My Mother Always Said
I know that my most visceral inherited memory,
of my mother will be her tongue’s palate -
a small steel plate marinated with mustard
and poppy seed bodas, never enough kacha lonka,
that my eyes will weep intolerably against,
the zing of the mustard staying in my nose,
long after her leaving.
I can devour a plate full of rice
with neem paata and begoon alone,
my hands unconsciously mulling more neem
than begun interspersed with hungry clumps of rice;
forming sticky patterns of undivided East Bengal
around the divisions of my fingers.
She leaves the last piece of ilish for me,
sometimes just the fish’s tail -
“ilish’er gondhe gondhe khe nebi tui bhaablam,
“I thought you’d finish the rice just from the smell of ilish,
like a cat” she said to me day before.
My mother always said,
as a child I had no trouble,
separating fish bones inside my mouth,
and handing them over to Maa like a lady.
It is only once I grew up that I started having troubles,
separating the thorns from the flesh.
I will always wonder if she merely spoke of food,
or left me a prophecy from a mother’s heart,
desperate for her daughter to separate the thorns
from the flesh of experiences her mother wouldn’t
be around to heal with a lump of white rice,
gulped quickly down one’s throat.
In the calendar of our home, days are marked by the sounds of
sweaty pressure cookers gaining weight from the rice, and of
utensils clinking in one of the floors at nearly all hours –
sometimes they clink in Jethi’s dreams to interrupt
the six hours of silence our home snores to every 18 hours.
In the calendar of our home, days are marked by sounds,
sharp smells of shutki and commercial tobacco,
copies of War and Peace and Tinkle – both read multiple times,
spills of colour(ed walls, and impressions of water seeping through them),
and drying bed sheets that our mothers have had to pin down,
after the infamous incident of the en masse exodus of nine bed sheets to the sky in 1999.
Today is marked by Maa’s florescent green taant saree -
the one that used to mark crisp yellow Saptami afternoons,
the one that wrapped around and made the waist and arms of my youth,
feel younger than any condiment of girlhood ever could.
The more I mark the calendar of our home, I keep finding the women of my home,
who take me back and forth between neat cursive lists of ration in 1996,
needles stuck in the middle of a half done mustard pillow for a newborn’s head,
their books marked by nocturnal hours instead, the youth they let us borrow from them, their sarees, their time.
In the calendar of my home, I find women marking days,
yet again, once again, more to remember us than themselves.
Nilanjana Bhattacharjee is a Gender & Development practitioner who brings together storytelling, ethnography, and photography, working with lived experiences. Based in Delhi, her textual and visual documentation work revolves around gendered identity politics, the roots and everyday realities of her 12-membered Bengali family, urban spaces and how they are (culturally) made. Bhattacharjee will someday become a full-time storyteller, but for now she hunts for stories through her work and play, narrating them through poetry, prose and photographs.