DOWN THE MEMORY LANE
My mother finds comfort in her spices. Every morning, she wakes up even before the day begins, cleans and tidies the kitchen as though her whole life depends on it. When the sun is about to rise, she settles down to prepare tea for everyone in the house; different kinds with different flavours, just like everyone likes- ginger tea for my father, sugar free cardamom tea for my grandparents- for their health must be taken care of no matter what. Finally, green tea for me-my adolescence being suddenly opening up to the new realms of health consciousness and dietary plans. Even though deep down I know I would give in to the junk food stall just round the corner of our house by the end of the week. It's a weekday today, yet I’m at home. With my exams drawing near, nobody has any complaints about me not attending school as grades are the absolute priority in a country like ours and in the households we grow up in. We were really lucky to have had the chance to be educated with a roof over our heads and stomachs being filled in daily, dreams, desires and happiness were too meager to be sacrificed in the face of privilege.
As I settle down with my books, pretending to care about whatever subject I am supposed to be studying, I observe my mother. With everyone out of the house, she has the kitchen to herself and I've never seen her happier. It's almost as if the entire room is speaking to her- whispering, the utensils opening up to her about how their day went, the vegetables forgiving her lovingly for being chopped at her hands, all of them circling around her, waiting for their turn to be touched by her fingers and be created into something magical. They, almost like Cinderella’s pumpkin or the mice await their fairy godmother’s arrival to be transformed into a horse drawn carriage for the beautiful princess.
I see my mother and I wonder if I will ever be happy in the way she is, if I will ever have the same light shining in my eyes. She sees me eyeing her and chuckles to herself, proceeding to tell me what each of the spices are for, how they taste and in what order and proportion they should be used, for a single slip can render unfavourable results. She tells me that seeing me looking at her reminds her of the time when she used to be just like me, eyes full of dreams, eager to go win the world, and taking stand for herself. It takes her back on a journey, a journey of how she lacked the courage to fight against the whole world and gave in to what others wanted of her. She tells me about the long-forgotten roads, of hidden lovers and stolen kisses, small handwritten letters tucked in with school notes; people and lives she was too scared to fight for.
She tells me about Rahim, the guy who used to live across the street from theirs and how she will never forget his eyes, how they looked like behind closed windows and the occasional glances across terraces and balconies. All the girls of the whole neighbourhood were told not to be friends with him, lest it turn into something more than that.
She remembers his eyes like they could penetrate all surfaces, like he wanted to penetrate the prejudices of the people he was living with, the people his parents thought of as family, the people they sent food, love and blessings every Eid, only to be received with no Christmas cards, or new festivities on Diwali. Those eyes, beautiful as they were, could always see through the huge facade of “unity in diversity” that our social science books claimed. She remembers how those eyes could always see when they were making up excuses to avoid playing with him, or including him in their shenanigans. She tells me how once she had seen him walk towards his house, dejected at not being included again and when he thought no one was looking, those magical eyes burst into tears, tears he wished could wash away all he faced, tears he wished would answer the tons of questions he had, tears he wished would wipe away his name and his religion and everything else it stood for, and just make him human again; just that, a human being and nothing more.
She tells me about Ramu Kaka, the house help my mother, aunts and uncles had when they were growing up, just like we had Lata Mashi to help Maa with her household work. I had heard about Ramu Kaka before, mostly when we visited my maternal grandparents during the Puja holidays-the entire house alive with the happy voices of numerous relatives from near and afar, all of them overwhelmed at reuniting after so long and reminiscing about their childhoods at the same time. I had seen pictures of him too in some of the old photographs, all black and white and faded, in albums that held the childhoods of my mother, aunts and uncles, fit carefully inside a fancy paper bag that had also faded, above the cupboard in my mother’s old room, which, when opened, smelled of nostalgia and memories of old books, stolen moments and lost innocence; all hidden somewhere. Ramu Kaka has always appeared in the background of these pictures, offering tea to my grandmother while she makes sure that the table is set all fancy for guests. He would often run behind my mother as she tried to pull off another escapade to avoid having to take a bath. He also looked at my aunt with the most genuine smile on his face as she managed to read the first words off of the old half-torn hand-me-down nursery rhyme book that had already been almost devoured by all the brothers and sisters before her. My mother remembers this human being just like he appeared in those pictures, always hanging there, in the background, always being there when they needed him, but never really taken notice of. Until they found out that he was suffering from cancer and that he had only a few months to live. She remembers them having to learn to live without him, though she doesn’t remember how. She tells me he had two daughters about the same age as hers, one a bit younger and that they never got to know how they managed and what they did in their lives, and if they learnt to live without their father, just like they had, almost so easily, almost like he never was a part of their lives. Or maybe he wasn’t, maybe one day the photographs will completely fade to its maximum and his face won’t be so clear, maybe one day, my aunt will forget his name, and will teach herself to live with the memory of the smile he had given her, that was hers and hers only.
