I lived with my two Avvas and Thatha till I turned four. Veni Avva is my Amma’s Amma and Ammi Avva is her younger sister. When I had to join school, I moved in with Amma and Appa. Every weekend, I would come to Avva and Thatha’s house for extra pampering. What I remember about the weekends is the trip on Thatha’s dark blue scooter to the chicken shop. The sound of hens fighting for life in a drum full of warm water haunts me till now. But then Chicken Uncle would bring a skinned full chicken and place it on the butcher block. I have always loved watching the knife smoothly run through the chicken’s body and make perfect dice. When Veni Avva washes the chicken pieces, I would put my hand in, take one small fleshy piece and squish it for fun.
The kitchen door, on Sundays, remained closed so that the grinding sound of the mixer did not disturb Thatha when he watched movies – usually of Jackie Chan, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jim Carrey, either dubbed in Tamil or in English itself. Once the movie was over, I would sit on the bay window in the bedroom just to watch Thatha fill bank challans and sign cheques. Then, I would waste papers signing my imaginary cheque leaves and throw them all around the house. Thatha let me do it without a frown. He was a man who didn’t like mess, but he was really patient with me.
The one thing that I was not allowed to play with or scribble on, were the most revered decks of playing cards. Thatha had a collection of them. One deck had intricate designs in black and red on the back. Another one had sceneries – lakes, meadows and flowerbeds — and yet another one was a deck of plastic cards. Thatha always took the game of cards seriously, so that now it is easily one of the biggest legacies he has passed on. Anyone born into the family is bound to learn to play the card games in their teens. All one needs is hustle. You have to manoeuvre your way up to the position of a player. When you are a tiny baby, you can play by yourself with the old, folded deck of cards. When you are capable of doing simple maths, you become the points keeper. Then, when you learn to turn on the stove, you must serve black coffee to the players. And finally, when the right time comes and the family approves, you can start playing with the pro players. But no one knows when exactly the ‘right time’ is.
Whenever the family got together, we would play cards. All Thathas, Avvas, Uncles and Aunties. After weddings, birthdays and funerals. Thatha was an expert in shuffling cards. From the easiest overhand shuffle, to the riffle — where the deck of cards is divided into two, facing each other and flipped using the thumbs rapidly — he did multiple tricks that fascinated me. The sound of the overhand shuffle smelt like a puff of talcum powder and the sound of the riffle shuffle smelt like old books. At other times, the cards would not smell like anything.
Thirteen cards arranged like a fan in everyone’s hands; the rest of the deck spread in the middle on a neatly folded bed sheet — like fallen dominos — is a scene that has not changed till now, even after Thatha has left. Arranging the cards otherwise would infuriate the old man. Thatha used to be very particular about the handling of the cards. Flicking and folding the corners of the card, scratching the cards and carelessly throwing cards were strictly not allowed. And I have heard, if a player took long to pick, drop or arrange their cards, Thatha would throw his cards in impatience and would walk away.
Back then, when Rummy was confined to night clubs and only sleeveless-wearing, whiskey-drinking female homewreckers in Tamil movies, a bunch of women in my house sat down almost every evening with tumblers of Vara Kaapi and mastered the game. In these games, there is always money involved. Thatha opened the first bank account for both my Avvas with the money they had earned by winning the games of Rummy. Ammi Avva even got a computer with that money. At that point of time, Ammi Avva was trying out different things like typewriting, stitching and learning new recipes of Biryani and Chilly Chicken from our neighbours. Veni Avva was learning to drive, ran Thatha’s Ambassador into a Neem tree, seized its engine and never sat on the driver’s side again. Ammi Avva never got married, and whenever Appa and I ask her to tell us if she had a boyfriend or a heartbreak ever in her life, she would fake anger and cut us off. Thatha was protective of the women in the house and keen on not letting them go out to work. He divided his salary into parts and gave one part to each of them, with which they played Rummy and earned more.
Thatha owned this game, and after him, Avvas do. While playing, some terms are casually and confidently mispronounced. ‘Ass’, ‘claver’, ‘rum and shoot’ are some of the terms that make me scrunch my nose and squirm a little on the inside. Each time Avva said ‘Ass’, I would giggle with no sense of maturity and disgust everyone. “ACE, Avva!” I would say, “CLOVER. O!” only to be ignored intentionally. There is something so Tamil about these words, that I gave up trying to correct them. They smirk at me and do not budge as they have been here longer than me.
My earliest memory is dozing off, clutching onto Thatha’s Viking vest, as he sang Sivaji Ganesan’s Tamil songs in Kannada as lullabies and Sinhalese Surangani that made no sense to me, but had interesting sounds. Until after Thatha passed away and I was in need of his lullabies, I did not know ‘Hasiru Gini Haaduthe’ is non-existent and is actually the old Tamil song ‘Pachhai Kili Paaduthu’ that my old man conveniently translated. He just had fun playing with languages and that pretty much explains the breezily Tamilized English words.
I did not have the permission to touch the unfolded, neat cards, as a child. When I grew up a little, I always received unsolicited suggestions and consultation from my Avvas who are pro players. And, when I finally was given the whole responsibility for my thirteen cards, they lost their charm. The logic of this game just messed me up. I have no clue why you can place an Ace next to two and three or next to a king and a queen, but it’s actual value is ten. If you discard a joker and I need it, why am I not allowed to take it? Why are three same numbers of different symbols accepted while arrangements of odd or even numbers of the same symbol not accepted? How is scoring more points considered losing? How does Ammi Avva win in just two rounds, when I sit there with one joker and no matches? Probably these cards hate me. But, what these cards gave my family is togetherness, a sense of belonging. It gave the women in my house financial independence. And it gave my Appa peace, because when the whole family is playing cards, he can uninterruptedly watch his Netflix documentaries.