The pressure cooker sounded its first slow whistle as Amma came out of the washroom holding the nada of her pavadai with one hand and pressing the dampness out of her limp hair with a towel in the other. She quickly walked through the fragrant air that floated from the kitchen, throwing a quick glance over her shoulder as the pressure cooker jiggle-joggled to the tune of the steam.
As she turned, she noticed that CNN was still on and images of Iraq caught her attention before she switched the power off. “This must be Kaliyugam,” she muttered under her breath as she thought about the epoch of darkness that the media portrayed daily. Wars, corruption, misery, and darkness all around.
“Why do we watch the news?” she asked herself as she climbed onto a chair to open the tiny basement window. “Kadavale, why do you let your people suffer like this?” She wondered quietly. The rusty lever creaked as the window heaved open to allow the cold October wind entry into the warm stale air packed below ground. It made her catch her breath as she quickly stepped off the chair and out of its path. Her wet hair dripped down the back of her sari blouse and found a crevice on her bare back through which to drizzle down her waist. She shuddered as she quickly went into the bedroom and selected an old printed silk sari to wear while she did her morning puja. Amma folded herself into the soft familiar fabric while she listened to the impatient hissing beast slowly building pressure on the stove.
It was the holy month before Divali, and she had woken up with the sun god to start the preparations for cooking special bakshanam to offer in prayer. Every day leading up to the festival of lights, she would prepare rich, delicate sweetmeats and flaky crisp savouries for her granddaughter.
“How else will she know about our culture?” Amma protested when Gokul, her son, complained about the smell of cooking finding its circuitous way to “stink” up his clothes in the antique armoire upstairs. Now, for the entire festive month, Amma silently stood on the deck in her winter coat to fry the family’s favourite snacks on the rusty barbeque. Peppered cabbage vadai, golden Mysore bonda, and crunchy spiral ribbon pakora would crackle and spit in the hot oil as she stood over the skillet like a sorceress. Amma chose the path of least resistance in order to stop one source of constant friction in the family. Daily, regardless of the season, she opened the tiny windows to her burrowed home to let the cool air wash away her identity and remind her with chill certainty of what she was letting go to be a member of this unit.
All those simple little pleasures she had taken for granted in her past, like frying fresh pappadum and painting an intricate, auspicious kolam with rice flour on the threshold to the house, now loomed darkly like monsoon clouds threatening to break if she forgot her place in the delicate balance of this household. Amma’s sari shuffled at her ankles as she walked over to the dressing table. Her granddaughter’s latest art work pasted with tape on the mirror caught her attention. Chaya had drawn a portrait of her family with great care at school and there lovingly scribbled under a stick person with glasses was the inscription “Chaya’s Patti.”
Amma felt a rush of pride as her fingers traced the outline of the unsteady childish scribble that reminded her of her new identity. Yet somewhere inside, her stubborn spirit sometimes longed for those simpler times when she, Meenakshi of the fish-shaped eyes, had her own special place in this universe that she did not have to share with anyone. As she placed a large drop of blood red kumkum on her sandalwood-lined forehead, she felt it transform her sinking spirits with its brilliant, fiery stain. Amma tucked the palloo of her sari into her waist and hurried into the kitchen.
She looked at the work that lay ahead of her in the kitchen and wondered whether anyone would care if she just made pasta for dinner. Today, her daughter Rohini was going to drop by for a visit. In anticipation, Amma had already begun the preparations for Rohini’s favourite dishes. She quickly reached for the broom to sweep away any tell-tale crumbs on the linoleum floor and mentally braced herself for the acid commentary that would drip from her younger child.
“Why do you insist on these traditions when your family has long abandoned them?” Rohini would start, “Don’t create more work for yourself Amma. Give your granddaughter a couple of cookies and explain the significance of the day. Besides, the amount of ghee holding this muruku together is enough to slow down my arteries for the next decade. Aiyooo … why do we use so much grease in our cooking, Amma?” Rohini would ask as she crunched noisily on the spicy muruku.
