitchen, and fresh ‘rotla’ – a thick flatbread made of the plentiful bajra that was farmed nearby- for lunch. It was not her place to speak without being asked to, to make decisions, to have a choice. Ba cites several examples of the oppression that she suffered during the eighteen months that she remained in Gunda: she was not allowed to speak with or visit the neighbours, she was prevented from learning English and each of the infrequent, much anticipated letters from Bapuji were first opened and read by MotaBa. ¬†MotaBa was often unwell, although Ba suspects that on many occasions the illness was feigned, or at the very least, exaggerated. She describes one such occasion, when, while visiting her mother in Bhanvad, she was summoned back to Gunda to care for her stricken sister-in-law, whose recovery was surprisingly swift once Ba had returned. Lady Tremaine would have been proud.

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It is difficult to gauge whether the memories reflect truth or opinion, and how much the passage of time has affected the recollection of events. In any case, Ba must have found it intensely frustrating to have escaped the limitations of her early life (here) only to have new shackles thrust upon her. For a girl at age sixteen, freedom and choice are as food and water, and it is hard to imagine any teenager I know to act with such complete deference as was expected of Ba. Eventually, Bapuji had gathered enough money to enable him to make arrangements for Ba to join him in Africa, and finally begin their life together. For Ba, the adventure had finally begun, and she did not leave the country of her birth with many regrets.

Jail house tales

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Shortly after Vasant married Bharti he took up a position as the chief medical officer of a maximum security prison in a small town. The market town nestles on the shores of a large lake, overlooked by a dormant volcano; nearby are the crags and gorges of Hell’s Gate, the setting for Mufasa and Simba’s story. They were given lodging near the prison: a spacious single-storey house by the jail, approximately two miles out of town and surrounded by the blue-grey hills typical of the region. The bungalow was one of four or five, the others occupied by prison officers. Bharti kept house, practising her cookery skills and tending the small garden where the couple grew their favourite roses; the tiny town school had no vacancies for teachers at the time. Alternate weekends involved coffee at the members club at the lake, badminton and a visit to the Sunday farmers’ market, returning home laden with locally grown produce. Idyllic, it certainly was, but not uneventful.

During lunch one day, a shot was heard, followed by an enormous thud. On the ground, a short distance away from their back door, Vasant and Bharti saw a chimpanzee, lying prone. The monkeys and chimpanzees came from the trees at the base of the hills behind the bungalows, their feet making merry music on the roofs of the houses. The percussion orchestra was not popular, and very occasionally, occupants took it into their own hands to stop the noise.

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The tranquil surroundings belied the potential threat from the prison: Bharti remembers hanging out the washing in clear view of prisoners tending the land- part of their rehabilitation- twenty strong and flanked only by a couple of guards. One day that sense of safety vanished. Vasant was called to attend a prisoner, and when close enough, he was swiftly taken hostage. Held at gunpoint by a man found guilty of major crime (how did a weapon get past checks at a maximum security prison?), he waited for the helpless officers to act. It was, thankfully, a diversion whilst elsewhere in the prison an escape bid had begun. One man escaped before the sirens rang out across the prison grounds-heard by Bharti in the bungalow- and guards overpowered the other criminals before they, too, could abscond. After Vasant arrived home, shaken but safe, he told of the morning’s events and begged Bharti not to leave the safety of the house without him, even to hang out the washing.

It was several months later that, at the end of Vasant’s term of residency, the couple moved onto new adventures- leaving in a coach, together with their suitcases and the ten rose bushes that they had planted at the beginning of their married life.