My Aunt, The Matunga Maami

My Aunt, The Matunga Maami

by Ramesh Mahadevan

"Mr. Mahadevan Ramesh, I have been a lawyer for twenty five years. Of all the clients I have had, you are the strangest and your case is the weirdest. Sure, that twelve year old boy in Florida sued his biological parents and 'divorced' them, but I don't think you have a strong case when you say you want a total 'divorce' from twenty of your uncles and aunts."

My lawyer told me with finalty. But I am not the type that gave up easily. I tried to beg with him and even told him that maybe we can use the 'Cruel and unusual torture' clause. I was even willing to shell out all my hard earned few hundred dollars of money saved off my stipend. I even appealed to his professional ego and told him my case could be a benchmark. He was unmoved. Well actually he moved, pushed me out of his office and slammed the door shut. Now I can never be free.

Readers, you may have read many of my rambling bboard posts about my uncles on Soc.Culture.Indian. Don't you think I have been tormented enough by uncles ? I have documented every uncle of mine and their dysfunctional behavior. In fact, the Bronx zoo has a separate enclosure where they house some of my relatives. If uncles are so stressful, how come I am trying to break from my aunts as well ? Aren't Indian aunts charming beasts ? And how come I never wrote about them, aunts ?

Maybe I should write about my aunt in Bombay. You see, wave upon wave of South Indians migrated from the South of India, in what historians now refer to as 'Reverse Aryan migration'. Some of them settled down in Bombay and carved a niche for themselves. Some of them are well known, like the Palvayanteeswarans, Varadaraja Mudaliar, Haji Mastan - and my aunt, who is popularly known throughout Bombay as the 'Matunga Mami'. Yes, sir. She is in the same league as the others. Right from the stinking slums to the peripheral suburbs, the mention of the name 'Matunga Mami' would quieten wailing kids when Gabbar Singh no longer did the trick. Screaming mother in laws would pipe down and hug their daughter in laws at the threat of being fed to 'Matunga Mami'. Oh, yes, she is the shrewdest woman that ever lived in Bombay. And equal to two shrewd women, if I can exaggerate a little for emphasis. Yes, my country folks, she is so shrewd she could easily smuggle the shirt off Haji Mastan if he blinked.

She is some kind of a 'South meets West' type , enjoying the best of both worlds. She is a quintessential Southy who is perfectly at ease with the Bombay culture. She lived in the Tamil area of Bombay in a handkerchief sized flat in which she had packed every known junk. Her knowledge of tamil is so great she is an instant hit with the senior citizens that often come from the South to visit their folks. But she is equally well versed in Marathi and her Gujarati was reasonably good to glue herself to the grapevine for any gossip in the Gujarati circles. She knew so much english she even read the Reader's Digest. Of course, all this was even before she was known as 'Matunga Mami'.

The other day, when Ajay Palvayanteeswaran's aged grandmother came from deep South, my aunt immediately conned her into making a zillion pappads on the terrace. My aunt dried the pappads in the summer sun for several days, shooing off menacing crows, while maintaining a 'small talk' with the old woman. The next week, my aunt had started a tamil bhajan class with the grandmother and extracted all the bhajan verses from the older woman. The third week, Ajay's grandmother called my aunt a 'Capitalist pig' and quickly retreated to Madras in disgust.

My aunt is a born shopper. Whenever she landed up at the Dadar market, the merchants would go into the 'Red Alert' mode. 'That Madrasi memsahib is coming, quick.' They would close down their shops rather than risk her walk into their stores and steal the whole store, thanks to her oily tongue and power of bargaining. Oh, yes, I had been with her once or twice. She would always stop by for a sugarcane juice afterward. She would give hell to the juice guy and force him to extract the purest juice without any water diluting the taste. But none of these equalled the episode for which she was known to be the 'Matunga Mami' throughout Bombay, even in Ghatgopar and Chembur.

About once a year she would visit us in Madras. It was like a civilized person walking into a primitive culture. Her suitcases would be loaded with the latest in handbags, wire baskets, sarees, plastic nothings. My mom would be in total ecstacy at the state of the art in plastics and especially after realizing that my aunt had paid next to nothing for them, given my aunt's superior haggling power. In return, she would pack one year's worth of pickles, masalas, coffee seeds. She is an avid coffee drinker - she would do the standard South Indian coffee trick of pouring it from tumbler to the bowl to tumbler. She would know exactly when to stop and how many meters to stretch the coffee. With every sip of coffee, she would acquire an immense dose of energy and after drinking the entire cupful, she would transform into a bionic woman.

