The Love of a Good Woman

The house stands sullen and gloomy; he hasn’t even bothered to leave the portico lights on. The front door is ajar and a diffused glow along with muffled, static, sounds tells me he is home. He has to be, his whole life revolves around the 7:30 PM news for God’s sake. He kept the volume on mute when she was dying but he did not switch the TV off. By the time the newsreader had moved to the sports section, she was bloody dead and gone. I think he switched off the TV then. Funny how the only time he turned the TV off by himself was when she was no longer around to see him do so.

The steps haven’t been swept for some days and they creak under me. I knock on the door before pushing it open and I pause then, because I realize that this will be the first time that I am in their house without her. Without Aunt Nina, with her loud laugh, her awful jokes, her sweet tea served in white china cups and her frangipani perfume. Without Aunt Nina, a second cousin of my dead mother’s, who stood in as a surrogate mother for me through much of my life and looked after me like one of her own, even though she had none of her own. She was the larger than life, chirpy, beautiful woman who solved most of life’s problems with her trademark cheer and cups of tea. And perhaps because she was larger than life, she married him with his reticent ways and his mumbling, shuffling manner and his grey flannels. He smelt of the old tobacco he smoked and he epitomized all that was vague and grey. He reminded me of an English autumn even as spring gaudily flaunted her wares around his garden. As Aunt Nina cranked up her radio and sang noisily, he smoked his pipe and picked out grammatical errors from the editorial of the “Financial Times”.

I loved her unconditionally but I would soon learn that even when we love someone without any barriers, we do not necessarily understand their choices. I never saw him give her a tender glance, or buy her flowers. He must have been young and charming once but I had no recollections of this, all I knew was that he was ageless because youth had forgotten him.

When Aunt Nina fought her battle with cancer and lost, he didn’t emerge either stronger or softer from her tryst. Instead, he believed that she would tide over everything like she always had, and he pretended that if he ignored the death knocks on the door, they would perhaps go away. I don’t know if he thanked her for the memories, or if he went through her sepia albums with her as she lay dying. Aunt Nina grew worried about him in her last days and made me promise I would visit every week. As she lay fretting over him, he cranked up the volume on the afternoon Poker show and made notes in his barely legible, scrawling handwriting, in his dog-eared diary. If he needed to win a hand to equal his losses with an unctuous fate, he shouldn’t have bothered because he was already losing her. I could have hollered at him then, for being oblivious to the love of a lifetime. “He won’t know what to do without me, how will he handle being by himself?” she had sobbed into her sterile pillows. If she weren’t so sick and if I hadn’t loved her so much, I would have told her that the only thing that could have elicited any emotion from him was perhaps a complete banning of television.

There are places in a man’s heart where the love of a good woman cannot reach and I hated to tell her that for all that love claims it can do, it cannot vanquish the barriers of indifference. I had wept for her instead, for her life that had been wasted around his silences and his indifferences to her role in his life. I had cried for the best years of her life gone unnoticed, even as I knew that a cherished memory is the eulogy of a lifetime. But I had to keep my word and visit him, for a promise to a dying person is really a promise to oneself and that is why such promises are often so hard to break.

So, I walk in through the door and sit down opposite him and ask him how he has been. He waits till the ad break comes on before he mumbles a greeting. I try not to look at the mantelpiece where he has put up her photo taken a few weeks before she died. Her face is gaunt and she wears make-up on her protruding cheek bones. Her hair is wispy and her smile is obscenely brave. His eyes travel to the photo and I hear a sigh escape his lips. I pretend I haven’t noticed because I don’t want to dignify his pain – the man has no emotions, this much I am sure of! “I wanted to remember her like that”, he suddenly says. “Not when she was young and sprightly and beautiful, because youth is always beautiful”. I simply stare at him as he makes the first admission of her death and therefore of her life. “Not many people look beautiful in the face of defeat, she managed to do that, you know”, he is wincing now.

I suddenly want to shake him hard, really hard – and ask him why he didn’t once tell her all this. Why she died the way she did, with what I am sure were cruel silences and an empty miasma of unsaid words and unacknowledged feelings. Instead we both find ourselves in front of her old kitchen cabinet, and he puts the kettle on and brings out her china cups. “It is a crime to judge love by its expression, she always said that”, he says. As he makes me tea the way only she could and adds a sprinkling of sugar like she used to, I know suddenly that silences are not always unanswered questions, sometimes they are merely the questions that don’t need asking.

He shuffles back towards the TV, fumbling with his watch. Through the corner of my eyes, I see him nod at her photo even as he settles into his chair and picks up the remote.

The Tourist

“Be a tourist in your own town”, the board proclaims. It is stained and dirty; it also looks weather beaten and has the look of someone that has bid numerous goodbyes without actually going anywhere. It doesn’t work that way, you cannot be a tourist in your town anymore than you can be a guest in your own home, no matter what the circumstances. The difference between a tourist and a local is that the local carries his baggage of memories; the tourist looks at the labyrinth of streets with a pristine slate.

