In the six months of Poorna bai’s tenure, she could barely count five occasions of any interaction with Ira, worth mentioning. Things had been predictably routine—Ira left home early every morning; she hadn’t seen her even drink a cup of coffee before she left, leave alone make one. The fancy coffee machine on the kitchen counter would whirr on weekend mornings, if at all.
What office opened that early? Poor child will fall ill at this rate.
Ira came home in time for dinner most days and quietly ate whatever the cook had made. Then, she peeped into the room and asked Poorna bai how the day had been—had mother eaten? Did she ask for anyone? The answer was always the same—yes and no. Ira then went to her room and shut the door. A warm, yellow light would emanate from the slit at the bottom of the door and light up the otherwise dark passage for a few hours before she fell asleep. The next morning, the light would be back for barely 20 minutes. The jingle of keys being picked up from the sideboard at the end of the passage seemed louder in the silence of dawn. The amplified sound of the latch as the door shut in the quiet of dawn would tell Poorna bai that Ira had left for the day.
This changed on Fridays. Ira would return with bags of foodstuff—bottles of wine, vegetables that Poorna bai could not identify, meats that came sliced and packed in thermocol trays wrapped in plastic, cheese wrapped in brown paper. She would then spend some time rearranging the refrigerator to make space for the new things, discarding little bowls of leftovers collected through the week. She only shopped enough for the one or two meals that she would cook over the weekend. The rest of the pantry was not her responsibility—cook had a separate allowance for all that.
Ira would plan the weekend cooking during her ride back home from work through the week—picking up ideas from newsletters and YouTube videos by chefs she subscribed to. She would go to any lengths to collect the ingredients—herbs from a particular organic farm in a suburb too far from home or work, gourmet store tomatoes on the vine that looked so pretty (Poorna bai once turned the pack to see the price and had to read it a couple of times in the day every time she opened the fridge to believe the three-figure cost for eight tomatoes), and too many other things that Poorna bai had no idea of. Ira would, sometimes, come home with new plates and platters even, just to serve her cooking exactly as she had seen in the photos and videos she had studied all week.
Flowers would be ordered, the table would be laid, and Ira would be busy all morning, anxious to get it just right. A friend or two would, invariably, come home, and the house would be filled with a lightness that was missing all week. The curtains would be drawn, music played out of the speakers in the living room, smells unknown to Poorna bai emanated from the kitchen, and Ira would laugh and talk all day. She was another person when she entertained—a warm, happy, lively person.
When the party was over, the house would be quiet again. Ira would retreat to her room with the slit of light streaming at the bottom of the door. A stale smell of alcohol and cooking would settle down like damp in the dark evening, carrying the weight of the upcoming week.
For Poorna bai, all days were the same. Caring for a bedridden Alzheimer’s patient was mostly about following timetables—mealtimes, medicine times, turning sides times, sponging and sheet change times. And yet, there was enough time left in the day. Mostly sedated, the patient didn’t need much supervision, either. There was no scope to leave the house, though. Poorna bai spent a good hour or so catching up with the cook and cleaning lady, mostly listening to the two gossip about other families and other cooks and cleaning women who worked in the building. She had never seen the subjects of the conversation, so it was a lot like watching a television series or reading a story from a magazine—the characters returned every now and then with new twists in the plot, and occasionally, new characters, too!
The television in Aaji’s room would be switched on whenever she was awake, irrespective of how alert she was. An old film, if it was playing, or just Poorna bai flicking channels endlessly to find something that wasn’t loud or in a language she didn’t understand. Actually, Aaji was not much older than Poorna bai herself—but in her village, they said that rich people fell ill earlier, and she was convinced that was the real reason. She conversed with Aaji—or rather spoke to Aaji—as two middle-aged friends would. She would pull out her mobile phone and show Aaji pictures of her own grandson in the village, two years old and just learning to talk. Very rarely, she would slip out to the market while cook was in to buy a thing or two and send home to the village, but she was mostly indoors.
So, when the lockdown was imposed and extended well beyond the two weeks it was initially thought to last, it barely affected Poorna bai. Cook and cleaner couldn’t come to work, so she had a few extra jobs to help around the house with, but aside from that, not much had changed. She didn’t mind the extra work, really, and to be fair, Ira never expected her to go beyond her call of duty, it just happened.
Ira, on the other hand, was entirely lost. With no workplace to escape to, no friends to distract her, and no gourmet stores to shop at, she didn’t know what to do with her time. There was only so much time you could spend at the laptop, only so many video calls you could make.
What does one do with time? What does time do with you?
Ira was beginning to realise that staying home for such a prolonged and indefinite period meant coming to terms with what she had been escaping so long. There were no brunches to hide behind any more. No shopping lists to draw up and chase. No pretty tableau to construct.
Caring for an ailing parent is difficult; caring for one you never got along with, even more so. When the diagnosis first happened, Ira’s mother was still mobile and would often be aggressive. At first, Ira didn’t even realise it—her mother has always been verbally abusive and Ira had grown up realising that no matter what she did, she would never gain her mother’s approval. Without a father or sibling, Ira had dealt with her mother’s shouting and door-slamming alone, so when it increased slightly, she put it down to retirement frustration. But on more than one occasion, when she had to physically hold her mother back or go searching for her only to find her wandering a few lanes away, she realised that something was amiss.