She is also a very 'modern' woman. We as kids would watch her apply make up, when my mother would consider it a sin to use even lipsticks. She would knot her hair into a knot that no boy scout could make. Her high heels slippers were so tall she looked like some kind of a ballerina, albeit a fat one. She once admitted that she would go 'ballroom dancing' with her loving husband on occassions and even sip wine and alcohol. It was almost unreal for kids like me. 'Mom, if this is the case, do you then think she also smokes cigarettes ?' I would ask my mother. At which point, my mother would give me a tight slap. My mom was in awe with my aunt. In fact, my mother would even acquire a minor 'Bombay accent' for a few days after my aunt left. Why my mother, all the South Indian women in Bombay, young and old, identified my aunt as the perfect role model. After all, she is the 'Matunga Mami'.

One summer my mother sought relief from me by sending me away to Bombay to stay with my aunt. Bombay dazzled me. The tall buildings, fast lifestyle, alien culture - it was antithetical to the sleepy life in Madras. I even commandeered an elevator for the first time in my life, although I was in high school. My aunt and cousins showed me a good time. However, my aunt 'managed' me with relentless enthusiasm. "Take your 'banian' off this instant and give it to the servant maid 'Tai'. Otherwise she will go away and you will have to wash it yourself. Bombay is not like Madras where you can get servant maids at will" She would tell me. "Later we can go to the market. Your mother wanted some wire bags. And you don't even know what colors she likes. Don't you ever pay attention ?"

I also noticed that she never rested even for a moment. And she was always buying and redistributing things to her friends. "If you bought 'banians' wholesale in Parel it costs less than half. You should be prudent with money" She would tell me, despite my nagging lack of interest. "And for heaven's sake, don't lean on the balcony bannister. I had a 'paying guest' last year - he is also an Iyer boy. In fact, you should tell your mother about him so that we can try to match him with someone in our own family. He is an engineer and earns big bucks. Anyway, he was leaning on the paraphet like you. It collapsed and he fell down one floor"

"My god, he must have been hurt."

"Yeah, he broke a bone. But I collected money from him to rebuild the bannister. These are ornamental things and not meant to take on your weight" I realized my aunt was ruthless.

And then it happened one day, the incident for which she is famous as the 'Matunga Mami'. One afternoon I was dozing off in front of her fish tank, when the doorbell rang. I rushed and opened the door. "We are from the Income Tax office" announced one of them. "We have a search warrant to search your apartment". I was stunned and looked at my aunt, who by now had rushed down to the door. I was hoping her usual shrewdness would dispense them off and cool my nerves. She took charge - protested mildly and told them perhaps they got the wrong person. Could she see their identification ? Then she told me in tamil to show them uncle's desk, while she had to take care of some kitchen stuff.

They ransacked her living room. Then went inside and inspected everything. They even opened her huge almirah and safe. After half an hour, it was obvious they were not getting any incriminating evidence. They asked her to sign something, made notes about her bank passbook and left. My aunt regained composure in almost no time.

My aunt made herself a coffee and inspired by it, pounced on me. "You should not open the front door and let people in just because they pressed the calling bell" she admonished me.

"How do I know who they were ? They looked like authorities."

"Why, even thieves can walk in like that. It is easy to get phony IDs. It is not enough to get good grades in chemistry and physics. You should be street smart. I don't think you have that yet. You don't have an ounce of your mother's smartness. These darned income tax people. They don't go after the Tatas and Birlas and instead chase neo-rich people like us. Just because they uncovered a fraud in your uncle's company, they are targetting everyone who has been working there. Your uncle had already warned me about it last week."

By now, the entire building had heard the news and slowly one by one, the neighboring women walked in. There was Chandra Auntie and her great grandmother and Rukmini Auntie who lived downstairs from my aunt. And yes, the sexy Auntie from the next building. All of them were sympathetic to my aunt. They all cursed the Income Tax raiders in chorus. Then another auntie, who also lived downstairs walked in, handed a small package to my aunt. "Here, take your jewels back" the woman told my aunt."I have seen so many people, Mami, but nobody has your cool and smartness. How did you even think of stuffing your jewels in a pouch and tossing it down to our apartment ? That too under the very nose of those tough income tax thugs."

My aunt smiled modestly. "Well, that's another story. I am not going to tell you the details. Who knows, some of you may be working for the income tax department. I am only kidding. Thanks for helping me out and being a good neighbor. I guess my nephew Ramesh will remember this summer holidays in Bombay. I only wish he learns a trick or two from his aunt. He is actually smart, but he needs to prepare for the cruel real world ....."

From that day forth, my aunt came to be known as the 'Matunga Mami' and me, a very small, negative footnote in the whole episode. I still don't know how my aunt managed to pull the trick. But the rest of the world just doesn't care as the story spread from Matunga to Sion to Borivili to even Poona and now to the USA.

Copyright(R) Mahadevan Ramesh