1. Our Neighbor, Our Enemy
My mother and the Syrian lady next door were enemies.
Theirs was a feud that excelled in the tactics of non-verbal intimidation. They practised their stares and their cold shoulders, and how best to turn one’s face away when they each saw the other approaching. We were amused and confused, we did not know what started their rivalry.
It was the food, said my mother, whose tolerance for anything not vegetarian went only so far as to ignore the eggs my father made me. All those smells driving the air out of our second floor corridor, she complained. Cooking meat any time of the day. Beef today, she declared, sniffing the air as we stepped out one evening. Crab, she snorted, one afternoon, when a pungent smell greeted us as we opened the door.
The Syrian lady wasn’t one to be intimidated either. She disturbed the kolam my mother drew outside our apartment every morning, she was worried those rice flour patterns on the floor might be voodoo. She blew out the lamps that my mother placed at the doorstep every evening in November, saying they were a fire hazard.
She was always by herself though, and this didn’t escape my mother’s notice. No husband, no siblings, no parents, no children, we counted on our fingers all the relationships she didn’t have. What was she doing here all alone, my mother couldn’t imagine. We watched her bring up the furniture, carry home carton boxes of mineral water, clean her car. We saw her arguing with the children who threw tennis balls into her balcony, thinking it would be fun to upset her mood for five minutes every so often. We continued to watch as she left for work every morning, cooked for her friends who visited her with clouds of perfume, we could hear their laughter past my bedtime.
I must have missed the thawing that happened, because one day, my mother said to no one in a voice just above a whisper, She is so brave. Later that year, we wished her Eid Mubarak, and she gave us rice with beef on New Year’s day. My mother left it on the small table in the living room, I suspect my father ate a little of it when she wasn’t looking.
2. A Date with History
There are some sights, sounds, smells and tastes that evoke a precise feeling, a memory. When the feeling is unpleasant or painful, I waste no time in pushing it back down. Infinite compartments exist for this purpose. Occasionally though, a memory that is warm and delicious comes to the surface. A favourite song from the nineties. A long forgotten dinner staple. The particular smell of a city in summer. Hail stones that throw themselves at the balcony door and melt in a puddle soon after.
I spent much of my childhood, or at least the parts of my childhood I would like to remember, in a country where the locals spoke Arabic. When I hear an accent that does not distinguish p from b, I want to go up to them and say Hi. I want to tell them I like the way the English language behaves under their tongue, even if I made fun of it years ago. I want to tell them about the kuboos I ate growing up, the heat that burnt our feet, the dust storms that made buildings vanish, the cats that seemed to be everywhere, the meat that hung in revolving inverted cones. I also do not want to scare them away, so I smile to myself and keep walking.
If I may become your virtual salesperson for a minute, let me tell you about a cookie I like. A soft, thick cookie filled with dates, perfect in every way. It is not too sweet, and is always satisfying to bite into. Some buttery crumbs stick on to your fingers, which you can lick off later. A ma’amoul.
A few days ago, I came across a store that claimed to sell Middle Eastern Foods. Once inside, I spent many minutes looking at the products with Arabic lettering. I traced the font with my finger, from right to left. And there it was: a soft, thick cookie filled with dates. I sent my brother a message – Look what I found!
It wasn’t the same, but it was good enough.
3. A Sandwich
Sometimes, memory tastes like a bread-butter-jam sandwich.
It happened all those years ago, and I remember what I was wearing, feeling like a girl which was unusual. A babypink shirt with sleeves that came just past the elbows, and a long skirt that was white at the waist and the colour changed every few centimetres, lightest pink, light pink, pink, darker pink, and a darkest pink at the ankles – ombré, I know to call it now, but back then it was the Shades of Pink Skirt. In that year of awkwardness, wanting to be a girl, but not very comfortable being one, I was taken in by the cool kids. A group of girls who left me in awe, with their perfect singing voices and school uniform skirts that they stitched in a stylish way I wanted to copy, with athletic bodies and artistic minds. That day, a bunch of us washed up at one of their homes, unannounced, filling the living room with laughter and chatter, and pointing at a younger brother on the verge of puberty, who had large feet but hadn’t yet shot up.
Are you hungry, Aunty asked us, as she walked into the kitchen and looked in her refrigerator. This is what a Catholic household looks like, I thought to myself. A piano (did they practise carols here?), wine, a benevolent Mary smiling down on us.
Anusha is vegetarian, someone said, and there was silence for a moment.
Who is this new vegetarian friend you have brought home, Aunty wanted to know. You don’t even eat fish?
No but eggs are alright, if we make them in a pan that my mother likes to call The Egg Pan, and we leave the exhaust fan running so her kitchen doesn’t smell. No but my father isn’t a vegetarian sometimes, like when he ate that whole fish or that grilled chicken and came home and tried to tell us his mouth smells funny because he forgot to brush.
Aunty made me a special sandwich. You will need a sandwich maker – an electric one or one you held in your hand and flipped over a gas stove. Take two slices of bread. On one, spread butter thickly. On another, spread jam. Place them together so the butter and jam can say hello to each other. When the sandwich is done, the butter would have melted, making the bread golden brown, soft and crackling at the same time.
Some days call for such a sandwich and a cup of tea. Some days demand you pause and recollect a childhood spent navigating a claustrophobic and insular household, juxtaposed with a world full of wonders and discoveries and people who were different from us.
I do not have any grand stories about how I knew I wanted to be a writer from the time I was three. I spent many years writing college essays and English homework for cousins, friends, acquaintances. It is only recently that I have started writing for myself. I am also a frequently unemployed environmental engineer, tea lover and connoisseur of smells. I think I am funnier in Tamil, but I haven’t yet been able to get people to agree. Blog: anusrini20.wordpress.com
Twitter: @anusrini20 Instagram: @anusrini20