Her absence is the kitchen’s lack of aroma. Back in the day, what seemed to bind their lives from one day to the next was the sweet spicy smell that wafted from the kitchen every morning. There was something inexplicable about it. Spreading from one room to another, it used to fill their home with a sort of life-affirmation. It gave them an unconscious hope that someone was there. That someone had already greeted dawn before they broke their slumber. This house, now, its kitchen and rooms rusted in time, still echoes distant laughter. When they lived here decades ago, the place didn’t appear as glorious as it does now. “It looks no different” says the younger of the two. What both the brothers are startled at, but don’t yet realize, is that they can’t recall how it smelled like in the kitchen every morning when they were still young. Nostalgia can hold the scents of your days for only so long.
Both brothers, who now lead separate lives in separate cities, have decided to return home, together again, if only for a day, to rejoice in the past. So here they are in the kitchen, which is unused since ages, and they have made enough arrangements to prepare Undhiyu, just the way mother did.
“It was then she had told me, in a year or so…”
“It’s so hot here. This place is hot,” interrupts the younger one.
“That’s because the fan…,” the elder one tries to explain the obvious but is interrupted by the younger brother again.
“In a year or?”
“In a year or so your brother will also leave this house. That’s what she said. Not her exact words though. You were about to finish your graduation then. I had visited from Bombay. I brought peanut butter, remember?”
“I only liked the idea of peanut butter I guess,” the younger one laughs. “But I didn’t like the taste. I thought I’d come to like it eventually, you know.”
“She seemed sad that day.”
“One of her bad days.”
“I don’t think so… Add few cloves of garlic.”
“Yes. See, she had spent her life raising us… um, but that’s what I think.”
“And with us taking charge of our own lives, she was left with no purpose at all?”
“We were her center, sort of.”
“But she was happy, wasn’t she?” the younger brother asks, while sautéing garlic, onion, and other mixture, as the steam coming from the frying pan baths the dry walls of the small kitchen.
“It’s not about her happiness. I mean, yes, it’s about that too. But I wonder… have we ever thought of her as just another ordinary human being… like, someone who is prone…”
“Like… did she ever seek ambition?”
“She liked to paint.”
“But did she pursue it? I mean, did she ever regret the life she had chosen?”
“Oh! Why would she do that? We spent such good time together”
“No, you don’t get me. Everyone regrets.”
“Yes, regret is possible. But even if she regretted her choices…,” then he pauses, gulps from a soda can, and resumes “do you mean she may have wished to lead a different life altogether? Away from us all?”
“It is possible, isn’t it?” the elder one joins his eyebrows, as if asking for the other’s agreement.
“Man!” the other exclaims and snickers instantly.
Mothers are mysterious and sometimes sorrowful, according to the elder brother. The younger one calls him too emotional for his own good. To prepare a recipe just the way mother did is a difficult task. Because the taste and aroma of her food depended not only on the spices, the pastes, and the gravy she prepared. It also depended on her moods, her emotions, her whole-hearted acceptance of the kitchen as a workshop, and the painterly skills with which she prepared food that might have given her artistic joy, who knows? To prepare food like her requires being like her.
“You know,” the younger brother begins, “when you shifted to Bombay for your job, I mean the day you left home for the first time… I am sure you don’t know this. Should I add sugar now?”
“Not yet. You can add now. But every ingredient has its correct timing. It’s correct moment if you will. That’s what good food is all about.”
“You know it too well.”
“You were lazy enough to learn then,” snaps the elder one. They smile quietly.
“Your train was in the morning,” says the younger brother. “After you left the day went on like usual, but something didn’t feel right you know. I didn’t like school that day. At night, after dinner, she told dad that she wanted to go for a walk, but dad didn’t join. He was tired or something. She left alone, but didn’t come back for a long time.”
“She may have gone to Kalpu Aunty’s house. They sometimes sat chatting till late nights.”
“No, she went towards Bhai Kaka Statue, but instead of turning back she kept walking. She had lost sense of time… if you get my drift. She was not herself. She didn’t know what she was doing. She kept walking till Usha Building, then to the new park they had created near Mahadev Mandir and sat there for more than an hour. Still unmindful of what she was doing. Me and dad went looking for her, but couldn’t know where she was. We kept an eye on every passing person on her usual route. For some time we thought she might have caught up chatting with someone, but as time passed we were really worried. Everything that could possibly go wrong came to my mind, you know.”
“I have never been aware of this.”
“We didn’t tell you. Maybe coz we all forgot about it the other day, as if it had never happened… It took us some time to figure out where she was. The moment I saw her sitting on the bench, I drew a sigh of relief. I didn’t even remember breathing before that. We approached her, and she looked at us as though she had returned from somewhere far away. She was startled. She started crying.”
“She missed me?”
“I don’t know. She never told. Two hours without her and everything goes for a toss. We just took her home, and she told us she wanted to sleep. That was all. Then we forgot about it.”
There is a long pause. No one speaks anything, just the occasional sound of the vegetables being stirred. “You can add sugar now,” says the elder brother, his eyes fixed on an invisible spot on the kitchen wall. “She was a strong woman,” he continues “I can somehow never imagine her as weak.”
“She may have been upset that day. Happens you know. It’s only human.”
“There were times when she threw this all-knowing, everything-will-be-fine smile. If I ever miss anything real bad, it is that expression of hers. It was so comforting, as if she knew everything.”
“She couldn’t know everything!” the younger sibling grins.
“Yes, but it felt that way. How did she do that? … Do we even know her?”
“Oh you are a romantic.”
“It must be God…,” tells the elder one.
“What about God?”
“I just think it was her belief in God that kept her… what do they call it… hinged.”
“And with all your doubts you don’t share her faith!” the younger one says in a jovial, if sarcastic, tone, knowing too well that these effusions are not new. They have been thrown at him time and again, whenever they are on their own. “Why this urge, brother?” he continues, “why this urge to understand her? We don’t understand so many things.”
They are midway through their preparation. But they are not alone. Somewhere in time, mother is also preparing the same dish, in the same kitchen, only a little younger. She is adding turmeric. So are they. She has added a clove of garlic. So have they. She is stirring. So are they. She leans over and smells the aroma. So do they. Onion by onion, clove by clove, sugar by sugar, pepper by pepper they are trying to catch up with her. All they have to do is to surrender. A symphony is not played so that one can understand. It has to be felt.
Then, as if by chance, they acquire the same gestures and emotions that mother is having. The steam coming from both the pans smell familiar. Mother and children are almost at the same stage, though separated in time. The color, the smell, and the taste of both the preparations ring out in accordance. A moment in the past and a moment in the present resonate in unity: a little pattern of order is formed in the eternal chaos of space and time. It is as if everything is clear, the way a child looks at the night sky – not with doubt, but with marvel. But before they can comprehend it, before they can put it in words, they lose it. How long it lasted is an unnecessary question. It was too fragile for words to capture.
In the distant kitchen mother turns back and smiles at both the brothers sitting at the dining table, scribbling in their mathematics journals as if by compulsion, waiting for the food to be prepared. The food is ready. They start eating. But the taste and smell of the dishes are not the same anymore.
“Something is missing, isn’t it?” asks the elder brother.