CREATIVE FICTION : A Circle of Fire by Pavithra Radhakrishnan
Feb 15, 2020
Mohan gave his packed suitcase a final once over, checking off its contents against the list his daughter-in-law had sent over Whatsapp - podis, pickles and varieties of snacks, all triple packed and sealed for freshness. Zippering it shut, he wheeled it to the living room, to be weighed and adjusted to stick to the airline limitations.
Sumathi, his wife, was clearing out the pantry, keeping aside packets of dry goods that were prone to infestation, to be handed over to her neighbor. She noted with a hint of pride how her meticulous grocery planning had accounted for the very last meal up to their departure and ensured there were minimal left-overs. After all, she was a seasoned Visiting Indian Parent, having been at this VIP gig for nearly eight years now. Every year, they would leave Chennai around March, headed to either California, where their son’s family lived, or to Virginia, which was home to their daughter’s family to spend a few months with each of them, returning to Chennai in October, just as the temperatures in the US started to fall too low for Sumathi’s arthritic knees’ liking. The timelines suited them, since it gave them long, lazy summers with their grandchildren and brought them back to Chennai in its most agreeable weather, well in time to enjoy its inimitable Margazhi spirit. Moreover, it enabled Mohan to perform the annual rites for his deceased parents in a timely manner at his home in Chennai, something that he was very particular about.
This year was the tenth anniversary of Mohan’s mother’s passing and they had performed the shrardha, the annual rites, just four days before. A faint trace of the smell of smoke from the homam*, still hung in the air, Mohan observed, as he weighed the suitcases. It was a smell that he always associated with his mother, Parvathi Amma. It was a smell that instantly transported him to the large, yet dingy taavaaram of his ancestral home in Lalgudi, with an array of mann* and kummiti* adupppus ( old-fashioned mud and cast iron stoves respectively) lined against its soot covered walls. A pile of firewood would be stacked against another wall, with a sackful of coir and other combustibles next to it. This was the space Parvathi had stepped into with trepidation as a demure sixteen year old bride, and reigned, for the next six decades. This was the space that featured in every memory that Mohan had of his mother, olfactory or otherwise.
As children, he and his siblings would stay up at bedtime every night, waiting for her to wind up her never-ending kitchen chores, and she would regale them with stories, till they drifted off to sleep, their faces buried in the soft folds of her well-washed Devendra saree that smelt of the dying embers in her hearth.
The times with Parvathi that Mohan held closest to his heart were when he was in his late teens. Marriage and jobs had taken his siblings to various parts of India, while Mohan was still attending college from home. His father had just retired after completing a highly distinguished career as the District Judge of Tiruchirapalli and had procured a new black and white television to enjoy their retirement. In addition to the melodramatic Tamil serials that she and her peers now had access and were hooked to, Parvathi found an unexpected interest in cricket, which soon matched the passion that father and son had for the game, and cricket matches, especially when India was playing, were almost sacred events at home. Mohan would spend a good hour in the kitchen in the evenings after returning from college, discussing the latest in agraharam gossip, cricket and politics. He learnt from her how the firewood logs needed to be prodded deftly to stoke the fire, and how different utensils had to be used depending on the dishes being cooked - eeya chombu for rasam, the iron vaanali made the best ladies finger roast, vengala paanai for that perfect arisi upma. Though all this amazed the science student in him, he also realized what an incredible amount of physical work it took to maintain that kitchen. When it was time for him to leave to Chennai for his first job, he insisted that she make a few basic upgrades, and bring in at least an LPG gas stove and a mixie/ grinder to ease her drudgery, but she rubbished his suggestions declaring that she was fit enough to make idli batter for an entire village with the aatukkal, her trusty grinding stone.
After Mohan got married a few years later, the whole family fell into a routine of making bi-yearly visits to Lalgudi - the children, their spouses and the now steadily growing brood of grandchildren. While Parvati half-heartedly relinquished control over the kitchen, allowing Sumathi and the other younger ladies to take over, even relenting to the entry of a gas stove and a mixie, she insisted on spending every afternoon in her beloved taavaaram, in front of huge woks of coconut oil, churning out tins and tins of varuvals, chips, made of plantains, raw bananas, potatoes, and a variety of other savories for her grandchildren. Vacations, to the kids, meant Parvati Paati’s snacks, thatha’s stories and unlimited play time with their cousins and cronies and they devoured and relished them all in equal measure.
With every passing year, it did not escape Mohan’s attention how his parents seemed just a wee bit more frail, with noticeably increased measures of forgetfulness, grey hair and exhaustion; yet when that fateful call came in August 2005, Mohan was in complete denial. His father had gone to bed like any other day, suffered a massive cardiac arrest and passed away in his sleep. Even as Mohan was struggling to come to terms with his loss, he was even more fazed by his mother’s dogged refusal to leave Lalgudi despite his entreaties to move in with his family in Chennai.
