When it rained in Mangalore, amma made us wear raincoats and carry umbrellas but we’d still get wet. One afternoon after school we went looking for a new house in an auto. The broker was on his bike in front of us, his feet slanting upward on both footrests. We followed his yellow raincoat. The huge bungalow we first stopped at had two coconut trees growing out of it. The trees shot upwards from the roof, and looked uneasy like the swords I’d sometimes seen emerge out of Swamiji tongues in Kanyakumari.
I looked at Amma. She squinted at the trees and looked miserable. I looked at the broker. He sighed and started giving the auto driver new directions for a new house.
I wanted to tell him no. I had already imagined spending all my free time under the trees. Never before had life organised itself so beautifully as it did on those house- hunting days where the space of a new home offered dreams of being good girl – set up a solid routine, do homework on time, sleep at 9, wake at 6.
Amma and broker were damaging my creative juices.
The second house was inside a huge compound sharing space with another house. I stepped out of the auto and into a puddle, slowly, deliberately. The water seeped into my socks making it squishy. I walked around carefully listening to each squish.
A girl climbed out of a school van in front of the other house and watched us. I recognized her as a classmate but struggled to remember her name. Amma was quick to notice when we greeted each other shyly. I’d already started day dreaming a routine – this time my new best friend was in all of them.
When I was pulled away from the house, and from her, and thrust into the auto – I was beginning to bawl. Amma patted my back loudly and said that closeness is not ok. It will ruin your life.
Amma’s yellow nightie makes her face shine. She looks calm when she wears yellow. Except when I am late. Then she is never calm.
When I walk up to my room, one heavy step after another, my brown leather bag slinging morosely over my shoulder, strands of hair getting caught in the strap, I wish she is asleep. But she never is. She only sleeps after she has seen my two-wheeler parked outside. And when she has seen that, she doesn’t even see me. She walks back quietly to her room and I wait to hear the soft thud of her bedroom door closing. It’s only then that I can breathe out. My steps are far more confident when Amma isn’t home. I can breeze in happily through pa’s soft snoring and the slow, dry whizzing of the fan.
One morning I stood on the balcony and watched them go for their daily walk. My parents seem older and weaker when they are walking, especially when they are walking away from me — slowly, like every step counts, their backs slightly bent but quickly straightened after sudden remembering, their bodies – heavy and round, yet their fragile clothes hanging loosely.
Pa in his wrinkled white pajamas, eternally torn under the sleeves, forgotten, worn, taken off and then worn again. The small patch on his glistening bald pate looking smaller and helpless. Ma in her colorful chudidhar, her dupatta carelessly thrown over, so that one half of it is always traling after her loudly.
What were they talking about? I’m sure this and that. Loans, construction, BP tablets, my marriage, thyroid tablets, blood test, my brother’s tuition teacher, my marriage, granny, lunch, my marriage. That day I stood and watched them for a long time. I watched them until my neck could no longer be craned and until the road ended abruptly, rudely.
Like in most homes, we all know when pa is angry. I think Indian homes are built to acknowledge the man’s many moods. The home would shrink and become hot making it unbearable to live in pa’s anger’s aftermath. Even the kitchen smells would withdraw into a corner and there they would stand until it was safe to step out. When I was small, I wished that whenever pa was angry, all the volumes on all the TV’s and radios could just mute themselves. It was just too terrible when he was going to explode and Urmila Matondkar’s Kambakth Ishq was playing obscenely loud. Which meant that that day we were all going to be lectured not just for watching kachda Mtv but also for watching it on that obnoxious volume.
They rarely fight and I can only rememeber this one time that they fought. I learnt that Amma doesn’t cook when they fight. She sleeps the morning off and pa walks all over the house in a haze. His face is calm but his lips are gently pursed and every now and then, a tcha tcha can be heard. His hands run constantly against each other – the fingernails touching, grizzling, moving up and down in one swift motion. Baba Ramdev’s exercise for quick and thick hair growth. It has been over a decade now. No hair, nothing. But pa hasn’t stopped doing it. It’s a habit now. Hair can go to hell.
