My Ma always said that the best way to make kaane meen curry, what-they-say-in-English lady fish curry, is to add half a raw mango, cut into little squares. “Small squares, ya,” she’d say to me, “something like half an inch by half an inch, the size of these earrings I’m wearing, o, you see?” I’d see. I didn’t need to, they were the same green ones she’d worn since Pa had died, the ones he didn’t like.
“You’re not seeing ya, Renu.”
“Yah, no, I see, Ma.”
“Just look properly once, otherwise then you’ll say I didn’t show you.”
“I saw, Ma, I know now,” and we’d go on like this until she’d pick up a cube of hot mango on a teaspoon and drop it into the centre of my open palm.
“So, how will you know when it’s cooked,” she’d ask as though I was five, lifting the stray hair off her face and tucking it into the bun resting by the side of her neck.
“When it’s softening; obviously that’s the right consistency.”
“Like the feeling of water-soaked tamarind between your fingers,” she’d tell me.
If my brother was visiting, Ma would sometimes call him to the kitchen. He’d shuffle in, dragging his slippers on the granite floor, a pair of scissors in one hand and newspaper clippings in the other. “Tell me if it needs more salt,” Ma would instruct him, blowing on a teaspoon of the curry before leaving a drop of it in his palm.
“I could tell you that,” I’d say.
But my brother would lick the gravy, his tongue darting out and back into his mouth, close his eyes, purse his lips, and declare, “Maybe just a little bit, Amma, if you’d like that.”
I would’ve got one quick pinch on the side of my waist if I’d ever given Ma such a non-committal answer. Either it needed more salt, or it didn’t.
The Sunday before the snap, before Ma flung a plate of rice at her mirror and cracked it, I’d made her kaane meen curry. Ma had been particularly happy with her bed that morning – we’d gotten her a hospital bed, the kind that rose and receded with a gentle rumble. She told my brother this again while he sat next to her peering into his phone, his glasses lifted and barely clinging to the middle of his forehead. “It’s a good choice,” Ma had said, “you know, I sleep through the night now, through the day, too, sometimes, and the diaper helps. But don’t tell anybody about it, aan, the diaper, I mean. They all don’t need to know.”
Then, after a moment of silence, “Sometimes I’m just like our dog, no, all the time sleeping. What’s there for us to do in this house anyway, sleep-eat-sleep-eat-sleep-eat-sleep.”
This kind of talk usually made my brother angry. It didn’t help that Ma wouldn’t leave her room anymore, even though I’d tried hard to convince her. There was a time when she’d come out to the dining table in a wheelchair to talk to me while I cooked (When will your daughter get married – how was I supposed to know anything with Aida), talk to our dog while he slept (Jo-lly, Jo-lly, you’re sleeping aa, Jo-lly), talk to her nurse, Rashmi – whom she had decided to call Sheila – while she organised Ma’s medicines (When will you get married?) until one morning she said she was just too tired, and that was it. This also made my brother angry, which made me angry – “she needs to walk,” he’d say, “maybe get a bit of sun in the balcony,” as though I didn’t know this – but I’d have liked to see him trying to talk Ma into it without plunging her into a well of tears. Ma was as stubborn as he was. “You don’t know how it feels,” she’d sometimes say, raising her trembling hand slowly to brush at her dampening eyes. Here I could only nod, and gently close the door to her room behind me as I left.
Even then, I’d hear my brother say loudly, his voice high-pitched and false as our ceiling, “Bejaar malpodchi; don’t worry Amma, tell yourself yaan hushaar ulle; I’m well.”
Sometimes I dream, with changing details, of Ma dying.
If my daughter was still living with us, she’d have written about this too; she wrote about everything, so you had to be careful what you said around her. Aida had done this before – written some story about how Ma, her Ajji, had wanted all the curtains in the house to be closed by five-thirty every evening, and the way we sometimes sat in our rooms pretending we couldn’t hear Ma talking.
“Ajji’s always thinking about the same five things,” Aida had written, “as though there’s a list in her head with questions she has forgotten to strike out. ‘Hogi curtain haakthiya,’ she’d first say, ‘I can’t draw them, yeno, it always gets stuck nanna kaiyalli.’ After a brief silence, ‘If I’m there ninege disturb aagathe, alva, I disturb you isn’t it, I keep talking always.’ Ajji has gone from making me dosas and Complan for breakfast every morning to drinking her tea from a pink plastic straw, lying on her bed in a greying, still room.”
