The dull thrum of the engine and its every hiccup on the tracks courses through your body, forcing thoughts from every crevice to come together in an explosion of nostalgia. It is sometime after midnight, I estimate. I lie supine in the lowest berth. Alternating patches of light and dark filter through the sepia glass of the window, throwing bizarre glows of yellow on my face every now and then. My eyes are closed, the vision on the inside of my eyelids burning yellow and black in succession. My mind wanders to her. That's the thing about train journeys. In the daytime, you stare into the country's bare soul. At night, you are forced to stare into your own bare soul. I try to pull my mind back to me, its flighty ways far too Herculean for my miniscule capacity to control. I rely on seeking the aid of insipidity, a fetid escape from the incongruous harshness of it all. The mind is a dangerous place, I tell myself, but her face floats behind these huge word walls that crumble in clouds of dust.
I stare into the kitchen, my feet on tiptoes as I stick my nose into the netted space between the grills. I know I will pay for this later: my vacant expression will marvel at my potato-like nose having criss-crossed lines that I will see in my reflection on the car, while my nose will sting with agony. And yet I would do just that, time and time again. I love watching her cook. I stand and take in the delicious aromas of her cooking every day, this, my vantage point is too magical to let go of. Purees, curries, tomes and tomes of rice and tureens of pudding of every kind. She was always bent over a pot, the brass ladle in her hand. The brass ladle.
That ladle. What a beautiful thing it is. The whole street knows that she is a maverick before the stove: those smells are testimony bereft of purport to a talent that only few can lay claim to. But me? I see right through her. That brass ladle? That has all the magic. You want to ask me how I know that. I do not know how I do, I just do, and that is about all. Something itches behind my ear as I admire her, watching her wipe beads of sweat and flicking them far away from whatever it is that she is cooking. She turns away from the stove for a moment to reach for something, smiling at me in the momentary glance that we exchange. In that moment, I would learn that I was to come by later. I would learn that a lovingly and neatly wrapped package with the food preserved warmly with leaves would be pressed into my hands in conspiratorial silence. I would learn that I was to tiptoe in and tiptoe out. I would learn that I wasn’t there at all. Every single day.
The pot behind her bubbles and froths, humming silently in its own mellifluous meanderings. I see the brass ladle, silently slanted as the gravy crashes and dances about in frolic.
What are you when you have no one to call your own? The world labels you an orphan. They say your parents are no longer with you. And as if that is not punishment enough, you are castaway, the underbelly of a society that only prides itself at its shiny crust while its core rots away. You live on the fringes, looking in from the outside. You see these happily smiling children frolic about, fretting about what they don’t have – when you haven’t even an inch’s worth of anything that they have. And yet, you are the one that has a happy smile etched onto your face, the unconditional joy and laughter tickles and teases you, and sends your empty stomach receding into silence. Such silence, you notice, that it stops hurting anymore.
Some are lucky, like I was. A kind face comes out of the darkness and pulls out the veil of discontentment. It sees in children like I was, a semblance of an outlet for them to do charity, to assuage guilt. That is what we become: a symbol, a photograph, an image that can tug at your heartstrings so you can give and give and give – but we don’t get, get, or get. Some of you see that. So you step out of the darkness and discard every veil and take us in as your own. You adopt one of us, you give us a life. You see that you care for us as you care for your own. You provide for us, you give us hot meals, shelter above our heads and educate us. You don’t give us fish, you teach us to fish.
She was all of that and more to me. She, you see, was the ‘you’ I mention.
I don’t know why I didn’t hang outside her window ledge like I did every day, this morning. Perhaps if I did, I would have noticed. Strangely, today, the stool I would create out of an odd assortment of newspapers and scraps remained untouched – while every other day, it would be that a joke of a demolition had disintegrated my steps, rendering me a mason for a while until I built my steps to my vantage point. Pandemonium breaks loose inside today. Voices fight, curmudgeonly at first, boisterous next, and then unabashed and unhinged.
I snuggled under the ledge, as though I wanted it to hide me. The voices are getting louder, but I can’t make out what they are saying. Some vessels crash, their pointless clatter ringing in my ears with disdain. A bulbous pan lolls about impertinently, and I am almost sure that the next few crashes are a bowl and spoons. One just knows that these vessels will sound like that: they are like people. You look at a man with empty saucers for eyes and you know he will sound like an elephant trapped in a dress. You see a lady with a reedy face and you just know she will sound like a very badly tuned flute. My mind ponders a little while at my alleged attempt at creativity. Morbid, inappropriate, limpid –
And that is when I hear it.
The brass ladle crashed. My heart sank. I fell to my knees.
The magic had gone.
