Squatting as if she's going to draw a kolam,
She rams the coconut on the corrugated stone
And I clutch my head in reflex
'Amma,' I mutter
'Hmm?' she replies, nonchalantly,
As if that wasn't a thinly veiled threat
She stands up, her hair wrapped in a cotton towel
Appa, sitting quietly in the hall
lowers his newspaper that was open wide like a shield
'Va pa,' he coos,
'Auspicious' he adds,
pointing to the coconut in Amma's hands
'Nothing of the sort,' she retorts
'I'm making chutney' and saunters off to the kitchen
The house is exactly as I left it
Old music cassettes toppled over in the wooden shelf
The smell of sandalwood and tulsi
The cool stone floor
The sound of water dripping into a plastic bucket
The sickeningly orangey brown of the walls
Like scraped skin
Thatha and Paati's ominous portraits glaring at me
Always aggravating the tension in the living room
I hear Amma chopping chillies
As I run through all the things I want to say
All the explanations I want to offer
I venture tentatively into the kitchen -
'I couldn't come, Amma'
She dunks the chillies into the mixer
and twists the knob, filling the room with deafening whirring
My stomach turns
'But, I had to work'
The whirring gets louder and sharper
She scrapes the insides of the mixer noisily with a steel spoon
There is powder on her neck,
as if someone was carelessly playing Holi with it
She pours oil into a scarred tava
'I sent money for the surgery and besides, Akka was here'
The mustard seeds crackle as she scoffs
'He was sick - you couldn't come..'
Her eyes dance like the open flame of the gas stove
'...But now - you may get sick and you've come running home'
She throws the tempered ingredients
with the mush of coconut and chilli
They hiss in protest
I say nothing
And make my way to the dining room for breakfast.
I overhead Amma talking with Paati
Who lives alone back in the village
A one-woman army,
Unfazed by the havoc a tiny virus can wreak on the world
“All ok, ah?”
“Reduce the TV volume, Amma, I cannot hear you.”
“Did the milkman come?”
“It is shaped like a pill, not the arrow”
“Ah, who plucked the flowers?”
“But that is outrageous”
“Did you ask Shyam?” “But don’t stand too close..”
“That’s what the papers say. But you...”
“Veena says that he has a job, but that’s not what Kala told me”
“I don’t know, Amma”
“Anyway, you are ok, ah?”
“Yes, I’m adding extra turmeric in everything, don’t worry.”
“Yes, garlic, hmm..”
“We are fine, Amma, don’t worry about us. You...”
“Ah, ok, ok, enjoy the serial”
“Really, ah? What a cheap man”
“Kadavale. I haven’t seen these episodes.”
“Don’t forget to take your medicine.”
“Call me tomorrow.”
“Ah, okay, take care.”
“It’s not disconnected.”
She sighs heavily and I see her eyes glossy and full
like a river behind a dam.
The things we keep
we had nothing
to look forward to
so we traced our steps
to an old forgotten chest of drawers
sitting stoically in the corner of my parents' bedroom
it all comes tumbling out
a sheaf of photographs
some stuck together so determinedly
that pulling them apart ruins them
discard, she says.
an old telephone book
with faded names
and forgotten numbers
obsolete, she declares.
a bottle of expired perfume
'Appa gave this to me when you were born'
'So sweet,' I say
The scent is tangy, pungent, stale
throw the perfume, keep the bottle, she instructs.
a box of letters that my mother
conceals under her sari pallu
we uncover stray coins from foreign countries
never throw money, she states firmly
an old alarm clock
batteries, wires and loose ends
playing cards - not enough to make a full deck
and a set of toothbrush, mini toothpaste and a bar of soap
she throws the whole lot and a cloud of dust rises
like she's brewing a spell
i can smell the nostalgia
a thick musty aroma
that tickles my senses
I'll get a broom, she says
And stands up
The letters go with her
I keep sifting through the memories
A broken bead bracelet
A tattered copy of the Thirukkural
melted American chocolates
broken shells that smell like Mahabalipuram
"Where is Amma", I wonder, after a while
I catch her standing in the doorway,
facing the back porch
"What are you doing, ma?"
Appa appears a few steps ahead of me in the corridor
My heart warms at the thought of them reminiscing
of a simpler, romantic time
She hurriedly tucks the papers between the band of her sari in-skirt
"Nothing, pa - I came to fetch a broom," she says.
Appa turns and looks at me, innocently
I stand frozen
Like a photograph caught between two others.
Pritika Rao is an economics researcher and freelance writer based in Bangalore, India. She enjoys freshly brewed filter coffee, pots of spicy biryani and the underrated delightfulness of train journeys. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Check out Shashikant Dhotre's work here.