91 - A Mother's Hands
laddoos and goodbyes
👋 Hello, reader.
This post is scheduled to reach your inbox roughly the same time that my flight lands in Vancouver. The India trip has come to an end. Earlier this week, I left home to come to New Delhi. Tonight, we leave for Vancouver.
A few weeks ago, I shared a deeply personal post with SneakyArt Insiders about my reasons for wanting to stay at home, and what I precisely meant by the word stay. Since that piece resonated with so many subscribers, and because it is a natural prequel to what I have to share today, I have taken it out of the paywall and made it available for general reading. Read it below.
📝 Insider Post #15 - Why Am I Home?
Every morning, I wake up before my parents. I watch them stagger out of the bedroom, and climb the steps to the terrace for the morning cup of tea. I observe that my mother, who used to bound up the steps with a spring, now takes each step more slowly. I try to remember her gait. We sit with the newspaper together and do the crossword. Every few minutes I lean back, to watch them poring over the clues. I try to remember the scene, exactly as it is. I try to breathe it in.
If I notice everything, I tell myself, I can lock it inside my mind forever.
I want to stay so that I can memorize a bit of everything. Because, you see, I need to defeat Time. I don’t know when I will be here again…
🧠 Head Massage
On my last evening at home, my mother gave me a head massage with coconut oil. Coconut oil is good for the scalp, especially in the dryness of Kolkata winters. And giving each other head massages is a ritual in our family.
It being winter, the coconut oil had solidified inside the bottle. The solidifying of coconut oil inside the bottle is considered to be a prominent sign of the season. Until the oil flows freely again, so to speak, winter has not passed. During this season, to make the oil flow, you have to rub the bottle vigorously back and forth between your palms. Another trick is to leave it for a few minutes in a cup of warm water.
Having done this, my mother squeezed the bottle over my head. I felt the oil patter against my hair and drip onto my scalp. It felt cool against my skin.
As she ran her fingers through my hair, Mummy bemoaned the fact that she hadn’t been able to give me enough head massages on this trip - only three times in seven weeks. Partly this was because of my travel schedule, and partly because I had been recovering from COVID for the last couple of weeks.
You’re leaving too soon, she said.
But it’s also the longest I’ve stayed in many years, I noted.
We laughed at how both of those things were true.
(Mummy used to be notoriously bad at head massages. Whenever she volunteered to do it before, I would find a polite way to say no, then try to get it from Papa instead. He has the gift, so to say. But over the years, she has become quite proficient. It shows you how far one can go with diligence and hard work.)
She tugged at my roots with her fingers, to drive the oil into the skin. Her touch was gentle but forceful enough that a wave of pleasure radiated across my scalp.
“Do people there really not put oil in their hair?” she asked, referring to ‘the West’.
I shook my head.
“But their hair always looks so nice.”
“That’s just TV.”
“I remember from my last trip. Everyone was so shiny and well-groomed.”
I closed my eyes to enjoy the feeling as she kneaded my temples. A good head massage, aside from the hair conditioning, is a very soothing experience. It makes your head lighter, relieves muscle pains in the neck, and reinvigorates you for the day.
“Hmm?” she asks.
“I guess they use a lot of products,” I say.
“But not oil.”
We spoke about when my next trip would be. Probably when one of the cousins is about to get married, hopefully by next winter.
We will also go on a vacation somewhere, she said.
Provided there isn’t another COVID wave, I added.
The massage went on for longer than usual. I expect her hands were aching by the end of it. When she was done, she tapped me on the shoulders, pulled my cheeks fondly, and patted my head.
All done, she said.
Earlier that day, at her typically superhuman speed, Mummy made besan ke laddoo for us to take to Vancouver. This is a sweet dish that my wife and I love. It is made of crushed almonds and cashews, gram flour, clarified butter (ghee), and sugar.
She rolled the roasted flour/ghee/sugar/nuts mix between her palms into small balls, then kept them aside to cool. Later in the day, the laddoos were packed in an airtight container, wrapped in bubble-wrap, and put into the suitcase. They will be good for at least 2 weeks.
There’s enough to share with friends and colleagues, Mummy said.
But the wife and I exchanged a quick look to agree that we would finish them between the two of us.
In the morning, a couple of hours before leaving for the airport, Mummy made chai. It was sweeter than I would make, spiced with black peppers and cardamom and cloves. We drank it slowly, not saying much. Then we held hands and sat silently for a few minutes.
At the airport we were surprised to see the gates are nearly empty. Maybe because of the surge in COVID cases. The flight to New Delhi was due to leave in 2 hours. Mummy rushed to grab a trolley. She watched as we showed our ID and tickets to enter the airport, and waved as were let in. I waved back. As I walked towards our airline counter, I turned to look out the glossy glass front of the airport. She was still standing there, watching. She waved again as she noticed me. I waved back. I knew she would keep watching until I was out of sight.
We will see each other again on our phone screens. Very often to begin, then less often as time goes by and we settle into our regular rhythms. Our lives are effectively lived without each other. What a pity.
After a few months, maybe a year, maybe a little longer, who knows with this pandemic, we will see each other again. She will caress my cheek with her hand and smile up at me. I will make a joke. We will laugh.
Her hands are adept with sewing needles, with watercolors and pastels, with cooking utensils, with squash rackets and pool cues, and with cards. She cheats at cards without guile or shame. I remember that we didn’t play cards often enough on this trip.
Next time, we will. I make a mental note of it. For next time.