I’ve often said that I was an uncommonly lucky child. I came from a home with undivorced parents who remained (almost disgustingly) in love with each other throughout my childhood. My father never gambled away the money he earned either on stocks or on horses and my mother as a social worker was kind and caring, and strove (with marginal success) to make me kind and caring as well. Unfortunately my mother also possessed a strong sense of familial duty. Now I say this was unfortunate because in my mother’s family ran a streak of insanity as wide and as deep as the Amazon River.
And every summer, knowing they would find a safe haven in our rambling old bungalow (that my family had received by being sympathisers to the British when they still ruled India), the crackpots flocked to us. They could stay from anywhere between two weeks and two months and often left us, as my father said, as shell-shocked as the Egyptians must’ve felt with the advent of Moses.
The first of my relatives to show up was invariably my aged great aunt, Kiran. Kiran Aunty was my grandfather’s half-sister. She was also totally paranoid and extremely forgetful, a combination that most people agree is rather a bad one. This meant that not only did she forget where she kept things; she was also convinced that her caretakers were stealing them. The line of maids and nurses that were fired from her service was endless. Her most memorable visit came when I was twelve. It started normally enough with her accusing Sita, our longsuffering maid, of stealing.
“But why would she want your dentures?” my mother asked patiently.
“Because she’s a thief, that’s why,” Kiran Aunty grumbled. “This whole house is in shambles. It wasn’t like that when I lived here. The water doesn’t work, there are cracks in my wall and the maid steals.”
Considering the fact that Kiran Aunty lived in the house in the fifties this wasn’t at all surprising, but nevertheless my mother suppressed whatever acerbic retort she undoubtedly wanted to make about her aunts age.
"I’m sure it’s just under the bed,” she said confidently, having found the dentures there twice before.
The next day, after her thorough search yielded no dividends, my mother was forced to concede defeat.
“We’ll get you fitted for a new pair tomorrow,” she sighed, as my great-aunt grinned toothlessly at her, not even bothering to conceal her glee at my mother being proved wrong.
“And the water?” my great aunt warbled. “When are you going to get that fixed?”
“The plumber’s coming in this evening,” my mother said. “He’ll see what the problem is.”
With a scoff she waddled off to her room and my mother let out a pained sigh.
“I’m going to die Jaya,” she informed me bleakly.
Her phone beeped and she looked at the screen with confusion.
“Did your father tell you anything today?” she asked.
“No, why?” I asked quizzically.
“Because he sent me a text asking me if Kiran Aunty’s at the breakfast table,” she said.
She shot back a quick reply and my father appeared, cautiously walking down the stairs.
“What happened?” my mother asked.
“We need to get locks on our door,” my father said, a little bit of hysteria entering his voice. “We need to get locks on everything.”
“Why?” my mother asked. “What did you do Arjun?”
“It’s not what I did,” he said, his expression haunted. “Were you aware that your aunt cannot take a shit while wearing clothes?”
“Okay you lost me,” my mother said blankly.
“What I am trying to tell you is that I had a conversation with a naked old person today,” he said. “It was like watching a train wreck. I just stood there frozen while she told me that she doesn’t wear clothes while pooping because, and I’m quoting here, ‘it makes her unclean.’ The only things that are unclean today are my eyeballs.”
“Will you calm down,” my mother said, trying not to laugh.
“Why wasn’t she naked shitting in her own bathroom?” my father asked indignantly. “She has one in her room. And she also called me a fat man.”
“Was this during the lecture about clean pooping?” my mother asked curiously. “Or after.”
My father just shuddered.
“The water in her bathroom isn’t working,” my mother said soothingly. “But the plumber’s coming today and he’ll fix it. Now do you want breakfast?”
My father just shook his head and stared into the distance unhappily. “Can’t eat,” he said. He then got up and wandered off, looking a little like a victim of a horrific crime.
“Drama queen,” my mother muttered.
In due course the plumber appeared. By this time Kiran Aunty had pooped naked in every bathroom in the house and mother was so relieved to see the overall wearing man I thought she might kiss him.
“Can you please fix this?” she asked, tears in her eyes.
The plumber, who had probably never gotten such an ecstatic welcome in his life, assured her with great aplomb that he would fix everything. After tinkering around in the loo for a good ten minutes he told her that there was a serious blockage and he would have to get help.
“I’ll pay anything,” my mother said. “Anything.”
Possibly slightly unsettled by her intensity the plumber recruited one of his friends and they went to work.
“Found blockage madum,” the plumber said, finally.
My mother started a victory cheer as the plumber and his friend extricated the material that was blocking our pipe.
“What was it?” she asked curiously, once they were done.
The plumber just shrugged and showed her. And there, lying in the palm of his hand, although it had been twisted and disfigured, was unmistakably my great aunt’s dentures.
Just having Kiran Aunty around was fairly traumatic but that was nothing to the chaos that ensued when Mr Gupta decided to make a visit. No one knew quite how we were related to Mr Gupta but he was a constant fixture at weddings and Diwali parties so it was assumed we shared a certain amount of DNA with him. My mother had fond memories of him playing the guitar at family gatherings so she always had a bit of a soft spot for him. Unfortunately he was now pushing ninety, and while his mind remained relatively sharp (unlike Kiran Aunty’s which seemed to have disappeared down the toilet much like her dentures) his body was degenerating at a rapid rate. The degeneration included (but was not limited to) almost total deafness, a loss of his olfactory senses and zero control over his bodily functions.
While his farts were vaguely amusing to the snotty twelve-year-old that I was, it quickly stopped being funny when he pooped all over the couches we sat on to watch TV. Of course the person who was most traumatised by this was our poor Sita who had to clean it up. It remains one of the miracles of my childhood that she stayed with us as long as she did. However she carried on gamely. She became quite a favourite with Mr Gupta, who tipped her handsomely whenever he came.