On a dusty sunlit evening, I walk the cobbled streets of what once used to be an old abode. I realize that after a while the paths chart themselves out for you because you have walked them before. I no longer need to know where I am going, there is a set of hazy footprints to go by, sometimes I see it, sometimes I don’t but I have been here before and my feet will follow the marks. It is a slow journey, punctuated by sentiments that hang heavily around old reminisces. There is the side path just near the over bridge, you have to make way through the overgrown brambles and forge through the ankle-high grass till the road opens out into a clearing.

A small jump over an old unused drain and you are back on the main road again. A tourist wouldn’t find this; it is not on the map, not at least on the one that takes you somewhere. And yet, the path exists as a testament to the fact that there are no straight roads to get anywhere in a hurry, you must traverse the sidewalks before you get somewhere. There are the pauses that you must take before merging in with the flow.  We have been there before and we will do so again, how we get there this time is what counts.

Behind the old walking trail from across the main park is a tiny road that hums to itself and disappears behind a thicket. It does not matter that no one walks this road anymore, it is only the tourist that needs to live in the now, the local has his stories from the past. A long time ago there used to be a stream that flowed past the surrounds after particularly rainy monsoons. I had paper boats made of old grocery bills and I would watch them disappear on their journey in this seasonal stream. There was the thrill of not knowing when they would vamoose out of sight – I didn’t know it then but it was the closest I got to understanding that at the best, you can know where you are going, no one will ever be able to tell you if you will make it or how you will get there.  The boats would disappear, the monsoons would become a memory and the stream bed would hide under thick grass and brave new shoots. I never went back after a few monsoons, I never saw the boats again either. We both learnt that a goodbye is the first thing to pack for a journey.

Year later, as I walk those roads again, those that once matched steps with me are far away, and yet if I strain to hear them, I can hear a stifled giggle and the slurp of an ice-cream on a hot day. I turn around in a trice and almost expect to find a best friend from that age asking me to wait as she catches up. The roads are empty, a road full of strangers is always an empty street to some walking down memory lane. I sigh and keep walking. I cannot be a tourist here, they are too alive, those memories and sounds of another era.

Some more walking brings me to a road I have studiously avoided in the last decade. There are broken promises and there are unshared dreams here. Another time and another place, it led to a happy place. And yet as I walk down this path, the pain doesn’t come rushing out of the sidewalks like it normally does. The promises, even the broken ones (for we tend to magnify all that is incomplete) are hazy, the dreams are strangely harmless and incapable of hurting anymore. I notice the road for the first time, like it were a new thing. Time has dulled the intensity and age has given me a newness that feels like a beginning. The exorcism of the reminisces is complete, at least right here, right now on this street. I scan the road ahead with new eyes, I am tourist here now, and there is nothing that binds me to this place.

I am ready to be seduced by the journey again, a new chapter awaits….

PS: Have I ever posted this one dear people?  This post was sitting in my drafts for a really long time. Ah well, here goes.

The Deep End

It is a business as usual at the swimming pool when Miss A and I get there for her weekly swimming lesson.

While she gets ready, I lean back and watch the usual gamut of youngsters swim and splash around. Miss A, meanwhile is getting ready for the lesson. I watch absent-mindedly as she furrows into her swimming bag looking for an elusive item.

“I didn’t pack the correct swimming goggles”, she exclaims in dismay. A pair of very old and fairly fragile goggles are thrust in my hand.

“These are the wrong ones indeed”, I tell her

“What will I do now?”, the voice is on the precipice of becoming a wail.

“You will have to make do with these”

“I can’t Mum, you know they are very old”

“I am sorry A. I had asked you to pack your bag. You should have paid attention to what you were doing”

“Why didn’t you double-check?” , her voice is fairly traumatized now.

“I am not going to double check everything you do, A . You need to be more responsible. You have to learn to question your choices. ”

“Yeah, and now I am in trouble”

“Yup. But I can guarantee you that you will not leave without double checking your bag the next time you go somewhere”

She doesn’t say a word. I see an angry sulk forming as she stares straight ahead. Angry at herself.  But angrier at  me, because I am refusing to right her wrongs or fix the issue.

A few minutes pass in such angry silence. She fidgets around, tries to fix her goggles and gets more frustrated by the minute.

Then. “Can you please buy me new goggles, Mum? Please? They sell them in the foyer.’

“Nope”

“Mummmmmmm”

“No, sorry A. They cost $20 and I am not about to spend money to cover up for your neglect”

“You don’t need to give me spending money if you buy goggles”

“Nah, not negotiable A. You need to learn to be responsible for your actions.”

“By punishing me?”

“Think of it as a lesson. Some day, even though you are mad at me now, you will thank me for this”

She gets up and stomps off in a rage. I know that the tears are forming. She lines up with the other kids, refusing to look at me or acknowledge my wave.

She takes forever with her goggles, the coach comes over to help. The other kids have already completed a lap.

She catches my eye for a minute, and then swims away with much defiance. The goggles are sliding down her face, her hair is coming  undone.  Her usual graceful strokes are stilted, the rhythm of her swimming is sketchy.

No amount of waving helps. I ask her if she needs help with her hair – no answer. “You are doing well”, I say. No answer again.

I look around for a moment. When I try to locate her again, she is no longer in that lane. I scan the pool wondering whether she went for a dive.

