Maasi, Bua and Bhenjji…..the politics of nomenclature in lower Bazaar of Simla in the Sixties
What a close-knit big family it was…the whole of the neighbourhood. There were a lot many Maasis…rather every elderly woman in the neighbourhood was a massi to us, the kids. The prefixes like Patiale wali Massi, Bijli wali Massi, hotel wali Massi, Kothroo wali Massi, Rooin wali Massi were added to distinguish one massi from the another. My Amma was Dak khane wali Massi to all others in the mohalla! Still more elderly women, mothers-in-law of these “Maasis” were addressed the same way as the Massis addressed them….Bijjees, Chaaies, Mata jeees etc. There were no Aunties and uncles though we, the kids, wanted so much to call “Massis” and “massads” as Aunties and uncles. We did many a times before our sophisticated school friends but would resort to the same old way very soon!!!
How endearing and living the word “Massi’ is… If we segregate the word Maasi in two parts we come across two meaningful words…Maa and Si….like a mother. And that was what all these neighbourhood Maasis were to us. We, the kids, were raised like a community raising the children, sharing responsibility, where each elder of the mohalla had a natural right on other kids. And we, the kids, on our part were morally bound to obey and respect all the elders of the mohalla. The good old days!
Bua ji was another epithet that we used for one elderly woman, most dreaded and respected at the same time. We were as afraid of this Jagat Bua, and why would we not when even our mothers were. She was such a bulky old woman….and had her permanent seat at the window of her room facing the entry point to the mohalla. Every single moment of the day dhe would be guarding her territory like the most committed sentry on duty. As these stairs connected, through other studies, to the Mall at many points, some outdiders, too, would take this shortcut but Bua kept them all at bay… If some guests would visit any house in the entire mohalla….the poor woman of the house would owe complete explanation to Bua regarding the entire antecedents of the visitors. And God forbid if a boy would follow a girl of the mohalla through these stairs, Bua would reprimand the girl in no uncertain terms to behave herself.
Those days hand knit open cardigans called “Koti” were much in vogue, to be worn over tight shirts. And one of the girls of the mohalla came out wearing a very tight shirt with ewually tight chootidar and putting on front open cardigan over it. No dupatta! And Bua was all rage personified…telling the poor girl in no uncertain terms that the purpose of cardigan was to keep her upper body covered demurely and not to expose it for all to see!!!! Bua had, thankfully, not heard of the song ” Chunri ke peechhe kya hai?” And all of us, the young girls, on the threshold of youth, becoming aware of our growing sensuality… learnt the efficacy of demarcating a very thin line between sensuality and sexuality.
Bua had no children of her own. Whole of the mohalla was a big family for her. And even though she was shrill, direct, and rough in her remarks…her intentions were always good. But after that whenever we would try some fashionable outfit….we eoukd be wary to walk at the extreme corners to avoid hawk eyes of Bua!
Bhenjji was another one in the mohalla everyone loved and was also afraid of at the same time….it was a fear grown out of respect and regard. Bhenjji was married in a home in the Middle Bazaar but decided to move to her natal home as her father died leaving behind a young widow with two very small sons. She had to be strict to manage the whole family. Bhenjji, too, got her own child very late in her life and for her all the kids of the mohalla were like her own. I loved her a lot for so many things. And would hear stories of her childhood spent on the Nathu Halwai stairs much before we got freedom from the Raj. The stories she would tell would bewitch me…. Her father was a leading advocate of those times and the family was quite rich. I asked her once, “Why didn’t you finish school despite having all the resources?” And her reply made me sad. She told me that when she got admitted for continuing her education she was already betrothed to a handsome boy living in the Middle Bazaar. The bridegroom-to-be could not finish college….and Bua, sitting on her throne, commented in a sarcastic manner, “She would become a vakeel…when her laadoo is not even graduate!” And that put a stop to the educational aspirations of a very promising girl….
I wonder why Bhenjji would have been so hurt by these remarks….why didn’t she continue her studies? Only if the Bua had not uttered those avid comments…..only if Bhenjji would have been thick skinned…..life would have been different. But that is what you got in strange mix….if you are raised in a mohalla of Lower Bazaar of Simla!!!