I am around eight years old and totally flummoxed. My mother has just posed the following conundrum to me:

“Two pairs of mothers and daughters went to the market and bought three lemons. They each got a whole lemon. How is that possible?”

Resisting the urge to just stare at her and blurt out that she is joking, I carefully go over the riddle word by word. After five minutes of straining the grey cells, I am nowhere near the answer. Five more frustrating minutes with numerous fractions worked out in my head and I utterly give up.

Mum smiles and explains, “The two pairs were: a Grandmother, a Mother and a Daughter. Three women, three lemons, a lemon to each.”


Over the years the riddle has stayed with me. Not because it is an exceptional example of a good brain-teaser, but because I have never quite gotten over the embarrassment of not having hit upon such an easy solution. I never had much use for genealogy in practical life. I mean, one has one’s grandparents, parents, siblings, spouse, children and then grandchildren. Throw in an assortment of uncles, aunts and cousins and the menagerie is quite complete. What more does one need? Why would I want to know, for example, which rare battle my illustrious great-great-great-grandfather lost? Or how my aunt’s mother’s sister-in-law’s niece met her husband?

I had occasion, however, to revise my opinion about the utility value of family trees recently. I was getting married. In a conservative Indian community like mine, the mere whisper of a wedding in the house was enough to make long-lost relatives crawl out of the woodwork, raise their eyebrows, click their tongues and twitch their noses like bloodhounds on a hot trail. Suddenly everyone wanted to know everything about everyone else in both the families. Who was What. When they were born. Where they lived. How their spouses were doing. Which of them had children. And what better way to accomplish this than the traditional digging up of roots?

The family spared no efforts to chart out the blood line. Memories were taxed, telephone lines were engaged for hours on the end, Society books were dug up and dusted off, the library became an impromptu meeting place for the clan, and even the local post office was not spared. Matters started coming to a head when people broke off in the middle of perfectly normal conversation to start convulsively, gaze into space and make a bee-line for a bit of pen and paper to jot down the uncommon name that had been eluding them for the last so many days.

When it was time to finally commit the entire tree to paper, everyone who was anyone, even the neighbourhood dog, was keen to chip in. First the door-bell was knocked out of order so that the milkman or newspaper boy or sundry others didn’t interrupt. The telephone receiver was similarly taken off the hook. All the furniture in the hall was pushed back up against the wall, leaving a large clearing in the middle of the room. Sheets of newspaper were laid on the floor so as to not get the plans dirty. The notebooks and little scraps of diaries were spread around, ready at hand. The entire household had turned out and was watching the proceedings anxiously.

Dad rolled up his shirt-sleeves and lowered himself heavily down upon the floor. The rest of us crowded in around him. He began by hunting for his glasses. Shirt pockets, trouser pockets, inches of the floor around him, everything was patted and peered at. No glasses. He bellowed out for Mum, who calmly plucked them from where they were hanging down on his chest and plonked them firmly on his nose. Satisfied that he could now see clearly, he then looked around for a pencil to draw some rough diagrams. He took several minutes to decide which one to use from the impressive array of pencils set aside for the purpose – soft lead, hard lead, medium lead, fine lead, thick lead, blunt lead, sharp lead, drawing pencils, copy pencils; enough to stock a small store. The rest of us were getting fidgety. Finally, Grandma poked a bony finger into his shoulder and ordered him to get on with it. Reluctantly, he picked up the first pencil that came to hand and bent over the paper.

At this point, several voices started clamouring for attention all at once.

“Fold the paper so that you can get the center bearings precisely,” said Uncle M.

“No, no, measure the exact dimensions with this ruler,” insisted Aunt K and thrust one under Dad’s nose.

“Be sure you write clearly,” admonished Grandpa.

“Draw the lines straighter and darker,” complained great-Grannie.

It was difficult to say whether Dad took all this advice seriously or not. We could not see much over the expanse of his back. His elbow moved over the paper freely. Now and again he grunted and consulted with the notes lying around. He stretched to scribble something at the top half of the tree, then immediately darted to write something at the lower end. He moved from side to side and we could guess when he made mistakes because he erased furiously at such times. The first pencil had given way to several others as each point broke. Soon there was a heap of broken tips and eraser dustings all over the floor, sticking to Dad’s hands and feet where they touched the paper.

The crowd grew restive.

“Do you need help, dear?” Mum asked.

“No!” Dad barked shortly and erased a quarter of what he had written.

“Don’t forget to use what I have given you,” reminded Grandpa, “Major-General J left the British army to be at the forefront of the Indian freedom struggle and he is her great-great-uncle’s cousin, you know. They will be impressed.”  He looked at me affectionately and beamed. “You should be very proud of your heritage.”

I nodded and smiled back.

