My Dida

by Rani Neutill

My Dida rarely wore a bra. Eight children suckling had stretched out her breasts, made them long. They hung down and dangled about, slapping up against her body. Each time they did, a tiny clap was heard. She was an ugly woman. Melasma splattered her skin—dark patches of melanin, a map of her misery. Her back was hunched, her body a fine arc, her head permanently looking down. She didn’t seem to care about her ugliness; she had grown into it, become comfortable with it, so much so that she grew uglier each year. The arc in her back became more defined. The spots that splattered her face got darker. It was as if this relief into ugliness made it expand and take over, a parasite like the parasitic nature of the eight children she birthed.

My Dida was an excellent cook, but she’d become fed up with cooking. As a girl, I recall her culinary expertise, making mutton biriyani with goat that came from the butcher across the street of our home in Kalighat, Calcutta. Cleanly sliced goat heads and hooves cluttered the sidewalk, their blood trickling down into inoperative sewers, their eyes still open, glaring upward at nothing.

My Dida hated the summer. Not just because of the unforgivable Calcutta heat, but also the rain. Summer meant monsoon season. When the rains descended, the gutters and sewers would break, refusing to accommodate the swell of water that came with sheets of rain that looked like layer upon layer of waterfall, thick and heavy, almost impenetrable. On our street, there were no trees or accompanying branches to break the fall of those sheets of rain. It would all come suddenly, unpredictably. Our block would flood. We were often stuck indoors. If we were out and it started to pour, we’d walk through filthy water, goat heads floating by, colorful garbage everywhere, specks of blue, red, and saffron from marigold garlands that were draped daily on Hindu gods. Monsoon season was the time for ilish mach, the tenderest fish in existence, small bones interrupting the buttery flesh. It’s an effort to get through those tiny sharp shards, to achieve the taste of soft goodness, silky fish meat, utter heaven. When I was younger, during these moments of rain-induced isolation, My Dida would cook sorshebata ilish mach, the smell of mustard oil traveling through her flat. The burn of green chilies searing through my nostrils. I’d devour all of it. Then we’d cuddle up on her bed, me the tiny spoon that fit nicely against her hunchback figure.

My Dida worshipped the gods when she was younger. Ganesh, Saraswati, but mostly Kali—black as night, her deep red tongue sticking out, her eight arms spread like wings around her, four on each side, a man’s severed head in one hand, her right foot on Shiva’s chest as he lay on the ground before her. Kali, the slayer of demons, an incarnation of Parvati. Parvati, the mother goddess, the gentle purveyor of domesticity, mother to Ganesh, Kartikeya, and Nandi. Kali, her complement, breaking from the domestic sphere, running wild, running violent. Kali, MA KALI, mother to us all. Her shrine, Kali Mundir, was around the corner from our goat-blood-sprinkled block. Hundreds of devotees from all over would line up each day to receive her blessing. Over the years, as my Dida began to eat less, cook less, she no longer visited Kali Mundir. She no longer bought garlands to grace the image of gods. She no longer believed in MA KALI. She no longer believed in anything.

My Dida did not volunteer to live her life. None of us did. She married my Dadu at age twelve, a child bride in an arranged marriage. He was ten years older than her. She birthed eight children. Breastfed them. Handfed them. Her body gave them sustenance with every moving inch of her skin. She birthed her first child at fourteen or fifteen. Her life was radically not her choice. “I would just lie there,” she would tell me, alluding to something she didn’t describe, but I knew. Even at thirteen, fourteen, fifteen—each growing year I understood her meaning more, until finally knowing became realizing, and realizing became horror, and horror became sadness.

My Dida became more sedentary as I grew older. She would lie on her back for hours, keeping silent, quiet in her stasis.

My Dida would tell me stories when I was younger, stories about Rajas and Ranis, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita, Ram and Sita, Hanuman and Ganesh. Kali and Parvati. To me, her mind was expansive, filled with tales and adventures. It was a resource, a story book. I played with it by asking her questions and imagining the characters in my mind. Dida, why does Kali stick her tongue out? Dida, why is Ganesh part elephant? When she became older, when quietness settled upon her, she asked me to find other things to occupy my time.

My Dida screamed, “Ami aar ranna korbo na, Deepa korbe!”5 from her bedroom as she lay on her bichana that looked like a hospital gurney, her body like a gunny sack, brown and rough like jute. She was seventy-eight years old. She was finally putting herself first.

My Dida used to cook my favorite dish: Muri Ghonto, fried fish heads with basmati rice, potatoes, and tomatoes, bright yellow from turmeric, the smell of ginger and garlic wafting through our flat; my tummy would ache with longing. My nose was tolerant, not sensitive. It welcomed the diversity of culinary aromas, the sour odor of fresh fish markets, the sharp intrusive smell of goat blood lining our city block, the eye-watering smell of raastar khabar. Food that permeated the hundred percent humidity of summers in Calcutta, breaking through that thick wall of heat.

