Nov-Dec 2011: Condiments - short story, Rumjhum Biswas
The newspaper lining the spice shelf is so caked with oil that it’s turned into a sticky, smelly multi-layered wad of waxed paper. More than a month has passed, but you still haven’t found the time or desire to change it. Now it looks like you don’t have the inclination either. It is time to move on, and that feeling has descended already.
Like a new season, it has a nimbus of excitement around it. But this excitement is not like the April showers of your girlhood. There are no silk cotton tufts freed from their pods drifting down. No delicious nuggets of forbidden hail stones to bite. No tender green pickling mangoes hastily gathered up, before the warm-wet arrows of Kal Baisakhi brought them down, and equally surreptitiously hidden from Mother’s eyes. This movement has none of that charm. This movement is more like the shuffling of luggage from a railway station’s waiting room, where you knew already that you would be staying only for a while; it would only be a temporary home, but you made yourself at home anyway. And now, on the eve of departure, even that feeling has waned; you’ve begun to feel like a stranger and the house has turned its back on you. It is suddenly no longer yours; that feeling of ownership just isn’t there any more.
Already the walls are looking at you strangely and your furniture and belongings have begun to take on the disheveled look they get right after an arrival or immediately before a departure. You feel you can skip the dusting and the cleaning, leave it for that last day after everything’s been sealed and labeled, and you have removed almost all the spoor of your existence here in this hot city of quirky boulevards, a myriad cuisines, parrots and squirrels in the trees, almost bobbing on the sea.
Your home town had parrots and squirrels too, and a lot of other flora and fauna as well. Perhaps that’s why you were able to love this place while you were here. It’s one of those small things that you discover almost every time you move to a new place; a familiar aspect in unfamiliar settings and it comforts you enough to make you feel at home. The unknown does not seem so intimidating. Not anymore. And then the months expand into four or five years and you feel so much at ease that you believe you’ve lived there almost your whole life through, and you do love the place. You do, you do, or so you tell yourself. You end up convincing yourself that this is your home and you could live here forever like you could never live anywhere else. So the last days carry with them a residue of sorrow like the last drop of honey in a jar. Always.
Now, however, you no longer love this city in that “it’s my home” kind of way. The judgment was passed the day the transfer orders arrived, and your husband came home with that bright eyed anticipation you have learnt to recognise. His surprise for you is a one-act play and both of you know it. So subconsciously you begin to shed the place, the way a snake sheds its old skin. Of course you don’t hate it. You never will, but that bond begins to fade almost immediately. This city is withdrawing from you, disintegrating the umbilical cord it had planted in your heart. The familiar is no longer necessary; except the repeat pattern of this peripatetic destiny, this vagabond existence that has ensured that you and yours belong nowhere and to no one, other than to yourselves.
The kitchen, even now, yields up bouquets of spices and flavours. A few grains of mustard are still attached to that part of the wall where they had splattered and got stuck. A curry leaf has curled upon itself in a corner where the stove top ends and the kitchen wall begins. A dusting of white flour on the shelf inside the cupboard that served as storeroom forms a neat outline, a circumference of flour. There are some more imprints on the paper, a couple of tiny purse shaped roach eggs, some grains of rice, a smear of turmeric and chili powder. The sight embarrasses you a little because good housekeeping has always been your thing, learned from your mother, who did not teach by teaching; rather she inspired you through memory. Suddenly the kitchen is full of her absence. You run out from this unbearable emptiness. The emptiness of the present evoked by memory…
You recede into another kitchen and its territories. The brass water tap outside, surrounded by a low wall over which the maid squatted when she washed the utensils stood at the far end, politely beyond mother’s kitchen, its darkest end. Parts of the lower end of the corner that it hugged gleamed with slime; mother almost never went to that part. It belonged to the maid. Mother washed her vegetables and fruits and even the rice under the shiny chromium plated tap suspended above a steel basin within her kitchen. A pedestal fan whirred just outside, in the covered verandah, and a table covered with a plastic cloth with a pattern of oranges and apples held her chopping board and knives. The traditional Bonthi was the maid’s domain. The maid cut the fish and jackfruit, both tender and ripe, the banana blossoms and banana stems, the elephant’s foot yam, on the lethal blade wedged into a thick slab of wood. Mother watched as the maid went about her job, clasping the bottom of the blade just where it dug into the wood, with her toes, the jangle of her glass bangles as she drove the fish head or yam into the upright cutter. Mother cut the finer vegetables herself; seated at her table, she gracefully strung the beans with her fair hands wielding a small paring knife.
