The price, as expected, came out to Rs 56.40 by the time my mom tapped the auto-rickshaw driver’s shoulders to stop. I knew exactly how much the price was from our house to my mamaghar on the auto-rickshaw. Anything different, and the auto-rickshaw driver was playing with the meter. As my mom shelled out some notes to pay the driver, I led my three year old brother out of the auto-rickshaw. We would have generally taken a bus to come here, but it was close to , which meant that the rest of the family was already late taking lunch because they were waiting for us to arrive.
Now, being born a Nepali, I have eaten dal and rice dozens of times. And yet, when Hajur-aama cooks it, it is like it came straight from the heavenly planets. According to her, in some ways it does. She said that whatever food she made was prasad because she offers it to God before she serves it out to us.
In the kitchen, we all sat around in a semi-circle, squatting on wooden pirkha mats. My grandfather insisted in wearing a dhoti. I had asked him when I was younger about why it was that he sprinkled rice and water around his plate before he ate. He had told me that it was an offering to God. I wondered why he was offering the food if my grandmother already had. But I figured that just like I liked seconds, God must too. Grandfather didn’t explain more. And since he preferred to consume his plate of rice and dal quietly, I knew better than to ask more questions.
My uncle Premnath was looking at his mom, my grandmother, intently. Seeing his flared nostrils and his slightly reddening face, I started to smile underneath. I knew what was coming. Premnath was very insistent that his mother should be fully clothed when cooking food. But my grandmother, a bauni lady, had been cooking food in one piece of sari for ever. She had a petticoat below her waist and her sari was modestly wrapped around the petticoat and then around top of her body. Premnath struggled between his mom’s religiously dictated attire and the standards of modesty he wished she would exercise in the kitchen. Grandma’s reply to Premnath’s hissing was a indignant one, “If I was good enough to dress up in a one piece sari and cook for all the med in the house when I was a hot young teenage bride, I certainly can do the same now that I’m a sagging old lady. What do I have to hide?” By the look on Premnath’s face, he knew that there was no point going further. He would never win this argument with his mother. But I could tell that didn’t mean that he was pleased with her response.
I had more important things to worry about than culinary attire. I observed the work of art in front of me. It looked like a white mountain of rice had risen out of a silvery lake, that was my plate. The white mountain had lava of yellow dal with speckled black seeds flowing down it. The silvery lake had yellow and green rocks on top of it amongst other landmarks. This was the fried potato and peas that I loved so much.Grandma, one hand grabbing the sari around her knees, dipped herself forward with a spoon that she had just brought out from over the fire. It was sizzling with ghee and spices. She emptied her spoon over the white mountain and the bed of lava. “Ok, now start eating before it gets cold,” she said. Now that the sculpture was complete with icecaps of hot ghee bathing the mountain, I smiled. I smashed the white mountain down with my fingers and watched as a pool of dal entered the crater that I just created. It was now time to dip my palms in the gooey mess and do the slippery slidey bit to deliver mouthfuls of lovely deliciousness to my mouth. Behind me, the sun flamed into the kitchen and my back felt warm. I wish I had taken my sweater off before I sat down to eat.
After lunch, I washed all the bits and pieces of dal and rice from my hands. I had to use soap to get at the grease from the ghee etched between my fingers. I wiped my face and then did what I did best at mamaghar after lunch. I went and lay down on my grandfather’s bed and started leafing through the stack of comic books that I had broughtfrom home.
My aunt did not have the same luxury. She hoisted a basket full of leafs and dragged it into the room. There would be many women coming to help their mom out with the up coming festivities. She had another basket of flowers that needed to be made into garlands. Grandma had scheduled a whole other day to make sweets. And then there was the main meal to make.
As the morning turned into afternoon, I lay on my back, a wrinkled AmarChitra Katha comic propped up on my stomach. I occasionally let my ears wander to the women talking on the floor next to the bed that I lay in. They were gossiping as usual. I caught something about how the buhari of the kanchha sasura in the next house had told her in-laws off in front of everyone. Scandalous.
Sita didi walked in. A chorus of greetings of “Gopal, gopal Sita didi,” went up in the room.Sita didi bowed her head down as she put her flattened palms together up to her head in namaste. She put her brown leather bag down and picked up a piece of leaf before sitting down on a square pink chakati mat. She sat in the circle around a pile of green leaves being made into baskets joining my aunts, mom, grandma and a few other ladies.
I reached out for a handful of furandana from the steel plate next to me. My fingers shoveled a good amount unto my palms. I then let my furandana filled fingers hang over my mouth and watched the fried flat-rice, nuts and coconut mixture tumble into my mouth. Being born and raised in Kathmandu, I had never seen snow fall. But I imagined that this is what it must look like. I returned back to my comic book, where the Phantom was kicking a jungle kidnapper’s butt. The ladies sitting on the floor were working hard preparing the leaf bowls that they would use to serve the guests in the upcoming festival. I was working hard crumbling the crunchy salty mixture between my side teeth into a salty paste before swallowing.
“I brought Chya, hazur,” a servant walked in with steel cups filled to the brim with orangish colored creamy splashing fluid. I perked up. I liked tea time.
My grandmother saw the look on my face. She smiled. I saw her eyebrows mischievously coming together, “Amar, enough of you just lying there like a vegetable. Do you know that people that lie down and eat will become a crocodile in their next life? Get up this instant!”
I shot up. All eyes were looking at me and smiled knowingly and sheepishly. Everyone at one time or another had been a recipient of grandma’s sharp tongue. I was the youngest in the house besides my little brother. He was sleeping. I knew from the tone that my grandmother was only mocking anger. I dragged my fingers through my hair and scratched and tried to smile myself away. Hajur-aama looked away to receive her cup of tea.
The servant went around in a circle and set steel cups of tea next to each of the ladies. He nodded before putting a cup of tea next to me. I leaned over the edge of the cup and took a sniff. The cinnamon and elaichi in the tea smelled so good. “Did you put extra sugar in my cup?” I whispered. He nodded affirmatively and winked.
I held the tea cup between both my palms and dragged a long slurp between my pursed lips. I made sure to let out a customary, “aaaah” after that delicious sip. I stopped in mid “aah” when I saw my mother’s sharp glance at my impudent manners. Unlike Hajur-aama, I knew that no cutsie smile was going to make her go easier on me. But I wasn’t done having fun. So in compromise, instead of completely stopping my shenanigans, I just lowered my volume.
Looking in the room, I felt happy to have grandparents to come to on weekends. My best friend Siddhartha’s grandparents lived in the village a day’s bus ride away from Kathmandu. I felt bad for him. I was glad that I didn’t have to only see my grandparents during Dasain once a year. Gosh, I couldn’t imagine that. I sighed and smiled while sipping some more tea as I tossed a handful of furandana in my mouth. Next I would ask grandma for her keys so that I could get some sel and laddu from the storage room.
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