It is the longest I’ve stayed away from that which will always be home - three and a half years. Bai opened one padlock, turned the key three times in another lock and I entered the home whose doors were seldom locked. Never when one came home. Everything was as it is, as it was. I did not turn to look at the empty chair where mummy sat. Always, for the past many years. I would enter and she would lean forward for my hug and I would each time be surprised at how little there was of her, how she was slowly shrinking in that corner chair – invisible if you didn’t know where to look for her but very much the vantage point for her to know what was going on in the house. Earlier, she had sat on the chair by the window, next to the phone and each time the gate opened with its distinct metal clank, she lifted the lace curtain to look out. Outside this window, she would have Bai place pots of seasonal flowers so she would always see those.
I entered the kitchen without looking around. I had my woolens to wash. Everything was in its place – the plates, the bowls, the pans all in their slots so permanent that one never had to think before reaching out for the slightly dented ande-wala pan, or the good peeler. I did not look at the pantry knowing it may be empty, a sight I did not want my memories to be overlapped with. Straightaway, I lifted the lid and tossed my clothes into the washing machine telling myself I knew exactly how to run it. At first, it didn’t start. This was my home, these were familiar things, I cannot forget, I chided myself. The water inlet was turned off, of course. I watched my sweaters take half-spins as the familiar, soft whirr wafted through the silent house.
I had to show Bai the carton I wanted and we entered my parents’ bedroom. Except for the disconcerting stillness, there was nothing amiss. In the corner, where the two cupboards met, stood Papa’s chair. It wasn’t supposed to be there. It was always in the Study and later in a corner of the drawing-room. In this unreachable, unsittable corner, it meant disuse. It meant it would not be used anymore. Nothing here was meant for use anymore. All the memories of that chair, of the father bent over books, and papers and typewriters on a table yet never too busy to be interrupted to be dropped to a friend’s place, to sample my first dum aloo, to take me swimming or to the French class. I came out before Bai turned to look and did not go into the other room that had once belonged to me.
I went again the next day to find the carton with my things. My school report cards, greeting cards, the Cherry Chimes, the school dairies were all in there as was the big book of knitting that I will never be able to decode but reading which mummy knitted for us sweater after sweater in soft wool with complicated cables patterns. We packed what I wanted and left.
I went back. To Mummy’s cupboard. I told myself it was to look if there may be something of mine there – the school badge maybe – Blue House. But there was only a neat row of her well-worn, soft sarees. All familiar – in which she had sat reading the newspaper by the window, her long white hair braided into a low bun; which she wore to go saree shopping for me; which she wore to make the murrabba, the mattris, the kadhi, the kachoris, the achaars and in which she stood looking as I left, my sobs swelling in my throat till we turned the corner and she could see me no more. I touched the still sarees lightly. Then I gripped them with both my hands and buried my head into them, sniffing hard, praying that I smell her, praying that as I reach through the soft material I will find her soft body and touch her one last time.
The two days I had were full but I could not go back after three and a half years without meeting the Mehras across the road and the Grewals at the far end of the lane. The Mehra kids grew up calling her Naniji like the other grandchildren and with the Grewals, the ties go deep and back many decades. We have kept in touch over Facebook and phone so there was a bridge over the memories where we met and talked of the present – work, families, this one and that.
I finally gathered enough courage to walk to Masih auntie’s house a short distance from mummy’s. I didn’t realize I was coming after so long that I had to ask a passing child where she lived. Auntie took time opening the door and looked at me surprised. The familiar gold hoops still hung at the very edge of her elongated ear lobes and the cheeks had gone more hollow. She shuffled on her feet and we sat side by side on the sofa. The house was dark, the tube light in the hall had conked off. She was apologetic, ‘So many times I have called the electrician but they don’t come.’ Then she began talking of ‘teri ma’.
She was there when I was born in March, in the hospital rocking me on her lap while correcting exam papers, she tells me. She got me a black shift dress with sequins on the front for the song I loved to sing – badan pe sitare. This she doesn’t have to tell me. This is family folklore. She and mummy baked the most fragrant and moist cakes in the big oven with the red door that was the size of a doll house and was kept on the gas flame for baking. They measured each ingredient holding it up on a scale, a real tarazu, against eggs. They discussed knitting patterns and mummy went to make her perfect, each-grain separate, khila-khila pulao when Masih auntie gave parties. Yet, they never called each other by their first names. Mummy always called her Mrs Masih and she called her, Mrs Tripathi.
So she sat on the sofa next to me talking about Mummy. There was nothing else to talk about. A raw, pulsating wound that time will not heal lay exposed between us. She was not wearing her hearing aid so I could not speak. She talked about the wonderful days with teri ma. She pointed to, behind me at the table where she has kept Mummy’s framed photo. I did not turn to look. She said she walks up to our house daily and misses teri ma.
I had steeled myself for this homecoming for three and a half years. I don’t easily cry in front of others. I did not cry when I saw the photos of my parents hanging in the closed house, nor when I found the refrigerator switched on as it had been for the last three and a half years, or when the washing machine ran just like it had done mummy’s clothes yesterday, nor when I did not see the madhumalti with its fragrant bunches of pink and white hugging the pillar on the porch, or when I woke up in the bedroom upstairs and saw in the pale morning light the harshingar that I would look at from my bedroom downstairs, standing on tiptoes to reach the windows to make me feel at home. And here I was, tears rolling down my face so silent, so easy that it seemed wrong to wipe them away. I hoped that in the failing light she would not notice but thankfully she only said, tu mat ro. Like the entire loss was hers to bear, like she had to free me of the grief so I could go away again while she walked up to our house to look at it from outside, never walking in pushing the front door open and letting herself inside, to sit through mummy’s silence or her chiding – why don’t you wear your hearing aid? And why won’t your sugar be high, you ate two burfees yesterday… and then eat a meal together.
Nursing a cold, I woke up this morning craving comfort and ate the two last rose cookies before the absurdity of eating cookies first thing in the morning could begin to gnaw. A cast iron cookie mould must lie somewhere in the unused kitchen of my mother’s house. Rose cookies she and Masih auntie made when we were children. I must have watched fascinated as the flower shaped mould was dipped into the sweet batter first and then gently eased into a kadhai brimming with hot oil. The kadhai would have soon filled up with flowers swimming on the oil, flowers the size of our palms.
PS: I wrote this after I came back from Bhopal and did not think Masih auntie would follow Mummy so soon. Today, February 6, 2017, Masih aunty left us to be with her favourite people above.