The Bonthi has never been a part of your kitchen. Maids in these parts don’t know what that instrument is. The maids here are expensive, foreign and efficient. They work like machines and clock their time with stop watch precision. But you have never squatted on the floor to cut whole fish either. Working from the kitchen floor was not something you would do, because your mother never did, because she had been so modern for her time. You remember the LPG gas stove in her kitchen, the summer morning of iridescent dragonflies when it arrived, a first in your locality. Then the jumbo sized pressure cookers, the meat mincer - a hefty cast iron contraption fixed to one end of her stout wooden kitchen table that you helped turn, the round oven whose temperature had to be gauged by dropping in a piece of paper after heating it for ten minutes… Her kitchen flowed over with gadgets, you smile when you think of those archaic things that proclaimed your mother’s modern tastes. And she was kitchen proud too! She grew coriander and green chilies in little tubs in the sunniest spots of her kitchen verandah. A money plant crept down from a chipped teapot on the roof of her portly Frigidaire that father had bought second hand from a departing American family, or were they British? You remember the look of quiet satisfaction on mother’s face. It was beneath her to express excitement over a refrigerator, but she was keenly aware of the absence of sound from the next door neighbour’s yard. You inherited her pride and her love for gadgets. Except that you work smart, not hard. You work with the kind of conveniences that she, modern though she was, could scarcely have dreamed of…
Everything is packed and sealed and frozen these days. Nice and easy, though not on the pocket, and the flavours are almost nonexistent. Yet, this is the kitchen that whistles in your mind like a pressure cooker that’s cooked its meat. Mother had once said that three whistles were enough for mutton curry if you got the right cuts of meat from a young goat. You remembered that and other tips as well that she delivered not so much to teach you, but as part of conversation, bits and pieces of monologue from her, to which she never really expected any response. The kitchen was her world and her conversation naturally ran back and forth from it, but she hadn’t wanted you in it. Her maternal fears welled up every time you offered to make tea. It was not the scalding that she was concerned about, though at first you hadn’t realised; it was her fear that you would become like her - a homebody, a walking talking nurturing piece of furniture. The kitchen was taboo. Then how did the learning happen? Do mothers and daughters share an umbilicus exclusively kitchen bound?
The leftover aromas of your present comatose kitchen, where even the last spoonful of cumin powder has been packed away, ready to be transported to another home in another kitchen in a strange city, remind you achingly now, of her succulent fish gravy, her summer dhal, the dry vegetable curries she used to make with the freshest of winter vegetables. The empty bottle of tomato ketchup lying face down in a plastic bag, ready to be disposed off with all the accumulated garbage, bring back memories of the spicy ketchup she used to cook in a pot and then pour into empty jam jars, washed and boiled and cooled beforehand. A yellow butterfly’s wings flash for an instant outside your kitchen window and instantly the vision of tender yellow pumpkin-flower fritters wafts by. A grain of white rice on the kitchen counter conjures up a bowl of rich thick rice pudding. And, suddenly there is this physical ache for the girl you once used to be, for mother’s sari end, her apron and your towel or handkerchief depending on the occasion… Your heart squeezes hard, but the tears refuse to flow; you hold on to the hard lump in your throat, almost afraid to let it melt.
This was not home. That into which you will go tomorrow and set up all your things and the masala jars as well, will also not be home. Just as those other places you left behind were not. Yet, there will be a home of sorts when you start to go about your chores. In your lived remembrances, in the ordinary days of simply serving and eating, the aromas from the real home you left will rise. Her voice is a memory that calls you, always will; call you home to dinner or lunch, depending on when the condiments work their spell and conjure up a near physical presence of mother from the sandalwood dotted and dry flower garlanded photograph in the cupboard where your respectfully ignored deities reside.