“Rohini is right,” Amma said to herself as she looked around, “I work from six o’clock in the morning to five o’clock in the evening. But who will notice?” As she swept with her shoulders bent over the broom, nostalgia for days gone by welled in her eyes. Vivid memories of vibrant Divali celebrations in Madras came flooding back to her. There was always so much excitement in the air, children gathering like happy bees around the syrupy fragrant delicacies, the elderly thathas nodding off to a hypnotic syncopation of slokas recited to invoke the divine, young women blooming in colours of new silk rustling around each other, and that familiar desirable ache of belonging to a community. So much of her identity was neatly folded and attached to these random dates on the calendar. Her children used to delight in all the festivities back then. Rohini would roll the delicate dough for vellam cheedai and seal the flaky folds ofsomasi pastry while Gokul loved to race up those familiar warm temple steps for the simple joy of watching the radiant fire showers in the sky announcing the festival of lights. All that intricate weaving of tradition had been wiped out of their tapestry by these years in this new land they called their home.
It had happened slowly, almost insidiously. Amma remembered the way they gradually stopped speaking English with that warm lilt of a faraway summer; the way they had laughed with discomfort when their new classmates carelessly dropped a few syllables from their identity to call them “Go” and “Ro,” and the ease with which English slithered into conversations that once bubbled and overflowed in her beloved Tamil. Amma remembered the days when M.S. Subbulakshmi’s varnam in Bhairavi would melodiously wake her children. Now, when Amma played Tamil devotional music on her old Philips cassette player for Chaya kutti, Gokul turned down the volume so that “the neighbours would not be disturbed by the loud wailing-clanging sounds.” The pressure cooker suffocating with the burden of hot air released its noisy steam missiles, interrupting the stillness of the quiet basement like a neglected child.
“How dark the basement is today?” Amma thought as she switched off the stove distractedly and flicked on the lights muttering, “Tchah, I get all but headache in this winter and it is only the beginning.”
“Patti, it’s just Fall and you are already so cold? What do you want for Divali?” Her granddaughter had asked her with excitement as she held her cold fingers on the blustery walk to school that morning.
“Adhi kalai oligal, eindhu manni paravaigal, irul kadhavu thatum suriya viral, otrai narkali, adhil ni yum nanum … idhu podhum yenaku.” Amma had happily replied with a poem by Vairamuthu, the celebrated Tamil poet. Then she explained in English that all she needed was early morning sounds, the sound of five o’clock birds, the finger of the sun knocking on the doors of darkness, and one chair in which they could both sit together. “Patti, my teacher says: cold hands, warm heart.” The little girl had declared proudly as her grandmother gave her chubby little hand a happy squeeze.
The lines on Amma’s face softened at the thought of her beloved little granddaughter. Softly she began chanting on her way to her make-shift prayer space. She had taken one of the shelves in the starched white IKEA bookshelf for her various silver and brass idols that now jostled for space on the shelf, much to the chagrin of her children. Now, as she lit the vellaku for the gods and goddesses of her childhood, Amma lowered the cotton wick further into the little silver lamp so that the flame didn’t leave a smoky dark ring on her granddaughter’s bookshelf. The timeless gesture of lighting an oil lamp reassured her that tradition would remain long after she was gone. The familiar Sanskrit prayers and smoke from the incense calmed and stilled her dark doubts as she gave herself to the moment.
As she sat in silence, Amma wondered how much longer she could live like this. Although she was at the ripe old age of 70, it seemed that she had nothing to offer her children. Conversations with her daughter always ended abruptly as Amma noticed a glazed look of boredom creep into that face that she had lovingly grown. “Why do we always talk about food and festivals?” her daughter’s dark eyes questioned her with unspoken irritation. “Why can’t we dialogue about politics, social justice, art …?” The words scripted in those cool eyes flashed fire at Amma.
For years now, Amma had been listening to her adult children telling her with their gestures, expressions, and responses that her life was flawed somehow. Her care, her loneliness were mistaken for nagging sentimentality tied up with suffocating expectations. “After all, they are still my children.” She said out loud as sadness overwhelmed her, “Let them say what they want … as long as I am healthy …” Amma left the thought unfinished and firmly closed her eyes to continue praying.
