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Shruti Mungi 

The wallpaper on my wall is a musty brown. I watch it till the black lines come alive in my mind like dancing figures that want to run away. I keep wishing to swirl up into the morning sky with them, but the fresh morning air, speckled generously with hot spices, draws me back into the heat of my blanket. I can hear the mixer go off in the kitchen, its rhythmic grinding recreating the taste of cumin seeds and red chilies in my mouth. The heat permeates through my closed bedroom door, beckoning me out with its intensity. My mouth is haunted by the last time it was bombed by this spice mix, bringing back to memory the multiple glasses of water and sweet barfis that I scarfed down in order to quench the fire. I want to resist but the aroma eventually summons me to the kitchen to behold the sight that is my mother’s mutton gravy.

Lazy mornings like this after being home from college are no rarity. I spend hours on end holding on to the fragrances of spicy pickles and right-off-the-stove chapatis that are all complemented by the warmth of my own bed. I like to take it in slowly, breathing in with the house of my childhood but never breathing out. I’m not surprised that the happiness of that embrace never lasts. My bags are packed for the next journey before I can even wallow in the feeling of being home.

Homecoming is not new to me. I have come back home time and again since I was in the fifth grade. It went from coming home from boarding school, to coming home from home schooling then to coming home from college—an endless cycle of feeling like a guest in your own house and always having suitcases to fill and empty. My bed was like a wave that threw me up to the shores of one foreign place after another, a calm ruthlessness purging me out every chance it got.

Food has been the one thing I have used to root me to the places I had to make my home in— a plate of idli-sambar indicative of my adolescent years in boarding school and hearing how I seemed to be getting bigger every time I came back home, a ham and cheese sandwich a reminder of my freshman self in college and eating alone in my room because of my social anxiety. The smell of cumin and chili haunts me into remembering my difficult relationship with food, as does any food at home. Between my increasing weight and my mother’s passionate cooking, I am faced with a contradiction that is hard to come to terms with.

I’m certain I’ll never be thin enough to satisfy my mother. My carelessness with food has always been a cause for concern for her, exacerbated by the fact that I was never home for her to control what I ate. She, on the other hand, has always been enamored with the idea of food. Dust-fleckered recipe books line the several rows of cabinets in our house and recipe cutouts from newspapers hang on the refrigerator. Every other day, I see her make that one recipe that struck out to her while watching a cooking show. I’m sure that’s why some of my fondest memories of my childhood involve devouring her concoctions. What baffled me, as a child, was her expectation for me to lose weight when she cooked such delectable meals. Ultimately, I learnt to associate guilt with food, her temper continually breaking down my self-esteem instead of teaching me moderation. It seemed like we were never on the same page and over the years, I learnt to fill the pit created by my developing social anxiety with food.

    Look at Ria, she’s gone on a diet. We’ll start on one tomorrow too, I hear her say over and over again, alluding to my cousins and friends and whoever else she can find who is thinner than me. I know that she is afraid of weight-related health issues affecting me. Diagnosis of her early onset of arthritis a year ago has scared her into reevaluating her own life choices and forcing restrictions upon mine. I try to believe that she means well but I think I end up failing every time when I remember that, growing up, my self-worth had always been tied up to the thickness of my thighs.

The decision of making mutton evokes the same distaste in her.

“Will you ever listen when I tell you to eat healthier,” she storms at my father repeatedly. “You know how important watching our health is at this age!”

“But Shruti’s here after so long. We have to get some mutton!” He grumbles, brushing her advice off carelessly.

My father wants to give me everything I want when I’m home. We’re always eating out and he’s always ecstatic about bringing home warm plastic containers of chicken gravy and naan from the new place he’s discovered. We have similar tastes, my father and I. But I sense a distance between us, one that has sprung from my absence. One that has sprung from me becoming a woman behind his back.

When I can’t hold back from the aroma anymore, I slink out to the kitchen. The afternoon sun is up and glaring in through the windows, the light proving to be a little too bright for my sleepy eyes. Wordlessly, I ask my mother for a cup of tea. I sink into my spot, a small nook between the fridge and the storage cupboards, to watch my mother work herself down to the bones as I hold the red Nestlé cup in my hand. I notice, as she works, that she has grown older. Her rough hands that pat the marinade into the mutton pieces are labored by too much work and her face is perpetually contorted in pain as she clutches her feet.

I hurriedly finish my tea and stand next to her.

“Do you need any help?” I ask, grabbing the teapot off the stove to rinse it out.

“No, I’m almost done. It’s ok,” she says, sighing into the pressure cooker’s steam. I’m not surprised. She rarely asks me for help.

It bothers me that this is all she has known. She built this house from the roots up, its nooks and crannies no secret to her. It was an immense task, even more so in an aging house. But I think about all that my mother could have been, when she was as old as me, had she not spent her time after her two children, had she been free of these expectations.

Today, I see her paint in bright hues across the bedroom walls and layer large beads upon beads to sit above her collarbones. My brother’s bed is teeming with beads of all sizes hiding in small compartments, jewelry making being my mother’s latest focus and pride. Having done everything she could have for us, I feel at peace knowing she is finally doing what she loves.