And that is when I see her in the deep end of the pool along with two other kids. The senior teacher is doing an assessment for her, she is already lining up to swim for the clock.

I run to the deep end. The assessments are particularly gruelling, the senior teacher is strict about benchmarks – and this is the day Miss A chose to wear tatty goggles. Perhaps I should have been kinder. If she wins today, she will know that you can do almost anything you choose to believe in. Nothing can get in the way. Nothing should get in the way. But if she fails today,  she will learn that you should never underestimate the power of preparation.

She is off before I can get there. One lap. Then two. Then three. Backstroke. Against the clock. Lap one. Then two. Then three.

“You are doing well sweetie”, the coach calls out to her.

She finishes tired. With unkempt hair. Goggles that are clouding over.  It was a test drive assessment – she will have to do this again in a week or two – this time for real. Later she tells me that she enjoyed the speed test – and it would have been easier with better goggles.

I nod. And say nothing.

The anger thaws and she talks to me. Grudgingly at first. Then with more ease. Till we are chatting again.

You have to swim if you need to make it through the deep end. You do not turn back, you do not give up. She probably does not know this yet – but she is much better at tackling the deep end than she accepts. Funny, the things that happen when you decide you are not going to pay much attention to setbacks.

Hakuna Matata

This is a repost, dear people. I have a tremendously full weekend – but a promise is a promise, and post we must!  🙂 Please do indulge me and re-read this, even if you had already done so before.

Miss A and I watched “The Lion King”  a while ago . I have liked the movie but it has never been one of my firm favourites. Miss A however is transfixed with the setting, with Simba and with the concept of Hakuna Matata. I have always been cautious of letting her watch anything with violence or anything that could be potentially disturbing. A childhood should be a happy place with blue skies, icecreams that don’t melt on summer afternoons, cotton candy kisses, fairies on the rose bushes outside your window and a soft buttercup yellow moon to sing you a lullaby each night. There should be a fairy tale or two, a smooth pebble hidden in a dark drawer and a friend that blows soap bubbles with you on lazy evenings. Life happens much later, the prelude should be perfect and simple.
She watches with wide eyed innocence as Scar kills Mufasa and Simba watches in dismay. As Simba weeps, she moves closer to the TV and tries to console him. “Shhhh”, she goes, “it is okay”.  She takes in the scenes of Scar threatening young Simba and looks at me with disappointment writ large on her perfect features.

“Shouldn’t we be always nice to people, isnt Scar wrong?”, she asks me.

“That is one way to get nice things to happen to you”, I start tentatively. It is a simplistic truth that my mother
ingrained in me and it is something I have believed in. I know that the truth is often challenged though, I dont tell Miss A that sometimes you can give all you have and you will get nothing nice in return. That after all has been said and all the niceties have been dispensed, you can still be left feeling empty and hollow. That no matter how hard you try, some things will never work out and that there are no nice answers to some questions. That you cant be
assured of goodness merely because you choose to believe in it. But, I dont tell her any of this. Like I said before, life will happen much later, for now it is about the prelude.

Instead, I tell her that she needs to be nice because it is the better option any day. It is the same moral my mother taught me many summers ago and it has always worked for me. Things have a better chance of working out when they are simple, this much I know and this much I believe in.

Miss A leans back and watches Simba sing Hakuna Matata.

“You know what”, she says as the strains of the song reach a crescendo, “I believe that there are more good people in the world than bad people”. And just like that, before my eyes, a new fable, a new truth and a new faith has just pronounced itself. I want to believe in this and a warm cockle of my heart tells me that I do. It is my mother’s lesson, reworded. Miss A may have taught both of us our most important lesson yet.

Mice and Other Things

The rain is coming down in bucketfuls. The school grounds are muddy and the old gum trees outside Miss A’s school stand silent, cold and lonely. The cheerful group of little girls that normally runs around the school yard is missing today. When I open the doors to the child care and let myself in, I find Miss A, Sophie of the current best friend fame, Noelle, Riya and a dozen others huddled around the TV. A bowl of popcorn is passed around and much singing in sync is happening.

Noelle and Riya have their mouth half open. Whether this is because they are waiting for the popcorn bowl to pass their way again or whether this is because the movie has them enraptured, one will never know.

A largish person dressed in a piggy suit is dancing on TV. Clearly, people dressed in piggy suits and warm popcorn are the best antidotes to a stormy evening because the kids are lost in their own world and are fairly oblivious of their surroundings.

I sit down next to the carer Diana, waiting for the movie to finish so that Miss A and I can head off.

“Piggies”, Riya says loudly. Her eyes are still glued to the TV. But one must say what needs to be said. Even when temptations arise.

“Piggies”, Noelle agrees.

“Piggies and Mices” Riya says next, eyes still firmly glued.

“Mices”, Noelle repeats. She doesn’t look at Riya. Or at any of us. The movie is compelling, one gathers.

“Many, many mices!” Riya says for effect.

No one takes notice of said ‘mices’.

For anyone that thought that Riya was dropping random words for effect,  the misunderstanding is swiftly corrected.

“There is many mices here”, Riya says. At this stage, she leans over and pokes Diana.