Apart from his inability to control his bowels, the fact that he had lost his sense of smell meant that he no longer felt like bathing was a necessity. He did on occasion (as a favour to all of us of course) gently wash his eyebrows with Baby Johnson’s shampoo. However living in the depths of South India, where temperatures routinely crossed forty degrees Celsius, meant that this was definitely not enough washing.
But it only got really bad a few weeks into his trip. Apparently he had asked Sita to procure some oil for him. She dutifully did so, picking up the first oil that she found in our tiny general store. Unfortunately this oil was cod liver oil. She gave it to him and he proceeded to rub it all over his body. Having no sense of smell meant that he found nothing off at all about this oil. To the rest of us though he smelled like a dead fish.
And all of this would be alright. Yes we did have horrifying oil and poo stains on our couches and yes we were finishing entire bottles of air freshener in one day and seriously thinking about investing in medical masks but at least we weren’t homeless. And that was soon about to change. It started when I woke up one day, put my feet on the ground and realised that I was shin deep in water.
“Mu-uuum,” I yelled.
My mother came sploshing in, looking very harried.
“Yes I know,” she said. “Mr Gupta’s geyser broke yesterday morning and he didn’t think it was important to tell us that his room had flooded.”
“What?” I asked, totally befuddled.
“I knew something was wrong,” she said, talking more to herself than to me. “I couldn’t understand why he didn’t get off the couch and into his bedroom last night.”
“A geyser did this?” I asked.
“Yes,” my mother said. “And then when we opened the door to his room today to see what was up the whole house flooded.”
“What are we going to do?” I asked.
“Well we have to move out,” she said, looking thoroughly upset. “Replace all the carpets for sure.”
“Told you,” my father said, splashing up to my door looking thoroughly hysterical. “It’s the ten plagues. All we need is a couple of locusts and we’re good to go.”
“Stop being so dramatic my mother said. “We’ll work this out.”
And we did. But we only moved back in three weeks later. Coincidentally just in time for the arrival of the next set of lunatics.
These ones were slightly different from Mr Gupta and Kiran Aunty. For one they weren’t ancient. The group consisted of my two uncles, two uncles, seven cousins and two dogs. My uncles were Lalit Mama and Pavan Mama who were married to Priya Masi and Jahnavi Masi respectively. The offspring of these two unions were Jai, Zoya and Sunaina (who were Lalit Mama and Priya Masi’s children) and Karan, Rhea, Krish and Vedika (who were Pavan Mama and Jahnavi Masi’s children). The dogs were called Tubby and Candy and they both belonged to Lalit Mama and Priya Masi. The entire cohort took no time in getting very comfortable in the house. We soon realised that we had just swapped one incontinent for another, because Candy and the age of seventeen had no control over her bowels. She would poop when she was excited, scared or sad. So any time she felt any sort of emotion you could be sure there would be a nice pile of faeces waiting for you in some part of the house. Tubby was her grandpuppy and only two years old.
Nevertheless I had a whole load more fun with this lot of people than I had with the ones preceding them. Vedika was ushered into the house under a cloud of disapproval. She arrived with two disposable cups attached to her ears and explained to us that this was the only way to unblock them. Her mother also told us that the reason she was in such trouble was that she had taken to threatening people she saw with cigarette packets.
“But I’m not threatening them Jaya,” she said, her tone utterly innocent. “I’m just telling them that they’ll die.”
“With no context,” her older brother Krish said.
She shot him a glare and he quietened down. But while Krish was easily subdued, it was rather harder for her to manage her other brother Karan. They spent large portions of the trip attempting to pull out each other’s hair while my aunt watched placidly.
“Should we stop them?” my mother asked worriedly.
“No they’ll get tired and let go of each other,” my aunt said continuing to play solitaire on her phone.
While I was being thoroughly amused by my cousins’ madcap antics my father was having a few more problems with the adults. Lalit Mama was a semi-alcoholic as well as being highly opinionated, a combination that worked about as well as paranoia and forgetfulness. He and a vaguely antagonistic relationship with Pavan Mama who was far less belligerent but flung back highly sarcastic and occasionally brilliant zingers. But they secretly adored each other. Their arguments were a little bit too much for my sensitive father who had already been thoroughly traumatized by the previous events of the summer. He took to retiring early so he didn’t have to drink himself insensible with his brother-in-laws.
But tragedy truly struck the day the road in front of our house was being redone. The machines that laid the tar out thoroughly excited Tubby who after hours of barking at the door was finally accidentally let out into the street by an exhausted Sita. He promptly proceeded to get stuck in the still wet tar and began howling loudly. This summoned the whole household and Zoya and Sunaina began wailing too.
“Daddy,” Zoya sobbed. “Get Tubby out.”
“Please Daddy,” Sunaina wailed. “He’s in trouble.”
Their father, a couple of beers down heroically bounded out of the door, forgetting his haste to put on any footwear.
Tubby after enduring a few minutes of his master attempting to bodily lift him off the tar, decided he had had enough of this game, unstuck himself and padded back to the house. His master was left floundering in the wet tar, while his family let out screams of joy at having their dog returned to them.
“Ay!” he shouted. “I’m stuck.”
It took the combined efforts of the workmen, my father and Pavan Mama to pull Lalit Mama out of the tar. My mother, refusing to let him into the house with his tar feet gave him two large pieces of newspaper to clean himself off with. The newspaper also got stuck to his feet and he walked around the house for the next four hours flapping like a strange, grounded bird.
The end of summer marked the end of the constant stream of visitors. Something I wasn’t quite sure I was entirely happy about. After all even crackpots are preferable to school.