I affectionately called Mum’s mother Tuma, to avoid confusion with Ma, my father’s mother. She was plump with fair skin. I thought she looked every inch a Rajwani, her aristocratic family of birth. She wore black glasses, and her hair was always in a neat black bun; she was very particular about how she dressed. When she went to jamaat khana, she wore a long dress in a flowered fabric with a perfectly matching, embroidered patchedi over her shoulders. She had chiffon patchedis in every color and liked wearing a heavy gold chain, diamond earrings, and a diamond in her nose. Tuma ran the family’s coffee business with the help of her sons. She was shrewd, expanding the family’s coffee fields and building a factory to process the beans. But she let her sons act as the business’s public face, running everything behind the scenes.
But she was different from my father’s mother, Ma. Tuma was very particular about how things had to be done. One day, she taught me how to make kuchumber, a carrot, tomato, and onion salad; the carrots had to be scraped thinly so as not to waste them. I would sit and talk to her in the airy kitchen once she had finished cooking and had time to relax. She sipped her chai, and we shared a plate of biscuits. The family’s wealth was built on coffee, but they drank only tea at home.
One afternoon, I slipped off to explore the servants’ rooms I reached by the outdoor staircase. They had rooms off the lower courtyard, and I wandered around.
The young ayah was resting in her small room. But she welcomed me in, and I sat in her room talking to her about life in the village where she came from. They had a lot of cows and goats, and she said she would take me for a visit. Tuma started shouting for me, and I went back upstairs.
“Where were you? Why did you go there?”
“I just wanted to see their rooms.”
“There is nothing to see. Don’t ever go there again. Leave them alone. The servants can do anything to you if you go there by yourself.”
In the Nairobi house, I often sat with our servants while they had tea outside their rooms in the courtyard. Ma never told me not to. I realized that the rules for this house were different and kept quiet. I didn’t dare mention visiting the ayah’s village.
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