My Dida hired Deepa the day she yelled, “Ami aar ranna korbo na, Deepa korbe” from her bedroom. Deepa came once a day to cook and to do our dishes. She’d make one pot of basmati rice, and if I was lucky, some aloo posto, a combination of potato, nigella seeds, ginger, and garlic paste combined with green or red chilies and the most important ingredient: white poppy seeds ground into a bumpy, milky paste. The taste, one of the subtlest in all of Bengali cuisine, the effects not as muted, something slumberous. The white seeds of bright red poppies, papaver somniferum: opium poppy. Such a history of violence in that brilliant vermillion flower. Vermillion, the color of sheedor, a powder worn in the part of a woman’s hair to indicate she was taken, married. A vermillion streak that during my lifetime never graced my Dida’s head. My Dadu left the family to become an ascetic monk. He died peacefully in a monastery in his sleep. He left my Dida to deal with the sweet and savory demands of her children who begged for macher jhol,7 shorshe bata ilish mach, and posto. Posto—its opium-laced paste was notorious for making you sleep. It helped lull the city into the afternoon siestas that Bengalis took, when the city would lie down on its side and breathe a sigh of relief, when cars would quiet down and millions of snores erupted from men with round and satisfied bellies—the afternoon soundtrack of the city.

My Dida no longer wanted to tell me stories. One day when I was ten, the entire block was flooded, the water thigh high. I begged my Dida to tell me tales of Rajas and Ranis, but she was asleep, her eyes closed, her mouth open, slow, soft snores, small bursts of air exiting her mouth. I went downstairs to play with my neighbor. Her maidservant had caught some baby mice. Hairless, pink and bruised, wrinkly baby mice with gray specks for eyes. They looked like inedible gummy bears full of gelatin but lacked attractive food coloring and artificial flavors, sugars needed for consumption. The maidservant decided we had to get rid of those chirping, squeaking, new to life baby mice, wriggling in her palm, getting used to the air around them, the big new world. She threw them out the window. I watched as one after the other swirled down to their death, their last breaths under dirty water. I cried.

My Dida told Deepa what to cook. Rice and usually some sort of torkari, a vegetable dish, not the typical Bengali abundance of dishes, fish complementing chicken curry and daal with at least a few types of torkari. Sometimes my Dida would instruct Deepa to make an additional dish, the customary musuri’r daal, but that would be it, our food for the day. Deepa would eat with us, sitting on the floor, devouring her own cooking. Her hands neatly wiping her plate, sucking her fingers, cleaning off juices from daal mixed with basmati rice. The only remaining food sat on one stainless steel plate—a small pile of lau’er torkari with bori and a smatter of rice. As a schoolgirl, I had to venture out of the culinary doldrums of home to satisfy my desire for flavor, for fullness. The taste and aroma of home, once so alive and active, filled with color; yellows from turmeric, reds from tomato, greens from spinach, browns from mutton and the dark meat of chicken, the food at home now beige and dull. Those colorful foods no longer crossed my Dida’s fingers or ran through her hands. No oily goat meat, no ilish mach pan fried with mustard oil—the steam of cooking would never gently graze her face again.

My Dida didn’t like to cook. I was a kid; I wanted savory, spicy, variety. I wanted food to be an adventure where my hands would travel from dish to dish. I wanted to be dizzy with choices. My stomach ached for the archive of her cuisine. I didn’t stop to consider what my Dida liked or didn’t like. After years of cooking for children, grandchildren, a husband, visitors, and relatives, she was finally ready to relinquish the responsibility. Bitterness laced her frame as she lay on her bed that looked like a hospital gurney, her body rough and brown like jute.

My Dida’s move away from food drove me away from home. When school was out, my friends and I would travel to the momo huts around town to eat dumplings, or we sought out raastar khabar, the best street food in the city—food that could make you sick for days—the sour spicy tastes of bhel puri and putchka, lathered the insides of your mouth, spreading across the muscular frame of your tongue, all worth the price. I devoured the delights of the streets of Calcutta, the dirty tamarind water that accompanied putchka, foods that made my mouth drip with saliva, gooey wetness collecting at the corners of my mouth in anticipation, foods that were so much more succulent than the stainless steel thali at home that housed the meager remains of Deepa’s cooking.

My Dida was disgusted with her surroundings and eventually; she chose to avoid them. Avoid me. Avoid anything that reminded her of the prison that had been and was her life. The walls around her, one prison, her body another, her arching, aching body unable to climb those three flights of stairs down to the outside world, a world that dwindled with possibilities each year she grew older.

My Dida died when I was thirty years old. She was ninety-three. At the end of her days, her body shriveled up—any fatty remains from her history of culinary mastery gone, any evidence of her fingers on food, her knife on meat and vegetables, vanished. One day, she took her tiny hunched frame to the toilet, her body buckled from her weak bones, her fatless frame. She fell and broke her hip. She starved herself into death. She got rid of the unappealing walls and diminishing world. She freed herself from the history that was her life.

My Dida lived her life as a series of acts for others—her husband, children, grandchildren, all of them tugging at her body, wanting it in all its sustenance; the instant and elusive gratification of her sex, the delectable and aromatic pleasures of her food, the milk from her breasts, the warm then rough touch of her motherly hands.

But in my words, my Dida comes first.