Two years on, it was difficult to walk into her mother’s room and make sense of the feelings that were triggered. Sometimes, she willed her mother to sit up and hurl expletives at her, remind her, yet again, what a failure she had been.
All her childhood, she longed for the perfect family—a jovial but more importantly, present father; a sibling, ideally a sister that she would be mock annoyed with for using her things without permission. But since she couldn’t have those, she longed at least for a mother who would come to parent-teacher meetings in graceful saris instead of her own mother’s hurried salwar kameezes; one that would make cakes with her on the weekends instead of the same one-pot meal again. A mother who would say “beta” every three sentences, who wouldn’t lecture her on financial independence all the time, for god’s sake.
She looked for the familiar disdain in her mother’s eyes, but didn’t even find recognition. How did one grieve this almost-loss?
That’s when all the gourmet cooking began. She had free rein in the kitchen now, so she hired a cook to manage the basics while she threw herself into the vast and hitherto unknown world of cooking. She derived a satisfaction from learning about exotic ingredients and a validation from the praise she got from cooking them. Keeping busy was her salve and learning how to cook elaborate, entirely foreign dishes made sure she didn’t have any energy left to get sucked into the vortex of pain. It was a mask she gladly wore.
Buying kitchen supplies in a different mask altogether, though, sterile and clad in fear, took the life out of the activity—the vendor looked at you impatiently if you touched ten tomatoes before selecting one, if you sniffed at one melon too many before you found one that was perfectly ripe. Once the ingredients were home, Ira was too exhausted and too disoriented to figure what to do with them. The whole exercise was lifeless—like her mother. With every extension of the lockdown, Ira lost more of herself. Eventually, she couldn’t bring herself to cook anything at all. She ordered in every meal, and barely touched any of it. The slit of light behind the closed door went on and off and on and off all night.
Poorna bai missed the soil despite working as an ayah for over two decades in the city. And so, she set up a little garden of her own wherever she went. None of the families she worked with seemed to mind, not too many of them were bothered about what happened in the patient’s room anyway. If the room was particularly tiny, she would have at least one small pot of something or other. It brought “life” into a sick person’s room, she said. Some sort of energy exchange happened between plant and patient, she seemed to believe, and she was a self-appointed agent.
Here, there was more than ample space. Aaji’s room had a large balcony attached to it; large enough by city standards, anyway. It received ample sunlight for the most part of the day but all that did was fade the two painted cane chairs that no one ever sat on. Poorna bai had seen some abandoned pots in the garage downstairs. One by one, she filled them with soil that the building’s gardener gave her for a paltry sum and lugged them upstairs. In a few, she planted cuttings of ornamentals from the building’s garden—an ixora, a jasmine, two kinds of crotons. In the rest, she planted what she most enjoyed tending to—food.
She was admiring the ruby seed pods on the gongura when Ira walked in. She had called out from the doorway but Poorna bai hadn’t heard so she walked into the balcony, a space she quickly realised she hadn’t seen in months. What met her eyes took her breath away. Gone was the grey balcony she had last seen; this space was a lush, welcoming green. A bitter gourd creeper climbed the broadband cable, dainty yellow flowers attracting the bees. There were at least six gourds on the vine, and more, if she stuck her head out and looked up—for neighbours! An old aluminium hanger, unwound and stretched awkwardly, supported some imperfectly shaped tomatoes in a pot in the corner, a ray of the golden hour lighting up its blush red cheeks. A basket hung from the ceiling, overflowing with pudina. Small shoots of tender purple-pink-red amaranth popped out of a rectangular bed in neat lines. A recently trimmed curry leaf plant had new shoots. A few shiny, dark green chillies swayed in the occasional breeze.
Ira felt her body soften up as she sank into one of the faded cane chairs and inhaled the freshly watered soil.
“When did you do this?”
“Oh, it’s been a while. I had a lot of time and there were all those pots just lying neglected downstairs. You don’t mind, do you?”
“No no, they’re beautiful! But where did you get these plants? You should have just told me and I would have given you some money for them.”
“They didn’t cost me anything at all; I used scraps from our kitchen. Seeds from the karela and tomato, stems of the gongura and pudina. The curry leaf plant is a baby of the many taller ones in the garden downstairs and the chilli seeds are from the masala dabba. In that pot in the shade there, I’ve planted methi seeds just yesterday. Cook would often take something or other home or add to the food here.”
“I can’t believe I never noticed! And to think of the money I spent on ‘farm-fresh’ vegetables all this while!”
“All we need is what we have, na, Tai—in cooking and in life. I was thinking—we can make a raw tomato bhaaji for dinner. Would you like that?”
Saee Koranne-Khandekar is a food consultant and cookbook author, the latest, in 2019, titled Pangat, A Feast: Food And Lore From Marathi Kitchens.