Content Warning: This story contains depictions of violence, depression, and suicidal intentions.
It’s taken me too many years to realize that humming in the kitchen isn’t a good idea, especially when Ma is cooking right next to me. I’ll be absent-mindedly doing the dishes, a sweet Karnatic melody quietly making its way through my lips, when Ma shakes her head in frustration.
“Why can’t you sing louder so I can hear you?” she says, disappointment evident in her tone. “God gave you such a beautiful voice and I went through so much trouble trying to find the right vocal teachers for you here in America, and you can’t even sing for your mother in the kitchen?”
She usually continues mumbling to herself for a couple of minutes about how sad it is that we’re wasting such a talent, but by then, I stop humming altogether. I know I should sing louder, but for some reason, I can’t get myself to. I should be able to, at least for my mother, right? Truth is, Ma loves singing classical Karnatic music. She can’t really sing, but she always wanted to learn as a kid. My grandmother just never let her. So, when I was around three and half years old and could speak fluently, she signed my sister and me up for classical vocal lessons and we’ve been learning since then. I love singing Karnatic music, don’t get me wrong, but it’s never been something I willingly wanted to try on my own. Ma used to make us practice singing everyday together, but over time, when she realized that I was more interested in the violin and my sister was more interested in playing the Veena, she stopped asking. But once in a while, like today, she’ll bring up how we ruined her dreams of us becoming professional classical singers.
I start doing the dishes faster, hoping I can finish and start my homework before she brings up another flaw to correct. But before I can put the last bowl away, she calls me over to the stove to watch her cook the chicken curry.
“Your sister made the mistake of not learning how to cook before college, and look how much she’s struggling now. Don’t make the same mistake. Watch how I stir the gravy without letting the masala stick to the edges.”
I watch quietly, pretending to be attentive but only noticing how my own stomach stirs with anticipation to leave the kitchen. I know she’s in a bad mood today—most likely a result of me not cleaning the kitchen and doing the dishes before she came home from work. Her presence is a powerful force in our house. If she’s upset, the house becomes a few shades darker, and if she’s in a good mood, it seems warm and welcoming. Nobody else in the family has that kind of power. If my dad or sister were upset, the day would go on casually with only a few less laughs to share. As long as Ma is happily watching her shows as she cooks up her favorite dishes, the day goes on with ease and comfort. But I couldn’t help but notice the continuous darkness these past couple of weeks. It’s almost as if there’s some kind of gravity that’s been pulling down on everyone’s moods recently. The only person that seems moderately happy is my sister, who lives her college life in Chicago and away from this gloomy atmosphere.
She knows what’s been going on in the house. She knows about the fight my parents had a week ago and how my dad sleeps in the basement to be away from Ma. She knows that the house has been in silence, with the occasional door slams and sobbing that breaks the quietness in the middle of the night. But she doesn’t know that the fight ended with me prying Ma away from breaking my dad’s neck. Or me yelling at him when he threw his suitcase into the van, blood still trickling down the side of his face. I try and keep the unnecessary details like that out of the picture so she doesn’t have even more to worry about than her studies. Besides, she’s had to deal with those situations for 14 years already while I was too young to comprehend what was going on. She needs a break from it.
For the longest time, I didn’t know that fights like these were uncommon in white households. I didn’t know that violence wasn’t a regular way of solving problems between married couples. My sister and I had grown up with it. It was the norm. My sister used to tell me stories about how, as an 8-year-old child, she got on her knees and begged my parents to stay together. She used to walk me back into our apartment bedroom when we’d see scenes unfold in front of us with my mother on the floor screaming at us to call 911 as my dad pinned her down with a fist full of her hair. I don’t remember how she coped with the situations or what she did to prevent them, but I remember how after a while, both of us didn’t seem as affected by it anymore. When it happened, the house would be quiet for a couple of days and then things would go back to normal. My parents would go back to “loving” each other and we’d have lunch together at the table as a family again. Ma told us all the time that every family has problems like this, and that problems inside the family should stay inside the family. My dad used to tell us that all Indian families handle situations like this, so we shouldn’t bother mentioning it to anyone. My sister and I, experiencing nothing but what our parents let us experience, didn’t question it. We blindly went with it. After all, how could two little girls know that the meat tastes bad when all they’ve been eating their entire lives is bad meat.
