Mama’s Essence

The smell of jasmine oil fused with Boroline has always meant home and everything fine. Staying with Didu meant my little cousin sister and I rubbing our noses all day long into her toothless, wrinkly cheeks and lying around listening to real stories of ‘bhoot-petnis’ (Bengali term for ghosts) stealing ‘machhbhaja’ ( Bengali word for fish fry) from the kitchen.

I grew up in a joint family where both my paternal grandparents were almost bedridden, my aunt-a librarian, my uncle-old and retired, my father, who brought his office back home and my mother, who was perpetually seen running up, down and around the old, three-storeyed house. Having Didu around every summer meant having a friend to share stories of school with, being spared the wrath of Ma when I’d ceremoniously get a C in mental math and a little more cartoon time on the TV.

But my favourite part was when she would make Ma sit at the foot of her bed and oil her beautiful, long, black hair that she never took care of and almost always tied up in a loose bun on her head. I would watch Ma close her eyes slowly and wrap her hands around her knees. In the end, she would hold Didu’s hands near her face, smell them for a long time and quietly whisper ,“Ma ma gondho”.The only other time I would see my mother this happy would be when Baba would quietly help her out with the dishes and take her out to the movies despite the scathing gaze of the others.

Didu and Ma would not talk a lot. Ma would never tell her about the terrible things that Jethu did or how much she missed talking to her father-in-law who was in coma. But Didu knew everything, didn’t she? Sometimes, they would sing songs from the movie Anand and reminisce about the warm afternoons spent in their old NTPC quarter in Shaktinagar.

After my paternal grandparents passed away, we shifted to the flat in South Kolkata. For the first time in years, Ma finally began finding a little time to read, chat and unwind. We would sit on the verandah with me at her feet. She would put oil in my hair and talk about all sorts of things. Sometimes she would read out Mahasweta Devi and Bibhutibhushan over mugs of steaming, ginger tea; sometimes, putting boroline around her cracked heels, she would tell me that she wanted to travel the world. One late afternoon, sitting in the light of the October sun, my mother was oiling my hair. Unable to suppress the pain of the tragic ending to my teenage love, I broke down. I remember Ma holding me to herself, the smell of boroline and jasmine consoling all the pain in my stupid broken heart.

I was in the middle of Lake Vembanad, on a trip with my friends when my mother called me up and told me that Didu had passed away. That night the smell of my mother overpowered my senses as I lay alone on the hotel bed thinking of how I had not seen Didu in the last two years. When I came back home, I found my mother unable to talk, eat or even look at me and Baba. This went on for a month or two. Then one day, after she had finished her work, I sat her down and warmed a little jasmine oil. As I stood oiling her hair, Ma started weeping — the only time that I ever saw her do so in my 21-year-old life. She wept like a child as Baba and I held her, she wept for Didu, for the unfortunate life Didu had had and who knows for what other million reasons the scent of jasmine and boroline had been witness to.

Every Sunday here, Prachi, my roommate, has taken up the responsibility of oiling my hair. She loves talking about her big, fat, happy family back in Alwar, her little nephew Avyan and her never-ending love for movies. On days that I sit and listen to the songs from Anand by myself, Prachi pitches in and tells me knowingly, “It’s your first time away from home. You’ll soon get used to it, don’t worry”. I go to bed with my hair oiled, sometimes chattering away with Ma on the phone, the smell of jasmine and boroline in my senses and with the hope that this new city will be home someday.

A single golf clap? Or a long standing ovation?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.