In a bid to make her days purposeful, Parvati Amma had now dedicated herself to cooking for an annadaana koodam, where meals were served as charity for the needy, but despite her outward resilience, Mohan could see that she never quite recovered from the loss of her husband. Her body did not take kindly to the long hours spent in constant exposure to the smoke from the firewood stoves, but Parvathi Amma was relentless. Eventually, she suffered a deadly tuberculosis infection, and in her characteristic adamance, told her children that time had come for her to go, and she wanted her end to be in her home and not on a hospital bed.
Much as he tried to accept her end gracefully, Mohan could not help rueing his mother’s rigid attitude as he was performing her final rites and watching the agni take her mortal remains. If she had allowed herself some modern conveniences, if she had ventured outside of Lalgudi to gain some fresh experiences and get a glimpse of the very different lives her children enjoyed (why, his own son had just bought a home in California and had, in all earnestness expressed desire to make his favorite paati travel to A-mae-rikka, as she put it), and if only she had spared her body of the constant companionship of smoke and ash, maybe, just maybe, the tuberculosis would not have come knocking after all...
Aug 18, 2020
Mohan stirred in his sleep, and caught the orange hues of dawn streaming delicately through the windows. Like most mornings in the last few months, Mohan again awoke with wishful optimism that the very strange dream from last night would end, and he could finally find comfort in the fact that it had all been a dream. But as his languor passed, the familiar feeling of resignation struck - there was no getting away from this "dream".
It had all started five months ago as a faint murmur when he and Sumathi were at the Chennai airport, waiting to board their flight to London, the first leg of their journey to California. Mohan struck up a conversation with a fellow traveler, a young chap who, amidst the various topics of their small talk mentioned that some new viral attack had broken out in several parts of the world and possibly reached Kerala too. "Oh last year it was that Nippah or Neepah, that virus, now the next one has started! All sorts of diseases somehow make their way to Kerala!", interjected Sumathi dryly, before they moved on to other things.
But things escalated beyond their wildest imagination within a couple of weeks of their arrival in California. The murmur grew into a rumble and soon became a thundering explosion that deafened the whole world. Even before the world could digest the horrors of Italy reeling under the impact of Covid-19, New York and California were threatening to catch up at an alarming pace. Soon, even his three year old granddaughter, Mythri would emphatically declare - "Thatha! No shtoller buh-bye today. It's co-do-na time. Appa asked us to lock the house and stay indoors, otherwise bad guys will come in". Manav, her seven year old brother would rush to correct her with barely concealed annoyance - "We don't have to "lock" the house Mythu. It's just a "lockdown" - you can't go out because if the virus touches you, you'll fall sick. And then all of us will fall sick, and if thatha-paati catch the virus from us, it's very very dangerous for them."
Mohan's head spun; it seemed like they had it all figured out that with that crystal clear understanding that only children seem to possess. As for him, he was still trying to process the bevy of restrictions that his son and daughter-in-law issued in quick succession. In short, given their existing preconditions of diabetes and high blood pressure, they would have to live in a bubble, and the whole family would go to ridiculous lengths to keep this bubble pristine. Mohan and Sumathi tried to take things in their stride and count their blessings for being close to family in these times, but it was hard to keep the anxiety at bay. Things back home in India were taking a turn for the worse too and as the months passed, the number of people in their close circles falling prey to Covid-19 made them despondent. Days blurred into weeks and even as they were watching passively from their bubble, five months had rolled past.
But today was going to be a tad better. He could smell coffee in the air already; "did it smell a wee bit different?", wondered Mohan, unable to quite place it. In any case, that meant Sumathi was already up and had the decoction going; they could have their coffee and then step out on a short walk. It had taken a fair bit of persuasion, but his son had finally given in last evening and agreed that it would be okay for Mohan and Sumathi to step out for short walks. Only within the community, of course. Only with masks, of course. No stopping to chit chat with other walkers, of course. Just the thought of this simple freedom made Mohan feel infinitely better.
He walked into the huge living room that had huge French windows that opened up to the back yard and did a double take. The deep hues of orange in the sky appeared unnatural, menacing almost.
"Fires", spat his son, coming up from behind. "The wildfires are progressing rapidly and we have been advised to be on standby for evacuation orders. We are instructed not to step out because of the bad air quality."
Mohan felt numb. He slowly walked up to the huge windows. Fires, smoke and ashes outside, and him in a fortress, untouched by them. The vague smell he had sensed earlier came back to him with an astonishing force. The decade that had passed, the few thousand miles he had travelled and a lifetime of colorful experiences that he had amassed - all seemed to fade into oblivion as he found himself overcome by deja vu. ***
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