Diana absentmindedly offers her more popcorn. Riya however has a message to convey.

“Diana, there is many mices here”, she stresses.

“Not in here, Riya”, Diana starts, “the mice are outside.”

Riya is not convinced. She shoots Noelle an urgent look.

“There is mices in here”, she wails.

Noelle decides to prove that she is nothing if not a worthy friend.

“Many big mices in here”, Noelle reiterates.

A few of the other kids unwillingly pry away their eyes from person-dressed-as-piggy-on-tv and start giving Riya more attention.

Logic will always fail in the face of such burning belief. Diana’s explanations fall on deaf ears. The debate of “mices inside” versus “mices outside” reaches new and emphatic heights.

Never dismiss an idea just because the source is three feet tall and uses plurals in unconventional ways.

“Are you sure?”, Diana finally asks Riya.

Riya nods with much seriousness. Noelle eats a handful of popcorn and does the same.

“Diana doesn’t like mices very much”, Diana tells us.

“In fact Diana doesn’t like mices at all. Diana is now going to get up and make sure the doors are locked. And the windows”.

Riya seems pleased that her whistle-blower services have been accepted.

Diana gets up and checks the windows. The rest of the motley bunch goes back to watching TV. More popcorn is passed around and Riya and Noelle go back to leaving their mouth half open in anticipation.

“Do you really think there are mices? In here?” I ask Diana as I am signing her out. See, how utterly liberating it is to use plurals in new ways, dear reader? Mices. Rolls of the tongue, that word. You will never go back to plain, boring mice again.

Diana is not too sure but she doesn’t want to take any chances.

Riya and Noelle notice Diana bustling around the room looking for the said rodents.

Riya walks up to Diana and hugs her.

“Come and watch Piggy Man, Diana”, she says.

“We better make sure the room is safe, hey?”, Diana asks.

Riya is not too pleased. She has plans of sitting on Diana’s lap for the Piggy Man movie and her plan is fast fading.

“Awww, Diana, they are just mices”, she says. And just like that, she drags Diana back to the TV. If there are mices, so be it. The world is big enough, one understands, for all of us.

There are dangers. And then there the are things we know. These are mostly fewer than the things we don’t know. But these things we do not know – you must understand that most of them are just mices. And mices should never get into the way of piggies or movies. Or anything else for that matter.

At the center of every upheaval lies immense peace. You just need to learn how to ignore the storm.

The Letters Never Posted – Part II

Dear ____,

It has been years since I last saw you. A giant leviathan has thus passed, a chasm that separates the world we once knew with the worlds that we inhabit now. I would not have recognized you had I seen you walking down the street and yet in a strangely reclusive and aloof online world, I find myself looking for signs of recognition in your words, your smile, the way you always stare at unseen objects in photographs.

In another time and another place, we spent ages rewriting study notes, eating at decrepit road-side stalls after long days of lab work, giggling at what must have been moments of hilarity and listening to music together.Your eyes have this faraway look now – almost as if you are not on good terms with either the present nor the future. If I look at your pictures, I can almost see your past standing next to you in all the photos – a grim-faced yet hazy silhouette in the shadows, waiting to be acknowledged, half hopeful and half bashful.

You really loved him, didn’t you? The rest of us made do with Mills and Boons and romantic movies, you actually had this person who gifted you with bright roses, took you on dates and surprised you with impromptu drives. When you talked of him, your eyes lit up and your voice took on a special lilt. You never really accepted this though – you said he was a good friend and really, that was all there was to it. We rolled our eyes at this and gave you knowing looks, watching you fumble with words even as you changed topics and demanded to know more about our love lives or mostly the lack of them.

Every love story begins in hope – solid, thick, unyielding, indefatigable hope. After a while, time and circumstances dilute the best of intentions and this once indestructible panacea is rendered wispy and infirm.  It is a good thing that we do not know this when we set out – our journeys would not take us very far if we knew how great the chances of our getting lost are, even with a map.  And since we do not talk much of a love that died young, I do not ask you about it when I do talk to you. There is always an obituary of silence for a love that passed away before its prime.

But sometimes, when we reminisce about the old days and you laugh like the old times, the past is so tangible and so throbbing with life that I almost end up asking you if you are at peace with both of you going your own ways. You sidestep those minefields of memories that have a tendency to drown and before the moment passes, you hide behind the curtains of your life as it stands now, suddenly a stranger whose recollection of those days is fleeting and inconsequential. The past stands next to me, silent and brooding away as you fade into the distance. No matter how strong the ties that bind, what we take into the beckoning lands of the future lies up to us, and us alone.

I was jealous of you then, I can say this now. I was not the only one, we all chase rainbows when the skies crowd up. I did not say this then of course, but like you can feel those gaping holes of lost love, I can sometimes still feel the pang of jealousy as if it was yesterday. I am not trying to belittle your love by saying I am no longer jealous. I am not – but this is not because your love failed. Because, love never fails. But it never truly goes away. We are the ones that fail love – despite our most glorious attempts to change our messy fates we stand powerless against the whims of chance.  That is all there is to love – it is indestructible. It comes back well disguised, modified, altered, stronger and often for a longer haul.