And a little later in the story: “Ajji doesn’t like to sit alone even when she’s watching Putta Gowri Maduve on TV. My mother sits with her every evening, watching Yeh Hai Mohabbatein on her laptop with big red headphones. Sometimes I sit with them. I still remember the day when on TV, Gowri stood on a metal stool under the fan, staring at a green sari she’d tied to it. She was getting ready to hang herself because her husband had divorced her for another woman, someone who prayed less, spoke English and wore long dresses. Ajji was quiet. When Gowri stepped off the stool, the sari tore. She fell, the fan crashed down next to her. Ajji still didn’t say anything. Gowri was alive. That was when my grandmother wanted to know what was there for dinner. It worried me. Later, my mother said it worried her too, this low-hanging absent presence of a remark on Gowri’s attempted suicide. Ajji had always commented on everything: the colour of some actor’s sari on TV (Aa red seere porlu tojundu atha? Doesn’t that red sari look beautiful?), my sixty-year-old father’s hair (He should trim his beard, and why can’t he use some dye?), the number of times the door to our house opened and closed (Nodtha iru; just wait and see, one day the lock will spoil, and we’ll have to live inside forever).”
“You don’t know how it feels,” she’d sometimes say, raising her trembling hand slowly to brush at her dampening eyes.
“How is it, Ma, does it need anything else?” I’d asked Amma that Sunday when I fed her a spoonful of the meen curry. It was a new game we played ever since Ma had begun to forget things – that her sister couldn’t walk anymore (She also has varicose veins, aa?); that I’d quit my job two years ago (Good, now you can stay with me always); that Aida didn’t live with us any longer (Daaye, aal kuda yepa barpaal; when will she come, why doesn’t she visit at least?). Now, occasionally, I asked her questions about food. Sometimes I took her a spoonful of chicken stew with too little salt just to have her tell me I hadn’t put enough (Add half a teaspoon more, can’t you tell that much also?), or asked her how much ginger-garlic paste the prawn biryani needed (Cheh, how can you forget this ya, Renu?). Ma never once got an answer wrong. On Sunday, she told me that the kaane meen was alright, “Just leave it on for five more minutes,” while she squeezed a small orange exercise ball between her stiffened, setting fingers.
Around the time Ma stopped leaving her room, she had started to point at her mirror when we were alone and asked me who those two women in Pochampally saris were. She insisted she didn’t recognise them, but they were the bad sort, she said – the right sort never sat on their haunches in a pool of water beckoning eighty-three-year-old women to them. Sometimes, Ma would look at them and whisper, “Have I locked the cupboard and hidden the key? There was no gold outside that they could see, alva?” And every time I would nod, saying loudly and easily, that of course, everything was inside and safe, and ijji, she wasn’t to worry; cheh, how careless did she think I was?
Soon enough, Ma began to learn of many things from these women. The first, was that my husband, who never talked much, was having an affair (Renu, they saw him with her at Nagarjuna, of all places); that Rashmi, who had gone home on leave had called to say that she was engaged and pregnant (But really, the engagement was an elaborate lie); and that Aida was going to appear briefly that evening and disappear at night, with my mother’s toe rings. Then later, if there was no gossip from these women, there were stories. The one that Ma repeated most often was about a little girl who came home from school to find her house unmoving and quiet, like it was holding its breath. Ma always liked to begin in the middle of the story: “The girl looked and looked for her mother,” she would first say softly; “she drifted over their marble floor from room to room, first the kitchen, and then the balcony. She searched and searched,” Ma said again, “until she found her mother in her grandmother’s room, squatting in front of her grandmother’s mirror, wearing her grandmother’s sari.” Here, Ma would pause. Then, more excitedly, her voice brimming over, “Of course, the girl was not like you, she noticed everything immediately – her mother’s plait, which had always ambled down to the middle of her back, like yarn, now ended just below her shoulders. Her Amma looked like her recently-dead grandmother.” And then, Ma’s voice would drop, “Listen carefully, ya, this is the most important part – this is when the girl’s mother looked up at her and said, ‘don’t I look exactly like your grandmother now?’” One day, Ma would then tell me, “Renu, you’ll learn that daughters always come to resemble their mothers; you know what they say, like carbon copies, same-to-same.” I didn’t know what to do with this story. I would nod. Then, Rashmi suggested we cover the mirror with newspapers – and Ma promptly forgot about the beckoning women.
And here, quite immediately I realised, in the way one makes the clearest, most exact assumptions in moments of cementing tension: I should have expected this.
At lunch on Tuesday, when Ma threw the plate of rice at her mirror, I was standing at the door to her room, wondering if the dhal needed more salt, thinking, Aida doesn’t visit us enough, and maybe all this could’ve been worse. I registered everything slowly – as a series of arbitrary starts and stops – the crack of glass, Jolly’s incessant barking, the slowly spreading smear of dhal against newspaper, Rashmi holding Ma up by the small of her back, saying, “Amma, Amma,” her voice ringing. I ran forward – why was I running? – as though I had a great distance to cover, my feet like chalk in water, looking from Rashmi, to Ma, to the newspapers we’d stuck on her mirror.
