Was your homeland more beautiful than this? A curious eight year old me asks Grandma one autumn afternoon, proudly holding up a crayon sketch.
Grandma is on her rocking chair, her leather-bound Ramayana on her lap, I sit on the red oxide floor of the daalaan that separates our living quarters from the backyard, a motley of colour pencils, sharpener trimmings and crayons littered around me.
It was even more beautiful, Grandma responds, a twinkle in her eye.
Then why did you leave your homeland ? I enquire, still focussed on further embellishing my sketch.
There is radio slience.
Then why did you leave your homeland ? I reiterate impatiently, looking up, a decibel or two louder than before.
The cloud that almost instantaneously eclipses the sublime smile on Grandma’s countenance makes even the-far-from-grown-up-me perceive at once I have trespassed into a disputed zone that I should not have had.
Grandma does not respond, instead rises from her rocking chair, walks to her room and silently closes the door behind her.
Very un-Grandma-sque, I make a note to myself.
But the brain of a nine year old is not yet wired to handle complexity, so chooses to ignore the event.
Afternoon melts into evening.
The heavens paint themselves a riot of frenzied reds, the gaggle of geese return home, conches blow in the neighbourhood and when Grandma skips her customary evening tea, I know something is amiss.
Maa why’s Grandma so forlorn ? A perplexed me finally asks Maa, desperately seeking an explanation.
You must have been naughty, Maa answers casually, immersed in her novel.
No Maa I promise, I assert, I was painting with my crayons.
She didn’t even have her tea, I added as an afterthought.
Is she unwell ? Maa asks me, rushing out of the room to check on Grandma.
Bapi returns from the hospital.
Maa has a conversation with him in hushed tones.
Bapi hurries to Grandma’s room.
You are my princess, aren’t you ? Bapi tells me once things have thankfully reverted to normal.
There are some questions that make Grandma very sad. I am sure my princess doesn’t want to see her Grandma sulking.
Of course I don’t, I insist, tears rolling down my eyes.
But I did not ask any question Bapi, I hardly find my words.
Don’t ask Grandma about Partition, Bapi calmly counsels, wiping my tears with his handkerchief.
What is Partition, quizzes an innocent me.
You shall learn when you grow up, for now, never ask Grandma why she left her homeland.
I shall never do that, I promise, I submit sobbing unstoppably now.
That evening Bapi requests Maa to cook her Mutton Tehari for him and conversations flow into late evening.
Bapi’s growing up in Sylhet. His medical school in Dhaka, his friends and Chachi’s celebratory Mutton Tehari on special occasions.
(Bapi’s ploy, I would conclude a good decade later, to explicitly emphasize only happy memories in front of Grandma)
Years later I would be confronted with the brutal ravages of partition that the family braved and how life was too traumatized to ever be the same again.
Grandma had never really recovered, that sublime smile cleverly concealed a deep anguish that manifested on rare occasions as these and she lived in optimistic hope that the day would arrive when she would return to the land of her forefathers.
Mutton Tehari. A symphony of indigenous rice and Mutton. A melange of fragrant spices. A generous glug of mustard oil. And a throw of fiery green chillies.
This is not biryani. This is tehari.
Food heaven !!!