The first sign, really, is that the clothesline has been resurrected – the clothesline you have abhorred for over two decades, which was brought down only after all the foreign-passport-bearers in the family had attested that South Asia is the only part of the world where people string underwear across terraces. There they are, several pairs of oversized underclothes, waving in the breeze like flags heralding the presence of their owners. You gaze at them in horror as you steer your car into your driveway. You know that your distant relatives from the gaon, uncles four times removed and aunts seven times removed, have decided to camp in your home for the foreseeable future.
Like most self-respecting city dwellers born after the 1950s, I have never been to that gaon. The only reminders of its existence are the relatives who totter into the city and take up residence in my home.
Every year, a group of retired people, who have tired of pastoral green lands and the bleats of goats and sheep, decides that it will impose itself on happy families. This group moves in formation, swooping into home after home at regular intervals. It leaves behind it a trail of ugly clotheslines, strange smells and bitter families whose members are lunging at each other’s throats.
Unfailingly, I am told every year that I have “grown so tall!” I haven’t grown an inch for at least the last eight years. This leads me to believe that the freeloaders’ reference point is a childhood picture of me, where I am standing on the driver’s seat of a car, stretching out so I can reach the steering wheel. I may have been somewhere between the ages of two and three in the photograph. I suppose someone in the group of distant relatives has retained it in order to be able to pretend that they remember my name and face.
Within five minutes of the euphoria over my height dying down, I am asked the inevitable: “So, when will we get to eat at your wedding?”
“Haven’t you eaten enough?” I want to scream, as I survey the large – and now empty – vessels that had housed a whole day’s worth of food, of which I am destined not to partake a single morsel.
“Don’t leave it too long,” a crone, whose uterus has produced five crotchety women and three fat men, warns me, “It can become hard to conceive later.”
I force an insipid smile and head for my room…only to find a snoring stranger sprawled on my bed. I see a stain of coconut oil seeping through my treasured pillow cover. I try not to think of the damage the effect of summer heat on a…ahem…healthy woman has wrought on my bedcovers. I notice that the woman’s experiments with switching the AC on have been unsuccessful, because it hasn’t occurred to her that some switches flick upwards. I also note that the electrician must be called, because that switch is currently on the floor, as a result of the ardent efforts of the sleeping stranger to manipulate it.
Of course, my cupboard is now a shared resource. A shelf has been cleared of my clothes, and been replaced by the contents of four suitcases, which now lie in wait for someone to trip over.
Worse, my bookshelf has been ransacked by a distant cousin who, though younger than I, has already produced two children who have been learning to read. She has decided to test their intelligence on my collection of literature. Here is a copy of Midnight’s Children I can never touch again, because it now bears the imprint of a five-year-old’s teeth. Here is a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude, being held upside down by a six-year-old genius who has finally pronounced, “Fourteen” – possibly the page number – to the delight of the freeloaders who produced it.
As I stand watching the works of my favourite authors disintegrate under the ministrations of the imbeciles, someone hobbles up to me. “Do you think you can take me to the shopping area? The autos cost so much these days.”
“You can’t get parking in the shopping area at this time,” I say, thankful for the congestion that is the blessing of all big cities for when small town relatives visit.
“I have your mobile number. I will call you when I’m done,” the hobbler says, “Just drop me and be somewhere in the area. Then, when I call you, you can pick me up.”
“S…sure…uhh, one second, I have to take this,” you say, urgently, as your phone begins to ring.
“No, no, I was giving you a missed call so that you’ll have my number,” the hobbler assures you.
On your despondent way out of the door, you notice that your four-inch heels have been appropriated by a seven-year-old. You smile for the first time that day when the heels do their job, and its wearer squeals as she hits the floor, face first.