This story is by n.han_writes and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Six tablespoons of oil. An onion – chopped as finely as possible. The slices should be so fine they dissolve completely into the families meal. In exactly the same way that women should dissolve into the families they marry into. They must not stand out. You may use the electric blender because the onion stings your eyes. But mama does not. Have Sabr- patience. Let them scorch to gold on the sizzling oil. But don’t forget them; stay conscious- timing is key.
Next you need to modify. Reduce the heat, and add a single teaspoon of mixed garlic and ginger paste from the big glass jar. Two tea spoons follow. One of salt, and the other of chilli powder. Add a tomato.
And there you have the bare bones of every Pakistani haandi – the evening curry. Paste, plenty enough to accommodate the meat and vegetables needed to feed the six heads around the bustling oak dining table; and steam, aromatic enough to escape through every nook and cranny in the walls of this home. Outside, the wisps join an invisible carnival of street noise and smells, that burn harder on some lonely hearts than they do on the sensory receptors of most ears and noses.
For now, all you will see is a messy mix of seeds and the colour of blood; a hopeful mixture resembling a foetus, at the mercy of her hand. A fair hand, perfectly polished nails, doughy flesh gift-wrapped in smooth skin. No creases. The hand stirs the wooden spoon round and round and round. The meat goes in next. The girl has never liked gosht- the meat of lamb, she only eats it when it’s cooked by mama. She puts it in anyway. When you are cooking for a family, it matters very little what you want and very much what the rest want. They had chicken yesterday, kidney beans the day before and okra the day before that. It had to be gosht today. As the woman, you need to be creative, break the routine, make it exciting so that everyone wants to participate.
“You can add anything you like next,” mimics the girl who the hand belongs to. Soft but loud enough for it to be heard by the woman who stands behind her like a shadow, who has been cooking the family meal for the girls whole life. Chopping, stirring, measuring ingredients, frying and boiling.
“I will add potatoes” the girl sings. Skinned, washed, raw and chopped. “In they go.”
“Then a cup of water; and perhaps we need another splash,” she hesitates; and then without turning around, adds another half cup, so that the potatoes are fully submerged. She will never ask, she needs to prove that she can make her own decisions; survive without the support of her mother. The sizzling stops, and a loud bubbling breaks out in the pan.
“ Im glad you’re letting me cook on my own today” she says.
“I will never learn unless I try will I?”
Mother doesn’t respond. She is a woman of very few words. Necessary words. Words are sacred. The tongue should not be set free, for it will always do more damage than good. The hand concludes, placing the lid on the pan. “Do your very best, and leave the rest to Allah- God.”
She is trying to handle affairs more like mama.
The girl says “lets drink chai”– Pakistani tea.
Perhaps the only tradition that is shared by mama’s homeland and the girls,’ is seeking peace and comfort in a hot drink. For mama, chai is a cup, filled halfway to the top with water, and the rest of the way with milk. Pour it into the saucepan, and add raw tea leaves. Sure a few extra minutes are needed with this method; here and there, in boiling the liquids; straining the leaves.
The girl flicks the switch on the kettle.
The girl draws a couplet of mugs from the overhead cupboard and places them on the wiped worktop. Then she opens a tin filled with pistachio biscuits. Mama will have these. Chocolate cookies for her. Truthfully, the girl will likely have both. Maybe thats why she’s bigger than mama, she thinks. Mama belongs to only one culture, but she belongs to two.
As all sorts of aromas spill out of the kitchen, the girl removes the lid of the bubbling haandi once more. She moves the wooden spoon back and forth. Mother cautiously watches over without making a sound. Always watching the hands,. Making sure they don’t touch the throbbing vessels or the naked flames.
The girls bare wrist just escapes the pan.
Mama darts forward at once.
“Come on let me pour the tea today”
“But why- you always pour it, let me help” the girl whines.
“Im not going to spill it, You don’t trust me to pour it!”
“Its not that. But you have such beautiful hands, I don’t want them to get burned.” Mother says, squeezing them- one in each of her shrivelled hands.
Then she moves forward and the girl moves back, disappearing out of the kitchen. Mama pours tea in the two cups and goes inside to the old oak table; carefully carrying the two vessels. Silent wisps of ribbon slowly ascending from them.
“Aja!” she says moderately- “come.” Never shouting. And then she sits down and waits for her daughter before she will touch her mug. Her hands shake slightly. She knows she shouldn’t have let her out of her sight.
Like the old oak tree outside the window, she winces when she thinks about all she has lost. “Sabr,” she whispers.
Not a sign of life exists throughout the home apart from the ticking of a clock, and an awful decaying smell. A casualty is brewing on the stove; a sweltering flame; a dressed onion, a tomato and a potato sit on a puddle of oil, urging for someone to tend to them. Had she felt the burning of the tumour in her skull, perhaps they could have saved the girl with the youthful hands. But there is no point thinking like that, because thats not how it was written to be. When death is written, it simply is.
Two cups of discoloured tea sit side-by-side on an oversized oak table. One with mamas name on it, and one with the girls name on it. Their rooh- souls, in ribbons of steam have ascended and parted, heading in different directions. The girls’ has forced itself through the cracks in the house, leaving large holes in the walls; silencing the carnival around it on its departure. Mothers’ resists leaving her body, shackling itself to her ribs until the destined time arrives. Her body is a decaying vessel, the heart a battleground. She bears the long years with sabr. From her grey skin, you could never tell she was golden on the inside.
The clock breathes a long sigh of relief that day, as the old lady lays at the bottom of the stairs. The walls of the house, and her ribcage open wholeheartedly so she doesn’t feel a scratch as her rooh leaves. Her flesh lays rolled up at the bottom of the stairs, inches from the front door. As she closes her eyes for the very last time, the old lady thinks of the two hands.
“I’m coming” she whispers, and finally, everything inside the old woman’s body, and in the infrastructure of the house, loosens its hand. This soul isn’t made for this world.
A brilliant stream of gold thread shoots out of her chest, and goes whirling upward. It disappears through a gaping crack in the wall; racing up into the moonlight. The world dropping off into the distance.
The two souls, finally reunited, loop and dance around the curves of the crescent moon.
And an audience of relieved stars, rejoices for them.