I apologise for my silence on this blog and all my food spaces, but food has seemed a sacrilege lately. My brother died last Saturday. And I, who love food, who plan my next meal even as I am eating my current one, was not hungry anymore. Thinking of food was a temerity, let alone eating it. And so I had nothing to write and nothing to say.
I stood by him, as my Bhabhi, his wife and my nephews said their last goodbyes, holding his cold cold foot, not wanting to intrude on their last moments with him, but wanting my last few minutes as well. Hoping, like them - begging him, like them - to take a breath again, open his eyes again, smile his all encompassing laughing Budhdha smile again. But none of that happened. He stayed silent and cold, the rituals of last rites playing themselves out around us. Just like they had all those years ago when I lost my father.
Accross the room, beyond his stone cold body and all the grieving heads bent in love towards him a little butterfly took flight. And in that flutter of a second the phrase 'life goes on', became infinitely real. Life does not stop for anyone, butterflies still flutter over flowers, birds still chirp, the rain still falls, the sun still shines, and children are born. But I wanted time stop, I wanted to scream out loud and long, in the hope that the world would come to a standstill and acknowledge that this person I loved, that made the world so much more beautiful was gone forever. And perhaps my heart would hurt less..
So I stood wherever I could find space till the last moment. Held his foot till the last moment I possibly could. Till they wrapped him up, all dressed in his favoured blue pinstriped shirt and carried him down to his byre. I stood there for my mother and sisters who could not be there in time. But more than anything I stood there for him. I stood there because from the moment I first heard the news of his passing, I had realised that my time to be taken care off was over. I was now the eldest in the family. It was now time for me to stand up and shoulder responsibility. Not the external sort, my brothers would do that, I have set myself a more important task, to smile and love each person in my family in his stead.
My outpouring of grief was hard and short. I cried a million tears in each one that I shed. And then I hugged him and kissed him and garlanded him and stood to one side so others who loved him could. I wanted to follow him to the crematorium like all the other women were going to despite tradition being against it. But my sweet sensible husband voiced what I already knew. Someone had to hold fort at home as well. So I stayed home and I helped hold fort. Things needed to be organized, arrangements needed to be made, family and loved ones were arriving from all over to support us in grief and things needed to be organized. I think I grew up in those moments.
Indian traditions are so ironic in so many ways. Women give birth, but are not allowed to be at the death ceremony, women hold the fabric of families together but are not allowed to be there when the last rites of the man, father, son, husband, brother, that was an intrinsic part of the fabric they wove breaks away. But that day I found out that death brings forward the most unfortunate role a woman ever has to play, that of a sister. As a daughter you still have some say when your parents pass, your opinion is sought but as a sister, there is no evidence of you anywhere. It is like you are obliterated with the change in your surname. You marry so you cease to have any recognition in the family you have been born into, the family that has given you your very identity. You are cosseted and loved the rest of the time, but when you really want to be there, you are relegated to the fringes. So I made myself useful in whatever way I could. Trying to comfort in the most elemental way I knew how, with food.
Untill the day Ashu Bhai died, I had always cooked for the happy times, birthdays, holidays and many other times, presiding over tables groaning with food made with love and surrounded by the people I loved that I cooked for. In fact the last big party I enjoyed cooking for was for this very same brother's birthday in December. A full Thai meal for 70 people because he loved Thai food. But today, for the first time I cooked for the sad times. I cooked for his family, to whom there was nothing I could say to take away the pain. I could only be there, to hold, hug and love, remember the good times and bring fleeting glimmers of smiles to grief stricken faces and sorrow filled eyes. Serving up the simple food sans color and spices that tradition decreed this time called for. Food that could be reheated when those in pain could finally get themselves to eat again. Khichdis, dal-rice and simple vegetables far from the celebratory food I cooked in happier times. In the hope that it would fill more than just empty bellies that were so full of grief that there was no space for hunger.
Men go off to do all the things the world requires but women have a bigger responsibility. We need to hold things together so the men have something to come home to, lest they drift away because there is ntohing to anchor them. On our shoulders lies the responsibility of caring for the fabric of our families. Each time it is damaged, or rendered to pieces, we have to pick up the fragments and put them together, make sense of edges that have no match, stitch together tears that are irreparable, fix frayed seams. And then, when the fabric is complete it is up to us to embroider it with new happy memories and beautiful smiles.