Pa goes out to buy food on these days. On the dining table there are 5 newspaper packets — idlis, vadas, sambars and chutneys — all rolling in one thick Darshini smell. We’d eat some and save the rest for night.
The next morning when I’d finally see Amma, her eyes would be small and puffy and she wouldn’t linger out of the bedroom for very long. They’d patch up soon and the home would go back to being room temperature again, and all the smells would come out slowly, except that there’d still be a faint trace of the darshini idli chutney smell and this I’d only discover when I’d lock up all the doors and switch off all the lights and tiptoe towards my room. And here the only sound to accompany my dull footsteps would be the bright hum of the fridge.
At Meta this year, we inaugurated a series called the ‘Double Action.’ Members of the Department picked a story/essay in a regional language, translated it and read it in the original — the translation being projected on a screen. I couldn’t find things online that I could translate so I wrote a personal essay in Konkani. This is the first time I have come to associate Konkani with a world outside of my home and it was strangely liberating to note that more possibilities with writing seemed to open up when I began to think and write in Konkani. I don’t know why it never occurred to me to consider Konkani as a language I can tell a story in. I can’t say I’m too happy with what I’ve written but then again, that is never the point!
I don’t remember my mother’s smell. Sometimes I think that she never had a smell. And sometimes I think that I have deliberately forgotten her smell. I think I knew her smell better when I was small.
Her smell would hug her clothes and wouldn’t leave. After her clothes were washed and dried, they would fall into a heap on the sofa and I’d leap into them and sleep. In them, I could smell more of her than surf. And hers was always ponds, fair and lovely and a bit of her. I don’t know what that is. Her bindi would sit angrily like a red dot on her forehead. Sometimes the bindi would fall off and her face would look empty and if anyone so much as pointed that out to her, she’d jump around until she wore another one. My sister once told her that if the bindi falls, Ekta Kapoor believes that your husband has died. Amma yelled at her and then laughed.
She’d always feed us when we were small. Once, she put hot hot upma into my mouth and when I started howling in pain, she blew air into my mouth to soothe it. I laughed out loudly and the upma flew onto her face and just sat there.
No matter how sick she is, she always has the energy to show us that she is sick. We know she isn’t well by the way she asks for water. She sleeps like a corpse on the bed and moans. If in case we don’t bring her water on time, she will pretend to get up and say, ‘leave, I’ll only bring it.’ She will not have moved even an inch.
When she sings, she sings with devotion. Just the other day she was singing Aamir Khan’s Delhi Belly song – I hate you like I love you with so much devotion, it sounded like she was praying to him.
When she was small, her grandmother would sing to her. She loved her grandmother. It seems she would only wear white and sit smelling nice and warm all day. My grandmother never wears white and she smells only of Marie biscuits and vibhooti. When I was small, I would sit on her lap and only drink Horlicks after she showed me both her breasts.
Amma calls me Punugu *bekku because I smell nice after having slathered volumes of lotion and deodorant. It seems the Punugu bekku’s shit smells really nice so people make perfumes out of it. I have always dreamt of smelling nice.
I’d sometimes hide in my mother’s cupboard and smell everything I could find there. Her saris smelled differently than her salwar kameez and nighties because she didn’t wear saris often, she never opened that side of the cupboard. It had a nice musty smell to it. And I taught myself to hug her saris and get the most out of it.
Amma’s other grandmother lives in Cochin. During summer, she takes off all her clothes and sits by the door wearing just a skirt and bra. If she still feels sweaty and hot, she takes off the bra also and sits naked with just a towel on. Her name is Narmadamma. When amma mentions her, pa gets a little angry but he also laughs a lot.
