The last loo calls had been made according to the group protocol. Babu, our leader for the trek had handed out our sticks. Our bags had been loaded on the white van to reach our destination by road while we were all set to follow Babu on foot- trekking our way from Mcllo to Kareri Village. The trek was estimated to take five to six hours. The idea was to get our bodies ready for the more challenging trek the following day.
I felt mighty chuffed with myself at this point. In fact, I felt better than chuffed. I felt ‘cool’- being part of a girls only trek at 44 (despite the husband’s passive aggressive protest). India’s daughters were in their element.
‘There’s a man who will be joining us on the trek.’ informed the trek organiser.
The man turned out to be a 21 year old pre-medical student of Indian origin- brought up in the USA. He was a gentle soul who was volunteering in the area while waiting for the start of term in Autumn. He was also quite cognizant of Indian traditions, values and cultural nuances.
After the initial handshake and name exchange, I asked, ‘So, what were your first thoughts when you found out that you’d be joining a group of women on this trek?’
I wish I’d kept my mouth shut!
He said something which I can’t quite recall now. ALL I can remember hearing is the word he used to address us collectively.
The word raked its long, sharp talons across the chalkboard of my self-image- making me cringe with disbelief.
That one word (so abhorred by Indian women of a certain age) crashed my ‘cool’ self-image into tiny…very very tiny pieces.
None of the other ‘girls’ mentioned anything. We carried on with polite conversation like nothing had happened. I thought that the word had affected only me. I was wrong.
For those readers who are unfamiliar with this uniquely Indian obsession with the word ‘auntyji’ – let me explain:-
You see, in India, we use terms of endearment (TOE) to show passage of time.
Female life is broadly categorised into four age boxes:
1. beti (child)
2. didi (sister)
3. (a)bahenji / (b)auntyji –(a) sister by similar age group as you and (b)auntyji by anyone who thinks they are younger than you, and
4. mataji (mother) the last TOE in the list keeps you company till you meet your maker if you do live up to a nice ripe old age.
As a girl, I was called ‘beta/beti’ (child) by my parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, sometimes older cousins, shopkeepers, the milkman, the postman, bus conductors, bus drivers, chaat walla (street food vendor)…you get the idea.
The transition from ‘beta’ to ‘didi’ (sister) was hardly noticeable. I was used to being called didiby my younger cousins even as a ten year old, so when the road side ‘puchkaa walla’ (street food vendor) called me ‘didi‘ or ‘boudi‘ (sister-in-law) when I moved to Calcutta after getting married, I didn’t notice the waves of age surfing up silently towards me – dampening my self-image.
Of course, within the family, the TOEs changed as my new family grew. I became a ‘maami‘ (aunt to my sister-in-law’s baby boy), a ‘ma‘ to my two children and a ‘maasi‘ (aunt to my sister’s little girl) and Aunty Arti to my friends’ little ones.
My husband’s adult nieces and nephews loved to call me ‘chachiji’ (another Hindi relationship that simply translates to aunt in English) when I visited them as a twenty-three year old newlywed. That was okay. It didn’t hassle me.
It’s when the outside world- the world of strangers- the dhobis (washermen), the subzi wallas (vegetable vendors) or the kaam waali bayees (part-time cleaners) start using ‘bahenji’ or the dreaded ‘auntyji’ to address you that you jolt into reality.
Simply put, this one TOE – ‘auntyji’ places you on the same ladder rung as your mother-in-law in the eyes of the beholder. Go figure.
A hazy image of Jitender (a Hindi film hero from the 70s) dressed in tight white trousers and white leather shoes, dancing around trees in a T.V. advertisement promoting supplements for the ’30 PLUS’ brigade, starts to emerge among the tall pine trees of Kareri.
You have become what you never thought you’d ever be – a 40 PLUS auntyji.
Ageing, I’d thought, had stopped bothering me after my 30th birthday. Somehow, I’d become comfortable in my skin, apart from the occasional slip up of engaging my udyana bandha (core) tighter than in yoga class to suck the wobbly bits in when a good looking bloke sprung into sight.
His utterance of ‘auntiji’ made me conscious of my skin again…maybe I wasn’t all that comfortable in it after all.
Ageing, I’m beginning to notice, makes one invisible in a crowd, no matter how tightly you hold your udyana bandha.
You blend in.
Appreciative glances are for the younger lot walking next to you- your daughters, your nieces and your younger friends- not you.
Like a pair of new skinny jeans, I am trying to get comfortable with the anonymity of invisibility.
