It’s round and innocuous at first. She says it doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t do anything. She laughs and acts embarrassed if someone asks her about it. She is dismissive when anyone worries. She won’t see a doctor.
There are more important things in life to focus on. The lump on her throat isn’t one of them.
‘What about dinner? Shall I quickly make something and pack it for you?’
She is preoccupied with food because that is how she shows how much she loves you.
My ex didn’t even merit a cup of tea or coffee the only time he visited.
Her brother expressed a faint craving for akki shavige so she ignored the carpal tunnel syndrome, her bent, misshapen arthritic fingers, and steamed rice powder and rolled it and turned it into thin, fine, spaghetti strips, and fed her brothers. And just in case someone argued about it being merely ‘thindi’, she made rice, rasam, and vegetables.
After, she served coffee for the brothers and tea for the husband.
That day she told me uncharacteristically, “For as long as I am around, I will cook all these things for you.”
Was that when the fear took root?
The next day, I took her to the doctor because it’s ridiculous to live in ignorance.
The dreaded C word was mentioned.
Her face changed. Shrank. She looked more like a bird than usual. I filled up the car with practical lists. ‘We’ll go first thing in the morning. Let’s order breakfast. Don’t waste time cooking. Don’t worry about the tests. And don’t worry about food, we’ll eat outside. We’ll be in hospital all day tomorrow.”
She reached home and worked like a dervish.
‘I need to make all the powders – sambar, rasam, bisibelebaath, vaangibaath.’
By the next evening, in spite of the long hours we spent at the hospital running tests, chillies had been dried, the pulses roasted, the spices added, and the powders ground. There was enough idli and dosa batter for the entire street to feed on.
‘Come, see how I make these.’
I ignored her call with a sinking stomach and refused to budge away from my laptop where all the windows merged into something blurry and shimmering. She is a workaholic. She won’t sleep till everything in the kitchen is set right, till all the preparations for the next meal have been made. She’s also a perfectionist. In all these years, there have been few dishes that haven’t tasted like heaven. And she has a fierce sense of responsibility. She will cook and clean even if she’s unwell because that’s her duty.
So if I don’t see, if I don’t learn, she would be fine because she would have to be. Who else would cook for me?
The fear lodged in the throat.
At the hospital, we turned strangers before the operation. Not for us any sentimental talk. It was my turn to be dismissive of the surgery, to mock her very real fears – will I lose my voice? Will I live past this? – that she hadn’t articulated.
‘Don’t be silly. It’s a small surgery. What’s there to worry? You will have permanent wrinkles at this rate.’
As long as she lives through this, everything is fine. Please. I have to be her strength.
She is my strength. How can I be strong when my strength is weakened? I fear getting into a kitchen that smells of her powders in a world where she doesn’t exist except as a whiff in the memories of all of us who have sampled her cooking.
In that moment, I resent deeply her powders, her culinary wizardry, how she told me that someday I will love to cook because it is an art form. How she is proud that even when I don’t like it, I cook just like her. If she will leave me before I am ready, and I will never be ready, I don’t want her skill or the taste of her food or the cravings for her gojju or sambar or rasam. In that instance, I recognise the futility of my life if something happened to her. I bury these fears and fall asleep taking pills because I can’t even pray when I am mostly godless.
I dream of walls that are barren, white, and uninviting even as I sense that it is home. It doesn’t feel like anything. I am looking for her, hungry, trying to smell food, but there’s nothing.
I wake up hungry on a strange cot in the hospital. I wake to see that she has finally slept. I want to wake her and tell her how she’s the only home I recognise, the only reason the world makes sense, how even my father is a stranger without her defining our relationship, how much I love her, how indispensable she is in my life.
But I don’t.
We are not sentimental. We have never spoken to each other that way. We wouldn’t know where to start and how to say it. Besides, we never state the obvious.
We have bought time instead.
So when we come home healed, even as the threat of the C word hangs over us, innocuous and relatively harmless now that her entire gland is removed, I show love the way she has taught me.
In sheer relief, I cook.