Tania cooked the potatoes, heavily greased. She used peanut oil, an article in the health column of a local newspaper was about the benefits of peanut oils. She had cut them out and pasted it on the wall of her bedroom. Her bedroom walls are filled with newspaper and magazines cuttings, with both relevant and bogus information. It was her mother’s birthday and the only thing her mother cared about was potatoes.
Aarav sat in his room, drowsy and bored. The clock ticked, the sound as if caught on a loop, echoing through his ear. He had to wear the best dress, his wife had bought him some expensive Kurtas, they were handmade with jute and silk, or that’s what his wife said. He thought of his mother, the woman who would find fault in everything he does or say. He remembered the last time they both had dinner, it was in his house and he had a baby girl. He recalled his mother’s face, half joy and half disappointment, a strange set of emotions that he can never understand.
Payal, the youngest, she smiled at that memory. The sweetest, the youngest, the kindest and the loveliest, all the best superlatives were assigned to her. She packed her lunch and made it extra rich. The only time of the year, she allows herself to treat. She made herself kunafa, the middle eastern delicacy her husband always talk about. It would be richer and more delicious than the one her husband had eaten. She thought to make more to gift mother. The idea made her smile wide, munching on a candy bar, she went to work.
Joseph, when he proposed Tania, he didn’t know what he was agreeing to, a yearly visit to celebrate her mother’s birthday didn’t sound bad. He stared into the piece of newly pasted article on the wall. A strange habit of his wife that fascinated him. He had seen her scan vigorously through the newspaper. It was not about what catches her but more about forcing something to interest her. He thought of their first date. A cup of coffee and a grilled sandwich. She was silent half of time, a nod here and a nod there but then later when he called her, she talked to him for hours about the food industry and the history of coffee and sandwiches. She sounded like a Wikipedia vomit.
The potato curry looked rich and satisfying. Tania smelled, feeling at ease she started washing the plates. Water from the tap continued to pour even when she was not washing. She knew this would irritate Joseph and they would get into a fight. She considered switching off the pipe but didn’t, she wanted her mother to love her potatoes. She wanted to sound and walk like her mother and if Joseph fought, she would fight him back, the way her mother fought her father. She felt a strange sense of happiness at that thought. She walked in and out of the kitchen, head held high. Her mother would be home soon and she would play the perfect hostess, a better one than Payal. She imagined the conversation she would have with her mother. They will talk about the economy and politics. She recalled some names from the newspaper to pepper around, the thought of being intelligent and being acknowledged for that brightened her. Her cheeks flushed and a broad bright smile stretched across her face.
Aarav dreaded the dinner. His wife poured him freshly brewed coffee, strong and black with two teaspoons of sugar. The perfect cup of coffee that relaxed him. His daughter played around with a doll and a plastic knife from the little kitchen set, his mother gifted on her first birthday. His daughter’s face was full of innocence, a calming kind of innocence. He loved how she made the doll dress up pretty and hold the knife and go into a make-believe forest to hunt. There was something about her that reminded him of his mother. He imagined his daughter growing up and being disappointed with him, then he imagined his mother as a young little girl playing with a doll and a knife. He smiled, a gentle smile, tears filled his eyes as he sipped the coffee and cherished the image of his mother as an innocent little girl.
Kunafa tasted better than anything Payal has ever made. She clicked a picture and send that to her husband right away. She smiled at the idea of her husband’s reaction. She messaged a friend of his to record a video and send her. She knew her husband would fake a reaction, dramatic and outlandish. Later she would post that video on the family group with exaggerated writing of their relationship. The thought alone was oddly satisfying. She cleaned an antique box, the one her mother gifted her for her wedding. She filled her mother’s share of Kunafa onto the box and wrapped it with a silk cloth. Her gift would be the luxurious one, reflecting her own personality.
Joseph walked in and out of his house. His wife’s preparations were driving him crazy. He knew how the dinner would go. One would make a snarky comment, other would sulk, and rest would sit with utter indifference that it ached him. Joseph has seen family feuds all his life, his own family having the craziest fights. He had solved some, mediated the rest but his wife and her family. That was something he could never understand. He once called his mother out of grief. He confessed how he misses her and how he would give everything to be with her. He hated this life, he loved his wife though, it is that love which is holding him back from walking and also a dread of what would happen to Tania, if he ever abandoned her.