Amma suddenly wanted to know, “Three medicines I have to take at night, no? Confuse aagathe; you give it to me Aida, now you are only doctor.”
Perhaps I should have been more concerned about being called Aida. Still, I decided it was just habit. Amma had called Aida her doctor from the day they had sat down together to stick numbered Post-Its on the drawers of Ma’s medicine box – drawer one to mark morning, two for afternoon, three for night. During the summer following her diagnosis, Ma used to sit at the dining table at tea-time with a thin white towel stretching around the back of her neck and to her stomach, fanning herself with a cardboard sheet. In her room, Aida would peer into her books and try to look busy, until Ma started to say loudly, “Jolly, Jolly, Jolly, where is Aida, Jolly?” And then she’d talk in circles: “Aida, morning three medicines, night three medicines, alva?”
When Aida mumbled a distracted “Yes, yes, Ajji, I’ll give them to you,”
There would be momentary silence before Ma went on again, “The medicines are confusing, ivaga neene doctor. Belige mooru maddu, ratri mooru maddu, belige mooru maddu, ratri mooru maddu; (three medicines in the morning, three medicines at night). You’ll give them to me, no, Aida? Nanna karma, everything I’m forgetting.”
When Ma fell asleep on Tuesday afternoon, I settled down on the floor of her room with a roll of tape, and a pile of fresh newspapers. I stared at the dhal-soiled pages for some time before I began to pull them down; I took them off slowly, without the breathless rush that Rashmi and I had stuck them on with. I was careful with each sheet, my eyebrows meshed with the same concentration Ma had always insisted my brother and I unwrap presents with, we can always reuse the wrapping paper, Renu, be careful, be gentle, she would say. I remember shallow pockets of the rest of the afternoon – watching the women in the mirror appear behind me with every sheet I removed; my hair, knotted in a bun resting by the side of my neck; thinking, maybe Ma was right about these women and the stories they told her were true – why was my husband quieter now, and how much did I (would I) resemble my mother, and Aida, me? Until suddenly, I remembered, Ma always said that the best way to make kaane meen curry, what-they-say-in-English lady fish curry, is to add half a raw mango, cut into little squares. Small squares, ya, she’d say to me, something like half an inch by half an inch, the size of these earrings I’m wearing, o, you see? And here, quite immediately I realised, in the way one makes the clearest, most exact assumptions in moments of cementing tension: I should have expected this. I should have realised something had shifted last Sunday, when Ma didn’t notice the missing mango in the meen curry.
Sometimes I dream, with changing details, of Ma dying.
There are two acts to this dream – in the first, it is always Tuesday, and my brother is sitting by Ma’s bed, watching TV. It should have been me. I’m at the dining table setting out Ma’s medicines – Atorvastatin for her cholesterol, Ciplar for her high blood pressure, Sodamint for her stomach. The old list, where are the new tablets for her tremors, her hallucinations? Three tablets, twice a day, once in the morning and once at night, thinking, Ma needs to eat less chicken and more rice, Ma needs to have less sugar in her tea, Ma might like to eat goli baje, but it’s too oily. Then, the rest of the night is a blur: walking into Ma’s room, Jolly padding along behind me; my brother, holding Ma’s hand, mumbling – why couldn’t he ever speak up? Raising his voice “Renu, is she gone? Renu.” A phone call to the doctor, no response, no response, no response, an ambulance (why was there no siren?), Ma declared dead on arrival; a nurse, his hand hovering near my elbow as though too nervous to touch me, “Please sit down, ma’am, I’m so sorry for your loss.”
My brother, calling his daughter, calling Aida, calling Ma’s sisters, Ma’s niece, Ma’s sister-in-law, their daughters, and saying solemnly, “We didn’t think it would happen so soon; we were prepared for a much longer fight,”
Until I snapped, “who’s ‘we’, and what longer fight?”
And here, predictably, comes the second act. This time, it is just Ma and me. There is a Kannada serial on TV – Kinnari, but neither of us are watching it. Ma is lying in bed, a feeding tube in her nose; I can hear Ma’s doctor announcing, “The food goes straight to her stomach, not to worry, haan, not to worry.” For a while, nothing happens.
Suddenly, I turn to Ma and say, “Aida will visit tomorrow,” then enquire, “where does it hurt? Do you need anything?”
And she asks, always, for tea.