I stand by the stove, waiting for the tea leaves to release their color, stain the simmering milky concoction a muddy red. It is early morning in America but my mind is halfway around the globe where my Aajji’s passing has brought her family together. Ma told me last night that she and her three sisters are going to stay with Baba, my grandfather, for a few days. It is a communal dealing of grief that I am not part of physically. My sorrow focuses on cleaning the battered brass pots my Aajji gave me on one of my visits to India. I polish them with tamarind paste until they shine golden yellow, the engraving of her name etched below the rim revealing itself from the grime, Suman Laad. I trace my finger over the curves of her name written in Devanagari script, the U’s and A’s curling gracefully.
I have no idea when and where my Aajji got those pots. I wonder if they were part of her wedding trousseau until I remember fragmented tales of her eloping with my Baba at the age of twenty-two. She came from a poor family, the youngest of three sisters, brought up by their grandfather and a bachelor uncle. This tidbit is one sliver of her younger days I know by heart. Another is of her climbing a giant banyan tree in her all-girls school and getting stuck on the branch “like a kitten.” The school peon climbed a ladder and helped her get down. I remember the evening when she told the tale, her laughter deepening her wrinkles, her eyes twinkling, her voice wistful.
Three years ago, on my last visit to India, her petite frame seemed even more frail than before. As I hugged her tight, my arms encircled her body. Her physical vulnerability was making me emotionally susceptible. Once again, I was six-years old, living at her house, returning from school, sitting on the cool, slate floor, eating two rotis mashed in a big bowl of piping hot varan, playing in the courtyard with other kids in the early evenings, back home before sundown, washing my hands and feet. She was lighting a lamp and a couple of incense sticks in front of the tiny alcove in her kitchen that held her gods. While she made dinner, I recited my evening prayers, shlokas and multiplication tables while the fragrance of her cooking wafted down to my chanting lips.
Now, after her passing, as the tea leaves give up their essence, I struggle to remember the remnants of her past I have gathered over the years, recollect my childhood days spent at her house and cherish the two brass pots that sit on my kitchen counter. They hold salt and fresh ginger root now. But for the longest time they stored tea leaves and sugar, and sat on a little shelf over Aajji’s gas stove inhaling the aromas of her cooking. I loved their squat shape, the brass patina and the little knobs perched on the lids like hats. When the brass turned a cloudy ochre, she polished them with leftover tamarind pulp, the brown slurry washing away the encrusted layers.
I watched her measure sugar and tea carefully out of those pots and add it to a pan of boiling water to make thin, sugary chai with a dash of warm milk. In the evenings, a steady stream of chai flowed from my Aajji’s kitchen to her living room, where her four daughters and their husbands visited on their way home from work. They would come there to pick up their kids, my cousins, to use the bathroom “quick” before heading back to their suburban homes, or just visit with each other and share their shopping and bargain victories.
When her small house filled up with my aunts and uncles, I would take an Amar Chitra Katha comic and hang out in the kitchen with her. Tea leaves seeped in hot water turned it a deep red, as she went in and out of the kitchen, caught up on conversation and cooked dinner. Perched on a three-legged stool, I often liked to watch the hypnotic rhythm of her cooking, her green glass bangles, edged with two thin gold ones, tinkling as she rolled out soft, round rotis from whole wheat dough and puffed them on the gas burner. Her Hawkins pressure cooker whistled, signaling rice and lentils were cooked. She chopped tomatoes and green chilies to cook her signature varan, soupy lentils, a perfect balance of tangy and sweet. I loved to slurp it poured over rice. I always meant to get her recipe, but never found the time for it. Now that she’s gone, I lament the loss of her recipe even as the taste lingers in my epicurean memory.
Not long ago, I walked on the black sands of the Gulf of Mexico. The brittle seashells crackled under my feet, an effervescent surf shimmering like rainbow as muddy ocean waves crashed on the beach. I remembered a sepia photo of my Aajji in her twenties, standing on a beach in Goa with her back to a gentle ocean, a smile on her lips. She looks happy, smiling at the cameraman, her white saree flapping in the breeze. I watched pelicans dunk for fish and wondered if it was my mother’s photo I was thinking of instead. It is another unclear fragment of her. I cling to the image of my Aajji’s petite frame, her oval face etched with wrinkles, her daughters waiting for the tea leaves to seep and settle to the bottom, for the water to turn a deep, mud-red, for the steaming cups of chai to be ready, even as the sands beneath my feet shift with the coming tide.