“Can you guess how old I am?” she giggles, shoulders back, a few stray white hairs escaping the tight bun at the back of her head and snaking around her high cheekbones. The only lines on her face are the creases at the side of her mouth as she smiles.
“Come, tell me. Can you guess? I’m much older than you think, you know. Nobody ever guesses right.” She pats her slightly protruding stomach and rearranges her sari so it covers a little more flesh.
I’m embarrassed to be asked yet again to guess her age. This is a game she’s been playing since I was very young. I know she’s 85, but saying so will only disappoint her. I know the rules. I underestimate her age, but not by too much or she’ll know I’m playing along. It has to be believably low. Then she giggles delightedly at having fooled me into believing she’s younger than she actually is, then she tells me her beauty regimen and counsels me about what I should be doing.
“Let me see,” I say looking her over from head to toe, pretending to appraise her honestly.
She giggles again. “You won’t be able to guess. Nobody ever does.”
“Aunty, you’re so young looking. Only your perfect grey hair shows wisdom. Not a line on your face,” I say buttering her up. There are freshly made Indian sweets at stake here.
She pats her hair proudly. “This is true.” False humility has never been a vice of hers.
“But tell me what age.”
I could smell the heady mix of rock sugar, saffron, fried batter and camphor emanating from her kitchen. My stomach groaned its protest at being kept waiting.
“Ummm… I don’t know Aunty. You’re very young looking.” My brain was already walking into the kitchen, picking up a laddoo and popping it deftly into my mouth. If only my body would follow.
“Come now. You must give a number.” She is insistent and persistent. It has always been this way.
“You’re 85 Aunty!” What? Who said that? Did that actually come out of my mouth? I look nervously at her face. It crumples with disappointment. The words definitely came out of my mouth.
My brain wrenches in reverse out of her kitchen and back into my head.
Great. Now what use do I have for it? Where was it a few milliseconds ago? Scoffing laddoos like a pig, that’s where.
A soft giggling invades my reverie. Aunty is giggling, laughing, guffawing. Big fat wet tears are rolling down her cheeks and she is bent double, holding her portly belly. She gasps breath, steadies herself and hugs me.
“I can always rely on you to tell me the truth, child. You’ve never been able to lie. Come, let’s go eat too many laddoos and not tell your mother.” She chuckles and leads me, wide-eyed and awed, into her kitchen.