Surprisingly, this mist of invisibility that swathes me as I age, also liberates me. The more snugly I embrace it, the more free I feel. It’s as if my physical being is fading away to let my inner Arti show.
Of late, I have noticed that like the auntyjis of my childhood, I too, feel no shame in going up to people and striking up a conversation. Accepting when I’m lost and asking for directions comes easily to me now. I have started complimenting people openly (including walking up to complete strangers) when I like something about them instead of being a silent admirer. Yes, this behaviour does make my children walk ten steps behind or in front of me whenever they are with me in public. I have become immune to their rolling eyes by now.
HOWEVER, the day I tell someone to their face that they look heavier than the last time I saw them, is the day I will retire this inner auntyji of mine. Believe me, lots of auntyjis in India just LOVE to point out your added pounds- whether you know them or not. It’s a sort of social service they provide, desi style- free of cost!
Back on the trek, after the first few pangs of pain, I settled into my pace. Stepping on dried pine needles, listening to the crunch, I realised that if I make friends with my inner ‘auntyji’, if I embrace her, I could actually have a lot of fun. I no longer had to live up to the ‘self-proclaimed-coolness’. I could just surrender and let the wobbly bits hang.
And that’s exactly what I did.
I let my inner auntyji out and together we said ‘Namaste‘, ‘Namashkaar’or ‘Ram Ram’ to anyone we met on the path – without inhibition or doubt. And the RESULT?
Oh! what gorgeous results…
So many faces broke into smiles and smiles turned into conversations and conversations into stories that I shall cherish as dearly as my photographs- if not more.
Let me share some of these ‘auntyji’ moments with you…
Come with me and see this blessed land of ladybugs and spider webs of soaring birds and handsome goats of mossy greens and grey bark of wild roses and modest folk who leave their cows on the highlands to graze for months without any fear of losing them to other humans. Their fate rests in the hands of mother nature like yours and mine.
They know it.
Yes, blessed is this land where villagers look after their trees like you and I our children and cherish their mountains like you and I our bank balance.
Local ladies going to Mcllo for a day of shopping.
Meet Vikas, Sonu and their friends who’d finished their end of year exams and were waiting for the results.
‘Do you like school?’ I asked after checking if I could take a picture. They all nodded ‘yes’ in unison:)
‘Your roses are beautiful. May I click?’ ‘Come inside and have tea.’ she invited me in. ‘Maybe next time. My friends have gone ahead’. She beamed and let me take her picture on my phone.
When a leaky tap gets a sparkly scarf to hold it together- you know you are in a special place.
I am told that this is the Eurasian Griffon- feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.
‘Take her photo. Not mine’, ordered the girl who turned her face away when I asked for permission. ‘I’m not beautiful. She is.’ ‘But you are.’ I protested. She was. And she was bossy, too. Both the girls have completed their plus 2 studies.
‘What’re you doing son?’ ‘Just hangin’ mum.’
Finally, we reached our home for the day in Kareri village. This beautiful house belongs to Manko and Mansingh. If all Himachali people are like them, then this is indeed a blessed place on Earth. He helped the cook in the kitchen while she sat with us and chatted. Their family worked together- husband and wife, son and daughter – together as a unit. This was a common sight around Kareri. Men and boys were helping out their wives and mothers with threshing and winnowing, grazing and tending to the animals and even cooking. It made me happy:)
The supplies were bought in Mcllo and arrived in the van with our bags before we did so that when we dragged ourselves up to the first floor, we were served yummy rice and salad with hot ginger, lemon and honey drinks.
They didn’t use this traditional stove ‘choolha’ because of the smoke- as we were all huddled in the cool confines of the first floor space where they were cooking for us.
Chicken curry, rajma- chawal (kidney beans and rice), matar paneer (cottage cheese and peas),fluffy white rice, chapatis, crispy aaloo ke paranthe (Indian bread stuffed with spiced potatoes), hot milky tea, popcorn, mixed vegetable soup and even kheer (rice pudding with lots of raisins) would be cooked on this humble stove by this most serious looking but extremely talented cook over the next three days.
For the records, he is the only Himachali I met who didn’t smile- not once.
But his food was DELICIOUS.
A peek from the first floor…
The Loo- Indian style.
When ‘Auntyjis at Kareri, our whatsap group chat name was changed to ‘Babes at Kareri’ after a few hours,
I realized that the dreaded auntyji had raked the others too.
I would spend another sleepless night in this tent and wake up before sun rise to practise yoga in this field, fetch water from a tap near this temple to have a cold bucket bath before eating porridge for breakfast and setting out on a trek that would lead us to Kareri Lake.
Photo Credits: Arti Jain