All of Amma’s relatives are reddish fair. And all the relatives on pa’s side are reddish dark. Pa doesn’t like this at all. He tried a lot to become fair like amma by using fair and lovely every day but it didn’t work. Once he almost emptied an entire tube and put it on his face. He woke up the next morning with his face burnt. We all call amma and pa – milk and decoction. Pa finds this also amusing.
Growing up is like a curse. I grew distant from amma. I remember how my sister and I’d force our way into amma and pa’s bed when they’d watch TV. Now there’s distance between us — there’s pause and a kind of shyness that I don’t understand when I step into their bedroom. When I was small, the smell of my house was empty – there was too much space and nothing to smell. Now there is too much to smell but no one to smell. Amma’s smell is going away and I’m trying to catch it.
I wish I knew her as well as I know her in photos. We look very close in all our pictures together, the kind of closeness that is brought together by a hundred unspoken arguments, two pauses and a dot of red silence – the red round on her forehead. These silences are in the thinnest gaps between us that the photos don’t see. It is the tiny strip of white light between our closely hugging bodies that quietly fades away into the distance behind us when I see how her hands lie unforgotten and clasped around me.
We hug a lot. On birthdays and anniversaries and for photos taken on top of hills, clouds all white and happy, a room with fading walls and big windows. We look happy in each of these. But I don’t know if we ever talked. I don’t remember the last time we talked just to talk, no lame necessary exchange of dialogues concerning bills or time or food. We have had arguments, sure, a measured distance that multiplies with every nod she didn’t give me when he was around, every misunderstanding I wanted her to have handled better and every value of tradition that I wanted her to dismiss.
Even so, I cannot think of anybody else who could have done a better job. After years of trying to mold me into the shape that he wanted of me, after all the sleeveless kurtas she returned to the tailor to get them sown into sleeves that don’t expose armpits, the way he wanted, after all the battles I thought I fought, there is now, between us only a wall that separates our rooms, our lives and our growing distance from each other. On either sides of the wall there are all the things I don’t remember to tell her. Like how sometimes, when I think of her outside the crowd of family and expectations, I see her as a person. Like how she looks lovely in red, blue and yellow. Like how it took me really long to find out what my favourite picture of us is.
The walls in this room are white. There is a plastic cover next to the cot, perched the way I am on her lap. She is holding me tight, like she does in all our photos, clinging to me, knowing that this is the only moment that will unashamedly allow this closeness, this intimacy of unsecret smiles. Her face is young and more oval than it is now. Her big red bindi is not angry as it always is, in my memory. She looks happy and I can tell it’s a happy that is not just for the camera that he is holding. She is smiling broadly, showing most of her teeth.
Twenty four and a half years later there is an occasional silence in the car when we sit next to each other. There’s noise outside and, inside, there are long breaths deeply taken in and thrown out, hiding all signs of accidental sighs.
I wish we were closer, the way she and my sister are, I wish there were more than grunts in our conversations, I wish I knew her better. Now and then when she is not here, I don’t look for her voice the way I think I should when I miss her. I don’t know her smell. I don’t know her at all and I cannot blame her. She’s always been here, and there, on the cot that she sits on everyday. I see her as I make my way up the staircase and into the guilt free space that is my room. I am not too fond of this journey because it makes me guilty to not want to go there, to her room and sit and talk to her, the way my sister does so effortlessly. It’s almost as if my sister were not her child, they are that close.
I wish I could wholeheartedly blame him for all the things that my mother and I can’t have. The shaky, more angry folds in my memory bring me back another woman who isn’t anything like the pretty lady in the yellow nightie from the photo. She is not smiling, she is angry that I went to my cousin’s home a few blocks away. She is angrier because I went with boys, my cousins, brothers, but ‘boys’ in her head. She is angry because I couldn’t be more grown up when I was 14.
I can forgive this. I know that, but I want it to happen sooner. I don’t want to feel her smell on my body after she’s left us. I want to find out what her smell is, now, here when she’s with me.