A space where we share words about objects in our homes and ways in which they shape us and our memories.
O.1. Sugar that leaves a bitter taste
About the jars in Granny’s old haveli.
Words by Ananya Surana
Illustration by Jishnnu B
Sometime in the middle of November last year, I was asked to move to Granny’s house for the winter. The isolation had been getting to her for a while now, and the bitter Ajmeri winters had only made it worse. 73-year-old and frail, Granny craved some good, old-fashioned human interaction. I was to be the cure for this boredom, even though the two of us had never really exchanged more than ten words at a time. I was unsure why the rest of my family thought that I possessed the ability to charm a cranky old woman who was only content with cheap gossip and piping hot tea. Or perhaps, it was the fact that I was truly the most dispensable rivaled with the rest of my family. Mother and Granny had always been at odds and had taken the wise decision of never really interacting with one another unless a social situation called for it. Father was desperately trying to make back the money he had had to squander during the onset of the pandemic. My 14-year-old sister was much too young to keep her patience and tongue in check when it came to Granny.
Most of the extended family had dusted their hands off of her the moment they could, leaving me to lay my sacrifice. So, I was parceled off to the sleepy town of Ajmer, with two small suitcases and a backpack on me. My job profile was scant, and truth be told, I was clueless about how exactly I could be of service to Granny. Regardless, I found myself in front of a sprawling, old villa in the heart of Ajmer, with an apathetic grandmother and a lazy, tired dog awaiting me inside.
Granny lived in an ancestral home, complete with aging teak furniture, a dusty unexplored attic, and a large backyard extending into a fruit orchard. The size of the house and Granny’s general disposition all screamed affluence. However, the truth was this: somewhere along the family tree, money had trickled away, leaving only the house as evidence of a glorious past. Grandfather had been a respected man and his name still carried as much influence as it had back in his days. But respect can only do so much, and it didn’t always necessarily translate into sociability. The entry gate saw few visitors in, and the back gate was used only by the milkman and Savita Didi.
Didi was my best memory of the four months I spent there. Lean, tanned and always sporting a huge grin, Savita Didi was from the small basti on the outskirts of town. She wasn’t that far off from my age, only about a year or two older. And yet, our lives couldn’t have been more different. At 20, Savita Didi was a mother and wife to two bratty children and one man-child who left her responsible for everything. She ran two households all by herself, with little interference - one ours, and the other her own. Her husband had half-fried his liver early into their marriage and continued to sponge up the meager funds that Granny awarded her at the end of each month. Her children were growing up faster than she liked, and there was never enough food to go around the table.
By contrast, I evidently had a lot less on my plate. Recently turned 18, most of my troubles stemmed from a lack of freedom and my responsibilities I didn’t know how to deal with. Even with the differences, Savita Didi was the only semblance of company I had in this ghost town. Ajmer is sleepy and becomes even more so in the winters. No visitors graced the house. Stepping out to find new friends wasn’t something I could do without the risk of freezing a limb off. So, Savita Didi and I fell into our own quiet routine.
Granny didn’t like our exchange too much and so all our conversations carried with them the thrill of secrecy. We exchanged whispered stories about high-school beaus and squashed aspirations, all under the roof of the kitchen. You see, throughout the day, Savita Didi was on the move. She scuttled about the house dusting and sweeping and mopping in flurried movements so much so that it was difficult to engage her even in a moment’s conversation. It was only during meal times when you could catch her restricted to just one room. So, the kitchen became our designated refuge, host to all kind of conversations. Over the course of the next month, I grew closer than ever to Savita Didi. Her situational company became something I now sought out by choice.
So, while she cooked each meal with meticulous dedication, I explored the eccentricities with which Granny liked to arrange her kitchen. Everything was duplicated, cupboards on either end of the gas stove, each lined with jars and jars of spices, dals, and flavourings. It was like seeing double - there was two of everything. I reasoned that this may be for ease of reach, and a plot to make sure we never suddenly ran out of essential supplies. It’s always good to have spares, isn’t it? In hindsight, however, it may be appropriate to tell you that I had absolutely no clue what I was talking about. My skills in the kitchen were limited to boiling water and chopping onions and so it wasn’t like I was in the best place to offer explanations about kitchen arrangements.
It was exactly this that Granny seemed to particularly dislike about me. My mother had raised me as a child and not as a daughter. This meant that I hadn’t been forced into the kitchen the moment I could crawl. Granny, on the other hand, believed knowing how to cook was one of the many moral responsibilities of a woman. She wanted to remedy my ineptness in the kitchen within the four months I had with her. Her solution to it began in a series of small tasks, the first one being her favorite cup of evening tea. Now, Granny was a grumpy person in general, so without her tea, she became insufferable. If I had to impress her, this tea had to be perfect. Armed with a couple dozen of recipes on YouTube and Savita Didi in the wings, I entered a turf I’d usually only used for socializing.
