My mother and her brother pick me up from the airport. There would generally be more family members here—her four sisters, perhaps some of my cousins—but I think she wanted to look me over first. I’m simply thankful for the reprieve. I hug my mother, and as she kisses my cheek I can’t help but notice how many grey streaks have appeared since last I’d seen her. My uncle, smiling, tells me I looked very handsome. My mother doesn’t say anything.
We drive through heavy Bangalore traffic for over an hour. Petrol is more expensive, and my uncle’s car, like most in India, doesn’t have air conditioning. It’s well over a hundred degrees as they quiz me about London, New York, Katie, and I reply in the most mundane way possible. New York was nice. London was prettier. Yes, of course, I’m very excited to see everyone.
My uncle’s house is concrete, spacious, and painted a brilliant turquoise on the outside. It glows in the hot sun.
“We’ve been making a lot,” my mother says. Her eyes look sunken when she says it, and I wonder how much sleep she’s had over the last few days, “Cooking a lot. So you and your cousins can eat together.”
I have six cousins on my mom’s side of the family. Present: Akhil, Kavita, Prema, and Swasti. Laksmi and Pravti are in Trivandrum, with their father. They’re sitting cross-legged in a circle on the floor, talking. They have banana leaves in front of them, but there’s no food on them yet.
“Come on,” Akhil gestures me over, “You all remember ______?”
They all smile, searching my face, trying to find the few hints of familiarity. I embrace them.
“They’ve been cooking for us all day,” Kavita says. “I think it’s helping give my mom something to do.”
“But they didn’t let us eat it until you got here. I’m famished. We cut down banana leaves for you.”
Because, of course, few people in India actually eat on banana leaves anymore. Plates, cups, even flatware, it’s all stainless steel.
There’s a constant presence when Indian families gather. It doesn’t matter if it’s a homecoming or a birthday; a wedding or a funeral. When we come together, there is always food. When a lot of the family comes together, there is a lot of food. And today, with our family grieving, the food doesn’t stop coming.
First, since it’s still morning, there are dahi vadas and medu vadas, idlis, coconut and tamarind chutneys, sambar and dosas and potato pollia. There’s chai and mango juice (the same brand, I note amusedly, that is sold in every Indian store in the States) and coconut water, taken directly from the coconut. And then, almost immediately, there’s lunch: avial and rasaam, channa masala and Bisibelebath.
Each dish, each bite, evokes family. Memories of spices, soft cooking smoke that made me cough as a girl; the sweetness, the simple, uncomplicated pleasure of eating together. That’s the point of this. That’s why my Indian mother, when she took a break, urges me to eat more. She doesn’t think I’m skinny. She had surely noticed that my hips, my cheeks, my chest have all filled out. But she knows the food is a tool of bonding. She is trying, actively and subconsciously, to draw out that connection once more.
She asks if she can feed me some food.
It’s something that mothers and grandmothers do with very small children. They feed them, manually—that is, with their hands. It’s usually yoghurt rice, with salt and cumin, or if they’re older, pilaf or avial. I want to tell her no, that it would embarrass me and her, but looking at her eyes, her hair, I can’t do it. I ask for avial.
She pushes some avial in her plate, balling it in her hands and taking it between her fingers. I open my mouth, and she pushes it in.
Ignoring my cousin’s averted eyes, it almost feels, for a second, like home.