December, 2019 – Present Day
I held it in my hand, running my fingers over the frayed spine. Shabby with age, its leather spotted with wear, it was still a treasure, the remnant of a life silenced by time.
It was Baba’s journal.
Baba* was not a writer but he was a damn fine chronicler. He was one of those who jotted down teeny details of life on paper, just so he could reminisce over them on wintry afternoons sprinkled with tepid sunshine. He was a hoarder that way, not of stuff but of memories.
A kind and gentle natured man, he had not a harsh thought for anyone in his heart. Sadly now, he was gone, five years after dadi*. And I, after five long years away from home, was back.
Awash with nostalgia, I clutched the journal and made my way to the garden. Under the bower of a lukewarm sun wrapped on a brisk day, I reclined, flipped it open and sank into the chronicles. I read through the afternoon, drowning in the warm embrace of memories till I came to the last entry. It was dated a week before baba’s demise and was addressed to dadi, as most entries were after she passed away. It read…
Today Baanke cooked my favourite curry. He said to me, ‘Bauji*, I made this especially for you, just like Ammaji* taught me.’
It was sweet of him to indulge an old man. Don’t you think?
But Sushila, the curry lacked your trademark flavours. I miss the aromas that rose from your food. They were more enticing than the jasmine gajra* you always wove into your hair. Without you, for me, even the house doesn’t smell the same anymore.
Maybe, it’s time that we were reunited. What do you say?
And, don’t worry; your secret is still safe. Dhruv hasn’t a clue that____________.
‘What?’ I gasped aloud as I read the last part. Shaking my head in disbelief, I re-read. Had I misread earlier? But no, it was there all right, written in baba’s precise handwriting. It had to be true then, didn’t it? But, if it was then that meant…
I closed my eyes, letting the import of the words sink in. Memories jostled as my mind flew to the past.
But, would memories suffice to highlight even one incident wherein I had suspected this about dadi?
‘Baaaaaaaaanke!’ Dadi hollered for the kitchen help.
I simpered, perched on a stool in the kitchen. Oh boy! This was going to be good.
Baanke, hurried in wiping his perspiring brow with his gamcha*. ‘Ji, Ammaji*.’
‘I asked you to watch the curry, did I not?’ Dadi barked.
Baanke recoiled before nodding in meek agreement. ‘Ammaji, I…I…’ he stuttered.
When Baanke stuttered he sounded like Porky Pig. It was immensely funny. Dadi had the exceptional ability to reduce him to a state of imbecilic, incoherent blubber. Yes, that’s how much five feet of her petrified the nearly six feet of him.
‘I…I…what?’ she imitated. When furrowed in anger, one of her eyebrows hung lopsided, courtesy a scar sustained in an incident during my childhood.
As the story went, a rowdy tom cat that prowled the kitchen alley had snuck in one day. Mistaking my chubby self for a succulent lump of meat, it had lunged. Dadi had rescued me in the nick of time. But, the frustrated feline, yowling in anger had taken a swipe at her instead. It had sunk in its claws, ripping open her face from eyebrow to cheek. Prompt medical care had healed the wound. But, the resultant scar, when dadi furrowed her eyebrows in anger, made her look like Goofy dog. Ah, don’t judge me. At eleven years of age, I associated everything with cartoons.
‘Baanke, you do what I tell you to do– UNDERSTOOD! Don’t disappear! I can see that you have burned the curry. How come you can’t smell it?’
Dadi may have been diminutive in stature but she was a harridan in the kitchen. Oh, she ran her kitchen tighter than the captain of a Spanish Galleon, so pernickety was she. She was prissy about food preparation and slacking off from duties got her all riled up. In fact, she put her beloved Lord Shiva to shame when she got angry. I kid you not!
But, she was an astoundingly talented cook. Her food was both an olfactory and a gastronomic delight. The most delectable aromas wafted out of the kitchen when she cooked. Eschewing modern appliances, she preferred to pound her own spices in a mortar and pestle so they would impart a more full-bodied aroma to the food.
I was her pet so invariably I spent most of my waking, free hours in the kitchen receiving nuggets of food and culinary wisdom from her.
‘Dhruv, cooking is an art,’ she would preach. ‘And, an artist should never compromise. It is the aromas that make the difference in cooking. They build anticipation and make us salivate. So, before taste is the aroma. Food needs to smell good in order to taste good.’
I never understood half of what she prated. But, I sagely nodded my head every single time. That made her happy. Ruffling my hair, she would laugh in glee and hand me a treat. What more could I ask for? My life was filled with the most delicious foods and aromas, thanks to her.
We had a little game too, just the two of us.
Bent over a pot on the stove, dadi would straighten up, turn and thrust a ladle under my nose. ‘Smell this? Can you tell the spice by the aroma?’ she would quiz.