There was no way I could trick her with a store-bought mix. Granny was far more experienced than me, both in the culinary arts as well as in finding faults where none existed. I had to make this tea from scratch, and it had to be an epitome of the perfect Indian masala chai. She must sip it and picture the tea lands of Assam, fresh and green. She must sip it and suddenly be revitalized into the exuberant days of her youth. She must sip it and feel overwhelming joy warm her bone-deep, enough to melt her icy exterior. So it began, with grating adrak, crushing cinnamon, grinding elaichi with laung and corn peppers. In went the water, along with the ground spices, ginger, and tea leaves. The water took on a dark, golden-brown color, and bubbled up to a boil. I turned the flame lower, added in a spoonful of sugar from the plastic box on the counter, and freehanded the milk into the boiling mixture. It was a rich cup of tea, aromatic and fragrant. The mere scent was enough to titillate your senses, or so I thought at the very least. Granny seemed to agree, or perhaps she had the decency to flash me a watery smile after her sip to not discourage my efforts. It was only tea after all.
Pleased with myself, I headed back to the kitchen to tell Savita Didi of my victory. Instead, I was met with a worried gaze and trembling hands. She rushed towards me, took a peek at Granny snoozing in her rocking chair, and withdrew into the usual corner of the kitchen we reserved for secrets of the topmost importance.
I’d used the wrong sugar, she said. I was lucky Granny hadn’t found out. Naturally, I was thrown into confusion. Exactly what could be wrong with sugar? Was it not just sugarcane processed into tiny crystals of white? Even then, Savita Didi wildly gestured to a tin box on the right side of the stovetop, while I gazed at the plastic takeaway box that housed the sugar I’d used. With a start, I realized what the double arrangements had meant. It wasn’t the smart organizational trick that I’d thought it to be.
Granny liked to keep her food separate from that meant for Savita Didi’s consumption. Even sugar, unassuming crystals of white that looked the exact same, no matter what quality they claimed to be, was stored separately. Everything about the cheap, plastic take-out container that the “wrong” sugar was stored in screamed inferiority - as if the ones consuming it were inferior themselves. There was something startlingly different in the two sugars that didn’t stem from the nature of the sugar itself, but from the ones who used it. The irony had not gone unnoticed: Savita Didi, who cleaned for us all day, had been branded unclean by a spoonful of sugar. A teaspoon of sugar, one of the most commonplace ingredients, had become a symbol of centuries-old casteist practices that Granny still mindlessly followed.
The kitchen had been a place where I’d finally found a friend, but for Savita Didi, it was a daily reminder that she could never be a part of “us”. Every spice, every pulse, practically every ingredient she used drew boundaries between “us” and “them”. Despite the term with which we addressed her - didi, meaning sister, she would never truly be family. After all, blood is thicker than chai, even with the wrong sugar, isn’t it?
About a wicker chair stuck in time.
Words by Ananya Surana
There was no denying it. Nani was officially off her rocker. No, not the literal wicker chair she sat on from morning to late evening, be it rain or shine. She was still very much on it, swaying back and forth with little shifts of her weight. She was off her metaphorical rocker. Nani was officially losing her mind.
It started with inconsequential one-off incidents no one gave much thought to. She would leave her thick-framed spectacles on one of the numerous shelves of the refrigerator and spend the next hour looking for them. She would forget to put on her trademark bindi even though the little red dot was important to her. She would order four instead of two packets of milk. She would walk to the department store, chat with the shopkeeper for 20 minutes and return home with an empty basket and an unticked grocery list.
Illustration by Jishnnu B
These slight moments of thoughtlessness were brushed aside. At 75, Nani was still sharp as a whip and always ready with long lectures on everything, from ethics to science. The occasional mishap was a sign of age, even for Nani. Pratima Chanda, or Nani, as I called her, had always been my role model. At 25, Nani had completed an MA in philosophy, and enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Bombay University, making her the most educated member of our family. Nani lived through her prime in the changing tides of the 70s. These were the times when women were usually married off in their early teens and barely moved past the boundaries of their home. And while the former was true for her too, Nani believed in her version of new-age feminism and did not let anything or anyone block her path. Marriage, kids, and household responsibilities came second to her career, and everyone loved her for this.
She worked hard hours and dealt with the bratty antics of her college students with a firm hand. Her ambitions inspired many people and angered even more. A woman asserting herself outside her home. How dare she! Nani didn’t care for any of it. The neighbors shamed her decisions and made sharp innuendos about her late working hours. She simply smiled at them and sent kheer every other weekend. “Kill them with sugar, honey,” she used to say, every time I expressed my frustration.
So when Nani began to slip from the fabric of reality, the realisation sank in too late. With mirth in our eyes, we watched her look for the watch already fastened on her wrist. “She’s too preoccupied with thoughts of Kant and Descartes to pay any mind to the realm of the ordinary”, we laughed. It’s Nani! She’ll bounce back.
But slowly, Nani got worse. She’d forget to grade assignments and address students by the wrong names. She’d easily lose her train of thought in the middle of her lecture. She’d ramble on and on about one school of thought, pause for a moment, pat out imaginary creases in her perfectly pleated sari, stare blankly at the wall as if in a trance and then switch to a completely different chapter. At home, she would address all of us with different names and forget that she had even called us over in the first place.
