My paternal aunt aka Pishi’s house in Shillong, had a huge kitchen. A warm place, in the cold of the winter months, where all my cousins and I sat together to eat food cooked by her. Pishi is my late Baba’s closest sibling, his elder sister, Geeta Bhattacharji, lovingly called “Chordi” by him.
I call her Choto Pishi. She resembles my late Baba and has similar mannerisms. Straight forward and won’t mince her words. Also, the best Bengali dishes came out of my Pishi’s kitchen. I didn’t take the food so seriously as a child. It is only now, that I am far removed for various life decisions and reasons, from my very large family of cousins, uncles and aunts, who are currently settled all across the world, I find myself travelling back to the warm memories of Pishi. I can see her concentrating on making her famous mustard paneer, different greens, fish curries and all the other delicacies that may have gotten lost in my memories over time. Lunchtime was the highlight during weekends, as we all got together to eat.
There used to be a baker who came cycling to deliver a fresh loaf of bread each evening. On many naughty occasions, my cousins and I used to gobble up the bread with a spread of milk fat and a generous sprinkling of sugar. It truly was heavenly, the warm loaf melting in the mouth with the sugar pieces making the crunchy sound, that we wanted to hide. It was the mischievous act of eating up what was bought for the entire family, that remained the secret between us cousins.
What remains commendable is that my Choto Pishi was the only married sister, who decided to support her younger siblings. Two uncles of mine, another unmarried aunt, my father’s mother and two cousins were all living in her home which had a large heart and an even bigger sense of integrity and duty to her family. Choto Pishi was a working woman. In fact, all my Pishi’s were working women. So I grew up watching women who ran homes and also went to the office too. Working is a part and parcel of life. When Pishi returned from work, she caught up for a cup of tea with her neighbour. In the large compound, there also lived an elderly spinster neighbour, who had the same political affiliation with the family and she too ate her meals from Pishi’s kitchen. Such was the importance of that room, in the house.
With these memories, I feel a whimper in my heart like a wounded puppy searching for her mother’s breast to snuggle in. The wet hissing wind against her puppy ears, as she tries to brave the minus-degree temperatures of the high altitudes of Shillong.
I can still feel the wet sharp wind, against my skin, my red sweater, a cap on the head, a pair of corduroy dungarees and my keds.
There are days, when suddenly out of the blue, a whiff of air, catches me unaware. Brushes past me and I travel back to Shillong, the cold biting wind against my skin and long hair, as I run down a hill, past the hydrangeas, the tall pine, weeping willow trees, and the fear of being an unwanted Bengali in Shillong. That run, to reach Pishi’s home, just in time for lunch. I was always welcomed. There was no fuss about my landing up uninvited and it was never an inconvenience ever for her. Just the sheer unending vessel of food that to me today seems unbelievable.
Life was truly uncomplicated. The cold vanished as I ran past danger, past my prejudices and towards the home of my extended family, where cousins knew our habits, our sore points and it was what we call a large family.
Recalling the days of the past is like a balm to the soul when all you want is to return to those feelings of togetherness and a safe space. The sheer acceptance of what and who you are.
Today every lunch is planned, sometimes cancelled too, without too much guilt and the act of breaking bread with your near and dear ones keeps shrinking over time.
Mohua Chinappa is an author, who runs a podcast called The Mohua Show.