They say it takes a village to bring up a child-Stella Aunty was my village.
I have prevented myself from writing anything about her. Because all I have to offer about her are these stupid, selfish and ultimately useless sentences. Some cliched bullshit about how no words will be able to encompass what she is. I just…really miss Stella Aunty.
All my love and affection rests in my cell phone. In the notes, there are lines from a Javed Akhtar poems, in the text messages there are testaments of love exchanged with my boyfriend and in my contacts, Stella Aunty is still stored as “Ma” even a year after she is gone. I sometimes panic when I realise that I don’t think of her as much as I used to but then in my cell phone and its various backups she is still a button press away.
When my masi, a single woman, decided to take responsibility of my brother (a 8 year old) and I (a 3 year old) when her sister (my mother) died she apparently asked Stella Aunty, “Will you help me take care of them?.” Because mom worked in television production, her working hours and schedules were best described as lunatic- she would not be able to bring up 2 children by herself. They say it takes a village to bring up a child-Stella Aunty was my village.
She was from a village near Karnataka. Her parents died when she was 11, all their property was seized by relatives and she was mistreated enough to warrant running away. Three train rides she landed up on the step of a Parsi couple in the building next to where my family lived. She often chuckled at the fact that she had run away from being a servant in her own house so she could be a servant in someone else’s house. I always felt goosebumps at the thought of her alone and when she recounted this part of the story of her life, I often reached out to hold her hand which she always shook off, it didn’t affect her anymore or she just wouldn’t let me see it. After that 3 generations of my family (my grandmother, my mother and masi, and I) have been left altered by Stella Aunty.
It was that Parsi couple that took her in, and gave her the name Stella. Her real name was Asha.
“How hard is it to pronounce Asha that they had to change your name to Stella?” I asked her more than once.
“Shut up, they were the ones who taught me how to cook.”
For the lack of a better word, she was my nanny. It’s the only word that comes to mind, because I realised there is no word for the relationship she and I had. At age 10 when I was particularly sick with a fever- I asked her if she would lie next to me on the bed. I just wanted to hold someone and sleep I guess. She smiled, and took my head on her lap to explain to me the truths of the world we live in. “Nahi Adu, main aapke ghar main kaam karti hoon, reheti nahi hoon, main pagaar dene waali ke bed pe nahi layte sakti. ” It always made me slightly ill when she referred to her self as “working for” my mother. I HATE myself for not protesting it every time she said she was “worker” in the house. I felt at a loss of words, unable to understand why my love will not override all these socially constructed limbos.
Stella Aunty was my food. I was spoiled rotten by her fantastic cooking- Sindhi kadi, to thai curry, potato chops to alu puri. Every time I mentioned to her something new I tasted she would hunt for recipes of it in her magazines to make it at home and always surpassed the original. If you think I exaggerate, ask anyone who lived in my building. The macchiwaali complains that ever since Stella is gone people buy lesser fish in our building, because no one can cook it the way she did. In college and school, I had a constant parade of friends who would invade our one-room home for lunch made by Stella Aunty. I am suspicious that even my best friends were bigger fans of Stella Aunty’s Tandoori chicken than my company and this is a suspicion I never want to lay to rest.
Stella Aunty was my air. I knew the fortune of waking up to the gentle scent of agarbatti wafting in my house because she convinced my mother that praying in the morning before she left for work and lighting an agarbatti would be nice. Even now sometimes when mom does not have the time to spend in prayer before work, she makes sure to at least light an agarbatti, it is Stella’s wish, and that’s how it will be done.
She was my shield. When I lost my school blazer, 1 day before the new term started, I cried in fear at the thrashing I was going to get from my mother. Stella Aunty took my sobbing face to the tailor, and we returned with a replacement to the lost blazer which she paid for with her own money. My mother still does not know.
When a guy I had been chatting with online showed up outside my house (I have NO excuse how he knew where my house was. It was stupid, plain and simple stupid on my part). While I cowered behind the door, Stella Aunty went outside to talk to him and when raised his voice, one effective “hatt, phrrrr, bhaag yahan se” from her sent him jetting down the street.
Stella Aunty was my penance. She loved me unreasonably. While my mother’s parenting style was “figure it out yourself first you idiot”, Stella aunty was the hand that patted my head while I figured it out and the several mistakes in between. If she forgave me it meant that God forgave me. My heart and conscience rested in her. Everything from my first heartbreak to my latest failed audition for some T.V show happened under her watch. The fact that she stood next to me, laughing at me, cajoling me and comforting me while I failed miserably made failure less frightening. When I returned home with the news of some personal victory- she would let tears roll down her eyes out of pride while she giggled with glee and listened to me recount whatever it was that was making me so happy.
She was my storybook- a seemingly endless well of stories that my mother was too busy to tell us, about my grandmother, about my mother’s childhood and her version of the countless ones that she read from her Kannada Chandamama Magazine.
When she died suddenly- it was not real. It was my birthday the previous day, she had handed my 3 hundred rupee notes, saved out of her own salary and we were supposed to go to Konkan Kinara for dinner that coming Saturday. We had just finished renewing her subscription to Crime and Punishment magazine, because she had been interested in reading thriller stories of late.
At her funeral- 200 people showed up the moment they heard of her passing. The small hut that she had built behind our building that could accommodate 2 people normally was bursting at its seams. I spent the day keeping her grandchildren entertained, while the rest of her family met the people who had come to pay their last respects. I focused VERY hard on that game of saakli with them so that I didn’t have to hear people recall stories of how Stella cooked them amazing dhoklas, when she bathed the dead body of their father before the funeral because no one in the family knew what to do, when she held off the Landlord from the family on the 3rd floor while they went through a financial slump and couldn’t afford rent for a few months, when she arranged a LPG gas for the couple on the 4th floor in the middle of the night, when she was a listening ear to the old lady who lived alone on the 1st floor.
When you lose a parent- you realise that you are not a child anymore, that’s what that entire day felt like- an odd feeling of being deflated and puffed up with a new and uncomfortable kind of air at the same time. Today, I smile at her smile whenever I play with her grandson, I hear the same gleeful giggle spree that she was so well known for when I tickle her grand daughter.
I dreamed about her a couple of nights ago, she rescued me out of a situation that I can’t remember anymore, but even in my dream I felt instantly calmed when she appeared. In the same dream, I asked her, “So does this mean you’re back?” and she looked at me with that same smile she did before when she had placed my head on her lap to explain to me the truths of the world we live in.“Nahi Adu, main jaa rahi hoon.”
As suspected, I wind into a series of platitudes when I’m talking about her. The vocabulary to honour her life still evades me. I just….really miss Stella Aunty.