Of Questions and Love

She looked at me with those big black eyes, accusatory in their fluidness. The question was sure to come.

It was supposed to be a family dinner. The four of us were seated around a table, tucking into fish curry and rice. The conversation had been desultory till now. The usual topics were dominating conversation – school, work, family- what you got when 4 women of wildly disparate ages were around the table.
Till, she turned her gaze on me and asked in that piping high voice (embarrassingly loud that she reserved for public humiliation, usually when a hush had descended on the gathering), “Komma*, why do you sleep so late and wake up at 12 PM?”

I was in the middle of putting a tender morsel of fish into my mouth when I was taken unawares by the out-of-the-blue question. I put my fork down.
Chechi burst out laughing and announced gleefully, “You must remember someone is watching you all the time.”
My seven year old niece continued to look at me calmly.

Now she thinks I am her age, which is funny because I can remember the day she was born. I was a proud 16 year old aunt (Oh, how I hated that moniker of Aunty or Kochamma) and she was a tiny little pink faced bundle wrapped up in white sheets, barely able to open her eyes. She’d fluttered her little eyelashes in the harsh fluoroscent light, struggled a bit against the covering by flailing her arms around (she still does it!) and smiled that smile for the first time. The smile that was crafted by the angels, but had more than a spark of mischief in it. My heart had gone out to her and she had grasped it firmly in her pudgy little hands. My lovely little baby niece.

“Well, I guess I sleep late because I am used to doing that. It’s been two years since I have always slept at around 1 AM every night at college.” Sometimes, I get this unnecessary urge to compete with her… a seven year old!
I wanted to tell her about my exams in eleventh standard, when she was my failsafe alarm. After 2 hours of mugging Organic Chemistry at midnight, I’d tuck myself into bed for a half an hour’s rest knowing that she’d wake up and scream bloody murder till she got what she wanted in about… oh… 32 minutes. And she did, and of course, it was time to get back to learning what acetylsalicylic acid did.

She shook her head because she didn’t get it. And for her, understanding is everything. “Why can’t you be like me? I sleep at 8:30 and wake up at…”
I said, “6:30. You tried to wake me up in the morning.”
She still completed her sentence doggedly, “Seven. Why can’t you be like my Mamma? She always sleeps and wakes up with me.”
“Your mamma stays up late till 2 AM sometimes!”
My sister shot me a nasty glance (gulp!) and soothed her, “Baby, sometimes mamma stays up late when she doesn’t feel like sleeping.”
I continued, “When I was your age I used to wake up at 6 AM. And your mamma used to sleep late when I used to wake up and raise hell at home for breakfast.”
And that was true too. I remember pattering to the TV in my aunt’s house and putting on Cartoon Network when my 6 cousins and one sister were sleeping happily in their rooms. It was the only time I got to decide what I wanted to watch. I even remembered trying to pull chechi off the bed at 8 AM because the school bus would come in 30 minutes, and she refused to wake up. This would go on till I gleefully did what my mom ordered- pour water on her face. She’d wake up with a start and glare at me. I’d yell happily from a distance, “Mamma told me to wake you up!”

My niece doesn’t want to believe that her mother is less than perfect, she is at that age. She’s also the kind that will pursue any subject to the very end. “Koooommmmmaaa.” She’s elongating the syllable now, she must be getting irritated. “I come back from school, sit and finish all my school work and home work. If you don’t finish all that, how will you study well?”
This was getting ridiculous. Chechi was enjoying the spectacle and nodding sagely to everything her little scamp said.

Of course, the brat doesn’t remember those old days when could do nothing but lie on her back feeling amazed by the wonderful world around. I used to go to her and read her all sorts of stories. At a crunch, she deven listened to me reading out Electromagnetic Theory in a loud monotone to her. I still remember that look of fascination on her face and those chubby fingers trying to grab my notes. It always used to earn her a surreptitious pinch of her cheek.

I stuck out my tongue childishly at her and said, “I finished studying. This is my vacation. Even you stay up late during your vacation.” I calculated quickly, “I have had 21 years of studying”
My mother snorted, “You weren’t studying since you were 2 years old.”
I should REALLY do my sums better, “Okay, 2 years of KG, 12 years of school, 4 years of B.Tech and 2 years of MBA makes 20 years. TWENTY!”
My niece still had to have the last word, “But you told me you never went to school and went to college directly.”

Shoot. I should remember that she really remembers every word I say. Next time I’ll keep the tall stories straight.

This morning, I dragged myself awake at 8 AM, just to prove a point to her. And I felt those beautiful little arms hug me around my neck and that sweet cheek rub against mine. “I love you, komma.”

I love you too, baby.

* What a 18 month old baby made of kochamma

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