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‘Kannagi! Stop hiding behind the window and peeping out at the street. What will people think?’

That was Mother calling from her kitchen. She cared what people thought, lived for people and for their approval.

‘I’m waiting for Kovalan.’

‘You’re spending too much time with that boy. Father already had words with me.’

Mother was the one spending too much time in the kitchen; not to cook, but to harass the poor servants.

‘Are we not promised in marriage?’

‘Stop being vulgar, and remember, too much honey will bring forth the sour.’

What was she prattling about? I ate honey day and night, and it did not turn sour. But I chose not to pursue the matter. Instead, I ventured into her area of expertise—cooking.

‘What’s for lunch?’

‘All six tastes,’ said Mother from somewhere in the deep kitchen.

I heard her instructing the harried cooks. Mother enjoyed ruling her kitchen: a vast square with a row of wood-fired stoves lined one wall, high shelves stacked with silver pots and pans against another wall, and a dozen earthen-ware barrels of water along a third wall. The cooks and their assistants sat on the floor where they cut and shredded vegetables, and ground spices—thudding pestle in mortars, and grating rolling stones over granite slabs. The smells that wafted out of the kitchen and filled the house alternated from fragrant to sharp, depending on the spice and sting of the chilli.

‘Whose birthday is it?’ I called out.

‘Birthday? Don’t remind me of birthdays, silly.’

Mother was the silly one in the family. Chinnamma said by ignoring her birthdays, Mother hoped to remain young.

‘I’ll tell Father you called me silly.’

‘Go ahead, I am unafraid,’ shouted back Mother. ‘And come and help me.’

‘Yes, you are afraid of Father. What’s more, you’ve more servants than the king has soldiers. What do you need with me?’

‘Stop being an impudent gabby and come here and taste the dessert.’

‘What’s for dessert?’ I called back, my eyes remaining on the street.

Payasam,’ she said, ‘and tell me whether the sweetness and texture is right.’

Mother thought she was clever, poor woman, trying to bribe me with the sweet porridge dessert.

‘Your payasam is the best in all of Puhar, Mother, always.’

‘Really, you think so?’

That was Mother, easy to bait. She also spent hours preening before the mirror—poor mirror. And when she prayed, she made sure people saw. Her prayers were complete only with an audience.

‘Do you really think my payasam is the best?’ And she always required affirmation.

Mother did not know I had seen Kovalan approaching the house. And I was already tip-toeing to the door. I heard her calling.

‘Kannagi! Kannagi! You think so?’

Poor Mother. I left her seeking affirmation from an empty living room.

Copyright @ Eric Alagan, 2018

Continued on Friday: Father’s fierce Love