The day I realised something was truly wrong however, was five months into Nani’s forgetfulness. I had a particularly long day at work, and things only got worse when it began to rain mid-way – about a mile from Nani’s house. I entered her house, drenched to the bone and shivering, and heard Nani clattering utensils in the kitchen. I dropped my ruined bag at the door, slid off my shoes and called out to her for a cup of tea. Nani didn’t respond, but I assumed she’d heard me and headed to my room to change out of my soaked clothes. Usually, Nani welcomed me with a warm meal and millions of questions about my day. When I entered the kitchen, now in a fresh pair of sweatpants and a comfortable sweater, Nani was no longer there.
The dining table was bare. Desperate for the promised cup of tea, I returned to the wicker chair in quest of Nani. She sat there with a book in her hand, rocking back and forth incessantly. I called out to her twice, to no avail. So, I tapped her on the shoulder to get her attention.
Nani jumped at least ten meters into the air. It was almost cartoonish. Her eyes grew round at the corners, a sudden fear overtaking them. Promptly, she whacked me on the head with her hardbound leather book. She sprang up from her chair, and ran to the door, surprisingly fast for a 75-year-old. “Thief! Thief! Help me!”, she cried out.
“It’s only me Nani, your granddaughter. Calm down!”
“I may be old young lady, but I am no one’s Nani! Get out of my house before I call the neighbourhood to chase you away. Don’t you underestimate me!”
“Nani! I’m in no mood for jokes. I’ve had a terrible day at work. Give it a break!” I was incredulous.
Nani grew enraged. She wrapped her sari around her waist, picked up the umbrella near the door and advanced towards me. Confused, I tried to wrestle the makeshift weapon out of her hands, trying my best to be gentle. She was would not budging. It was a battle that only one of us was fighting.
“Shrikant! Come here! This innocent-looking girl is trying to rob us!”, she cried out to my grandfather, who had been dead for over a decade.
Nani had somehow been transported to eons ago, before I was even born, before my mother was even married. Nani thought she was only 50 and still lived with her husband, two sons and a young daughter. She had forgotten everything that had occurred in the last twenty-five years.
With tears in my eyes, I thought it was best to leave the house until my mother arrived on the scene. I waited in the veranda as the rain merged with my already wet face. It hurt seeing Nani this bad. I never thought that she would be the one to lose her grip on sanity. This was Nani, the badass feminist philosopher who remembered everything! I didn’t know what to do. When Mother arrived, she had to forcefully remind Nani of the last twenty-five years. My grandfather’s accident. My mother’s divorce. Nani’s job. She fell into a stupor and cried floods of tears when she remembered it all.
After this, Nani shut down.
Nani stopped going to work. In fact, she stopped doing anything at all. The wicker chair had found a permanent occupant. It rocked back and forth, then forth and back all day long, its creak served as a constant reminder of that fateful day. She slept in that old thing, ate her food there, cried there.
Back and forth.
Back and forth.
Back and forth.
Nani shifted from the present to the past, and past to the present.
Back and forth.
Back and forth.
Back and forth.
It’s been seven years since then. The house feels empty. The refrigerator stores only the right amount of milk and groceries. No spectacles are found on the shelves. The wicker chair has stopped creaking.
Lines about human dependence on everyday objects for comfort.
Words by Ayeshaa Mohan
At my lowest,
she cradles me in her soft arms.
At my best,
she gives me a surface to jump on.
The corners of her clothes have wiped my tears,
as her body continues to bear more stains.
And the edges of her drape
hide vivid souvenirs from my nightmares.
In her head, my laughter still echoes
while shut somewhere in her locked memory,
I cry, howl and bellow.
She continues to knit more drapes with my secrets
and in their comfort lives my innocence and guilt.
It is with her that I’ve laughed, screamed and healed.
A part of me is in her - my Bed.
Illustration by Jishnnu B
Lines about a moka pot.
Words by Stuti Sareen
I met Bright when I was seventeen and had started feeling the need to explore things in the adult world. We had known each other since I was ten but I was more interested in instant brewing back then and Bright didn’t like me much. So, one morning, I tried getting to know Bright. It took a long while for Bright to bubble up to me but we found our rhythm soon enough. We couldn’t go a single morning without spending time with each other. On some days, I would wake up at 5am to find some alone time with her before our family started being noisy and nosey in the morning. This went on for about two months after which I left for university. Bright stayed back home with our family. She belonged there and everyone needed her more than I did. I met a few more who looked like Bright – some bubbled faster, some looked stronger and some were pretty dark on the inside. A few years went by and I gave up hope on finding the same rhythm I had with Bright. And soon after that, I forgot about Bright. In 2020, I came back home. Bright was still there. She was slower but happier. We were slower but happier. We had our rhythm again. I had hope again.
Bright died in January 2021. A part of her holds the brightest flowers in my garden.
Illustration by Jishnnu B
About Mysticeti's friends:
Ananya Surana is student of literature at Ashoka University.
Ayeshaa Mohan is a 16-year-old aspiring writer from Delhi.
Jishnnu B creates visualization, illustrations and immersive narratives.
Stuti Sareen is the founding editor and curator of Mysticeti.