"Really yummy. How did you manage to get the paneer so crispy and still so soft and flavourful?"
And I smiled to myself, because while making the dish I remembered his mother's tip, and lost in that special world in the kitchen, my dish became infused with a hint of love mixed with bittersweet loss.
Cooking has always been an independent venture for me. From the age of 6, on a makeshift stool comprised of random pieces of wood stuck together, I was making roti—rolling away with the belan as well as I was able to with my little hands, patting the dough primly with a dusting of flour and carefully shifting it onto the hot tawa.
To date, I still have a faint scar on my chest from where the edge of the tawa burnt me as I leant over. The symbolism of the act, the pain, and the scar, is as succinct as it could be.
Making roti is the one thing that has ties with that Other World. It's one of the very few memories that I have with her: standing on a chair and rolling a small glob from the big portion of dough in the bowl, and happily rolling it, flattening it, making my very first roti, only for it to come out in a very strange misshapen triangular form. But that memory is so much more than the detail. It is adorned with her gentle grace, her loving patience, more that overwhelming warmth than the accuracy of her face. She praised me for my Christmas Tree roti and commended me for my creativity. "Let's make it green!" she suggested, and got out the food colouring, so that when my father finally returned from work that evening, there among all the well-formed round rotis was a special little green Christmas Tree roti.
Things changed drastically soon after, and our family, smaller by one number now, moved to a new neighbourhood. I began a new life at a new school in a totally alien landscape. At home, I soon learnt to do the chores and cooking. I was in first grade.
When it was warm enough, we played in the streets. It was a way of getting out of our father's way.
"She has no mommy," I overheard another little girl tell the other kids on the street. And that information made them all avoid me, as if it was a contagious form of a shameful disease.
In those young years I became the object of passively aggressive bullying. I didn't realize that was what it was, but for some reason, my newfound tendency to cry easily seemed to be a point of amusement for the other kids. I cried every single day in school in those years. That the other kids thought that mocking me for not having a mother seemed the best joke did not help. I remember being completely ostracized in 5th grade as a clique of 'popular' girls chose to disparage me on my lack of femininity, loud gossip and meant taunts of not being able to go shopping with a mom. As we grew up into the pre-teen part of elementary school, I shied away from the female teachers' attentions and stayed aloof from other children's mothers who volunteered at school events or joined us on trips. If another kid's mother was extra kind to me, I had to shoulder the additional grief of that particular kid's glares at the perceived invasion of territory.
When I started high-school, I was just as aloof. This was a new start and I kept these secrets of my history to myself. I became one of the class clowns, tomboy Jane, the go-to girl for crazy antics and hyperness, all in the most geeky ways. And I made friends. Friends who after a few years eventually complained that I was too secretive; that I kept my feelings to myself. By then I had told them a bit about my family life, but only enough so that the very deep and dark bits would not scare anyone away. But keeping such things to oneself has its own psychological consequences too.
That particular loss is one that has never been healed. And it continues to hurt, almost every single day. It is the one thing that I can never articulate to anyone, because the depth of that loss is absolutely endless. I don't want anyone's pity or sympathy, and yet, through most of my life, that is the one thing I crave instinctively: some form of maternal love.
The problem is that when I became close to anyone else, they sooner or later shared in this nugget of loss (as is natural in exchanges of personal data with close friends) but the problem is that soon, they too extended that holy grail: aw, it's okay you can share mine! Certainly, the offer was always made with the best of intentions, with a good heart and full of warmth and kindness. But somehow, time or other events seemed to break down the very structure of that relationship and along with the friendship went that maternal gift.
More than that, often the rational for the breakdown of friendships happened contingent to the nature of the maternal bond. Somehow, there still remained that sinister whisper of contagion which I first overheard on the streets as a child. One of the most defining milestones was being explicitly shunned and kicked out of a tight-knit circle of friends—at that time the only friends I had—like a dirty untouchable.
You never think that people can have this kind of cruelty. And perhaps they simply do not realize the extent of their behaviour, maybe because they do not know what this kind of experience is like. But it hurts more than I could say when you are given a taste of what it is like, when a friend says that their mother is there for you too, and then so easily take it away without even recognizing the emotional destruction they cause.
After these experiences I became a little more hardened. I remembered how to be aloof again. When visiting friends at their homes, I was pleasant and polite but always reserved and never opened up my heart again for a surrogate mother.
And then he happened. You could not talk to him—really talk to him—or get to know him, without him talking about his mother. His love for her is probably his quintessential defining characteristic. It absolutely shines. And you cannot help falling in love with her. So I fell for both of them. They both made me laugh like I never laughed before. This was a new kind of bond and relationship that I had never experienced or witnessed. I was in awe, and yet was head over heels in being blessed with her love, too. I felt like a geeky fan being bestowed with the attention of a mega celebrity. But it was more for me. So much more.
Sometimes out of the blue, her voice pops up on my headphones. An old saved voice message wishing me a happy birthday and telling me that innocent unknown lie: I will always be there for you. These are those times when I need to rush out of the room, or rush off the train, and hide. Sometimes, it is so hard to figure this out. You think it is just another heartbreak, but it isn't. It's much more. When I cry for him, I cry for her too.
What is loss? I could never figure it out, only feel it, again and again, in louder explosions, each time.
I type the question, and pause, as my adopted feral kitten stares at me in consternation as I cry, trying to finish this. I am so sorry, baby, I will never kick you back out in the streets motherless for I know what that feels like. Is that why you followed me home?