½ cup sona masoori rice
1 tbsp moong dal
Handful of cashew nuts and raisins
⅛ tsp cardamom powder
¾ cup of jaggery
Pinch of salt
3 tbsp ghee
1 jug of water
The first step is always to rinse the sona masoori under lukewarm water until your hands are red and wrinkled. If you feel that’s too much, too bad! Amma would never settle for less than three washes before she felt it was ready to boil. Even for a small amount of rice, much work is needed. I lift my forefinger to my lips and suckle on the damp and shrivelled skin, as running water gushes from the faucet. ‘Dei! turn off the tap, stupid!’ she snaps from the living room, the venom dripping from her voice and down the back of my neck. I straighten instinctively and turn the tap off with the hand from my mouth, finger still coated in saliva. The silver bowl in the sink floods with water as tiny pieces of rice float to the top. ‘Wasting water when you know the bill isn’t paid,’ she grumbles and I don’t turn to face her, but the heat of her glare pierces my skin and I chew on my lower lip. My fingers lift the ocean in the bowl and drain with caution, so as to not let any of the rice spill through. I pause to cough and swallow a thick lump of fear down my throat, before turning to face the daunting scatter of ingredients on the kitchen table, and scarier still, my amma.
Her face is buried deep into her Tamil newspaper, kicking her legs back onto the footstool and exposing the delicate cracks on her ashen feet. I reach for the jar of moong dal in front of me. Not more than one tablespoon, I remind myself. I trace the hard wood of the table’s surface, reminiscing its gentle squeaking it made as he made love to me, toppling the spices, the tiny Lakshmi statue Amma brought home from one of her sporadic trips to India and some of Papa’s pills. I remember tensing up under him, my heart racing a mile a minute as thoughts of my father stirring from his afternoon slumber filled me with dread. But he never did, and I had let the lover finish inside me. We cleaned it afterwards, while the sin of it all ran down from between my legs. I slip back into reality and harden my heart again, while Amma peeks over her newspaper, her face quizzical and doubting. ‘Use the ghee from India,’ she reminds me, before lifting the yellowed newspaper back up. She’s not read any new ones for a while, not since we moved to Kuala Lumpur. Malaysian heat swelters and moistens my armpits and forehead, sweat dribbling down from under my breasts to my belly. I fan myself a little, and Amma catches me.
‘Now you know the feeling,’ she says, a smirk curving onto her lips. ‘Think now, if it was Chennai heat.’
She was always able to oscillate between distilled anger and nonchalant calmness, swallowing all emotion within a fraction of a second when she needed to. The women in our family do this best. The last boy I ever loved called me bitter. Bitter, like the salt packet that drops on the floor as I shuffle through bowls filled with jaggery and powdered cardamom. I bend down to pick up the salt before grabbing the fresh, unopened bottle of Indian ghee by the kitchen counter and turn my attention back to the stove.
Amma was always able to oscillate between distilled anger and nonchalant calmness, swallowing all emotion within a fraction of a second when she needed to. The women in our family do this best.
‘Do you want me to pay the bill, Ma?’ I ask her, hoping this might end the stream of casual jabs she uses to fill the silence.
‘I asked you already, so many times.’
‘I’ll pay it today,’ I assure her, making a mental note that may or may not lose itself. The pressure pan sits on the stove lit with a dim blue fame, and I wait to feel its dull warmth press onto my abdomen before scooping three generous, thick globs of ghee. My mouth waters as it starts to sizzle in the pressure pan, and I add the moong dal, reaching for the wooden spatula to stir. Suddenly, I feel my phone vibrate in my back pocket. I reach for it to find a text from her, asking me to bring home the leftovers, because there are always leftovers. I feel the goofiest smile tug at my lips and I let myself linger at the thought of going home to her later tonight, to Amma’s annoyance of course. I’d have offered to let Emma stay here with us, but we both know how that would play out. There would be too much neighbourly gossip from Amma’s friends, too much feigned concern for my relationship with my Australian girlfriend. My mother would never bear it, and I won’t make her. I am tempted to reply with something sexy, but I don’t. Not the time nor the place, so I leave her on read, and tuck my phone back into my pocket. She’ll understand, she always has.
