Maa, Ginger or Cardamom? (The Fish Head- Part 3)
Before I forget to tell you, I have decided not to participate in the Ganpati celebrations this year nor host Thanksgiving dinner. I need time to grieve. I thought we all needed it, or time to ponder, and reflect, and absorb what the pandemic made us experience. It was nothing short of a massacre last year. Everywhere you move, there are inescapable reminders that the pandemic is not yet over, and even if it was, it has scarred us in ways that would take years to heal, if not forget. Do we inspire so little emotion in each other as a community that we have ceased to care about loss? If it’s not mine, then have I lost anything? Society’s debauchery and superfluousness appal me. Our memories are short-lived. We get over too soon. We are desperate to celebrate; without the razzle-dazzle, is there anything to live, I wonder. The show must go on; the show must go with pizazz.
Since I cannot afford the panache, I will hermit myself close to you. The world will not stop by to notice my absence; it never has. Except for the little boy in the house who hops into the kitchen every 30 minutes for food, I am pretty invisible to myself. The only time I see myself is early morning when I transition from awake on the bed to awake standing at the sink, filling the steel saucepan with two cups of water from the tap that has a filter attached. Depending on the time of year, it’s quiet and dark outside, slowly, very slowly turning into winter blue mixed with fog that stands still on the patio overlooking the kitchen window. Or maybe the sun has already risen and begun to shine on the holy basil plants as a murder of crows caw in the bright blue sky. While the world cycles through its changes, my tea-making remains the same: I fill the saucepan, carry it to the stove, and switch on the back right burner. I rub my eyes and take a close look to be sure that I have got it right. Once the water starts to boil, I pour some milk and two spoonful of loose tea leaves into the saucepan. It takes a few seconds to decide whether to add ginger or cardamom—you know, I love cardamom tea, and the man of the house likes ginger tea. I started grating the knob of ginger using the microplane grater you asked me to purchase. In the space between sink and stove and fridge, with a marathoner’s stamina, I run, and while I run, I see myself in the rising vapor, I see my doll in the glass showcase cabinet kept in the living room, I see your kitchen and spices neatly arranged in Horlicks jars, I see Baba’s parrot green Bajaj scooter, and I see my books stacked in the wooden cupboard. Then the vapours evaporate, and I don’t see myself anymore.
The stories I wrote with maniacal enthusiasm, keeping awake for nights and days, have mostly been rejected or lie gutted in the publishers’ slush pile. Interestingly, whatever I write, fails the world. Sometimes, I find myself so small I can crumple myself into a paper ball that children can play with. Does the enormity of my failures disappoint you? Considering the lofty ambitions you had for me, I am convinced I have let you down; I have let myself down. Is it okay to depart from the world without a trace? Why is it essential to be renowned and celebrated and revered and remembered? Perhaps that is why I avoid the crowd; you don’t go to places to see yourself shrink into something so small that you might as well be just an atom.
During the pandemic, I did my calculations and took a look at the balance sheet of my life. Quarantine diaries on social media were evocative, edifying, and I was convinced of a social change. I was confident of a metamorphosis from clamour and brouhaha to placidity and quietude. However, I realise that quiet is a disease most have been inoculated against. We talk about it, create signposts of hope, then move on silently, doing what we have always done. For me, who knows it better than you, a conversation is an act of courage, a group activity akin to heroism. That’s what the speech therapist informed you when I was barely five, and you took it upon yourself to feed me words and voice more than food. You were afraid I might grow up to become a hapless schmo. Both the words and the voice found expression on the blank pages of a wide-ruled notebook and later on a computer screen. Each one of us is telling a story, the one with a voice and the one without. When they ignore my voice, however hard I try, my heartbeat amplifies, and I contemplate the question of whether to stand up straight, or lie on the floor in a dark room, or gradually disappear. Every story has a destiny other than being published and savored by people. At least I have a story- it’s my personal memento mori, disconcerting but not enough to keep me sidelined. We campaign for life in poetry, and it governs us in prose, thwarting our intentions and dreams. Until now, I have been successful in failing; I would shed my disappointment like snakeskin and start anew, but without you, my failure seems more permanent, like the mastectomy you underwent. Your breasts were gone... forever. How do I gear up, dust off, and cross my fingers again? Cast out to sea, I feel lonely bone-deep.
This may bewilder you, but the man you married 48 years ago is dying too. I suspect a diagnosis is coming soon-Alzheimer’s-you know this, right? The kind of forgetting where you die before you die, where you cut ties before the body, in its physical form, does. In the past eight months, he has not called me even once. Last week, I saw him on a video call. On a rare occasion, he picked up the phone and said "Hello." It sounded more like a croak, a feeble one, as if words were entangled in the veins of the larynx, struggling to come out. I held the phone close, so close I saw the crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes and the filmy cataracts that covered them. His outward countenance surprised me, for I noticed, for the first time, his half body and his half mind seated on your wooden rocking chair near the brown panelled bedroom wall. He wore a crisp white kurta with the saffron vest you gifted him last year. I have been informed that the chair is practically his home, vacated only for bathroom breaks and tending to your plants, which wilted in the summer heat. Sometimes I can’t tell if he is looking at me or you, considering I inherited your perfectly straight nose with narrow nostrils and almond-shaped eyes more than your other child did. That day, he called me by your name and asked me to serve dinner as he felt hungry. He also reminded me not to add too much red chilli in the gravy as it aggravates his hemorrhoids. I answered him, adopting your words and employing your fake annoyance—because of your piles, I suffer.
Get some green chilies for yourself. He retorted.
It’s not the same. I continued.
For a moment, his eyes sparkled, and then, all of a sudden, he disconnected the call. I collapsed into the bean bag and rolled myself into a ball, holding my chest tight. My heart leaped around so wild; I felt I would have to call 911. Is this what 48 years of marriage does to you? At what moment exactly do two people fuse into one? As a child, I never felt the need to oscillate between you and him to seek permission for a movie night with friends. Surprisingly, both of you spoke the same language, exactly the same words—Mamoni, you should know the difference between the path of the good and the path of the pleasant. I would envy my friends whose mothers were flexible and helped bend their father’s rules. What struck me most about your marriage-you were as much in him as he was in you. You spend your days with each other or looking forward to the moment when you can be with each other. What kind of calculation did you make when I would eagerly wait for Baba and ask you, “When will he come?" When can we have lunch? ” Two minutes, ten minutes, or thirty minutes would be your answer, and there is no magic in that. The magic is in his appearing at the door exactly within two minutes, or ten minutes, or thirty minutes. I would stand agape and dismiss the magic, saying it’s a married couple’s secret code. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to develop this code in my marriage yet. Did I not follow the path of the good to be blessed with the secret code? On your 25th anniversary, when you decided to go around the sacred fire and the seven vows again, I secretly wished for you and him to live together ever after or die together. I don’t know how and I don’t know why, but a little voice made me believe you were like all things that come in pairs-like his shoes or your gold earrings. You lose one, and the other is as good as lost.
Thinking about you and him, I feel like crying, crying hard, crying for what I am losing, all that I can never retrieve, crying for having no rewind button in life, crying for the ways my life has gone wrong, the way this world is, crying for something large and universal, something deep and unfathomable, crying for the constant struggle to be alive and yet want to die, crying for being an infidel.
Read The Fish Head Part 4