When our mother took us to the annual fair at Dadar Gymkhana near Parsee Colony in Bombay, my sister tugged at her sari for a ball of candy floss or cotton candy as we knew it. I loved it too. But being the eldest of three, mother had taught me not to be greedy in front of my sister and brother. I kept quiet hoping that my mother would finally surrender and give us a cotton candy each. I also knew that it might make a cut on the bus fare to take us back home to Shivaji Park. But the hope continued to flicker like a weak flame, somewhere in the bottom of my heart to flicker out soon after.
I gave in to my mother’s confession that she could only afford two candy flosses because of that bus fare home. I need not have worried. My sister was a poor eater and she soon wearied of that massive, soft, hollow, wispy ball of the pink, cloudy mass and gave me the rest to savour. I was used to hand-me-downs especially for snacks and eats from my kid sister so I polished off the rest, feeling the stickiness of the remnants as they stuck to my teeth somewhat like chewing gum but very sweet. Later, I learnt that candy floss is made of sugar and in essence, it is a different form of sugar candy which is so light that it appears to fly away and no matter how much you try to hold it in your grip, it manages to free itself and float away in the air. No wonder that the Australians used to call it ‘Fairy Floss’ because it could fly away like a fairy though it did not have wings. So, the candy floss seller used a stick to hold it together and also so that your hands do not become sticky while you eat and savour it, bit by little bit and feel it slowly, languorously, melt inside your mouth. As a child, it was the most wondrous melt-in-your-mouth confection that seemed all the more attractive because your mother did not quite approve of it and allowed you to savour it only at fairs and carnivals.
It is strange how perceptions change of the same toys and eats one enjoyed as a child when one grows up and looks back at those toys and eats with time, maturity, experience and nostalgia. The candy floss had turned into a distant memory which almost never came back unless there was a stirring somewhere that rakes up slices of small mementoes of memories from a childhood that made cheap eats very precious and delicious and sweet. The fluffy touch of the candy floss, the lovely pink colour, the wispy feeling it exuded were unforgettable and almost addictive.
Somewhere along the way into adulthood, I sometimes dreamt of candy floss, at times stuck into a longish stick, and at times, a big, shapeless ball tucked into a cellophane bag minus the stick. Why did I have this strange dream I will never know. Then, in one of these dreams, I saw my mother’s face superimposed on a candy floss while her body became the stick. It was scary but it also made me think a lot, something I found scary to indulge in. Just taking everything and everyone at face value was so much simpler. Thinking made everything very complicated, be it my mother turning to candy floss or the other way round. A dream is a dream which fades away when you wake up. When I woke up, I rubbed my eyes and headed straight to the kitchen to find out what mother was at. She sensed me enter as she so magically detects the slightest movement in us .She turned around and smiled. No, she had not turned to candy floss. I let out a sigh of relief. What would we have done with candy floss for a mother?
How can a person become candy floss? My mother was a solid, brave woman who single-handedly was trying to bring up her three kids, two girls and a boy, after my father had left her for another woman when my brother was not yet a year old. She took in sewing and stitching and tailoring orders, having taught these skills to herself, thanks to the sewing machine her mother had gifted her with. The constant sound of her sewing machine in the background as we pored through our homework and our lessons - we were boringly good children, kept us constantly conscious of her presence. How, then, can she become candy floss?
I looked up the meaning of candy floss in the dictionary. It said,
(Australia), a very light fluffy confection made from coloured spun sugar, usually held on a stick. Also called candyfloss (USA and Canada) and cotton candy.
Maa was anything but fluffy and she was most certainly not a “confection made from coloured spun sugar.” She was more like a piece of bitter gourd that is not exactly tasty but is good and sharp for one’s health. Good health makes the world go round and all that! Then, what on earth did I dream that dream for? Was she hollow and wispy? I do not think so. But then, on reflection, it could be that she is really hollow, always expected to empty out her emotions and her nostalgia and all that her past stood for to focus on the present, also hollow because it was filled with hollow, wispy, cloudy and pink but unfulfilled dreams without the slightest clue about whether they would be realised ever or not?
When I grew up, I did not see much of the candy floss seller wandering about crying out his wares. It was considered bad for health as the indigenous preparation was made at the time with a hand-held machine. The candy floss man who turned that machine with his hands to put that pink blob of ball on the top of that stick did not wash his hands at all. He wore soiled clothes and did not seem to be in any hurry to comb his hair and keep it just so. I did not know that by then, there was a more sophisticated machine that could churn out candy floss hygienically without the use of human hands. But by then, the candy floss had become passé replaced with other kinds of fast food imported from the West.