I would take a whiff like a connoisseur; scrunch up my nose and name a spice. I mostly got the spice wrong. But, I was an eager acolyte so my failure always spurred dadi into whipping out her spice box and diving into an olfactory lesson. She would make me sniff each spice, patiently teaching me their names. The lessons were followed by random quizzes at later dates to keep check on my progress. We played this game for the longest time, never once tiring of it. And, it worked for that is how I learned to distinguish one spice from another based on its colour and odour. That is how dadi taught me to differentiate between flavours like sweet, sour, etc, based on their smell.
‘Dhruv, the right spice in food is what makes it delicious,’ she would say. ‘The raw spice changes its aroma when it goes into a curry with other spices. It doesn’t smell the same as before. You know why that is?’ she would ask.
I would shake my head. So, her eyes dancing, she would continue, ‘The spice develops into a more complex flavour in the gravy. So, its aroma changes and becomes more tantalizing. When I make laddus*, don’t you come sniffing into the kitchen? Why is that? How do you know? It’s the aroma that tells you…right?’
I savoured each such spill of dadi’s wisdom, soaking it all up like a sponge. In any case, what she taught was far more interesting than the books mom made me labour over. I hated those. Ugh!
As years passed, my understanding of aromas, flavours, etc, deepened. By my mid-teens, I could tell apart the basic from the complex spices. I could take a whiff of a simmering curry and name the ingredients. Dang it, if by then my nose wasn’t a darn sight or rather ‘smell’ better than a blood hounds. Ha!
It was probably then that I fell in love with cooking. Not surprisingly, it was dadi, attuned to my deepest yens, who discerned that Culinary Arts were my calling.
Good time flies does it not?
One moment I was a gangly teen and the next, a strapping young adult. My last year of school education was juxtaposed with preparations for engineering entrance exams.
The latter was mom’s idea, not mine. She was the drill sergeant in my life. She had decided what I would pursue way back in middle school. The fact that I may have a contrary opinion was unthinkable and thus inconsequential.
‘I am your mother. I know what’s right for you.’
Ten cold words uttered in a frigid tone had cinched everything for me, all my life. Mom did as mom decided. No other opinions were sought or considered. What else can you expect from a professor of mathematics? She weighed everything in terms of mathematical equations, adding and subtracting…even emotions. Well, those she mostly subtracted.
She bulldozed her way through discussions. Actually, there were no discussions, only decrees given by her. That is how she had browbeaten me into preparing for engineering entrance exams. Against her will, even my impotent courage deserted me. Yes, I was just too chicken to go up against her. So, lily-livered, I never mustered the courage to tell her that I wanted something different, something other than engineering.
Those few torturous months, neck deep in studies, burning the midnight oil, I found less time to spend with dadi in the kitchen.
Our games halted.
An aroma that I knew from childhood assailed me.
I sniffed appreciatively. Sure enough! Dadi was making laddus, probably because my exams – school and entrance, were finally over.
She greeted me with an indulgent smile as I trotted into the kitchen.
‘Dhruv, come here…smell this,’ she said thrusting a plate full of the trappings for laddus under my face. ‘How is it?’
I took a whiff of the fragrant mixture. ‘Hmm…smells heavenly dadi. But, something is missing,’ I ventured. ‘Maybe a sprinkling of nutmeg would help. Did you forget to put that? I can’t smell any?’
Her eyes twinkled behind her spectacles. She flashed me a triumphant smile.
‘Aha! You were testing me, weren’t you?’ I laughed, winking playfully and hugging her close.
Our games were back on.
My exam results were declared.
Mom was stoked, preening to all and sundry. I had cleared both school and engineering entrance exams with flying colours and she was basking in my reflected glory.
But, I wasn’t happy. I felt suffocated, weighed down by her prodigious expectation. The satiation of her expectation depended on the evisceration of my passion. Could I stifle my passion? Could I let my dreams pay obeisance to hers? Would I succumb, as always?
Even though eighteen, I had led a sheltered life with no friends. I had had no freedom to decide anything. It was all done for me – by mom. So now, I was conflicted. Should I chart my own course or follow mom’s suggested oft trodden path?
That night, as I sat with dadi, she held my hands and broached the one topic that I dreaded most.
‘Dhruv, it’s time,’ she said. ‘You should speak to your parents, particularly your maa. Tell them what you want. They may not agree but, they love you. Eventually, they’ll come around.’
Entering into such a talk with mom scared the living daylights out of me. She was a verbal pugilist who could spar endlessly and still treat it as a warm up.
But, dadi was right.
I needed to speak to them, to her. I had to tell them what I wanted. How else would they know? And, now that the results had been declared, procrastination was foolish. So, that evening, emboldened somewhat by dadi’s pep talk, I blurted to my parents, ‘I won’t pursue engineering. I want to study Culinary Arts, learn to cook and…’
The look on mom’s face deflated my pluck, cutting me short. She first went ashen, staring at me in apoplectic disbelief. Then, her face changed hues to a crimson flush and she went completely ballistic. Her temper was her vilest trait.
