My aunt's chaotic household
First Limb of Yoga
Yamas, The Restraints
When I was about twelve years old I spent some time with my Aunt Savitri and her large family. My sister and I stayed with them for about a month as my mother was ill and could not look after us children. We came from a family where everything was very well regulated. My mother and father watched over us carefully. They taught us what was right and wrong. They trained us kindly but firmly. We knew where we stood.
If we disobeyed the family rules we were expected to make amends in some suitable way. For example, if
we were unkind to each other we would have to do kind and helpful things and tell our parents exactly
what we had done, until they thought we had done enough to make up for our unkindness. If we shouted too
loudly, or too often, we had too spend a certain amount of time being quiet. If we were very greedy, we
were given what my mother called ‘second best’ food to teach us a lesson. ‘Second best’ food was not
popular in our house! It meant we would be served last of all and the food would be cold and sometimes
burnt. It was the food that ordinarily would have been scraped out of the pan and used to feed the
If we told lies we had to sit on a certain chair at mealtimes. It was very uncomfortable and we were not allowed to join the family until we had felt the shame of our dishonesty.
If we ever fought or hit each other, we had to walk to the furthest well on our grounds and carry water back to the house for the servants to use. It was thought that hitting other people showed that we were too full of ‘damaging energy' and that it needed to be used up by our doing useful things.
In general, my brother and sister and I were well behaved. My parents always explained to us why we should not do this or that and the punishments I mentioned were used very few times, but just enough to remind us what was expected of us when we disobeyed our parents. However, when we stayed at my aunt’s house, things were different. She had a large family. There were eight children and seven servants to look after them; some of the servants were children themselves. That’s how it was in those days. Aunt’s family was noisy, mischievous and used to do things that I would never have dreamed of doing.
One day, three of the boys caught a cat and tied it to a tree, and then they started to use it for target
practice. They had made themselves peashooters and they were aiming at the cat. When it yowled and leapt
in the air, they roared with laughter. I told them that I thought they were being cruel to the cat so
they fired at me instead. When their father appeared he just laughed and said that the cat would not stay
around if they treated it like that. He pointed at me and said,
“As for Ramesh, he has no choice, so unless you want him to shoot at you with peas, you had better stop!”
I put on my fiercest face to show them that I agreed, but I started to wonder what my father would have done in the circumstances. The fact is that he would have been so shocked at such cruelty that his disapproving face would have been punishment enough. I expect he would have had us carrying water for at least a week, and double the normal quantity, for cruelty to dumb animals.
My aunt and uncle’s family went in for chaotic behaviour. They would shout and scream and beat each other one day and the following day all would be peace and calm, until the next incident arose.
We were having a calm day, I remember, when one of the young girls came and screamed at Usha and started
tugging at her clothes.
“That’s mine!” she shrieked. “It’s my favourite dress and you’ve stolen it!”
This was not true at all. I recognised Usha’s dress. Mother had given it to her just before we had celebrated Divali, the Festival of Light.
Usha burst into tears and, defending her, I said, “ You are making a mistake, Gopika. This really is Usha’s dress.”
But Gopika would not agree. She stamped her feet and pummelled Usha with her hands. My sister flung herself at me, “Ramu, she’s hurting me and she’s going to tear my dress!”
I looked at the others. They were all laughing harshly.
“Come on Usha, I said, “You come with me. We’ll go and tell Aunt so that she can sort it out.”
My aunt was not very understanding. She just shouted at us, "Of course it’s not Gopika's dress,” she said. “I can’t afford material like that, I expect she’d like it though. You’d better sleep on it, Usha, in case she tries to take it in the night!”
I could not believe my ears. It was as though my aunt let her children do whatever they wanted. It
seemed like a very disorderly way to bring up a family. One day we heard that one of the servant girls
had run off with the grain merchant’s son and that she was going to have a baby. My aunt was furious.
“After all I’ve done for her, this is what she does. She’s no better than a slut.”
I was not sure what this meant, but in truth my aunt treated the servants badly and it was no surprise to me that the girl had run away. I couldn’t wait to leave, myself. It was a pity she was expecting a baby, because she told me she didn’t like the young man very much. Even at the age of twelve I could see that she was just exchanging one difficult life for another.
The final straw came when we were all gathered together for a family celebration, an unusual event in my
aunt’s family. There was much squabbling and argument over who could wear what. The menu was a source
of much anger and disagreement, and finally when the day came, the servant who was the main cook fell
ill. My aunt was furious; she would have to cook the food herself. She screeched her way through
the preparations, making everyone feel thoroughly uncomfortable. She was not a good cook and at the end
of the day most of the dishes were either burnt or underdone. She was in a thoroughly bad mood, and to
cap it all, my father turned up!
They were barely polite to him and he could sense the atmosphere, and smell the disgusting food.
“I have come to say that my wife is feeling better now and that Ramesh and Usha can return home.” he said.
I am ashamed to say that I turned three cartwheels in a row, something that I have never managed to achieve before or since that day. Father whisked us away almost immediately. My sister and I could not stop grinning and holding on to Father as we walked away from that chaotic household.
“I won’t ask you how it was,” said Father, as soon as we were out of earshot.
“I’m sorry you have had to stay so long, but it looks to me as if you have learnt a lot about how not to behave. I hope it wasn’t too horrible for you. Your Aunt Savitri seems to have changed a lot since I last spent time with her. Perhaps her husband has something to do with it.
“I think you may be right, Father”, I said, trying to be very grown up about it. “He’s very unkind to her and to the children, in fact they’re all unkind to each other most of the time.” Then I remembered a day when aunt had sat Usha on her knee and stroked her hair when she was feeling home sick. “Aunt would be kind I think, if she didn’t have so many people shouting at her.”
“Everyone needs love and peace. That’s what we try to provide for you at home,” said Father.
“There wasn’t much peace in that house,” said Usha and she went on to describe what the boys had done to the cat.
My father looked shocked and then said, “So which one of you two tied the boys to a tree and shot peas at them?” We looked at him to see if he could possibly be serious. The corner of his mouth curled up, just a little, and he tousled our hair. “Neither of you? Good, I’m very glad to hear it!”