As Amma prayed, her thoughts drifted to the idea of ashrams for widows in India. The night before Rohini had called, and as Amma silently listened to her child’s banter about the freedoms that living in Canada had brought to them, she wondered whether Gokul had received her pension cheque in the mail. She wanted to buy some play jewelry for her granddaughter for Divali, but she had run out of money. That would mean explaining to him that she had sent part of her meagre income to support an ashram for widows in Madras.
She had read an inspiring story about it in a dated Kalki magazine that she had delightfully spotted at the Sri Lankan grocery store. A visit to that tiny store was a nostalgic indulgence, as it had all those sounds and smells of her mother’s kitchen. That claustrophobic clutter of colourful dals, neat rows of bottles and jars of expired pickles, dusty stainless steel cooking utensils, and a gathering of tarnished brass gods who elbowed for space on metal racks loaded with enough jumbled bric-a-bracs to put a garage sale junkie like her on a permanent high.
Amma’s trained eye spotted a purple bead necklace set that would be perfect for Chaya. It would have to wait for the next pension cheque, she thought with disappointment as she looked into the gaping pockets of her wallet. Amma had picked up all the groceries slowly, savouring each moment as she entered into a heated bargaining round with the disgruntled shop keeper who finally threw in the old Kalki magazine for free. As she climbed into Gokul’s SUV with the confidence of a successful corporate baron, her thrill at acquiring this free treasure hadn’t dampened even as her son sprayed some Glade Air Freshener to counter the pungent aroma of stale Dabur Chawanprash that happily settled around Amma.
That night as she lay in bed reading the familiar Tamil magazine, the story about the widows had touched her deeply and she had quietly resolved to send some money. Coming back to her children’s phone call, Amma debated whether she could just put aside her pride and ask for money, knowing that it would lead to an uncomfortable discussion about why her pension cheque never went far enough. The other option was to come clean about making the donation and bite her tongue as she listened to Rohini’s well-worn discussion of the plight of poor women in India. As she worked her way through this, Amma heard her children tell her that at least she was not living in India, where she would never be able to enjoy the freedom and benefits of life in the West. Amma could not find the courage to ask her son about the pension cheque or talk about the widows.
Amma sighed as she looked at the fraying photograph of Shirdi Sai Baba in the make-shift shrine in front of her, a frown forming on her face. Rohini had recently bought her a book by the Dalai Lama on learning to be compassionate when Amma had in a weak moment shared her concerns about living as a dependant. “Amma, I think you need to let go of your expectations,” Ms. Know-It-All had said with that haughty flourish of a missionary, “Why don’t you read the works of Dalai Lama? Why don’t you practise silence and meditation?” Practise silence? Amma thought. Did her child not understand that silence consumed her days and echoed in her walls at night? Amma tried her best not to burden them with her little anxieties but they niggled their way out sometimes. “What to do … better to be quiet,” she sighed resignedly. Perhaps positive energy is what they all needed, as Rohini, her mantra queen, said daily.
The phone trilled in the near distance and Amma quickly lifted herself from the lotus position on the floor. Perhaps it was Gokul calling to ask whether the courier had dropped off the book he was expecting. Amma wondered whether she should ask him to come a little earlier from work because Rohini was visiting. No, no … she knew it was a request she would be denied. She would be content with the visit of her daughter and perhaps today they would share a few laughs together.
She picked up the receiver, “Hallo?” she asked with a hint of excitement. “Amma?” Rohini’s voice came on the line, “Amma, I can’t make it out to you today. Something’s come up and I’ll call you tonight to explain. Okay? Talk to you soon. Ciao.” Click. The line went quiet. Amma slowly put the phone down and walked over to the kitchen, where she resumed the preparations for yet another festive meal.
Radha Bhardwaj has lived in India, East Africa, and now Canada. Her chequered, nomadic past informs this story, and she is currently editing her first novel.