YELLAYAH: Memories of a childhood in India by Umi Sinha

Today we received memories of a childhood growing up in India from author Umi Sinha in Brighton, England entitled “Yellayah”. Enjoy the read.


Darkness, noise, clatter of metal, windows rattling, feeling the country go by… My first taste of homesickness – a sweetly sad feeling. The train rattles on through the dark, ‘dumpety-dump, dumpety-dump…’ My thoughts fall into rhythm with it, ‘…dumpety-dump, dumpety-dump, do as I say, do as I say, I’ll do as I like, I’ll do as I like, never again, never again, we’re going away, we’re going away, goodbye to Bombay, goodbye to Bombay…’ My body relaxes into the jolting of the train; the dim yellow roof-light in the carriage flickers with each movement and threatens to go out.

Outside it is dark. I see trees and villages moving past, silhouetted against the flooded fields, and sense the unexpected vastness of the world into which we are moving. The open countryside, so different from the enclosed streets of the city where everything has its boundary – walls. hedges, railings.

Outside the train window there is nothing but one giant paddy field reflecting the stars all the way to the horizon. Water drowns the boundaries of fields and farms, a silver sheet unbroken except by wallowing buffaloes, trees and the twinkling lights of the occasional village.

The world lies unlidded, exposed to distant galaxies.

All I have to hold onto is Yellayah. My home, parents, and ayah, Mary Ann, have been left behind in the city. I have not seen and cannot imagine the new home we are travelling to. Yellayah is the gardener from the block of flats where we lived in Bombay. I have never taken much notice of him. In sunlight, in the garden, he always seemed old to me: his almost black skin webbed with tiny white cracks, his big feet flattened with splayed toes and cracked heels, his yellowy brown toenails shrivelled like dried mushrooms. I don’t remember him ever speaking to us. But in the dim, flickering light of the carriage he seems different – younger. His skin looks smoother, finely pored. He is wearing a red kurta and a loosely wound turban of yellow, instead of his usual dusty white. His skin smells of earth, spicy sweat and bidi-smoke. I find it comforting.

There is another smell in the carriage: the smell of rain, of damp earth; a smell we have learnt to love because of my mother’s nostalgia for England. It comes from the mudka – an earthenware pot full of drinking water – which stands in the corner. The side of the mudka is damp and cool and the water inside tastes, not unpleasantly, of powdered clay. I watch Yellayah drink from the little clay pot which usually stands inverted on the top, forming a lid. He holds the pot at arm’s length above him and arches his head back so that a long stream of clear water pours down his throat.

When I drink I try to hold the pot away from my mouth but the water trickles down my chin. I move it closer and taste the dusty clay on my lips. I look guiltily at Yellayah, knowing he will not want to drink from a pot which has touched someone else’s lips, but he laughs – his white teeth dazzling against his purple-black skin – and shows me again how to do it. The long sinews in his arm and throat stand out in the dim light. I want to touch him and this frightens me and makes me feel sick.

Lying in my berth later, feeling the train rock me upwards so my head bumps the cold, hard glass – that transparent barrier which separates me from the black emptiness outside – I snuggle into my bedroll in a comfortable world of rhythmic, predictable noises, golden reflections in dirty windows and the pungent smell of Yellayah’s bidi, and as I fall asleep I want this journey to go on forever.

I don’t want daylight, the new house and the new ayah, who I know already will not like me, who will make my sister her favourite as all the others have done. I do not think of my parents. I want to go on rattling through the dark with Yellayah forever.

Umi Sinha

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