Elema would come home and sit on the swivelling blue chair in the kitchen. It was broken, so she’d lean forward to balance herself on it. She’d wear a pink top with blue skirt, and dispense Malayalam with a speed I never had. She’d tell Amma all these stories and laugh away. Amma would nod and listen, her hands dealing with the vessels in the sink with the same speed as Elema’s Malayalam. Occasionally she would call Elema’s name in a certain tone. The same tone she used with me if she was very disappointed with a choice I made or something I did. It made me wither inside, although I don’t know what exactly it did to Elema.
I was just very irritated that all these little aunts chose the kitchen over playing with me. I hated the kitchen. Amma said she hated cooking ever since she tried it. So I assumed I hated cooking too. Long ago, Amma had decided that a twenty-four on twenty-five in my third standard Math exam entitles me to the sole, lonesome job of ‘house-help’.
Therefore, she decided, I had better start practising if I planned to have such shameful grades. After the exam, pathram kazhukku, wiping the dining table and sweeping the floor would become my job. I just never understood why these aunts preferred such a loathsome place to simply playing with my sisters and me.
At least, Elema never enthusiastically helped with the work. Roshni aunty, on the other hand, cut ladies’ fingers into thin gooey stars and tomatoes into perfect cubes of 1 millimeter sides. After she left, Amma would tell me how Roshni and her sister, Meera were the best girls she ever knew. They came from Alappuzha to our home when they were in higher primary and helped with cooking, cleaning, washing, and every other ‘ing’ a girl must know. For every such recital of praise, I successively refused to perform dish duty. And studied harder.
Slowly I established my name in the family with good grades and smart brains. The moment I mentioned studies, Amma stopped nagging me about washing the vessels. I learnt that if you went to a relative’s home and insisted you wash your own plate, they would look at you with newfound respect. They would also assume you did all of this at home as well.
Added to good grades, they would file your name and character away for until you reached the age of twenty-three. Then whispers would float around during get-togethers and weddings, over the phone and in the living rooms of homes. Your name would graduate into the world of a good marriage. Filled with suffocating smiles of potential ‘good catholic’ boys.
I hoped I’d never have to stay in a relative’s home for more than a day. Because that’s about as far as my tolerance for washing vessels and cleaning tables went. I didn’t have to worry in Amma’s own home. In Karimannoor, there was Savichechy and Ramanichechy who refused to let even Amma wash anything. From boiling the rice over the aduppu to mixing the flavours of a burgundy coloured sambhar, it was their kingdom.
Mummy was the only one allowed to work along with them. Amma and her sisters would be allowed only if they wished to teach a new kind of Pork curry or a new kind of Biriyani. To let them know of my appreciation, I’d take my food from the dining table and go into the kitchen. I’d wait until they piled their steel plates with a tiny mountain of rice that had a yellow river of Morukaachidu and then sit on one of the koranddi’s to eat with them.
They’d smile at me and ask about life in Bangalore. Some days, Ramanichechy would promise to take me to the cowshed and teach me to milk the cows. And Savichechy would promise to let me pour out the Dosa batter and teach me to make crispy Nai-Roast. And the next day, as the batter fell into a sizzling circle on the pan, I learnt to love cooking. Secretly.
I don’t remember Cheriamma in our kitchen. I remember only a little bit of Johns and a lot of Ricku in our kitchen. It was probably because, ever since Cheriyachan died, Cheriamma didn’t like staying far away from her own home. She sent John and Johns to stay with us in Bangalore. In Trivandrum, where they stayed, I disliked the kitchen. The first time I was there, Johns popped into the kitchen and warned me, “You better wear your slippers into the kitchen, or you’ll catch AIDS.” Because it was always wet with spots of water puddles and bits of food.
Unlike at home, Cheriamma wasn’t the sole resident of their kitchen. Ammachi, their grandma cooked her own special food. Maids with names like Sulu or Jacqueline came to cook food and clean up the place. Cheriamma worked as a High School teacher in a government School. She went to work after dropping off Johns and Ricku and returned only after they reached home.
Cheriamma was the best cook among the three sisters. Amma said she even made puffs in their Karimannoor home before they were married. I knew that she was better because once Amma cooked Mutton from the goat they’d killed in Karimannoor and I didn’t touch the curry as usual. But Johns did. His face scrunched in horror. I knew Amma’s mutton always tasted like raw meat and smelly blood in brown curry, but he didn’t. He complained to Cheriamma.
“Ugh. Amma the mutton is one dirty curry. I won’t eat it unless you do something about it. Please okay?”
Cheriamma appeared to be distressed at how much fuss her son was making about her sister’s cooking. But I was secretly glad because Johns only said something we weren’t allowed to say. That day, Cheriamma added many little things into the curry. Since then, Cheriamma’s is the only Mutton curry I ever eat.
During my last visit there, I learnt many other things in Cheriamma’s kitchen. I learnt to bear the slow ache building up my back as I washed the vessels at the low and too-far-away-from-the-slab sink. Amma always said, the sink in every house is made according to the height of the woman of the home. Cheriamma was a foot shorter than I was, like all adorable aunts.
She taught me to make lemon tea and fish fry even as she complained about Ammachi, who’d always be chatting away with the guests, without bothering to help in the kitchen. One day, as I cut tomatoes, Cheriamma told me that the most important thing for a girl was to have her own job. She said that’s what kept her going, even after her husband’s death.
This time Johns didn’t bother to mention the AIDS disclaimer. He didn’t even tell me to leave the clothes to fold and vessels to wash for his mother. Because that was supposed to be her job. Nobody else’s.
One day as I searched for the sugar tin in Cheriamma’s kitchen, I opened a cupboard to find it full of clothes. Cheriamma’s clothes.
“Why Cheriamma?” I asked her.
“That Ammachi doesn’t let me use the bedroom cupboards,” she said. “So I keep my home clothes here.”
“Oh.” At least Amma has all the rooms of our home to herself.
One day, I was heating up cabbage in the wok. Amma usually did it in the microwave. Here Ammachi won’t allow one. She thinks the microwave will kill her faster.
“Oh Lynn, let me go and get some Pineapples for evening tea,” Cheriamma said.
“But we already have the Banana Boli,” I said.
“No, Ammachi doesn’t like fried items,” Cheriamma said.
“But you just came back home from work.”
“It’s okay mole, I’ll go in the scooty,” she said.
“No Cheriamma, I’ll tell D’chacha to get them.”
I went out to tell D’chacha to buy the Pineapples.
Cheriamma’s weary, beautiful face was in my mind. I think I know why Elema and Roshni aunty chose the kitchen over us. But only now. Only now does it come to me. Never when my sisters and I would gladly pull out old shawls from the shelves and old saris from the cupboards. Not even when we’d salvage old vessels from the kitchen corners and old shoes with heels from the shoebox to play Aunty-Aunty – with the upstairs bedroom as the kitchen.
Even then, our husbands were strangely just names. John, George and Jacob, married to Gini, Mini and Sini. Never physical presences.