Sometimes I am in the midst of a conver-sation with a group of people when the topic suddenly changes and I find myself unable to join in. I don’t mind my ignorance about sports or the Enron scandal, but every so often these topics are of a more personal nature that make me feel like an outsider. Subjects unique to the American culture, stories shared by other members of the group that arise from their collective experience of growing up in America. A special trick-or-treating incident from childhood or the thrill of senior prom, events that I have personally not experienced, growing up as I did, in a country located all the way round the globe. I find it highly educational to listen to the lively discussion on these and other topics that give me insight into not just who this particular group of people are but also allows me a glimpse into who they used to be. In such situations, silence can be both illuminating and enlightening.
One day I happened to join a group engaged in nostalgic discussion about the family kitchen table. Each person added a few observations about the kitchen table in the homes they grew up in. I was speechless. Stumped by a simple topic, a mere object that would seem so commonplace in any house. My inability to contribute stemmed from a basic problem. In my childhood home, there had been no table in the kitchen, no gathering place to munch on homemade snacks, no safe spot for displaying artwork while the paint dried. The minutes slipped by as I jogged my brain for some comment. That’s when it struck me that today there is a table in my mother’s kitchen.
Now that she is stiff from the arthritis that first swelled her knees and moved into her wrists and fingers, there is a table. My pleasantly plump mother could bend over and touch her toes with her fingertips, flexible as a gymnast in those years when I was a clumsy teenager. Nowadays she hobbles around the house with a limp that is more pronounced when she is exhausted. There wasn’t enough space for a dining table in the kitchen of the cramped apartment in Bombay where I grew up. We needed all the living space we could get, trying to fit a family of five in 550 square feet.
There were other reasons too. A modest corner was devoted to the altar where several Hindu gods lived beside each other in harmony, united in their common goal of showering their blessings on our family. The open floor space provided room for our daily prayers and prostration. But to my childlike eyes, the kitchen was a big room, a busy room full of activity. From the steaming cup of morning coffee to the tumbler of warm milk that she made me drink at night, the kitchen was where my mother lived, the center of the house from which she breathed life into her household.
We sat cross-legged on the floor to eat, the plates and bowls neatly laid out in front of us. The glasses were set to the left of the plate since we were a right-handed family. On festivals, she would draw flowery designs with rangoli powder, lightly colored with a dash of turmeric, around the rim of large stainless steel plates that reflected our expectant faces on their mirrored surfaces. On rare occasions, the meal would be served on tender banana leaves, wide as towels, ribbed and resilient, the ultimate biodegradable disposable plates. I thought it was a shame to wipe off the beautiful rangolis after just one sumptuous meal, but that was what we did. Took away the neatly piled plates and bowls and wiped down the cool tiled floor after each meal. My mother’s kitchen floor was literally one that you could eat off of.
Last year when I went back for a visit, I saw a table in that kitchen for the first time. A table that dwarfed the kitchen and seemed to shrink the warm loving space where my brothers and I teased each other, held eating contests and told tales. Only my father and mother use that room now. With fewer occupants, the space looks smaller. It feels like the energy and life is ebbing away from my childhood home.
My mother has acquired appliances and made other changes to help compensate for her reduced flexibility and increased pain. The additional material comforts however, do not seem to comfort her.
“My nest is empty,” she says pensively. “All my birds have flown. The house is finally clean and clutter free, but there is no young life bouncing off the walls, giving energy to these beams and bricks that are as tired as my weary bones.”
There is a table now, but no one to sit and ask for help with homework, no one to seek advice or share gossip. Her grandkids are taller than her kids once were, tugging at her sari, vying with each other for her attention.
In this kitchen my mother patiently taught me Adityahridayam, a prayer recited by the valiant god Rama to destroy his enemies, hoping to inculcate a strong religious foundation to build mental strength and foster spiritual growth. In this space where she washed and treated innumerable scraped knees with household remedies, wiped teary eyes with the edge of her sari, cooked elaborate meals, and told stories, she now prays alone.
Every Sunday she would re-enact a popular cooking oil commercial on television by asking me “Meri beti aaj kya khayegi, what will my daughter eat today?” before letting me pick the lunch menu. On our birthdays, she would make multi-course meals and desserts of our choice. Now my mother asks me for help with the simplest task and sits wearily at the table while I wash the dishes and give her a glass of water with her medication.
I tried to join the conversation again. I desperately wanted to add my own special memories of the kitchen table from my childhood, but I could not. I had to choose one. Old memories of happy days spent with my healthy and vital mother in her table-less kitchen or the newer ones with the large, shiny table that dwarfs my mother and her kitchen. I opened my mouth and closed it without saying a word. Sometimes, it is the silence that illuminates and enlightens.
Ranjani Nellore lives in the Silicon Valley. Her stories have appeared on sulekha.com and desijournal.com.