The Women I Am From

My grandmother’s hands were always moving. Quick, busy, preoccupied, and never stopping to rest. When I think about her now, in all of the memories of her that I have since safely stored away for when I’ll need to pull them out again, I can’t remember her ever not working.

The women in my family are creators: architects of food and families alike. Women whom you’d see if you drove past their little apartments on the flyovers of the city I still sometimes whisper to myself as my real home.

I have seen them — both made of a cocktail that is one part daughter, one part mother, and one part someone I haven’t quite met yet, shaken up and served to whomever might want to sit at the bar that night and decide to take a sip — quietly disappear into their studios and sanctuaries and begin to create.

You wake up to the sound of her peeling potatoes. No chopping board, no peeler, slicer, dicer — she holds the root in the palm of her left hand and slides the knife down the body of the vegetable rhythmically, meditatively.

The swish slip swish slip swish slip sound of her first peeling a strip of skin off, and then the sound of it landing in the steel plate balance on her lap in front of her. She is preparing for a lunch of okra and roti, which you’ll eat a few hours later while sitting on the jula that swings back and forth in the middle of the living room.

The sound of her bare feet on the cool marble floor in the middle of summer, as she gets up from her chair and takes a plate of potato peels back into the kitchen.

She returns with a plate of mangoes. Her hands massage them, pushing the pulp back and forth under the citrus’s skin, coaxing the sweetness out of a fruit that can be harsh and bitter if you don’t speak kindly to it. You listen to the sound of her slicing the top of the mango off of the rest of its body, the noise that you’ll recognize as her pushing the pulp out of the fruit into a stainless steel bowl, the plimp that the mango seed will make as it lands in the middle of the bowl.

Keep your eyes closed. Pretend that you’re still fast asleep: this what you’ll want to remember when she can’t peel potatoes any more.

It pounds down on the city like a weight of a ghost you once knew. The rains are unforgiving, earning them a name that distinguishes them from any other weather pattern that one might mistake them for: monsoon. When the heavens empty themselves down upon us, life stops. There is no getting to where you were going, no rescheduling, no planning around it. When the rains come, they don’t let you forget it. Or let you escape it.

In those summer months when my sister and I would come to Mumbai to see our cousins and aunts whose names we would forget by the next trip, we’d pull ourselves up on the window sills and watch as the thick, waxy leaves of the lemon and banana trees that surrounded the apartment building would slowly turn over, as if hiding their faces was the only way to seek shelter from the impending storm.

The sky would become dark, the birds would stop singing. And then, without warning, the rain would start. Not even a few large drops to ease you into it — it would drop upon us, all at once, the way that I would dump the remaining water from the bucket on the top of my head whenever I’d finish taking my bath.

My grandmother would rush out of whatever room she was in, and hurriedly tell us to pull all of the clothes that were hung up to dry on the black metal grate of the window. It was her futile attempt to keep the already-damp shirts and salwars from becoming fully soaked. I’d watch as she would take the large wooden stick leaning against the wall of the entryway and hang all the laundry up on a clothesline that stretched from one room of the apartment to another.

With her wrinkled hands, she had brought the outside in.

It was June when her hands finally stopped moving. The monsoons were thick in the air, and if you tipped your head back and closed your eyes and stuck your tongue out, you could taste them in the wind before the raindrops had even fallen from the skies.

But before the first storm, they sent out for a washerman to wash, fold, and dry the laundry. They told me that my grandmother lay there in the bed, her head turned to one side, looking up to the window as though she wanted to reach out with her hands and climb out. Her brain had betrayed her body and, she couldn’t walk, much less speak out to tell them the rains are coming, prepare yourselves!

And on the other side of the window grill, the leaves of the banana trees hung their heads in shame.

You sleep with the windows open in this new tiny apartment you have made your own. The ajwain plant, the tulsi, the basil all sit patiently in your window, reminding you of the smell of your grandmother’s kitchen after she had finished making lunch and had already begun to peel ginger for the afternoon chai — and yet somehow, the smell of the spices would refuse to leave the room, wanting instead to embrace her and nest themselves into the nooks and crannies of the room.

That night, the rain splatters agains the window screen and soaks the clothes that hang on the drying rack on the floor. And you are dreaming, wishing that when you wake up in the morning to a dewdrop morning to the sound of the woman you are from and the sound of her peeling mangoes beside you.

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