says the beaded ‘toran’- a traditional banner- which hung over the doorway of Ba and Bapuji’s home. It now sits on my bedroom mantlepiece, and I glance guiltily at it when I walk past; my ‘To Do’ list is longer than any of my limbs and framing the toran has migrated to my ‘This Can Wait’ list. What is astounding is that Ba created this toran. It is astounding not only because of its intricate and accomplished beadwork but because Ba was mothering at least seven children while she made it. I admire my friends who have three children, and am in awe of those that manage four. Seven falls outside the scope of my imagination.
Usha was born a year after Ba joined Bapuji in Africa. She had little time with her first-born, however. There were no cosy coffee dates with other new mothers, no daytime naps to alleviate the exhaustion. Bapuji was, at the time, two steps up from errand boy in a local grocery shop, and busily trying to make connections. Within a few short weeks of arriving in Gilgil Ba received a message from Bapuji one morning, informing her that he would bring some customers home for lunch, urging her to provide a suitable spread. This became a regular- almost daily- occurrence, and one which was assumed would continue during pregnancy and beyond. Ba complains bitterly about this now, regretting her acquiescence. She is rightfully aggrieved, but I suspect that she also quite enjoys the reaction of the listener as she tells of her tribulations.
Very soon, Ba’s workload increased. Just 16 months after Usha came Vasant, and barely two years later Indira was born. By this time the family had moved to the city, the narrow, dusty, bustling roads making the daily trip to the market with three wayward toddlers a mission impossible. Bags full of fresh-from-field vegetables bumping against her legs, Ba herded the children back to the apartment. She sorted and washed, chopped and rolled, sautéed and simmered, filling the tiny kitchen with the aroma of cumin and coriander, fennel and cardamom. The family were seldom alone for lunch: Bapuji might bring home other traders or there may be visitors arriving from the port, staying for a few hours or a few days. One particular guest remained a little longer, Ba recalls. Babu was the eleven year old son of an old friend from Gilgil; a few days after his arrival, Ba, growing concerned that he should not miss the start of the new school term, enquired how long he was due to stay. ‘Bapuji had agreed, without my knowledge, that Babu could live with us for all of his secondary school years!’ Ba exclaims, brimming with indignation. I am incredulous. Gobsmacked. Bapuji had failed to discuss the arrangement with Ba, and his sometimes wonderful, sometimes infuriating mixture of pride, generosity and stubbornness meant that he would never renege on his promise. Babu stayed for seven years.
Nor had Ba and Bapuji completed their own family. Anil was born next, family life folding and fitting around the requirements of his disability. Asvin, Ila and Kailash followed in fairly quick succession, and two other children joined the family for a few years, meaning that Ba brought up no fewer than ten children. ‘I used to stay up late, preparing everything for the next day- I sorted through the sacks of dried lentils and rice, soaking some overnight. I made sure the clothes for school were laid out. I never sat down!’ explains Ba. ‘I wish’ she continues with a chuckle ‘that someone had explained contraception to me!’
It’s a rush, sometimes, making sure that my children are appropriately dressed, fed and vaguely awake before they are ushered out of the door by 7.30am. I feel a certain sense of achievement when I remember my daughter’s book bag (with books hastily read the previous evening), her PE bag (often with something clean inside) and a filled consent slip for the school trip, all on the same morning. ‘Ordered chaos…’ I mutter as I wipe crumbs of toast from my son’s chin at the nursery door. It is difficult to comprehend how, amidst the pandemonium of her life, Ba could possibly find the hours to create the toran that sits on my mantlepiece. I have moved ‘frame the toran’ back to my ‘To Do’ list- it will hang in my kitchen and act as inspiration, reminding me that there could be many more balls to juggle. Ba was a SuperWoman then and is a SuperGran now.