My meandering mind is a cornucopia of swilling thoughts. I hate when I turn into the closet philosopher that I am. That part of me feeds on my grief, eats my sorrow, digests my pain: but you’d think it would be cathartic – no – not in the least bit. It is disrespectful to my assumed cape of stoicism, it is a derisive mockery of my sanity. We walk, miles and miles on this road. We laugh, we talk, we cry, we curse, we scream. We hate, we want to beat, we want to shout. But at the root of all these fleeting moments is the temporariness, the sheer film of the momentary that coats everything. They say love is the only thing that matters, and carries on forever. But where is that love when the one that loves is gone? What armour is love? What is anything? What are these fleeting moments that are here today, but gone tomorrow? What are these things that we say we own? When we die, don't they live on, unmoved, untouched? What was mine until yesterday will cease to be mine if I cease. Pray, then, why do we lead this foolish life in such foolish ways? Why do we think we want things, and believe that we truly need them? Why do we run after things, seek approval, seek sanction, seek truth? What is truth? What is a lie? What matters, at all, when we die?
I wait silently, until I know it is safe to go inside – when the front door crashes open and then crashes shut, a car revs up to life and speeds far away. I tiptoe, silently, patiently, quietly. I see her bending over, weeping silently. I am aware that I have entered a forbidden land, a place that had only opened its periphery for me until now. But I couldn’t see her cry – she was the closest I have to a mother. I inch closer next to her, she didn’t notice me I think. I lift the brass ladle from where it lay in its sorry state, I couldn’t see it that way. Holding it tight in my hands, I sit beside her. I don’t touch her, I don’t say a word. I just sit while she cries.
Many moments pass. We sit in a silence that is only filled with her dry sobs. A time comes when she gets up. She leaves the room, but I sit still. She has told me to stay put – or at least it feels like it.
I sit alone for a while; the house has heaved a sigh of silence. She comes back from wherever she went and presses a sheet of paper into my hand, and a wad of notes.
Study, she tells me. Use this money, study. Read what I have written on this paper, come to me the day you can read.
I don’t say a thing. I hold everything in my hand and walk away.
When I have gone far, far away from the house, I realise that I have left the brass ladle behind.
It hits me, in these moments, when I let my mind wander. I see the senselessness of it all – of the merciless rumination that we put our minds through, of the shameful cowardice that we are capable of. When we still can, we don’t. When we lose, we realise the value of what we lost. That is our religion, our life, our mindless idea of worship. That is where we hide, we seek refuge, and we pretend like we cared all along.
It has been twenty-five years since that day in the kitchen. And I return, return only when I hear that she has gone. Just like I did, the last time I returned. I spent my time studying, studying because that was all she told me before she left. I would swing by her house, stand outside and watch the cadaverous remnant of what held her within. For months, the emptiness stared at me in the face. I would wonder if she was alright, I would wonder what made her move. When her successor – her husband’s next wife – moved in, I was a fly that was shooed away devoid of regret or care. The house didn’t feel warm anymore.
A time came when I understood her note. It bore only an address. I didn’t let it bother me as I went from strength to strength – studying for free and affording the few expenses I could through labour. Knowledge sets you free, they say. It makes you arrogant, it makes you think you have a self-sufficiency that information builds for you, one that can substitute love and care. How foolish. But a gnawing feeling within let me revisit those memories. I would send money to the address after I began earning. It was never returned, nor was a reply sent. I remained anonymous in my name, but never failed to leave an address. That conveyed my identity to her. She would keep the money like I would keep the meals she gave me. What circle of life was this that had placed her in my place of penury, and me in her place of affluence...
Finally, a letter wormed its way into my address. A belated reply, I thought.
An announcement of her passing, it was.
The only time since, I visited the address she shared with me. It was her father’s house, I learned. Small and invisible. It was silent, empty. A grief settled down in my heart as I asked for what I wanted most.
The brass ladle.
A sallow-faced girl in the house knew what I meant. She nodded, saying nothing, pressed the ladle in my hands. Before I left, she asked back for it and wrapped it in a battered piece of cloth. Her eyes seemed to ask me to be kind to it. I nodded and left, forever.
The next morning, I stood before the stove. Sunlight filtered through the netted window, beams of hope danced and radiated off the silverware before me. The brass ladle stood patiently, ready for its old role, in a new place. Eager, silent, plodding, filled with the many hands that held it. I picked it up gingerly, expecting the surge of energy that coursed through my veins as the pulsating history it held within it filled my body. I was shaking, and I had no idea I was. That morning, I cooked, I cooked a meal fit for a king. Just like I did every day.
But that afternoon when everyone sat down for the meal, it tasted like heaven. The brass ladle had done it.
She was here, this morning, cooking like always.