An hour and three-quarters later it was done. My completed family tree was a mammoth square meter in area, having consumed twelve sheets of paper, four pencils, three erasers, two yards of cellotape, several pots of ink and a very soggy handkerchief which had wiped the sweaty brow of my father. In its final version, the family tree contained over fifty names, dates and places and as many as seventeen varied occupations. It was placed at the head of a procession and carried around the whole house, proudly displayed, equally proudly appreciated, attention drawn to the various contributions given by each person. Loud interjections following in its wake. Then it was rolled up, lovingly tied with string, all set to be delivered to the bridegroom’s parents. Finally, after days of furrowed brows and frowning faces, the family let go of the past and got back to work in the present.

In keeping with tradition, the marriage ceremony took place over three days. On the first day, the family trees were gravely exchanged and examined with great care and respect on both sides. Common names were exclaimed over, uncommon jobs wondered about and outlandish places looked up in a battered old atlas. Later on, an introduction of a distant relative to my in-laws gave an indication of just how thoroughly the information in family tree had been devoured, when my mother-in-law promptly identified him as “the bride’s uncle’s wife’s brother’s father-in-law, am I right?” and the gentleman in question, after a moment’s hesitation during which he digested and processed this data, pronounced her absolutely correct.

Further study of the trees revealed more insights. Everyone was aghast to observe that one of my older uncles had had fourteen children, not all of whom had survived into their twenties. On my husband’s side, the legal profession had been a popular line of work in the early thirties with as many as six lawyers in the family at one time. “The entire district’s court cases were handled in-house,” claimed a grand-aunt majestically. There had even been a High Court judge. Frequently Grandpa, who was poring over their family tree, was given to shouting exciting tidbits out loud, which brought the rest of the family scuttling over to see for themselves. “Look, this far-flung branch of our family is loosely related to a cousin-by-marriage of theirs!” “Hey, I remember this place. I visited it in childhood during the Kumbh Mela. They had a shop there that sold fantastic samosas!” and even a grudging, “Ah, so they have a pilot in their stock, too.” Our own pilot was present at the wedding, a singularly shy young boy who didn’t speak much, but ate heartily.

Happily, no one on either side had tried subterfuge to hide any black sheep, although a few revelations did cause some embarrassedly lowered eyes. My husband’s father roundly abused a couple of his erring forebears who were reputed to have seen the inside of a prison more than once, but this was lightly skimmed over when my dad declared that every generation had its share of red-blooded young men who sooner or later felt the consequences of too much curiosity. “Such turbulent spirits can find rest only inside a jail!” he joked. In turn, great-Grannie was openly brusque about her own sister who had run away from home, married a man of “lower caste” and “ruined the family name,” and my husband’s mum skillfully soothed her ruffled feathers by mentioning “modern minds” and “equality” in the same breath, thus diplomatically steering the conversation around to more comfortable subjects. There were things that no one was proud of but they were taken in everyone’s stride – being neither highlighted nor avoided. No one read too much into these and no accusations were hurled, no taunts thrown, no snide remarks and references made to these black spots in the family’s fabric, no angry voices raised or hurtful words exchanged at all – all was jollity and understanding.

Not counting a few gaps in both trees here and there – some older branches bare, a lady without a birth date, a brother with an unnamed sister, a dissenter cousin now settled abroad with no known contacts – the recorded lineage of both families was impressively comprehensive.

Finally, amidst a heady din of bursting firecrackers, boisterous children and melodious flutes, my husband and I made seven revolutions around the holy fire, chanted several cryptic hymns in Sanskrit, and were legally – and with the blessings of our several hundred gods – pronounced man and wife. Grandma would have been anxious lest we forget a deity or two or perhaps miss out a couple of crucial mantras, had she not placed great store by the pandit’s knowledge of the scriptures. Eventually my large family gathered to bid me farewell with their good wishes as I took my first steps into my new home.

And what of the family trees? Those documents that played a significant role in the coming together of two worlds? Well, I believe that all the laughter, joy, pride, bewilderment, deduction, anxiety and exhaustion that accompanied the creation of the trees paid off in the end. Not only did my husband and I discover our ancestors, but in the process we also re-discovered each other. The representation of our roots in black-and-white left a lasting impression on all our minds, our collaboration in it brought us all closer together. This custom was a way by which each family welcomed the other into their world and their culture. By acquainting the other with its members, each created a familiarity and conversancy that made the other feel a close friend rather than a stranger. In addition to offering a present of my past, the trees made me realise that I was marrying not one man in isolation but into an entire family collective. And that with this marriage a new link had been created which would combine two families forever by an inseparable bond. There was a feeling of security to be a part of a larger community than ever before, to know that I could rely on twice the number of people now than to begin with. We had arrived as bride and bridegroom, we left as one family.

About the Author

Devyani writes on the humour and pathos of everyday life. Her fiction, nonfiction and art have appeared in numerous international magazines, including previous issues of Ducts. To enjoy more of Debora’s adventures, visit her website Verbolatry and sign up for her kickass free newsletter at devyaniborade.blogspot.com.