I hear the screech of the footstool against the marble floor and my mother’s thudding footsteps to approach me. I crinkle my nose in annoyance.
‘Ma,’ I grunt, still not facing her. ‘I can do this.’
‘You shouldn’t daydream while cooking,’ she scolds, the tiniest hint of affection in her voice. She places her hand on the small of my back and watches me stir, her fingers itching to reclaim her favourite spatula. Silence hangs between us as the steam brushes against our faces. I add a pinch of salt and a tablespoon of crushed cardamom powder before reaching for the jug of water to pour and dissipate the bubbling heat. No measurements, just a feeling. That’s how you know its authentic Indian cooking. That’s what Amma believes anyway.
‘Do you think Appa would be proud of me?’ I ask, before I can stop myself. It’s only been a month since he died, but we hardly ever speak of him now. Amma had hardly spoken to him when he was alive, and my mother is one to bend for no man, not even in death.
Amma sighs. ‘At least you learnt some cooking.’
Her hands find and stroke the skin of her neck, damp with sweat and discoloured at the lines. Crow’s feet line the corners of her eyes behind her round glasses and minuscule capillaries pop up from the skin of her hands. She stops to trail her fingers at the nape above her chest, where the weight of her thali used to be. I watch her pause, closing her eyes, and I wonder if she loved Papa after all.
Her eyelids spark open and she lifts her eyebrows in realisation. ‘Dei, you have to melt the jaggery also!’ I stop stirring and let my hands fall to my sides, my body wracked with panic. His own birthday pongal, and I’ve already messed up. Now the rice would be softer and the broth thicker than intended. But, we manage. We always do.
Before I can even blink, my mother is behind me, reaching for the bowl of brown, crystallised lumps and placing it by the second stove. Her withered and slightly tremoring hands shuffle through the stack of pots and pans on the dish rack by the sink and she pulls out the tiny silver pot she uses for chai, blackened at the bottom. Her hips then shove mine out of place, and I feel the soft fabric of her sarong brush against the exposed skin of my thigh. She scooches me over and lights the other stove, placing the jagged and uneven blocks exactly into the tiny pot before pouring enough water to soften, not flood, the jaggery. Too sweet, in my opinion, but that is her specialty. I pour the cup of the already freshly cooked sona masoori into the pressure pan, along with more water from the jug. I switch the wooden spatula for a metal ladle and stir the bubbling broth of rice mixed with the ghee and moong dal while we wait for the jaggery. I place the lid on the pressure pan. A good five minutes is all it takes for the jaggery, and maybe two for Amma. The kitchen air fills with a delicate and savoury aroma, as the purple sunset spills through the window panes of our small, cosy apartment.
The kitchen air fills with a delicate and savoury aroma, as the purple sunset spills through the window panes of our small, cosy apartment.
‘Nidhi…’ she starts, less than a minute in. ‘I’ve talked to Aunty Suma from next door, and her son just came back from Germany.’ Her mouth lingers on ‘Germany’ a little too long, stretching it beyond its borders. I roll my eyes.
‘I’m not interested, Ma,’ I groan. ‘Besides, Hrithik was never that cute.’
‘You’re almost thirty,’ she states matter-of-factly. ‘I think now is the time to start thinking about settling down, ma.’
‘I’m twenty-nine, and I can choose for myself.’ My mother clicks her tongue.
‘If you could, you wouldn’t be friends with that white girl,’ she retorts, her words snarky and biting. I ignore her, my fingertips finding Emma’s name etched onto the smooth, brown skin of my wrist. I don’t correct my mother on her usage of the term friend. My mother notices my tattoo and sighs. ‘At least Navin was goo—’
The world stops around me, and his name coils around my chest, squeezing and tightening until it burns, and I can taste blood on my breath. The corners of my eyes brim with hot tears and I blink them back as I inhale deeply. I cross over to my mother’s side and she steps back, pursing her thin purple lips as she wipes her hands on the soft cotton of her floral blouse. I turn off the stove and watch the steam from the molten jaggery tumble in the air, before rising to the ceiling. Using a kitchen cloth, I hold the heated rim of the pot and wobble it slightly to check its consistency, watching the thickly browned and bubbling liquid dance to my gentle movements. Amma says nothing, though knowing this isn’t necessary, and instead of lecturing me, she scours the table for the pack of raisins and cashew nuts from Tesco.
