Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mother, Effusions , and Salt

The sterility of the kitchen will always mark the absence of their mother, at least for them. There was something unexplainable about the sweet spicy smell wafting from the kitchen every morning, spreading from room to room, filling the home with a sort of life-affirmation. It gave one an unconscious hope that someone was there… This house, with its kitchen and rooms rusted in time, still echoes distant laughter. When they lived here decades ago, the place didn’t appear as glorious as it does now. “Was it any different from what it is now?” asks the younger of the two. Nostalgia must be some trick of the mind.

Both brothers, who are now living separate lives in separate cities, had decided to return home, together again, if only for a day, to rejoice in the past. So here they are in the kitchen, trying to prepare a recipe just the way mother did… Mother.

“It was then that she had told me ‘in a year or so your brother will also leave this house’. I mean, it is understandable. You were about to finish your graduation. She had spent her life raising us…”
“And with us taking charge of our own lives, she was left with no purpose at all?” interrupted the younger one.
“That’s what I think.”
“But she was happy, wasn’t she?”
“It’s not about her happiness; yes, it’s about that too. But I wonder… have we ever thought of her as just another ordinary human being, with human desires and doubts like everyone else… like, did she ever seek ambition? Did she ever regret the life she had chosen? We always felt secure in her presence, as if she had all the answers. It was so comforting. If I ever miss anything real bad, it is that expression of hers. That all-knowing, everything-will-be-fine expression! How did she do that? ... Do we even know her?”

Mothers are mysterious and sometimes sorrowful, according to the elder brother. The younger one calls him too emotional for his own good. To prepare a recipe just the way mother did is a difficult task. Because the taste and aroma of her food depended not only on the spices, the pastes, and the gravy she prepared; it also depended on her moods, her emotions, her whole-hearted acceptance of the kitchen as a workshop, and the painterly skills with which she created food that might have given her artistic joy, who knows? To prepare food like her required to be like her.

“It must be God…” begins the elder one.
“Is that enough?”
“A little bit more, add some lime juice too. That’s it.”
“You know it too well.”
“You were lazy enough to learn, then.” They smile quietly. “By the way, this will taste best with some chavanu sprinkled over it!”
“What were you saying about God?”
“I just think it was her belief in God that kept her hinged.”
“And with all your doubts you don’t share her faith!” the younger one says in a jovial, if sarcastic, tone, knowing too well that these effusions are not new; they have been thrown at him time and again, whenever they are on their own. “Why this urge, brother?” he continues, “why this urge to understand her? We don’t understand so many things.”
“She was mother!” replies the elder one, and adds, “It’s not that these questions are tormenting me. I just want to know.”
“Let her be mysterious, as I always tell you. Let her evade your understanding forever. Okay, let us do what we are here for. Let us prepare this dish.”

They are midway through their preparation. But they are not alone. Somewhere in time, mother is also preparing the same dish, in the same kitchen, only a little younger. She is adding turmeric. So are they. She has added a clove of garlic. So have they. She is stirring. So are they. She leans over and smells the aroma. So do them. Onion by onion, clove by clove, sugar by sugar, pepper by pepper they are trying to catch up with her. All they have to do is to surrender and stop inquiring. A symphony is not played so that one can understand; it is to be felt.

Then, as if by chance, they acquire the same gestures and emotions that mother is having. The steam from the pan smells familiar. Mother and children are almost at the same stage, though separated in time; the color, the smell, the taste of both the preparations ring out in accordance. A moment in the past and a moment in the present resonate in unity: a little pattern of order is formed in the eternal chaos of space and time. It is as if everything is clear, the way a newborn child looks at the universe – not with doubt, but with marvel. Oh! It was so simple, and we spend ages trying to understand. But before they can comprehend it, before they can put it in words, they lose it. How long it lasted is an unnecessary question. It was too fragile for words to capture.

In the distant kitchen mother turns back and smiles at both the brothers sitting at the dining table, scribbling in their maths journals as if by compulsion, waiting for the food to be prepared. The food is ready. They start eating. But the taste and smell of the dishes are not the same anymore.

“Something is missing, isn’t it?” asks the elder brother.
“Salt, maybe?”

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