‘You want to learn to do what?’ she spat out belligerently at me. Her eyes narrowed, keeping pace with the angry vein pulsing at her temple. ‘Please tell me that I misheard him?’ she demanded turning to dad.
Poor dad! Caught like a deer in headlights, he looked from me to her. His mouth opened and shut in quick succession rather like a goldfish’s. Confrontation was alien to his pacifist heart. He was an archaeologist and a lover of delicate and fragile relics. Mom’s pugnacious bouts were too inharmonious for his gentle, artistic disposition.
Still, summoning a vestige of forgotten spunk, maybe for my sake, he braved an opinion, ‘I think…’
Mom’s withering glare swallowed the rest. Dad gulped, clamped his mouth shut and returned to the paper he had been reading. He simply refused to get involved or offer platitudinal appeasements to either of us.
After that, mom didn’t speak to me for a few days. Deeply incensed, she claimed that she was waiting for me to come to my senses. Happily, for me, that never happened. The way I saw it, I had finally come to my senses. So, I dug my heels in, stuck to my decision and waited for mom’s ire to thaw.
As always, it was once again dadi who intervened and bridged the divide between us with her conciliatory approach.
I went on to study Culinary Arts.
‘Dhruv, I’m sorry son. But dadi…she’s gone. Heart attack…’
Those ten words spoken in dad’s choked voice over a patchy ISD call shrivelled me. I was overseas, in Paris, pursuing my post graduate degree in Culinary Arts.
My friend, my confidant was gone…forever.
Abandoned by joy, I felt marooned in a sea of strangers. How would I navigate life without my compass? Who would listen, playfully tousle my hair and hug my insecurities, my fears away? Suddenly, my life felt bereft of happiness. I felt orphaned.
I know I should have returned home for her funeral. I should have returned to pay my last respects but, I could not. I could not fathom the thought of a space that was no longer rank with her scent.
The weeks after that passed in a blur of academic activity and my life’s passivity. With the fulcrum of my being, my essence gone, I spiralled into a flux of work and more work. I threw myself into it with a passion born out of loneliness and in an effort to keep grief at bay. Work followed education and I used it as a shield and hid behind it, shunning all entreaties by kin to return home. For five years, I resisted.
During that enmeshed time I often wondered, ‘Does love have an aroma? Is that why you miss the departed because their demise robs your life of the aromatic ether of their love?’
Dusk bade a cold farewell as it slunk into the night.
I shivered as I came awake to the insistent tug of Baanke’s hand on my shoulder. Had I dozed off?
Dadi’s trusted lieutenant had advanced in years. More salt than pepper streaked his thinning hair now. His shoulders bowed more due to age than to his deference for our family. Their droop complemented the lines that maturity had carved on his face. Like the house, this important member of our family too had grown old.
Grateful for his concern, I accepted the shawl he proffered and stood to go back inside. The journal fell from my lap. As Baanke stooped to retrieve it, I remembered the last entry. If anyone knew, wouldn’t it be Baanke? He’d been dadi’s assistant. Wouldn’t he know this secret about dadi?
I looked him in the eye and asked, ‘Tell me, did you know?’
Momentarily confused, comprehension dawned in his eyes when I indicated the journal and repeated, ‘Did you know about dadi?’
With a smile tinged with sadness, he met my eyes and nodded.
I smacked my head. What a fool I had been! Never once had I suspected. Not once!
‘Dhruv beta*, don’t blame yourself. Dadi did not want you to know,’ he replied with a gentle smile. ‘Didn’t you ever wonder why your dadi made us smell all her curries for her? Why she was so particular about aromas? Or, why she pretended to always test you?’
Gosh! The game that we had played, just the two of us…It hadn’t been a game at all!
I shook my head, ashamed. What a clueless moron I had been! And yet, in that moment of cognizance I loved dadi more than I ever had.
The incredible woman who taught me about aromas, who taught me to discern flavours based on their smells, had been anosmic – ever since that incident in my childhood when she lost her sense of smell saving my life.
Author’s note – This story is a tribute to my grandmother’s (both maternal and paternal). My nani succumbed to cancer when I was an infant. I never knew her. And, I lost my dadi when I was about seven. So, I grew up bereft of their love. But, I believe that had they been a part of my life, my life too would have been redolent with the aroma of grandmotherly love.
Image Credit – atulkprajapati2000 from pixabay.com
Baba and Dadi – paternal grandparents in India
Gamcha – a traditional thin, coarse cotton towel carried by men
Bauji – term of endearment for father
Gajra – a fragrant garland of jasmine flowers worn by women in their hair
Laddu – an Indian sweet
Ji Ammaji – Yes mother
Beta – son
Anosmic – a person with partial or no sense of smell. (Anosmia is a condition also known as smell blindness is the loss of the ability to detect one or more smells.)
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