I used to love going to visit my Dad’s eldest sister. It was rare that I wasn’t the first out of the car, running to the door to ring the bell. To this day, I cannot tell you what the gate looked like or if there was room for a car, what colour the brick was or what the windows looked like. Actually, I can’t even remember what the door itself looked like! But there was a pair of ceramic dogs in the windowsill. Two black and white cocker spaniels.
My granddad gave me a pair of old English sheepdogs before he died. I can’t remember the sound of his voice, but I remember him whispering something to my dad’s brother, who reached up to the top of the display cabinet and brought them down. I remember my granddad handing them to me, his smile hidden behind a neat white beard. I can’t have been more than three years old. He died when I was four, but that memory is firm in my mind.
Memory’s a funny thing. I find myself questioning it a lot. Did that really happen? Is that smell right? Was it sunny or raining that day? Have I merged my memory with other people’s stories, or changed it to fit a narrative that better fills a particular space in my heart? With my Dad’s sisters, memories are so imbued with love that I remember them clear as day. There’s never any doubt.
The world’s greatest kachoria were made by my Dad’s eldest sister. We’re a big family, with a minimum of six people on each branch. It’s safe to say that even when only two branches of the family got together, there was never enough seating. The adults would push the table up close to the cabinet, and while three of us perched on it, everyone else would squish around the dining table on whatever they could find. Bhuaji would bring out two plates, each piled high with kachoria. One, she would tell us, was spicy. The other bland. Every ten minutes after we started eating the jugs of water needed replenishing. Those bland kachoria? Not so bland after all. It’s from those meals that I learned to love spice. My mouth still waters at the memory, and no kachori is ever good enough anymore.
I remember sitting in the garden, a factory line of two generations of sisters, my legs swinging off white plastic chairs, popping peas out of their pods. We made samosas in the same way, listening to the gossip and giggles, and not understand a single word. The men used to hang out in the garage. It used to smell of cars, and I recall a mess of tools, hanging on the walls and covering tables. I would be sent in to ask if they wanted tea. I used to think they must be having better conversations than the women if they were shut away on the side. When I was older, I hung out in the garage for a while. It’s safe to say the conversation was rather boring in comparison.
All three of Dad’s sisters used to go on trips to India together. I remember them coming home laden with gifts. For Dad, vests (I don’t know what it was about those vests, but it was always the one thing he asked for). For Mum, material to make gorgeous suits. For me, churiyan and jhanjhars. You know those women who collect shoes? I’m like that with churiyan. I have them in every colour, made in every material, from all over the world. I’m pretty sure I’ve more than I can wear in a lifetime, but they all have a special memory attached and wearing them, even for a moment, reminds me just how loved I am. One year, I was surprised with a gorgeous handmade wooden camel, engraved in extravagant designs. It sits by my bedroom door, watching over everything like a protector.
There have been so many moments in my life, where I’ve doubted my worth. Where I’ve felt that all I am is a burden on the people I love the most in the world, that they’re all better off without me. I lucked out with my parents and my sisters – they’ve been there every step of the way. But I lucked out with my Dad’s sisters too. They never treated us as anything less than their own children, our cousins were our siblings.
For every memory I have of being laughed at and ridiculed, I have a memory of kind, loving words and a heap of praise. For every memory of being hit, I have a memory of my hair being stroked as I sat at my aunt’s feet. For every shout, there’s laughter. For every voice that called me a waste of space, there’s a voice that tells me I’m invaluable. For every locked room, there’s a garden filled with sunshine. For every moment I was forgotten, I was remembered and loved. For all the abusive relationships I had in other parts of my life, three houses other than my own showed me twice the amount of love, with plenty to spare.
And now, in my windowsill, are two black and white cocker spaniels, basking in sunshine.