The past makes no promises of peace. Only the future can do that. I hope you extract your promises this time. And perhaps give love another chance.

Warm Regards,

The Girl Who Watched You Love and Lose and Live

A Love for All Seasons

[Edited to add: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance completely unintentional. 🙂 ]

On every Sunday, at 3:00 PM sharp, for as long as I care to remember, I call up my mother. As the phone rings and I wait for her to pick up, I trace circles on the floor with my toe. I hear the dull reverberation of the first ring and then the second ring and then the  subsequent ringing fills me with despair as I wait for my mum to answer. It will be my father who picks up the phone now, my mother never takes this long. She actually waits for my calls because for all the things that I am not, I am very predictable. My mother says that you can set the clock by my calls.

There are many things you can set the clock by. Disappointment is one, once disappointment discerns that you can provide it with a home, it will loyally cling to you, for all it is worth. You think you can shake it off, but like a lost pup, it will get home before you do and wait patiently on the door-step till you let it in. Sadness needs a place to sleep at night, mirth is a vagabond, my mother says. My mother deeply believes in predictability. Everything in nature has a season; the world around us is cyclic. The universe repeats its acts in patterns and all random events are a part of this. Nothing is ever unpredictable, she says. If something takes you by surprise, it is because you didn’t read the clues and recognize the pattern.

My mother knows that my weekly call is my place to sleep at night, my home coming. As I wait for her to pick up the phone, but as expected my father answers instead and my heart takes a sad plummet. We run through the gamut of gruff greetings, my Dad and I. I let him tell me that I can do better, that he has dreams for me. “At least, think of your mother”, he implores. Yeah, that is right; bring in the big guns this early on. My Dad (and you wouldn’t really know this), knows the landscape when it comes to organizing guilt trips.

I refuse to take this bait. So I tell him, rather bluntly now because I am done with talking to him, that my mother equates love with acceptance. That not once during all my weekly phone calls has she ever asked me to be anyone else or do things differently. I half expect him to go ballistic but all that happens is that his voice trails off here. Normally I would have accentuated about my mother’s omnipresent brand of love but today I am past caring, I am just looking for her. “Can you pass the phone to Mum please?” I plead. The circles at my toes are now whirlpools threatening to drown me as he starts another tirade, this time punctuated by sighs. It is not his good day, I can tell. I cannot get a word in and he has started rambling about how happy we all were when I was a child – which is always a sign that I won’t get to talk to her.

I know that at this very moment, as my Dad is unspooling a sepia memory of a trip to Sea World when I was 11, my mother is standing at the back of our family room, partly hearing every word and partly leaning against the wall for support. She is looking at the back of his head where his starched collar meets his graying hair. She is pushing away her own wispy strands of hair, and fingering the filigree pendant she always wears.

I can feel her impatience and her silence pushing itself towards me. She won’t say a word though. She will wait for her turn but she will not push him aside and get on the phone to talk. He has her in the corner, with his larger than life presence, and with his black and white theories on how the world should behave. My mother has always been a frail presence when my father is around. It is only when she is alone with me that she comes into her own. She lets me be myself too, a gift that I have learnt to never take for granted. Away from the one-dimensional world that my father has thrust upon us, my mother and I find consolation in our stolen conversations when my father isn’t around to “set things right” as he normally likes to.

Last week my father was away and I spent an entire day with my mother – I do that sometimes. I cooked her favourite meal and set her plate with matching napery like she loves and even allowed her to pick the movie she wanted to watch. I sat down next to her, held her hand and talked – you know the kind of stuff mothers and daughters talk about – the shoe sale at the fashion mall, the secrets ingredients in the recipes that have always been in the family, how my eyes crinkle just like hers when I laugh. You carry the keys to entire worlds in our hearts and when you find the right person to share this piece of yourself with; our worlds suddenly expand and take on new shapes. There is this world that my mother and I share, a space that my father will never have the chance to know anything about.

“When you are comfortable in your own space, you don’t need anyone else”, my mother said that day. When I was growing up and hovering on the threshold of teenage angst, she let me do whatever I wanted. She lingered on the fringe, watching and waiting and tending to my hurts, but any attempt of hers to get closer had me backing off even as she took tentative steps closer to me to bridge the gaps.  That is when we learnt to deal in silences because if there are enough silences, words can acquire meaning too. My mother has taught me this lesson and I now live my life by it.

She stayed when everyone else left, when the nights were inky dark and when I couldn’t bear to get out of bed in the mornings. Every failure of mine was healed by her mere presence. She was there in my room holding my hand, as I rocked myself to sleep in tears; outside the school gates where I was a failure at most things big time and where they picked on me mercilessly because I was the official class weirdo. She soothed me from outside the bathroom door as I lay on the floor pondering about life and death and that precarious state in between, and she picked me up from smoky bars as I waited for her to take me home when I had lost myself, yet again.

The easiest gift is a presence; it is also the hardest because a presence can be suffocating the minute it becomes aware of itself. My mother has never crossed that line. But today I need her because I have been feeling lost again and I am angry at her for not understanding this. The anger reaches my throat and stays stuck there till I feel a bitter taste in my mouth. The bitter taste becomes a salty one because I am now crying. Why can’t she see how much I need her, why will she not talk and just ask him to shut up with his inane tales and reprimands and tell me she will come over now to pick me up or something?