The word still lingers in my head—good—as memories of him flood through me. Places he’d kissed, touched; valleys of uncharted skin only he would have had the blueprints to. Sinking deeper into him before I realised I was drowning. His lips on fluttering eyelids to his knuckles against my jaw; a violence that bloomed in the sweet garden of love that we had once nurtured. Not unlike the sweetness of jaggery. I squeeze my eyes shut and slam the pot back onto the stove, splotches of brown staining the ends of my white tank top.
‘You know nothing about him, Ma,’ my voice quivers.
‘He wanted to marry you!’ Her voice is defensive, and rage fumes within me.
‘He fucking abused me! And you wanted me to marry him?’
‘Your father hurt me for twenty-five years!’ the gruff of her voice falters as she chokes on a swallowed sob. The pressure pan squeals and rattles in the background. I fix my gaze on my mother, my Amma. Tufts of grey stain the slick and midnight black of her tight braid, and I’ve never noticed the hazel in her eyes or the gap between her two front teeth. Until now. I realise, in this moment, that we are no different. Wounded women, always spit-shining the spines of the men we love, who don’t love us back.
We have rarely allowed ourselves to have moments like this, but we slip into it like we’ve known how to be mother and daughter for ages.
I think of Emma, of the way her mouth refuses to hold my language; my mother’s Tamil butchered on her soft, pink tongue. I think of her stumbling in my sari in our little apartment by the lake, and how she got so fed up that she lit a cigarette and smoked on the balcony wearing nothing but lace underwear and a bright blue petticoat, while the rest of my sari was laid on the floor like dead carcass. To love her is to sail every ocean; to love her is to leave my mother and our ancestors to drown. Which is to say, I think my mother is more angered at the thought of me marrying into whiteness than marrying a woman. I blink back tears and allow myself to breathe.
‘I’m not here to fight with you, Ma’ I say, croaking. ‘Not anymore, at least not on his birthday.’
She nods, tears streaking the hollows of her cheeks. I reach for the pot filled with the syrupy sweetness for Appa’s pongal, while Amma opens the lid of the pressure pan, and thick waves of steam wash over us. I pour generously as she stirs, and I turn to grab a handful of raisins and cashews from the opened Tesco packet, sprinkling it into the thick, brown mush. Amma smiles.
‘I think it is too sweet, lah. My blood sugar will go up,’ she jokes in her lilting Tamil, and I laugh. I reach for the wooden spoon in her tight grip, but she loosens it for me. I take a large scoop of the thick and bubbling brown pongal and bring it to my mouth, as remnants of steam reach to glisten my upper lip with sweat. Before I am allowed to put it in my mouth, Amma reaches for my hand and tugs it towards her. I part my lips to blow on the warm spoonful before letting her taste. ‘It’s bittersweet,’ she says in a lilting Tamil with a small smirk on her lips, but I believe her. It is evening, the neighbourhood is still asleep and the apartment is filled with a beautiful and deadly quiet. Amma reaches to tuck a rebellious strand behind my ear, and for a brief moment the heartache we have caused each other simmers into smoke rising to the ceiling. We have rarely done this; we have rarely allowed ourselves to have moments like this, but we slip into it like we’ve known how to be mother and daughter for ages.
Once it is ready, we transfer the pongal into Appa’s bright blue bowl, also from Tesco. The frayed and peeling price tag is still glued onto the bottom. A large brown goop of this sweet, traditional delicacy just for him, topped with cashews and raisins, and maybe even love, despite it all. We leave it by the altar, next to Lakshmi and the framed black and white photo of a family I vaguely recall.
Sakkarai pongal is always best served hot.