Last night, the iron lid on the unused backyard well got thrown off. The rusted, soldered latticed rods that had lain unmoved for ages had come off. Everyone said it was you venting your rage—untimely deaths made the spirits linger, wreaking havoc on those left behind. Was it you plotting, heavy-lifting, Appa? You died on Ekadashi—one of those rare, coveted days for leaving this material world behind, and you were cremated on Dwadashi—a fitting follow-up to your auspicious death. Going by the lore, you must be in Heaven. Why are you still pottering around here, Appa?
You are a big, round ball of rice, placed on a banana leaf. A handful of black sesame seeds are sprinkled on top. More gets sprinkled in eight more places.
Now the ball is sliced with a blade of grass, The pieces are thrown in eight different directions. The cue for you is to pick one out of the eight and move on.
The tiniest ball: a part of your ruptured spirit has found a direction. You must be on your way to Heaven.
Inside the house, the family has gathered to decide on the daily lunch and dinner menus for the next twelve days. Athai’s suggestion is to include all of your favorites.
When I think about your foodie favorites, I realize that your heart was in your stomach. You lived to earn only to eat. That’s why you stopped after having a single child. To avoid “deficit in family budget,” Amma had told me when your son and I had our second. Even my sister used to tease you that you would write off our sprawling R.K. Salai bungalow and hot cash balance for a good measure of tasty “Kumbakonam Kadapa.” I am realizing the importance of food when I watch your son perform the Pretha Karma, or the last rites, for the departed soul that is so full of food items.
And every day it is going to be absolutely difficult to stop seeing you in the sambhar, pitla, theeyal, kadayal, pachadi, and payasam we are going to enjoy in your name.
After your heart disease made you switch to salt-free, I remember your Sunday treats for us: hot tiffin packed in banana leaves and rolled in newspapers from Ratna Cafe, Saravanan Bhavan and Rayars. You sat us down to eat and watched us—interjecting with several “How is it?”s and “Is it good?”s as if you were the chef who had steam-cooked those idlis and flipped those onion rawas and crispy vadas.
Amma is having a meltdown today. Because she is making sevai today, your favorite. Those
steamed, hair-like strings remind her of you. Of course, since your relationship with her is woven tight with food. She had taken pleasure in making those frantic trips to and from the kitchen, carrying piping hot dishes to your plate. When I asked her the other day why she was so scared of your temper—you could go wild at a touch of extra salt, pucker at sourness. She thought for a moment before responding. “It was not fear; it was respect,” she said earnestly.
Now she is slumped over the steel bowl that has the glossy-white maavu. Her shoulders are tied in a knot, body trembling like a loose sack. The kitchen is no longer her fortress. The key bunch is now with the cook maami, jingling at her waist, and maami takes care of the entire day’s cooking.
Later, when we were left alone, Amma tells me that she heard you whispering in her ears, your hot breath in her cheeks to make sesame-tempered sevai. She felt your presence beside her. You scared her, Appa. Learn the art of letting go from your wife. Let go.
We are on the tenth-day ceremony. An important day filled with rituals. The driveway is full of food today. White rice spread like a carpet, some squished into tight balls; golden, crisp vadas; twelve different types of fruits; sweets: the sweet sesame balls, athirasam, muruku. The ladies have tied the nine-yard sari. Dripping wet, they come near the spread, lift scoopfuls and drop it along with the sesame seeds—each time repeating what the pandit says: We fill your aching soul with food; eat till your heart bursts, stop feeling for your loss. At the end of the ceremony, the driveway looks like a war zone. Our hearts feel trampled too.
In the evening we go to the backyard to light a lamp in your honor. The flame bursts, multiplies, goes up in a mild explosion. The low-hanging tip of the enclosure catches fire, and we are all alarmed. Was it you, Appa, creating commotion again?
That night, Amma is supposed to be left on her own. She would bid you her final goodbye. But I hang around.
Midnight, when she breaks her ties with you, I feed her a glass of warm milk to keep her guilt and cloaking feeling of failure away. The neighbor’s dog starts up a deep, disturbing howl, and all the day’s humidity ends in a thundershower. Your presence is an odorless smoke that fills the house. You have become nothing but a pinched memory in our minds. Indispensability is a myth. The show can go on without you, without anyone for that matter. Do you get that, Appa?
The rest of that night, I go back in time, stop to reminisce about some moments from the past. More food-related memories flood my mind. As soon as you opened your eyes after heart surgery, you asked for badam milk—homemade. You kept repeating it in the delirious state, so I had to rush to Krishna Sweets nearest to the Velachery flyover to get a few premade badam milk bottles since homemade would take an hour and a half and you wouldn’t stop asking.
The first time you wanted pizza, “Is it hot or sweet?” was your candid query. You put me in a spot with that query. I could give you only a confused response at that time. But so many times in the past and now, I keep going back to this particular interaction between us. Each time I come back with a different realization, an answer to some long-held conundrums.
It is the thirteenth day today, and we are all dressed in new clothes. Our faces are tired but relieved. All the crying has stopped. Even Amma’s repenting is on a temporary break and she looks withered, like a day-old flower in bloom. Her grief is no longer a constant blow in her head but unexpected attacks in big, swamping waves. I am quiet, have no adjectives or metaphors for life, which comes with all its plaits and twists and confronts us each passing moment.
Here is a metaphor and a fun fact before we part ways. Life is like the homemade ghee that Amma makes every fortnight: all golden and flowing at the top, grainy and full of fragrance at the bottom. But there is another layer—under this grainy bottom. The slightly burnt, blackened layer that holds all the textural surprises. Death, I’m sure, is also an interesting enigma as much as life is, Appa.
Here is another. Sesame—auspicious for Shrardhas—is full of phytochemicals. It is a powerful energy source and thrives even in drought-ridden regions. Be like sesame, Appa, ready to bloom and thrive wherever life lands you next. Continue your jaunt. Onward and upward. Farewell.