I can picture her frail face, her dark eyes and her windswept hair. I can see the blue veins that have started to show on her hands. I can smell her frangipani perfume and almost hear her soft voice. My temples are throbbing now. I start screaming for her over my father’s shoulder across the phone. She has to hear me now, she will be at the phone in a minute, she will drive over like she always does and she will pat me till I fall asleep. She will leave before I wake up, but the room will smell of frangipani and the cushions will have an indentation from where she was sitting the previous night and I will be able to go on for a while longer.

I close my eyes, tears streaming down and wait for her “Shshh, I am here” but all that happens is that my father’s tones get raspier and his voice gives away to tears as if to match mine. “Listen to me”, he cries, “Please, please listen to me. Come home because your mother cannot come and pick you up. You cannot keep waiting for her to come to you – you have to come home and we will talk about this. You have to understand that calling up to talk to her and not talking to me is not the solution to anything”.  Damn, he is having a worse day. I am in a hurry to hang up now because I know how this is going to end. He will insist I need help, and that I need to pull myself together. I mumble a quick goodbye; I will have to call up when he is not around so that I can actually talk to her. As I rush to replace the receiver, I hear his agonized whisper, “She died frigging years ago, Allie, and you still do not allow her any rest….”

Baked Beans on Toast

“Is it dinner time yet?”  Miss A asks on a Sunday afternoon as I am doing the lunch dishes.
“It is 2:00 PM”, I say. “You had lunch an hour ago”.

Tremendously picky eater that she is, her question both amuses and annoys me. I wipe my hands and turn around to tell her that she is supposed to eat properly when served her meals, so that she doesn’t feel hungry an hour later. I see a flash of pink pyjamas moving around in the pantry and I stand at the pantry door watching her.

She comes out with a potato and a lone onion. “Make the Indian Hungry Jacks”, she tells me as the desolate vegetables are pushed into my hands. “I can’t make Pav Bhaji now”, I tell her, ” I need lots of others things to make Pav Bhaji and it is going to take time,so we could have it for dinner, what say”.

She nods happily and while I go to the pantry to see what else needs to be bought, I hear her opening the cutlery drawer. She has set the table and is in her seat waiting for the Pav Bhaji with her fork and spoon in her hand. “I will wait here till it is ready”, she smiles at me. “Will you be five minutes?”, she enquires politely.

I turn her towards the clock and we go through the concepts of lunch and dinner and finishing our meals on time. I end by telling her that dinner is “infinity” away. She pouts a bit, only a bit though. The large brown eyes light up in a minute.

“I need a snack”, she says. “A between lunch and dinner snack”. Before I can respond to this, she is ready with her next brainwave.

“I need baked beans on toast with Coon cheese”, she announces.
“I will get the ingredients”, she says even as I get a plate out. We like using proper terms around here.
We get some baked beans out of the cupboard and she helps me toast some bread. I pour some beans on toast for her and add some shredded cheese on top. She settles down with her snack and insists that I keep the remaining baked beans next to her so that she can see them. “The baked beans will be sad by themselves”, she explains.

While I get on with the rest of my work, she finishes her toast and rewards me with a hug, “You are the best cooker in the world, no one can make food like you, the food boss of this house”, she says as she flings herself around my waist.
I return the hug and as I am about to tell her that she should really get into the habit of eating at the right times, I stop.
There is a glorious winter sun outside and Miss A and I are in our sun dappled kitchen sharing hugs over a tin of canned baked beans and toast. She is happy and well fed and smells of warm bread. I smell of her hugs. The room smells of sunshine, of spring that is around the corner, of her childhood, of happy meals, of stolen giggles and of the simple pleasures that come from forgetting to play along with the clock.

I know that some day soon she will learn to divide her day into slots, she will learn the difference between lunch and dinner, she will probably finish her meal in a hurry to get somewhere. She will not have the time to talk to the baked beans (she does talk to them, she even names her food if she is feeling more talkative than usual) or make funny faces with the cheese singles. She will not lean back after a meal and half close her eyes and hum a tune even as she
bursts into giggles of delight because she got the words wrong. Someday, whether we like it or not, happiness will be an equation bigger than an impromptu meal in the middle of the day. But, right here and right now, we both have nowhere else to go. We have nowhere else we would rather be.

“I like golden afternoons the best”, Miss A says as we settle down to read. Me too, Miss A. Especially the ones that include little girls with brown eyes and ponytails and warm hugs. Me too!

PS: Edited to Add: If you haven’t read yesterday’s post yet, go do that now. We need to get those food lists happening 🙂

Food Matters

There is a gorgeous, gorgeous slice of sunshine on my window as I write this. Bright pink blossoms greeted me this morning as I stepped out for work. Spring has finally sprung. To add to the joie de vivre  that is this warmth, I am happily eying a cup of magical black brew sits atop my desk (no, not that other black brew, it is still daytime here).