She tells me how she wanted to open a school one day and teach all the kids she had seen not being able to go to school. She tells me how she had always envisioned her home to have her name on the side of the doorbell, just her name, just Sujata, and not Mrs. Banerjee. She tells me how she had always wanted to go to Paris and try out all the local cafes and taste all the food that she had once read in books or seen in movies. She also tells me how her mother, with time, had taught her how to use all the spices and when to put them in the food, in what amounts and just how, for maybe somehow my grandmother knew that just like her, her daughter’s fate was sealed the day she was born, the day the whole family had come to congratulate her half-heartedly at having had a girl after a girl; the day she had looked at the beautiful child and decided to raise her as a fighter – but even then, fighters lose, even the best fail, and even the most courageous can give in. My mother tells me that she never knew that she wouldn’t be brave enough, that she would one day decide that her dreams weren’t only hers, and that her happiness had already been sold. She tells me about how she used to be mesmerised by art, in all its forms, but art in their circle wouldn’t be accepted in all its forms. The only art that were appreciated had to be cultural and also had to be extra-curricular; they had never heard of anyone living their lives and running families and standing up on their own feet through art, for art and by art. With all of this, as she mixes up the spices and occasionally stirs the pan and waits for the accurate time to put in the next ingredient, she tells me that how her life was once made of snippets of happiness and sorrow, laughter and escapades, snippets she now sometimes likes to look back at, almost like they were all kaleidoscopes, all the colours and beauty of the life that could have been, the moments that she never had, little broken glass pieces all scattered yet somehow together, looking back at her from the other side.
My mother, for me, has always been just that, my mother. Even with time when I realised that she had a life before she was my mother, that she had been just like me once, I never allowed myself to venture down that road or let myself into that journey. That part, for me, has always been something that my mother had, and for me, it was hers and hers only, just like all my daydreams and my musings were mine. She has always been just Maa for me- Maa who I can always find if I need a lap to cry myself to sleep; Maa who makes sure I eat the various delicacies prepared by her almost every day; Maa, who I know I could yell at when she messes up at times and who I know would forgive me the moment I went at her with my affection, but not before I get a piece of her mind. Maa, who can never make mistakes, who is the most beautiful soul on earth, and who is just as perfect as one can be. Maa who has the weight of the world on her shoulders, but never once did she bend down to the world. She has always been there like I have seen her, like I am used to seeing her and never as a teenage girl with hopeful days and heartbroken nights. For me, she didn’t have a journey without us in it, she didn’t have a home that wasn’t the one we lived in, didn’t know happiness without us being happy.
I try hard to refrain myself but my curiosity takes over and I end up asking her if she is truly happy. She looks at me and smiles; the most genuine and beautiful smile that I had ever seen in my life. Her smile broadens as much as it can, and she tells me that someday, I will understand how happiness evolves with every person in life. She tells me that she could not be more thankful that her mother taught her what spices and curries and what the different kinds of food can do to people and for people. She tells me that the kitchen is her whole world and when she is in it, she feels there is no height that she cannot reach and no levels of joy that are not hers. But what about all her dreams I ask, and maybe for the tiniest moment, I see a slight bit of regret and sorrow and a little hope flicker through her eyes, but then she picks herself up and tells me that the life that she had, it made her everything that she is today. There is a slight shift in her posture, almost like she is also telling this to herself, as she looks at me and tells me how so many people will tell us stories of dreams achieved, of dreams fulfilled, of dreams that got to see the light of day, but how nobody will stop and tell us about the dreams that remained as it were, the dreams that slowly came to be for others to have, and the dreams that you are not allowed to dream about. She tells me that she might have got off at the wrong station, a very wrong station, maybe even the wrong train, but she would change nothing about the journey she had had. She might never think about going down that road again, but she would surely not change a single thing about her journey. For her, it taught her love, it taught her kindness, and at the same time made her see how cruel the world can be, and how even though you can always heal it with love, it isn’t enough for everyone; how some fates are better than others, how some lives are easier than others and even though you thought you knew how your whole life would turn out to be, you might turn out to be happy with exactly the opposite. But is it really happiness, or just a comfort, a comfort of being inside the cocoon that we create for ourselves with time? And as I sat there watching my mother own the kitchen with her magic, like she always had, with my head full of stories from a journey I never thought I would be a part of, I started to wonder whether it was actually true when they teach us that the journey really is always more important than the destination.