It was my first week in Guwahati. Lack of opportunities in my hometown had prompted me and Bapi to make an arduous overnight journey, past the emerald hills and misty lakes of Meghalaya, to the city where the raging Brahmaputra and Lady Kamakhya reigned supreme.
The college admission was swift and uninvolved, the roadblock though was that the campus hostel had no rooms to offer. No vacancies whatsoever. The only alternative, a bored clerk, fanning himself with a rolled-up newspaper, stark disinterest stamped on his face, advised us, was to seek accommodation in studio apartments a couple of minutes of walk from the campus. There are loads of them, he consoled us with a sly grin, I can put you across to brokers if you need help.
So here was I, still a couple of months shy of my sixteenth birthday, in an alien city. In my spartan still-reeking-of-fresh-paint refuge, a bed, a sun-blessed corner that served as the makeshift kitchen and a wash.
Missing Grandma and her indulgent pampering.
Maa and her love.
Bapi and his spoiling me silly.
Back to the doorbell.
I tiptoed to the door. Peeped through the window by the door. Just as Bapi had prescribed before he took the onerous trek back home.
There was she. A beautiful lady. Middle-aged. In a crisp cotton saree. A vermilion bindi resting on her forehead.
I came to say hello to you.
I smiled. Shy. Wary. Craning my neck out of the half-opened door.
I saw you move in last week. Did you join the college?
She sensed my diffidence.
You must be missing home. Aren’t you?
I did not answer.
I live just across the street. That house, she pointed. Why don’t you come home some time ?
I nodded. A half-hearted nod.
A month or so passed.
No more visits. But we would run into each other every other day.
Me rushing to class after waking up late. Aunty returning from the local market. Or waiting for her son to return home from school.
First just a cursory smile.
Then a perfunctory hello.
Graduated over weeks to casual conversations.
You don’t seem to be eating well.
It might pour this afternoon. Did you remember your umbrella?
Exams have started? I see your light on till very late nowadays.
One Sunday morning, she came home again.
I have just got home the first Hilsa of the season. I am cooking a besara.
You are having lunch with us. I am not taking no as an answer.
OK, I submitted.
The first visit broke the ice.
Aunty was an accomplished Odisi dancer. She loved her dance. Her books. Her starched cottons. Her Jagannath Deb. Uncle was an anthropologist that needed him to work with indigenous tribes in far-flung corners of India. Originally from Odisha, (and Aunty could never stop ruminating about her gorgeous growing up years in Cuttack) she had travelled across the country and was full of stories of her experiences in the wilderness.
Lovely innocent people. She would reflect at times. It’s such a shame nearly five decades post independence, we have not been able to uplift their lives.
Aunty spoilt me silly with her unconditional love.
She taught me how to drape the saree.
The differences between Sambalpuri and Bomkai weaves.
The earthy appeal of the dalma and santula.
The magic of the besara.
The indulgence of the chhena poda.
The graceful fluidity of Odisi moves. (Such a pleasure it was, watching her rehearse her dance steps. Often cursing myself for not having volunteered to pick up Manipuri that Grandma was so keen on ).
Aunty before long was my agony aunt when I was in distress.
My sounding board when I desperately needed advice.
Accept people as they are. She would counsel me often. Try to see it from their perspective. Most misunderstandings happen because we stubbornly refuse to do so.
Two years flew by.
And as the wise men say, all good things come to an end.
One afternoon. Late autumn.
I stop by Auntys place on the way back from classes.
She looks solemn.
Is everything fine ? I query, nervous.
Your uncle has been invited by the University of New South Wales. She almost whispers.
I can guess whats going to come.
I turn ashen.
We shall be leaving soon for the Polynesian Islands.
Two days before they leave Guwahati, the sudden cacophony of the doorbell startles me again.
Today’s Prathamashtami. A day to seek blessings for ones eldest kid. I made Enduri Pitha for my son and you. As we do in Odisha.
I am too touched to respond.
She leaves without a word.
I stand still for minutes. Clutching on to the steel tiffin box with Auntys Enduri Pitha.
That’s the beginning of my romance with Enduri Pitha. Fragrant rice. The perfume of crushed black pepper. A delectable jaggery coconut filling. Wrapped in turmeric leaves. And steamed.
That lingering fragrance of turmeric leaves. Divine.
This post is a tribute to Aunty and all those languorous summer afternoons I spent with her. Under the ancient mango tree in her backyard. Talking of Odisha. Of socialism and class divides. Of her rosy-eyed dreams of a bright future for those who did not exist for the ruling elite.
When I decided to do a run on Pithas, I knew I had to showcase the Enduri Pitha. And write about the guardian angel who miraculously appeared in my life at a time when I needed a friend and a philosopher the most.