I run into the house, hands over my head to protect myself from the rain. It rains furiously; hot, burning rain. I step into the house, obviously there is a power cut, the darkness within is punctuated by candles. Somewhere, deep inside, a kerosene lamp burns, casting its dull faint glow across the corridor. I take off my sodden shoes and wet socks sitting on the floor. Throw my bag and catch my breath. I am tired, and I am late, they have already cremated her, being unable to wait that long. Everyone else seems to have left. And then I see her shadowy form within. Once she sees me, she starts wailing, crying and talking really fast. Complaining, scolding, shouting, crying some more. Then fully out of steam she calls me to the kitchen.
My aunt’s kitchen is not the stuff of modern, white, gleaming surfaces and shiny appliances. It is an ancient kitchen, built long ago, satisfying the demands of another age and time. Everything is dark and dingy. There are huge cuddappah shelves holding hundreds of old complan tins, full of the weird and wondrous. The floor is old mosaic, pitted and cracked, uneven now, after years of alternating fiery heat and tropical rain. Lizards scurry across the shadows. Water drips constantly. The sink is a huge depression on the floor in one corner, the ‘counter’ is the floor on the other corner. In my house, we sit down and cook; all the tools of our trade lying around us at easy reach, in disarray.
In the dim light I see cooking underway. She must have known I was coming, she would have guessed my timing. She wouldn’t have eaten for all this time and still she kept up a constant stream of complaints and tears, old memories sustaining her thin frame.
In the old pot, there is rice bubbling away. One another stove she lays another pot. She throws in some oil and turns up the flame. In go curry leaves, they pop and splutter wildly. Then mustard and something, something and something else. Turmeric and her bright red dried chillies. She works fast, all her attention towards me, barely glancing at the pot. Another flame is lit in a huge whump, and over it goes the old wok, unsteady and wobbling. Minutes later, greens go in, rain and dirt, steaming away.
I’m sitting cross legged barely a few feet from her smelling of wet rain. I haven’t spoken a word to her. I know despite her wailing and scolding, that this is the only way she knows to say that she loves me. After all she has to, we are the only ones left now. The smells from the pots and pans cling to me. I am already beyond hungry, beyond grief.
Presently she sets two plates on the floor, and the hurricane lamp in front of us. By tradition my plate has been thrown away with the dead ones possessions, I now have ajji’s old plate. It is oblong and magical, it fills the eater up with memories and stories. First, curry on both our plates, and then something dark green. Then rice, hot and steaming, and a dollop of ghee for me, oil for herself. I wait for her to eat a bite, and begin. We eat in silence. Brinjals and pupmkins, greens and potatoes. Buttermilk at the end.
Then I begin to cry softly and she hugs me with her other hand, a wave of sadness enveloping us both.