Thursday, June 14, 2018

My Mother Controls the Weather

My mother's father was a genius. This is what we've been told all our lives. My mother married a man who is also widely held to be remarkably multi-talented. Her brothers were excellent at their studies and her son too was once held to be rather above average. All this has put her off geniuses for life. She has spent a lifetime being surrounded by brilliant men who break her heart, from her father onward, and has rarely had much say in her circumstances.

My mother's father's particular genius lay in mathematics, I'm told. He worked in the Met. Department and was extremely good at his work. For his elder daughter's wedding, for example, planned during the Calcutta monsoon, he accurately predicted the two days that it would not rain and so the weather turned out to be. They tell me it rained on all the other days, but the days of the wedding and reception were happily dry. He married off his eldest daughter, my mother, once the apple of his stern eye, then fallen in displeasure, during what she thought was another summer with relatives, and didn't allow her so much as a photograph of the man she was being sent to live with, or his large, unnervingly rich family. He didn't discuss the matter with her, and he didn't ask her what she wanted, but he did ensure the festivities were, well, festive.

My mother fell in love, I think, a little, with my father, but one patriarchal male is not that different from another and in the end she was fed up with being overlooked, unheard and disregarded. Her son too was taught from an early age to disregard her wishes and though he was attached to his mother, he learnt to hide that love so that it was not made into a mockery. That is its own tragedy but a rather common Indian tragedy, if you consider the men around you.

All this is to explain that my mother, a woman I admire beyond all other women I know, and the only one who exasperates me to tears without even trying, has rarely had much in her control. It is a strange thing to acknowledge as a grown woman myself, because I grew up convinced my mother ran the show. She wished she did, we thought she did, but really, her life was planned around the needs of others and that is not running the show. So she controlled the little things. She planned what we ate (with the groceries my father chose); she planned our clothes (with largely the outfits we were gifted or that she managed to sew us); she insisted I learnt classical singing (and watched me give it up); in short, she worked with what she had, knowing her options would always be dependant on the whims of other people, like every other Indian housewife we know.

So it amazes me how casually we accepted that my mother also controlled, when she thought about it, the weather. She does not have the genius (or the learning) of her father but she picked up a great deal when he wasn't paying attention. Additionally, she has a natural feel for the weather which we have learnt to respect. If she says the weather will turn, we carry a jacket. If she says the night sky is red, we turn the fan a mark lower because the night will cool. In her first home in Madras, a large, old-fashioned apartment built in a more generous age, her kitchen was huge, bigger than the bedroom of the flat I lived in for five years while I was in college. That enormous kitchen had two windows through which she would track the weather as she went about her day. As she cooked, cleaned, laundered and planned, she would check the weather to see how to fit her day around it. Visiting from college I only knew enough of Madras to meet friends and party. My father introduced me to the local food and bookstores. My mother, she introduced me to the Madras skies. She mentioned in passing that when a certain kind of cloud passed a certain rooftop on the window to the right, I should expect rain. I was no longer a teenager, and certainly past the age of scoffing at my mother, so I accepted her advice and was glad of it later that day. My father, similarly, would dress warmly or carry an umbrella or leave office a shade earlier depending on what my mother said the weather would be like. The most spectacular prediction she made was when the earthquake hit the Coromandel coast in December 2004 -- I speak from hearsay because I was then at George's wedding in Vizag, cursing the trucks that must have gone by and made my host's home shake. According to my father, she turned to him and said, quite calmly, that they had just experienced an earthquake, and then, with growing excitement, that a tsunami should follow and they must go down to the beach. So my parents drove down to Marina to see the tsunami, as the wise, responsible adults they keep telling me to be, no doubt.

The last thing I want to tell you about my mother and the weather and why I use the word 'control' is the bit that I write with hesitation and would tell you with a laugh if we were sitting down in my home and I was telling you about my mother and the weather. I laugh, but there's an uneasy note in my laughter because I've long known there is something uncanny about the woman who gave birth to me and it comes out in these little inexplicablities that we, as a family, accept, but don't much discuss. She will, for instance, walk into a empty house, an apartment, a space, quietly leave and later explain that she was not welcome there. The years have shown us that her times in those spaces were indeed more unhappy than not. And there is the matter of her morning dreams but those are the subject of a separate essay and one that I will probably never write. She is never as scary as when she matter-of-factly tells me of a morning dream and I am not yet grown up enough to be as calm about them as she is.

So, instead, I will tell you about her khichuri. Food blogs will explain that khichuri is a Bengali dish of rice and lentils cooked together, perhaps with vegetables, seasoned well. Food bloggers may tell you stories of their mothers' khichuri and the comfort of old recipes and familiar foods. My mother makes the one kind of khichuri though within just Bengal there are innumerable variations. She makes it with cauliflower and peas and chunky potato. It is a spicy, steaming dish that she will slow-cook over the stove with infinite patience, adjusting the spices as she goes. She serves it with deep fried goodies; when I was a young girl and lived at home, I'd fry the papad to accompany the khichuri. It is a hearty, comforting dish and one I have yet to make to my satisfaction in my own kitchen. However, what is truly remarkable about my mother's khichuri is not how good it tastes: it is the effect it has on the weather. My mother firmly believes that khichuri is a dish for rainy days so that is when she makes it. And each time she does -- reader, each time without fail -- the rain stops. When we were younger we used to joke about how the clouds didn't wish for us to enjoy the steaming khichuri while the rain fell outside our window. As I grew older I watched in disbelief how even the harshest storm would quietly go away before the khichuri was placed on our dining table. Older still now, I believe that my mother, who fought a losing battle over the circumstances of her own life, has taken her revenge by controlling the weather. She may not control the men but she can and will control the weather.

[My mother read this and asked me to update this to note that they did not go down to the beach to see the tsunami. They were planning to but the Aadyar overflowed and trapped them inside the house!]

8 comments:

Priyanka said...


So beautifully written, I know I will be returning to re-read.

Sneha said...

Your blog is many a times more interesting than the books I read, and boy I read a lot. Love you and your mom!

Shuktara said...

So much love, Sunne. I'll be reading it again and will be messaging with questions.

Saptarshi Chakraborty said...

This is so beautiful!

Sue said...

Priyanka - Thank you!

Sneha - Thank you, she's quite an interesting woman!

Shuki - <3 <3

Saptarshi - Thanks :)

The Bride said...

This is so beautiful it could be a magical realism short story.

Sue said...

The Bride -- It does read that way, strangely. In my head it was a funny little piece on my mother, but it turned out quite differently when I finally wrote it down.

Saya said...

What a lovely post. So wonderfully written. Wish you would write more. Or better still move to Madras and become my neighbour