My kid sister became candy floss the day she decided to marry a shippie with a foreign ship who drew a thick salary in dollars and came home every six months. “I want to see the world but I can never hope to make the kind of money one needs to do this. Besides, he will always earn in dollars and I can have a life filled with luxury as he rises to the top and becomes a captain.” He did become a captain. But soon after, this guy met with a severe accident during a thunder storm when he was on the deck examining something and was thrown into several somersaults that broke his back and left him paralysed for life. Ten years later, he sits like a huge piece of candy floss on that wheel chair, hollow and useless and unable to walk to the washroom to relieve himself having forgotten all about sailing across continents. My sister, his wife now, is like candy floss with the pink having turned white with rage and bitterness, wheels him around when she is not working in the computer firm for a living. She pretends to be the candy floss she once loved to savour but never imagined would become, refusing to admit that when you become candy floss yourself, you do not really like the taste of it in real life anymore or even the memory of it.
After many years, the candy floss floated up into the narrow crevices and winding spaces of my mind when I stepped into a small art gallery that had put up a group exhibition on paintings, installations, collages, sculptures, sketches and videos that claimed to be a collective presentation of art as a socio-political statement
There was one painting called Displaced. It could be a critique on globalization focussed on the almost obsolete candy-floss seller posing for with balls of candy floss in his hand. The artist freezes this candy-floss seller, a marginalized man almost erased from our culture by framing him in a painting and placing him as an exhibit on the wall of a gallery, as a celebratory tribute. Is this ‘celebratory’? Or, is this yet another way of wiping him out of our memories by investing him with a ‘once-upon-a-time’ story?
I cannot recall the facial features of a single candy floss seller today because they are blurred and misty. We did not look at his face because our attention was focussed on the hand that held the candy floss or churned out big candy floss balls from the hand-wielded machine that made a whirring noise which, to our tender ears, sounded very promising. The candy floss seller would hold two bunches of pink candy floss packaged in transparent cellophane in one hand while the other palm was stretched out to accept the small coins. Childhood memories often surface like an old water colour painting whose colours are fading. All I could recall was that he was a dowdy young man, who looked much older than his years, was clad in a shabby coat and loose trousers and somehow, appeared in the process of transforming into candy floss himself.
A few years ago, my mother passed away of cancer, that would never have happened to that ball of pink candy floss. But cancer is also candy floss, shapeless, anonymous, and wispy, always beyond your grasp that takes away from you, the person who is trapped within that candy floss. I watched anxiously at the four candy floss doctors and their candy floss paramedics surrounding my mother’s bed with candy floss tubes sticking everywhere out of her candy floss body as they explored her with their candy floss heads to give me the bad news. I could hardly catch a glimpse of her as she lay there, vulnerable, helpless and candy floss. It made me want to become candy floss myself and waft away in the fictitious breeze that did not exist within that suffocating, air-conditioned space of the examining room I was allowed to step into for a few minutes.
My father, old and doddering and sick, heard from somewhere that mother was dying and came limping on his walking stick to see her, the woman who was still married to him but was no longer his wife. I did not remember anything about what he looked like because I was only seven when he left us. I did not even know what his voice sounded like or what his body language was. He somehow reminded me of the candy floss seller in that beautiful painting framed on the wall of that art exhibition.
The strange, puzzled expression on my mother’s faint, dying face spelt out his identity. He was the candy floss seller who had left his candy floss behind to die in penury and in pain and in the constant warring with life, three children in tow, turning my mother into the candy floss she never wanted to become but nevertheless did. Makes me wonder – are all of us, individually and collectively, the candy floss we were so fond of as kids but never imagined becoming one day?
I sometimes ask myself – is life just one huge candy floss? And then I realise that I look very much like a human version of candy floss myself. My hair is candy floss. My cheeks, with all the rouge and thick, cheap, face paint are like pink candy floss. I find myself waiting for my call from the candy floss spot boy to call me and say that the candy floss shot is ready. I am a candy floss extra, “junior artiste” in more sophisticated terms, part of a candy floss crowd scene in a candy floss Hindi movie. I came here years ago to become a leading lady but ended up becoming an extra. However, the realization that basically, the leading lady is no less candy floss than the bit player is, I can almost tangibly feel a candy floss happiness wash over me as I turn to face the candy floss camera knowing that no one will catch me on screen in that candy floss crowd..