Lolita Dasgupta was a peculiar woman living in a sprawling apartment in Kolkata that boasted the most beautiful view of the Howrah Bridge. She was eighty five years old yet she moved around with the reflexes of a combat soldier. Dressed in traditional sarees with her hair tied in a tight bun. Her hair always had this orange glow that came due to the excessive use of henna dyeing.She had six children and a half deaf husband whom she loved even more than her children. She used to find him irritating sometimes, so she would find ways to torment him. Sometimes pinch him hard, or trip him when he walked. But she still took good care of him and her large family.She was a rich woman, in terms of finance and culture.No matter how rich she was, she shopped in the local bazaar everyday for cheap vegetables and groceries. She was the biggest miser of the old town of Kolkata.
Her life had gone by seamlessly cooking all kinds of fresh river fish, various odd concoctions and thousand different kinds of pickles. Making pickle for her family used to be her favourite past time. Cutting pieces of raw mango, lime and sometimes carrot, soaking it in turmeric, drying it out on soft muslin cloth whist it soaked up all the heat from the hot sun. It was then squished into a big jar with a lot of red chillies, oil and other spices. The big jar was then stored away for a year and then opened amidst a lot of enthusiasm and zeal. It used to be a feast, the day she opened her famous pickle jar. She was even kind enough to share a little with her neighbours.Sometimes.
She had a cleanliness disorder so she never let a maid or cook into the house. She owned a lot of silver and fourteen vacuum cleaners. She kept to herself and preferred not to interact much with anyone.
Managing eight children and a half deaf husband was no easy task for Lolita. As her children grew, her family grew. Five daughters were married away and three daughter-in-laws entered her sprawling flat with a lot of silver plates and jewellery in tow. Her family was an odd patchwork. Her sons were busy in family business and family planning, her obedient “bahus” were busy taking care of the house, cooking massive amount of food, serving their deaf father-in-law. The house was running smoothly under Lolita’s strict eye. She believed that her work was done and now it was her daughter-in-laws time to work and slog. She kept a watch on everyone’s movements. She eavesdropped on conversations, she hated it when anyone left the house for social meetings, she did not allow her “obedient bahus” to work. Even during her religious chants before meals, she would keep one eye open, grasping whatever in sight.
With time her family disintegrated. Obviously her tyranny would not last long and her obedient daughter-in-laws were not so obedient anymore.
One day there was utter pandemonium and the sons to appease their irate wives decided to move into their own sprawling apartments.
Eventually Lolita’s deaf husband flew away to a sprawling heaven up in the sky. Or probably a sprawling hell down below.
She kept muttering that her children should be cursed and they too will be left alone one day.
“They will as suffer, they will never be happy”, she cursed her children.
Soon it was just her lying down on a massive round bed that made one feel as if they were in the middle of the sea. Her big four bedroom house felt amazing. She started loving her isolation.Years passed in peace with her pickles, silver plates left by her “horrible bahus” and her new friend Kutti.
Kutti was a fat black cat she used to feed everyday and now stays with her. Kutti loved purring all day and resting on Lolita’s tummy. She had soft black made and milky green eyes. Why Lolita called her Kutti, no one knew. Even Lolita doesn’t know why she called her cat “Kutti”.
It was a hot weekend of April when it all happened. She decided that it was time. Time to do something.She was deep in thought and had no idea when she fell asleep.
She opened her bleary eyes when the cat, all seven pounds of squirming flesh, climbed onto her belly. Squinting into the sunlight streaming in from the open window, she discovered that she was now the weary possessor of a pounding headache, and at some point, had managed to lose both a tooth and a spouse.
She decided to take Crocin and have some curd for her acidity. It was now time for her to mend fences and meet her family. How long to harbour the grudge. She was the “sensible” one, so she should invite them over and let bygones be bygones. She had less time in the world and no point bickering over small issues.
Her sons were initially reluctant but gave in when the emotional blackmail started.
After a lot of planning it was decided.
Today her full family of twenty members were coming over to have lunch. She decided to go all out and cook from her heart. Her isolation was getting tiring and sometimes she did crave for her family. She even had occasional bouts of hallucinations where she imagined that her kids were playing around her. Or that they were trying to steal from her pickle jar that was forbidden from opening till she opened it.
She felt it was her time to go soon and she had to do something so she could die in peace.
She cooked like never before. Various curries, all kinds of vegetables.
Tava Pulav was nicely sautéed on the pan, her daughters used to love that. For her grandkids she made some light sandwiches and potato fritters.
She decided to have a quick bath, visit the temple, do her puja and then start making some Ras Malai which were basically soft cottage cheese balls soaked in flavoured milk. By the time she was done, her family had arrived.
Dressed in a crisp golden saree, she was all set to greet them. Her grand kids were playing around, her daughter-in-laws were cordial, her sons kept asking her what she had cooked whilst she watched everyone like a hawk. Her eyes feasted on them. They are at last with her, in her house. Finally where she could have some control.
Kutti loitered around, gazing at everyone with her milky green eyes. She was very uncomfortable with the crowd and would get annoyed when the kids tried to pet her. She had some milk and then dozed off in some corner.
When they all sat for lunch, she opened a big jar of her famous Mango pickle.
“Eat to your fill, this is my last one”, she said.
Everyone enjoyed. It was a meal to remember. After feasting on ample amounts of food, pickle and Ras Malai, everyone burped away and sat to play cards. Another famous ritual.
In an hour, it all started. They all suffered a massive bout of food poisoning.Everyone was vomiting away. The poor children had it worse. They all cursed Lolita.
“Your Mother poisoned us…”, the eldest daughter-in-law gasped.
Everyone was too sick to leave so they spent the night at Lolita’s house. By next morning, all of them seemed better. The women made some tea while Lolita’s scavenged her cupboards for some biscuits. Finally over some hot tea and Marie biscuits, everyone calmed down. “Maybe something was wrong with the food, or the pickle was too old, it was just a small case of food poisoning, no worries we are all better now”, they said.
They all left by afternoon and even though they all made no promises of meeting her again, Lolita still requested them to stay in touch
“I am old now, how many months do I have left? At least in my final days spend some time with me”, she said. The sons obviously upset and guilty, much to the displeasure of their wives, promised their mother that they would all visit often.
Lolita sat on her round bed, gazing at the sea. Kutti jumped onto her lap and purred. Lolita rolled her old withered hands around the soft black mane.
“It’s okay Kutti, next time it will be worse.”
Lolita went around cleaning the house.She threw away all the left over food. Even the pickle, which she had laced with some crushed bugs, poison and apple seeds.
By evening, she sat in her living room watching television and cutting some raw mangoes lacing them with some turmeric. She was making a new jar of pickle. For a new day, for a new chance. For her new plan.
Short story written by Tanvi Mehta for TOI Twinkle Khanna’s passage.