The food smelled delicious. Tania beamed with joy seeing her mother’s happy face. For once in her life, she would know that it was her potato curry that her mother cherished. She recalled the news from the previous day for a quick dinner chat, clearing her throat she opened her mouth but words wouldn't come out. That was a priceless look, if someone clicked a picture, she would look like a buffoon entertaining kids or maybe even worse. Payal giggled catching her mother’s attention. This dinner was supposed to be a big deal. Tania had spent days and months working to throw a perfect birthday dinner. She decorated and redecorated her house to make her mother feel welcomed. She read and watched the news all the time to have an intellectual talk with her mother. How she envied Payal as a kid, or even during the college days. The way mother and Payal talked of current affairs irked the most. She caught Joseph looking at her, his eyes were sad and frustrated. She knew he would never love her mother.
‘Let me get the dessert’ she said and rose from the chair. Her mother smiled, a vague smile but before she could leave and bring her mother’s favourite wheat halwa, Payal chimed in and offered a box, a fancy looking box.
Aarav thought of his and his daughter. He insisted they come along but his wife politely refused. He thought his wife to be the kindest person in the world. The dress she bought him gained a nod of acknowledgement from his mother. He smiled, a welcome for the oddest compliment. He observed the way his mother ate and tried finding the innocent girl in her, he would take a bite of his sister’s food and smile. He knew Tania always cooked the best in their family, he remembered them young and silly trying to bake a cake. A disastrous affair. Almost all his childhood memories were disastrous. If he ever wrote a memoir, he would call, A Tale of Disaster. He chuckled at the thought, gaining a look of disgust from mother and an irritated look from Payal.
Mother smiled, wide and generous, Payal’s face gleamed. The kind of joy she was longing. She would take a picture, a million ones and send them to her husband. He would frown, she knew that but to make him believe she is the happiest gives her the greatest joy. She smiled gleefully at the showering compliments. Tania looked bitter but smiled when she took a bite of her exotic dish. Everyone at the table was lost in the taste of her dessert, everyone except her brother. He chuckled like an idiot at a thought, it irritated, if she took a picture, her husband would know that Aarav hasn’t tasted her dessert and even without her, he was happy. The warmth of her face flushed out. Irritation crept in a reminder for her of the reality that she is living. The most loved daughter of her mother, the least happy.
Joseph was concerned for his wife and worried about whether she would go mad. He wanted to walk away from this spectacle called family dinner. He hated that this was in the house. The woman for whom everyone put up a lot was the most judgemental person he has ever met. He observed her partially, how her face would stretch into a smile and how swiftly it turns to a frown. He felt bad for Tania, for the halwa she made. He would eat them all, he wanted to, he would invite his friends or maybe her friends and give them a feast. The kind one would call a feast. He smiled sadly watching three children and their desperate attempts to please their mother.
Today was supposed to be different. Tania hated Payal for ruining her dinner but when she tasted the food, her anger melted away. She felt sad but no longer angry. She looked at her mother with earnest eyes. The woman for whose approval she put up a lot and yet it was never enough.
Aarav hoped for a different dinner, he hoped with all his heart for his mother to be the mother he longed for, he hoped despite all the hopelessness and yet nothing has changed. With pain and a broken heart,, he left the dinner. His wife would know even without telling and he would see his daughter smile and laugh, a rare impression of how his mother would have been.
Payal shared the video of her husband’s dramatic reaction and what she received in return was a half baked, lol. She shared a dozen and more pictures to her husband and posted a couple of them on social media, with a hashtag, family love. Her husband didn’t reply or called and that made her smile, a genuine, sad but satisfying smile.
Joseph removed all the newspaper clippings from the wall, he scrubbed wall with vinegar water and patted them dry. He heard his wife cry. He felt sad but then a relief. Probably they would no longer have family dinners or probably but he let that thought die.