I grabbed the finely chopped onions on the table and poured it into the curry as Ma opened the spice cabinet.
“Kanna, take a half spoon of Kaaram podi and a quarter spoon of Dhaniyal podi and mix it into the kurra.” I did as she asked, measuring the spoon carefully to make sure I didn’t end up making the curry too spicy. She chuckled quietly as she watched me struggle with the spoon.
“You don’t have to be so exact about the measurements,” she said with a soft smile. “The more you cook, the easier it will be for you to guess approximately how much you’ll need.”
I watched in awe as she scooped a spoon of podi and dropped it in the kurra with complete ease and grace. Cooking is a natural talent for her. I mean, I guess it has to be since she has had so much experience with it, being married off at 19 and having to cook for a family in an unknown country by the age of 21. I still wonder how she did it: coming alone with a baby on her waist to a country she had only heard stories about. She had to have been so strong and put-together at the time. And she still is. She doesn’t confide in us about anything and faces all her problems head-on. My sister and I used to joke around all the time about how she’s a tiger-mama that doesn’t deal with anyone’s shit.
I guess that’s why it scares me even more when she loses her calm at times. Seeing her now—with her hair pulled back neatly and dressed in her traditional chudidhar—and comparing her to the moments when she’s in her room, eyes wide and crazy with her hair sprawled everywhere, screaming until her throat hurts just to relieve herself of the pain. I’ll never forget the look on my sister’s face when she came into my room one morning to tell me how she had found my mother in the bathroom sobbing with a knife in her hands. The bathtub faucet was still on and Ma was sitting on the floor with the phone next to her and her hands trembling with the knife. I still don’t understand how my sister stayed so calm that day, but I was jealous of how she didn’t shed a single tear at the scene. She just hugged Ma, told her everything was going to be okay, and went on bravely through the rest of the day knowing that she had to be strong for both Ma and me. Meanwhile, I sat in my room, too shocked to move or say a word. I was useless in the entire situation, but I had enough emotional stability afterwards to make sure she was feeling at least slightly better.
Ma turns off the stove and puts the lid only half on to let the steam leave the pot. I quietly take the rag from underneath the stove and start wiping off the leftover onion peels on the island table. I still haven’t said a word since I stopped humming, but she seemed too deep in thought to notice. I take a quick glance at her solemn expression and wonder if I should stop for a moment to hug her. Would this be the right time for a gesture of affection, or would she back away, unaccustomed to emotional reaction? I take her for granted too often, considering she has done so much in her life and in mine. Everyday she faces a new battle: the heart-ache with my father, the anger that comes with her sister—my aunt—and her parents, the worries of my sister’s career, the frustration with my laziness, and the pain of not thinking she receives the kind of love that she gives. I’ve always thought Ma loved too much. Everything she does is out of love for her family and the people around her. My only worry is that she doesn’t love herself as much as she loves everyone else. I’ve watched her age decades in less than 4 years. I’ve seen her go through these extreme emotions that range from absolute happiness to utter depression. And yet, I never took the time to stop and hug her.
By now I’ve stopped wiping the counter to just look at her. I notice the bags under her eyelids, the slightly downward curl of her lips, and the distant look in her eyes as she waits next to the stove for the steam to clear. A moment of vulnerability.
She glances at me and catches me staring. With a questioning look in her eyes, she looks as though she’s about to ask why I’m staring, but I cut her off before she can.
“I’m going to go get started on my homework,” I say, quicker than I thought I would. She pauses for a second before nodding once and looking back at the curry. I turn around to head out of the kitchen but stop at the stairs before going up to take one more glance at her. I could still go hug her right now. I could just walk up to her and tell her I love her.
But after about a minute of thinking, I sigh.
And I turn back around and walk out of the kitchen.