“What is this mess on the bed? I can’t even see where my clothes are,” my father says often in humor. It bothers me that his remarks come in jokes and not in proud exclamations for my mother. But it is hard for me to harbor hard feelings towards him, the warm brown of his eyes always assuring me that his jokes are a ruse for him to feel closer to us. I know that his actions will always make up for his words. Every time I think of the problematic nature of his behavior, I am brought back to the feeling of not truly knowing him. My mother, who stood on her feet all day and faced the gas flames, was always in front of me. My father faced all his troubles in his office, behind his closed bedroom door and in his own head, forever unseen to me. It’s a thought that haunts me everyday, making me feel as young and naive as the day I left home in their eyes, as the day I had last fully known them. Perpetually ten.

We finish lunch at three, a spice-laden meal of mutton gravy, pav, onions and barfis. We never sit together of course. I sit in my room, my eyes transfixed to a Netflix show. My father sits at the dining table while my mother continues to make more food as he eats. The dining table does a fine job of collecting objects, holding onto packets and containers until they are put in place. Only two spots lie cleaned out for convenience.

A late lunch doesn’t stop my father from asking for evening tea at four. He shouts for it from the couch, surrounded by an array of newspapers and the blaring sounds of Marathi news shows. Sometimes, he starts reminding my mother as early as five. Almost always, the pot is boiling over with the rich tea leaves before he can say it again. He’s habituated to not making it himself. He is always too tired from work and she is always there before him. It’s the same old story on repeat.

I try to make it to the kitchen before my mother can. I can see her lying on the bed, her legs stretched out to rest for, what I know, feels to her like a second. She sinks into the bed a little more when she sees me grab the pot. I grab the kitchen scissors and head out the kitchen door for a little adventure in the backyard garden.

As soon as I step out, the neighborhood stray cats drop from crevices I didn’t know existed and swarm around my feet. White is the female and she is there perched right next to the door to snap at me for food. Fluffy sits at the door because all he wants is back rubs. I pet them both and head into the backyard, walking with them at my heels. I pass the looming mango tree and the half-dead custard apple tree to halt at the box pit of lemongrass. The pit is where we buried my dog and I think about it every time I walk towards that spot. I’m sure that the lemongrass in my tea holds some remnants of her life, seeing as she loved to munch on lemongrass. It is a thought that is morbid yet comforting.

Leaning into the soil, I cut a few dewy strands of lemongrass and hold them carefully. I am tempted to let the edges do their work, they are sharp enough to cut into my soft skin. But the cats distract me. Fluffy rubs against a pot of dead strawberries, a rarity in this hot Indian climate, as White meddles in the lemongrass. I walk back to the wooden backdoor and quickly slip through the cracks, evading the cats who leap at every step I take.

Back in the kitchen, I cut the lemongrass into pieces and throw it into boiling water. I grab ginger from the fridge and hold the grater above the pot. The falling ginger splashes into the water, cutting through the voice of the news show playing in the hall. I stand still, waiting for the water to boil more and evaporate into a thin mist. The sound from the TV is the only thing holding me down to reality.

I realize, as I stare at the pot, that I am like a ghost in this empty house whose own history is detached from one within these four walls. My own past is tied to different places and yet, there is comfort in this strangeness. I grow dreary about abandoning the house when I think of leaving. I grow dreary at having to leave my parents repeatedly. I reside like a guest day after day, making them a little happy until its time to leave again. But we don’t ever sit down to talk. In passing, there are things said and people hugged but we don’t talk about the time I broke down so hard in college I had to leave for home. Or that time I started suppressing my appetite in college, afraid of the weight I was gaining. I realize that I am a stranger to those I love. I am a stranger to this aging house.

At some point, I am able to snap out of it. I throw in some spoonfuls of sugar into the mix. I’ve never been good at measurements and so the recipe for tea lies memorized in my head. Three spoons of sugar. That’s all.

Before I pour the milk into the pot, my father is at the table looking at me.

“Is it done?” He asks in a manner that contains both humor and pride. I smile dryly at him while he gathers up a bowl of farsan crackers and walks back hurriedly to the couch. He’s always afraid he’ll miss his hourly news recap.

I carefully pour the watery milk into the pot and then about four spoons of tea leaves. The open tea box brings a wave of nostalgia in its fragrance, the smell taking me back to running in the tea fields of Ooty with my friends and getting lost within its perfume vastness till we were invisible. The tea boils over unto itself and the brimming leaves line the top of the pot with bubbles. I pick three cups from the utensil basket, two red and one white. The tea steams my face as I pour it into the cups and I am excited at the thought of hearing how it might compare to that which my mother makes.

“The tea is ready,” I scream into the hall and the bedroom. But I don’t really think anyone hears me. The aging house groans back in silent echoes, the only one who responds to my cries, and I realize how truly alone I am.

Shruti Mungi is a Senior Creative Writing major at Knox College. She comes from Nasik, India. A reader by day and a writer by night, she loves correcting grammar and dabbling in all genres of writing. Shruti has written for her college magazine, Cellar Door, and has recently been published in Red Cedar Review.