Birthday Cake

You remember when ma
Walked from behind the curtains
A cake frosted with pink flowers
Placed delicately
On a black tray?
A knife tied with a ribbon
And all the children
Gathering in a small circle
Their potato-chips-and-chowmein-filled plates
Making way
for a slice of cake

Something about the memory
Pastel wax candles
in between cherries
Is hardwired into my brain.
I stand in my kitchenette
Midnight in a foreign city
Hands flour-coated, sugar-dusted
And wait
for a thin float
Of the old vanilla birthday cake
To rise in the oven

Chai

Tea leaves should come advertised
with how they will fill your home
with their sweet dark smell
early every morning,

That they taste best
with thick sugary milk
a bit of cream floating at the top

Best had hot
In the mauve of dawn
before anyone else
has woken up

Made to go
with those round Marie biscuits
that always find their way
into plastic boxes 

Tea leaves age in a blue-lid jar
picked blindly
as half-dreams still take
the shape of your eyes

Seeth in a silver stove
until you have had
many, many small cups

Turn your mother,
like your grandmother,
into familiar tea-dyed ghosts.

House Insurance

When I am gone,
Remember to put the cover
on the TV set at night
buy only plastic flowers
for the yellowing ceramic vase
on top of the refrigerator
lay a newspaper
on your shelves
before piling them with shirts
bring out the Kashmiri rug
when you have guests
and glass cups
from the side-cupboard
and please don’t
paint the walls white
they’ll only gather dust with time. 

what Love reminds me of

1. Cassette tapes

I know how strange this sounds at first. By now, you’ve probably forgotten what they look like. Cassettes. Little rectangular glass cases, with two small holes in the middle to hold your fingers. They fit perfectly into your palm. A shiny black tape spools inside, and if the case is transparent, you can watch how it folds around the insides of the cassette. 

When I was very young, ma used to drive my sister and me to our old neighbourhood. On the journey back, we played songs out of unlabelled cassettes kept in the glove box. Our collection was made up of a few Hindi songs from the 90s, a different one on each side of the cassettes.

I no longer remember any of the songs, only the purple of the late evening sky, and how happy the music made me. I remember being very excited the day the cassette player was replaced with a modern stereo. The cassettes were stored in a plastic bag and filed in a cabinet in the sitting room, next to other forgotten things and papers. I no longer know if they’re still there.          

My Fascination With Porcelain

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I stand looming in front of the Japanese Knife Shop as my friends continue to walk down the market lane. Hidden behind a narrow door and two lush plant pots, is a small store that sells chopsticks and cutlery. Outside the shop, bowls and cups are on display on a foldable rack. They are of blue, grey and galactic colours, made of porcelain, smooth and waiting to be touched. 

I lift them one at a time and run my fingers on their imperfect surfaces. 

I have always been fascinated by porcelain. I dream of collecting tiny jewellery boxes, hand-painted teapots and eggcups in a small cabinet one day. I would line porcelain pots abstractly around my house — like a theme. 

I find it beautiful, the idea of a porcelain dinner set — plates, bowls, soup spoons — patterned with blue flowers, thin indigo vines, dots and seashells, picked naturally from a kitchen shelf and heaped with spoonfuls of rice and dal when guests come home for lunch. 

Porcelain looks like a melted piece of the moon. I imagine the moon drips somewhere in the secret villages of Kashmir, found behind the fog early in the morning by shepherds walking their sheep for grazing — a pool of pure white collected behind the rocks. Then carved into something more ordinary to make it belong in an everyday way in homes. It brings an unstressed beauty into our mouldy, undecorated living rooms. 

I love that you can buy porcelain cups one at a time. A single cup to drink tea in solitude, and a second for when your mother visits. 

My friends call out to me and I run to catch up. I place the cement coloured plate in my hand back on the shelf and think, another time.

Postcards With Love

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Dear darling

I hope you turn this postcard over after it has sat on the lip of your door for a few days. Give this a chance. If you are here, and before you go, I must say I love and miss you more than I can bear. I keep imagining what you must look like now. I have a photo of you as a baby that I wear in my locket, and I look at it often, picturing those big round brown eyes on an older face, with a lady’s nose. I know you must smile beautifully. Are you tall? I think so.

I don’t want to take much time, you must have so much keeping you occupied. I just wanted to send you an old recipe I have kept safe. My mother made blinis for us every Saturday morning, and we ate them very happily in the sun. They are a big favourite among children, your kids would like them. It goes very well with cream, or salmon, if you like fish. I think you do.

That was all really. Maybe you could call someday. Or visit. They allow us to meet visitors every Wednesday between four and five in the evening. Don’t worry, I will not ask you to write back. But know that you I remember you everyday. If you ever do make blinis, I hope you find pieces of my love in them.