This brings me to a much-loved topic of mine. Food is a very strong evocation for me – memories, warm kitchens, stainless steel plates, the clatter of spoons, the sizzle of seasoning, the grinding of spices, the steam from a mound of white rice, the stupor from one bowl of dessert too many. You get the picture, we like our kitchen and our food around these parts. Some of my best memories revolve around memorable meals. There was a tag going around the blogosphere a while ago about the most memorable meals ever tasted.

Five meals, then, that are the stuff that memories are made of – five meals that stopped time, tickled your palates,  rendered you wordless, rendered you a sloth and took you to a happier place. Here is my list. And I hope to see yours. As always, leave me a comment (I love comments, did you pick up on that subtle clue there? Yes?) or do the tag and let me know 🙂

1) Idli Chutney Breakfasts on Sunday mornings – My mother, the amazing, fantabulous cook, makes wonderful idlis. To date, I have not eaten better idlis anywhere in the world (yes, that includes you, Vidyarthi Bhavan Bangalore).  She serves them with an utterly, finger-licking, droolicious chutney. And a very moreish sambhar that takes you to a better place. For many, many years, this was traditional Sunday breakfast while growing up.  Sunday morning meant Disney, oil baths and endless idlis. With the aforementioned divine chutney and sambhar.

After the sixth or seventh serving (long after her parents had moved on other tasks after finishing breakfast), a funny little kid who had missed the memo on finite servings served herself some idlis, a dollop of chutney, heaps of sambar and a few spoonfuls of yogurt. The funny little kid would then mash up this mixture till it looked like a thick paste. She would then sit back and watch Sunday Disney spooning the mixture into her mouth, oohing in delight, utterly happy with her world. It was heaven in a plate. Two decades and more later, every time I go back home, I still have the last serving of idlis mashed up in a paste. Don’t ask. Heaven does not have reasons.

2) Jackfruit Curry, Sol Kadhi – Growing up, our daily food had strong coastal influences, thanks to the geography of the little town I grew up in. Every house around the neighbourhood had a mini orchard of coconut, jackfruit and breadfruit trees. Ordinarily I detest ripe jackfruit – the overly sweet smell does nothing to quell an instant headache. Green jackfruits now, that is a different matter. The mater aka the chef extraordinaire, cooks a heavenly jackfruit curry, piquant with ground green chillies and flavoured with nutty black peas. Lots of fresh grated coconut. Tender jackfruit seeds. A lashing of coriander. Served with sol kadhi or coconut milk seasoned with citrusy kokum and cumin and slightly burnt red chillies.

There is only way to eat jackfruit curry – you do not share. You do not wait to be served. You do not get a plate. You eat it straight out of pan, washing down the chillies with generous swigs of the mild sol kadhi. You do not talk when partaking this feast. When you are done, you walk over to the kind neighbours who sent you the green, tart, tender jackfruits and thank them profusely. On the way back, you eye their laden jackfruit tree with unabashed longing. And hope that you will be remembered when this bounty is to be shared again.

3) Panipuri and vada pav – There is this eatery tucked away behind the busy markets where my mother does her daily shopping. A spartan room with formica tables, rusty cabinets and handwritten menus. Mama, as an entire generation of college kids calls him, reigns supreme in this chaos. He is a permanent fixture behind mounds of shev, sliced onions, fresh coriander, plump tomatoes and angry chillies. The menu never changes, the prices don’t either. You wait on the pavement till someone vacates a seat. When you do get a seat, be warned that you may need to share it with perfect strangers.

The panipuri will explode in your mouth – a heady profusion of tamarind, mint, cumin, rock salt and jaggery will convince you that the recipe of nirvana cannot be much different to this melange.While devouring this do remember that 4  plates of panipuri is not too much. Eat the vada pav next – the vada will burn your mouth – either with the heat or with the deep fried chillies served on the side.  The hot batter coating will melt giving way to bite sized potatoes cooked with the fiery garlic, fresh coriander and ground chillies. Either way, it is a glad suffering. You will feel alive and rejuvenated and strangely optimistic about all things food. So much so, that you will gladly queue up on the pavement again.

4) Ravioli, Red, Raging Snow – A business trip found me in Minneapolis right at the peak of a very harsh winter. Dinner was arranged at the Nicollette Island Inn – and if you are ever in Minn Minn, you must,must eat here. Not just for the food but for the ambience. As we ordered, the snowfall came in fast and thick, speckling the large french windows with transient polka dots. A good glass of red wine and a heavenly creamy ravioli followed. Outside the Missisippi flowed silently in the dark evening – stoic and ageless. A short walk was had while we waited for desserts. There was a sense of homecoming as I watched the swirling waters from the bridge over the Missisippi – here was the river that Mark Twain immortalized in his books, here was the river that Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer based their lives around. Fiction edges into life sometimes – they are not all that disparate, these two worlds. The snowfall around the lamp posts, the roaring fire at the Inn, the warm pudding and the genteel old fashioned old worlde service added to a memorable evening. Memories are made on dark, snowy nights. Around a fire. With a slice of past adventures for company.

