Culture & Society

Food, Memory And Grief

Our grief has to find a way before it becomes a retreat or indifference too deep

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Representative Image Photo: Getty Images

During my childhood, my Ma’s house was where our family gathered to celebrate. Adhering comfortably to a Bengali trope, all my pishis, pishos, kaku and jetu had some talent. With my pishi leading on the harmonium, they would sing together. Food flowed generously as my Ma whipped up mangsho, maach, food and mishti on the open terrace which was our haunt on starlit nights. We would get hot chapattis, playing 29 or bridge and other card games. The summers would include kulfi, kocchuri, lau pattai paturi, aloo poshto, jeelipi, parathas wrapped with kabab, meat, eggs and spiced potatoes dressed with lime, pithe and pantua. The list is endless. The kitchen smelt of fennel, mustard, cumin, cinnamon and an array of other spices.

Home existed between the yellow walls of my mother’s kitchen and the endless people and neighbours leading up to it. All were fond of mother’s cooking and all the guffaws of chotto pisho and the stories of boro pisho flowed there. My Ma regaled in all this hospitality. She was Annapurna Chatterjee (Anu)--the centre of our family, who kept us all invariably spinning in the powerful unit around her. She loved to cook. I have not inherited these qualities nor am I social. Despite being a working woman, she knitted cardigans for all her friends, relatives, mashis, mamas, brother, sisters, nephew, nieces. She never stopped working or feeding people. It gave her the utmost joy and satisfaction.

Now Ma is gone.

Perhaps "Grief is just love with no place to go". It turns up in house corners, in tears, in words. It shows up in sleep, in exhaustion, it turns up in sleeplessness. It weighs, it weighs immeasurably. It dissipates, dissolves, delving deeper into your dreams. It hurts, it frees, it relieves, it becomes a crutch. Grief wanders through your fingertips onto writing, as it is now. Grief is a victim of time, and that which only time can heal.

Ma’s vibrant house became acquainted with grief many years later. After Bhai’s cardiac arrest in 2012, there was so much sadness around the house and grief floated and crept up its walls and trees etching itself on the fabric of the place. Its every crack and groove familiar to me and yet, it seemed I were as far as I could be from home, alone on an ice floe. I suddenly became a terrible non-believer of things. I was as searing as a sceptic. I didn't know where to put my faith. Or precisely if there was such a thing as faith and what it meant in all its complexity. Everything seemed possibly fake. I even doubted things whose truth was verifiable.

I lost a part of my childhood, Ma refused to walk and folded into her wheelchair with her only son gone. Bapi, a strong advocate of Swami Vivekananda’s karma yoga, pulled on for a few years with his plants and his garden, but died a broken man in 2017. Years dedicated to loss, mourning, illness and uncertainty dealt a heavy blow to me too. I carried the love of all my loved ones with me.

But Ma was soon bedridden and refused to be a part of anything. Ma’s house was no longer a house, it was a place of mourning. It was just me balancing myself, but we carried on. We made meals, we ate, but Ma never entered the kitchen nor spoke of food. We fought with each other; we made up. I had a few cousins who called but there was no one to hold me, many never called. The gardener, the maid, the nurse were all there and we even smiled. Ma was still with me but ailing physically and in her heart. We never spoke of the people who had left. Ma completely internalised her grief. Some suggested a therapist and yet, I knew none can solve this, nor no man ameliorate. The whole house felt foreign and mysterious, its ordinary sound sensations turned muted, distant and abstract. Everything altered, it was like a blackhole which sucked up all energy.

For the first few days, grief feels like you are floating on water. Your body knows what to do, when to cry, how to express what you need, what you don’t. Following that, grief creeps on you in the moments you least expect it. When you are among plants, gardening, putting away your books, or cooking. After that, grief has no shape or form or channel. It wanders recklessly through your life, or you are drifting on a flotsam of grief. Etching away at the fabric of your life, you can lose yourself to grief. I saw it, I saw my Ma, never mourning and pretending to be brave. She could never express the pain inside her and I saw how the house grew older and less like itself. I saw myself feeling so much love for the ones I have lost but nowhere to express it. I did not understand why this relatively unchallenging set of chores felt so relentless or why they depleted me.

There is more to this monologue than I can ever write, but our grief has to find a way before it becomes a retreat or indifference too deep. As Anderson wrote, "Grief I have learnt is really just love. It is all the love you want to give but cannot. All the unspent love gathers up in the corner of your eyes, the lump in your throat and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go"

But even in this torturous limbo you can see them in photographs, food, writing, art and in yourself. You can always carry the scent of joy in giving and in caring, in evolving. Just make sure they are never dusty or stale. Now with Ma gone I am clearly an orphan, the lemony sunshine of my childhood gone. But do memories get over once the tears dry? Whenever food is laid on the table, the special mangsho, labra or paneer, the fluorescent dals, or koraishuttir kochuri, I am reminded of us sitting on the lawn shelling peas, catching the winter sun and eating crisp parathas, and I can smell her presence close by. It’s like catching the sun on my lap, my mother’s love and her cooking. As a Russian poet rightly said, "It’s not people who die but the world dies with them." Mother stood like a testimony of cherishing companionship through food. Our cosmopolitan idea may deride women who spend hours in the kitchen and this visible labour, an invisible form of love, which we often take for granted. The aromatic universe of potol er dolma and phool kopir shingara, the traditional delights are all gone. But Ma was and will remain for me a food genie who could cook and feed anyone instantly. And definitely, I feel she’s next to me, smiling with joy, when I am feeding people. Her inheritance. 

And I have Ma back with me again.