Mama

Cookie-Dough

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I come back from work, worn out and spent. Each night, I wake up mid-sleep, as if I had never gone to bed.

I walk to the kitchen and start pulling out cans and jars. My eyes don’t even have to see where my hands are going anymore, I remember what bottle lies on which stack just as I know the alphabet.

I follow your recipe to the dot.

The same amount of flour, a cup full of sugar, little chips of chocolate hidden amidst the dough like gems in sand.

But I could never bake them like you did. So by the time I finish, the house starts to feel very empty again, without you and your sweet-smelling cookie dough.

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LITTLE THINGS

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Dear June,

Some mornings I wake up only for you.

Thank you for embracing me without hurting my bones. For keeping the refrigerator stocked, filled to the brim with eggs.

For letting me walk you down the altar, weak and frail.

For forgoing not one, but two childhoods, yours and Susan’s, in my care.

I know living with me and my cancer is difficult, but thank you for never complaining about this untimely guest.

I will love you in life and in death, and I will try, for as long as possible, to be your

Mom

 

Think, My Love

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Dear Annie,

Happy Birthday. You turn into a big girl today. Post this day, you will start a new chapter of life. It will be filled with adventures, and experiences – happy and grim alike. As you set into this world, and try to make a place for yourself, I am sure you will face many challenges. I come to this conclusion not because I doubt your capacity, also not because the world is unfair, but because challenges are a big part of the world I have set you free in.

I am only sad that I cannot be with you to face them, that I cannot offer you my warm care when you come back home having fallen – failed and desolate. But as I look over you today, I am equal parts proud of the young lady you have become – independent enough to make the right decisions. There is just one last lesson I wish to share with you, love, and listen carefully, because this is the last letter I left your parents.

I was at our summer-house in Musoorie with your grandmother that summer. I had had my convocation the day before that – that was the very night I conceived you. I was anxious and scared; after all, I was just a young girl of your age. I had taken the first bus home and had come without a suitcase or a penny on me.

As I reached home, I found mother watering the roses in the tea garden in the backyard; I looked at her with a crumpled face – she immediately knew something was wrong.

Our house was on a high hill, where the smell of snow and chilly clouds reign the air like the eternal scent of ginger. I sat on the fluffed couch, and allowed myself to sink in its leathery callouses – wishing I could escape into a third space where I am shred of all my problems. I looked outside the glass wall; the yellow sky stared back at me. The dim sun – present but not too overpowering – seemed to be conscious of my inner turmoil too.

Mother came in, jingling the spoons in two glasses filled with lime soda and spice, just like she did every time. Her demeanour made me uncomfortable. She had asked no questions about my abrupt, sudden visit. She had not enquired about what worried me. She seemed to be taking her time, perhaps waiting for me to tell her.

“I am pregnant.” I blurted out after my last sip of the soda-drink. There I was – a young coward of twenty-two.

I opened my mouth to speak again. My mother hushed me with a gesture of her hand. She looked at me, her eyes misty grey behind her neat glasses. “Are you angry? I am…” I murmured. She smiled and stopped me again.

“It’s okay to let yourself think.” She said.

That is all she said.

I spent a month in the hills that June, sitting in the garden or on the hammock, doing nothing but thinking. My eyes would wander to the sky, and aimlessly follow the treacherously shifting clouds. My head swelled as a billion emotions simultaneously resonated within me; yet, eventually, I would get so pensive that I would lose track and end up thinking about nothing at all. Still but preoccupied.

Soon, I realised what I wanted. Though those moments were perhaps the toughest ones of my life, in the end, I was certain my decision was right. I had become an independently-thinking, brave woman and only because I let myself sink into my thoughts. Only because I stopped the incessant human effort to separate the self from the self. Only because, I gave myself the time to foster the courage to do things which were apparently right from the very beginning.

I am sorry, Annie, that I wouldn’t be there waiting for you by the roses when you come home fallen. I am sorry I won’t be able to console you when you are heartbroken. I am sorry I won’t be able to offer you the remedies an ideal mother does. I am sorry I won’t be there for your life’s best moments or to correct you when you make mistakes. More than anything else, I am sorry for not writing many more letters, not teaching you everything I have come to know and recognise.

But that is not what I write my last letter for. I write to you, to remind you that it is important to think about things. Often when you come across a hard situation in life, people might tell you – “Forget it”. They might ask you to move on, sail with the current. They might probe you to do the first thing your heart says. Don’t you ever do that.

When you feel afraid or unsure, give yourself the time you deserve. Have the dignity and the courage to look at the sky in the most pressing of times and ponder, and dream and question. And in the end, always stand up for that one unbroken voice that echoes inside of you, because only that voice is truly yours and because I promise, love, that that voice is right.

Your Mother