5) Mexican delights –  I love Mexican food. Like, love it enough to eat it endlessly when on a trip to the US because Adelaide sorely lacks good Mex cantinas! Which is why, when self stumbled across ‘Dos Caminos’ while in Vegas I was drawn to it like gamblers to slot machines. The urge was too strong, the cuisine too inviting. I ate there the first day. And the second. And the third. And then again on the fifth day. What’s that? What did I do on the fourth day? I ate somewhere else and rued the fact that I had wasted a meal on food that wasn’t from Dos Caminos. Bring on the salsa, the guacamole, the empanadas and the mexican churros. And the margaritas, oh the margaritas. At the end of each meal, I remember being happily ill. Clearly not ill enough to stop me from rushing back in the next day and make myself sick again. But a good kind of ill. Of all the illnesses in the world, the illness that comes from having too much of a good thing is the most memorable.

I could go on with this list. Lebanese patatas in a souk in Dubai. Dal Fry by the Avon river in Christchurch (yes, I am aware that the Mauris didn’t invent the dal fry).  Warm Sangria in Minneapolis. Heavenly masala dosas at Vidyarthi Bhavan (yes, they are the best). Midnight Bhel with the dear Aunt every summer. Samosas and tea at a roadside eatery during a storm where we lost our shoes (the samosas were totally worth it). Delish spinach pakodas at a little eatery atop Pratapgad after a day of trekking. Wedding feasts with jalebis and spiced buttermilk and the jovial bustling of cousins and aunties even as one more round of jalebis is served. And of course, the simple dal and rice and pickle that my mother serves when I get home jetlagged, tired and cranky.

So tell me your memories. And your food stories. Tell me if you stop after a finite number of serves. Tell me if food takes you down memory lane, tell me if you are transported back to a simpler place and time. Go on, I am listening.  With a good meal, a memory is only a bite away. You believe me, don’t you?

The Pianist

Motherhood is tricky business. You constantly walk the fine line between second guessing and gambling all that you know on a whim, on an urge, on an instinct. It is mostly unchartered territory – defined by the struggles and
heartaches not mentioned in any of the parenting books you will ever read. You find your way as you go along; you are not allowed to stop because a small hand is holding your hand with faith even as as you wait to take the next faltering step.

Miss A asks me to join her as she practices her piano. “Do you want to hold up my music sheets for me?” she asks. I oblige and assist albiet with some trepidation. It is like being pushed on stage for an elaborate dance and I am terrified
of missing the beat or not moving along quickly enough with the tune. She plays song after song flawlessly; my eyes may not be trained to read the music but my ears recogize a melody when they hear one.
The songs are getting harder – Miss A knits her brow in fierce concentration even as her tiny hands scale the keys. She pushes an errant strand of hair away and inches closer to the keys,scanning the sheets of music before her. She hasnt missed a beat, she is still firmly on track, commanding the old keyboard to churns music like a well rehearsed magic act.

As she ends with a flourish, I clap loudly and give her a friendly thump on her back. “You dont do that when a pianist is on stage”, she informs me even as she struggles to escape from my bear hug. She settles down with a piece of paper and a pen and I presume she is done with her music practice for the day. She stops me as I am about to get up and a piece of paper with music notations is thrust in my hands.

“I write my own music”, I am informed. “I first write a song and then I set music to it”, she astounds me further.

There are moments when you suddenly realise that there are areas in your child’s heart that are alien to you. While you were kissing grazed knees, making up songs to sing in the bath and stocking up on fairytales, your child
has ventured out alone,crossing the boundaries of make-believe into a real and more immediate world where things like songs and music and harmony are now tangible creations of her own – not just mere gifts handed down from you to her.

She waits patiently, first on one foot and then the other as I try to take it all in. As I finish reading the last line, she tugs at me sleeve,”Can you help me change the tune for the last line – it needs to be more ‘rock and roll’ish, I think? Please?”.

I struggle with the notes for a while even as she tries to explain the difference between a tempo and a pronto. This is completely out of my league, and I have no suggestions and no words of advice to offer to her. And yet, the eager and cheerful face next to mine urges me to keep trying.

I manage to read her notes after much effort, and finally see the pattern emerging. By the time I come up with a passable suggestion, the piano stands sullen because she has moved on to other things As I put the music sheets away, I am suddenly my mother –  the woman who went through my Electronics Circuits books to ensure that she understood what I was studying. Who made notes of the ICs I needed for my lab experiments and who went to
the electronics shop to buy them for me and learnt how to test them so that I could carry on working uninterrupted. I dont have her patience, her selflessness or her untiring enthusiasm for every hour of life but, on a basic level my mother and I – we are the same.

Motherhood comes with a guarantee that you don’t have to have a road-map for roads not taken before.The fact that your child wants to walk down that path is more than enough. You take the first step, if you struggle and end up lost, you take the next step with more caution and more courage till your eyes can see the road. And if there is no road at all, you keep walking till your footsteps can chart out a path that those walking with you can follow.

Miss A, there will be times when I won’t have the words for your songs or the notes for your tunes. When the only music you can make will have to come from within. There will be times when all your music will stand silent and glum – on such days and till they pass, Miss A, I promise to be your audience,  I promise to clap and cheer for you from the dim hallows of the auditorium.

This much I vow – you will always be assured of an encore with me – for in your notes I find myself…

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