When your mother takes ill – the outcome of being bitten by a rogue mosquito – and temporarily retires from the kitchen, you set out to acquaint yourself with the myriad occupants of her fiefdom. Far from easy. There are two rows of identical steel tins, housing lentils that all look like first cousins, so any attempt at cooking daal must be preceded by an identification parade. You place a few grains of each variant onto a plate and take it to her room. This is moong, she informs you, and this is arhar, and this is masoor. The daals sorted, there is now a cupboard full of glass jars, with three variants of chilli powder alone, all labelled with numbers. What do the numbers mean? Jar 1 will expire first, your mother explains, so that must be used up before opening Jar 2. What about Jar 3 then, you ask. That one is a bright red but very mild, she replies. I reserve it for pao bhaaji. Since you always want yours to look hot and spicy – like in those Youtube cookery videos – but your father can’t tolerate the heat, this variant helps to keep both of you happy.
Amma is astute, you think to yourself. You’d never thought of Amma as so clever before.
On one of those evenings, with your mother still confined to bed, you decide to surprise her with a dish she loves – curried okra. You have no experience in cooking okra, but how hard can it be? You take a quarter-kilo of the vegetable, wash and scrub it dry. In a pan, you crackle mustard and carom seeds, add some chopped onion and green chillies, and toss in the diced okra. In less than two minutes, the okra starts to stick to the bottom of the pan. Of course! Vegetables need water to cook, don’t they? You add two whole glasses of water to the pan, then cover it and wait for time to work its miracle. You’re unaware, as a 35-year old with a doctorate from Wharton, that okra and water do not mix. When your mother hears of the debacle, she laughs hysterically, then picks up the phone to tickle her sisters. You know, already, that this particular culinary defeat of yours is going to become stuff of lore.
Amma knows so much that I don’t, you think to yourself. You’d never thought of Amma as erudite before.
Two weeks into convalescence, your mother is in better shape. The fever has subsided and so have the rashes. But the cramps persist. Her body feels leaden, her fingers are stiff as wood, and every trip to the bathroom feels like a workout, leaving her deflated. Keen to help her regain her mojo, you decide to become her personal masseuse. Every night, before she changes into pyjamas, you massage her aching muscles with diclofenac gel. You adjust the vigour of your fingertips in response to her reflexes – less pressure when she groans with pain, more pressure when she moans with relief. Soon enough, you can read her sighs like Morse code. You knead in some places, pound in others. You learn the exact size and shape of the mole on her back. You memorize the topography of her body. A week into the job, you know which mounds are sore, which joints creak, and which one of her toes is dead to touch.
Amma is suddenly so feeble, you think to yourself. You’d never thought of Amma as vulnerable before.
A month after she tested positive for chikun gunya, your mother is slowly getting back on her feet. But her legs are unsteady and her hands swollen, even after all the ibuprofen and physiotherapy. She can’t reach the top shelves anymore because her arms won’t lift. She has trouble sealing the pressure cooker, and more trouble opening it. Every time she needs lentils from a tin or spices from a jar, she has to call you for help. She hates it, bitterly. She has always been the saviour, never the sufferer. She feels betrayed by her own body. Some evenings, she sits on the porch swing, staring at her limbs like they’re strangers. Then, determined to repair her broken bits, she gets off her perch and begins cleaning. She sweeps the floor and scrubs the table tops and hangs out the laundry. Don’t do all this, you scold her. The house is already clean, the laundry isn’t an emergency. But she ignores you and perseveres, because exerting her muscles, no matter how painful, is an assurance that they still exist, that it is only a matter of time before they regain form.
Amma is so resilient, you think to yourself. You’d never thought of Amma as a fighter before.
A year has passed now, since your mother recovered from that ill-fated mosquito bite. The toxins have left her body, but in the brief period that they inhabited her flesh and blood, they altered her pathology. Your mother is now a distant cousin of who she once was. She has enrolled with the laughing club that assembles in the park every morning. She doesn’t find “laughing like a rakshasa in public” ignominious anymore. She picks up a glass of fresh juice – apples, celery and cucumber – on the way home, its cost no longer a deterrent. She watches television at odd hours. Some mornings, she ditches chores in favour of a new movie. She has gifted herself one of those Caravan radio sets, in pink. It plays Mohammed Rafi all day. She sings along, sometimes loudly. Yesterday, she asked you to order her a chocolate cupcake. “Why, can’t an old person want to try out young people’s food?” she’d retorted after you raised an eyebrow. This had made you smile. She’d grinned back.
Your mother has become a million things she wasn’t known to be.
Amma is a whole world unto herself, you think admiringly. You’d not known Amma to be vast as the universe before.
Megha Nayar is a communications consultant and fiction writer from India. She teaches English and French for a living, and writes stories to remain sane. She was longlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2020. One of her stories was showcased at India’s prestigious Kala Ghoda Arts Festival 2021. She is currently a mentee-in-training on the British Council’s Write Beyond Borders programme. Her work has appeared in several lit mags, among them Trampset, Bending Genres, Rejection Letters, Out of Print, Gulmohur Quarterly, Bengaluru Review, Kalopsia Lit, Brown Sugar, Burnt Breakfast, Marias at Sampaguitas, Cauldron Anthology, Potato Soup Journal, Cape Mag, Interpret Mag, Postscript Mag and The Daily Drunk Mag. She tweets @meghasnatter.