I am back home, in the house that I grew up in, surrounded by memories, some bitter, some sweet. The structure shows signs of wear and tear. The same walls that helped me weather the worst of storms, now show cracks.
It’s surreal to be here. The last time, I had no idea how the world was going to change in just a few months. We take things for granted, only to realize their value when they cease to exist.
I undergo quarantine, masking and staying in one room, for Amma’s sake, despite her protests. After three tests assure me that I am not harbouring any virus, I step out. Amma and I have so much to catch up on. We talk non-stop and I almost lose my voice. She worries about my health; I worry about hers. There is so much to say, yet so much that goes unsaid.
I tuck into the delicious spread that Amma has cooked for me. She claims that the curry is made from home-grown banana-stems. I have missed her cooking. I enjoy the cool breeze and the dancing coconut leaves. Amma complains my hair is looking dry. She applies coconut oil to it and combs it. Bliss!
Amma is all business as usual. She complains that my dresses are looking worn out and frayed. After all, she is the one who ensures that I restock my supply of clothes every year. My stock is 2.5 years overdue for replenishment. The annual pilgrimage to the textile shop, Pothys is due. For safety reasons, I go by myself, but with Amma on a video call to review my purchases, because she enjoys shopping just as much as I do. The rising COVID stats deter her from accompanying me.
“No, not that one- that looks gaudy!” she yells through the call, rejecting the salwar I pick up at Pothys, much to the amusement of the sales ladies. When I almost finalize my purchases, the phone beeps again. Another video call from Amma.
“Make sure the size fits. Don’t be lazy to use the trial room. Last time you bought a size way too small …”
“Amma, I am not a baby!” I hiss, reducing the volume of the phone, ignoring the amused looks of the onlookers.
By the time I’m done shopping, half of Pothys knows Amma, via video call. She admonishes me when I try to take a selfie with a standee of actor Dulquer Salman. Sigh!
She reminds me to inquire about the discounts, or at least get the free cloth bag-the one you get only if you ask. By the time I reach home, she inspects each of my purchases.
“This salwar needs a second stitching!” she exclaims while handing me a cup of steaming tea.
Thak Thak Thak.
I hear the motion of the Singer Sewing Machine, the one that is as old as the house, yet works fine. They don’t make machines like this anymore.
My phone rings. It’s my child from Singapore, who complains that she can’t find her holiday homework, how I have deserted her, and how she wants me back ASAP. I pacify her, ask her to check out a few places, and promise her I will be back soon.
Making promises. That’s the one thing I’m good at. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I am also good at keeping them.
I maintain a low profile, visiting only the neighbors, and staying away from social media. It’s not that I don’t want to meet anyone. I just want to maximize my limited time with Amma, and with Trivandrum. Ironically, is there even anyone left? All the birds have flown the nest.
The neighbors look like aging filters have been applied on them. They must think the same of me too. Because down the different paths of nostalgia, there was a different time, and there were different people.
Amma shows me the friendly squirrel that hops over to nibble the rice and the scraps she keeps on the wall for him. He is quite a feisty creature; I name him Chonky, though Amma probably prefers Chidambaram. I take pictures to show the child when I go back.
It is raining today.
The water pools in the front yard, forming meandering patterns. The Tulsi in the Madam weathers the rains. I enjoy the crisp and cool air. The garden is overgrown but flourishing. Amma doesn’t have much time to tend to the plants, but they thrive well.
I admire the bunches of the red Ixora and the thick carpet of the Parijatam that forms at the base of the tree. I gather the flowers, like just how the twelve-year-old me would for Paati’s pooja. Talking of pooja, the pooja room is as bright and radiant as ever. Amma has maintained it well. If I sit there, I can still hear the ringing of the bell and Paati’s melodious voice singing ‘Jai Jai Aarathi….” Drenched in camphor and incense smoke.
Like a person possessed, I take pictures. Of the Pooja room. Of the verandah. Of the showcase- the one that has all the achievements of us cousins and the wedding albums. Amma wonders if I have lost it. I don’t tell her that I am paranoid. Paranoid that I may not be able to see any of this ever again. Scared of taking anything for granted.
Because life is so transient; the past few years have taught me that.
Bank work, more shopping, temple visits. The week speeds by. It’s the day before the last. Whenever I visit Trivandrum, I am allowed to return to Singapore, only with Banana chips. And the banana chips here are nothing like the packaged ones in supermarket stores. They are made fresh, deep-fried in coconut oil, the aroma a treat to your olfactory senses.
Amma tells me Maha chips is amazing. So, I set off to the Fort Area, in the heart of the city. I am excited to be here. The AnanthaPadmanabhaSwamy temple’s Gopuram is synonymous with Thiruvananthapuram (The holy abode of Anantha) and every time I see it, it makes me happy in ways I can’t explain. Getting inside the temple is a different ball game altogether. Ever since treasures have been unearthed, security has stepped up several notches, making the queues lengthier than usual. I have been here dozens of times in my childhood years, but this time I choose to watch from outside.
Enjoying the emerald green of the Padmathirtham pond, admiring the big fish in the water, and watching reverentially the golden Gopuram under which the Lord of the City, nay, the Lord of the world, slumbers on his serpent bed, I feel serene. I tear my feet away to carry on with my errands.
The streets have changed. I find a Punjabi Dhaba in the middle of the lane, a rarity. The road to Maha chips smells of yet another specialty. The Maha Boli is eaten with pal payasam (sweet milk rice). I wish I were several kilos lighter to enjoy the calorie-loaded delicacy!
I push my temptations away and buy the chips (while sneaking furtive glances at the payasam). I walk away with a big bag of chips, and my other purchases which include a packet of Ada Prathaman (a kind of rice pasta)- I will make Ada Prathamam Payasam for Onam, come September.
I return home. Amma shows me the cuttings and clippings of my articles she has painstakingly preserved all these years.
“Show these to my granddaughter!”
On cue, the child calls. She talks nineteen to the dozen complaining about holiday homework, how strict her father is, and how much she misses me. My heart is torn, caught between the people I love the most. But isn’t that the definition of womanhood?
You live in halves, yet you are expected to love in full. You belong everywhere, yet nowhere.
Here is the link to part 3.
Cover Image credits: Pixabay