The soothing hum of Tagore’s music greets me as I step through the threshold. Hearing the clattering of pots and pans, my feet instantly guide me towards the tiny kitchen tucked away at the corner of the shabby loft. Holding a knife in one hand and a large shallot in another, my grandfather, my Nana, turns around with wobbly feet and flashes me that trademark toothless smile.
“Oh, wow, you’re resembling your Nanu (Grandma) more and more every day!” His doe-like eyes widen as he almost yells that out with a hint of wonder and joy in his voice.
“Well, nothing new, right? You say that every time!” I laugh. I take the shallot and knife from his gnarled and trembling hands, hands once strong enough to pull a trigger countless times during the war.
“No, I don’t!” Nana says, mock seriousness painted all over his face.
While I finish chopping the shallot, he digs into the top wooden cabinet and takes out a thick, worn diary that holds all the recipes handwritten by my Nanu. Nana probably knows all of them by heart. But every time he cooks, he still searches the pages and follows every instruction word by word. Strange, but to me, it is one of the most endearing things I have ever witnessed. I watch from afar as he runs his fingers over the pages, tracing out her handwriting with so much tenderness that I feel like I am invading a moment.
Putting a leash on his wayward emotions, he suddenly grabs my arm and pulls me outside on the roof, which is right outside the loft. The railing on the roof is fenced all around to grow seasonal vegetables. This garden was Nanu’s. My grandfather’s mood switches, and he starts to ramble about politics. However, memories soon crowd my mind, and I find myself slipping between past and present.
* * *
I remember, as a kid, helping Nanu around to pluck tomatoes, eggplants, or chilies in return for a handful of coins to place in my piggy bank. It used to be one of those hearty bonding sessions between us where she used to share all her gardening tips with me. I nodded along with her, pretending to understand everything.
I can still smell the mint that surrounded a lot of the other vegetables; she’d tear off a piece sometimes and hold it in front of my nose. Sunflowers and marigolds grew between the beans and peas, adding their colors to her otherwise green garden. She was very fond of it, and if she could, she probably would have slept out in her garden as well. So many times, I remember Nana coming home, and after working all day, he would find her engrossed in her plants.
“Hayaat,” he’d call, “What’s for dinner?”
Of course, that was the last thing on Nanu’s mind, so she would quickly gather up some fresh greens and tomatoes, maybe some peas, and walk back to the kitchen to prepare a dinner of greens and eggs. Sometimes she would pick dandelion leaves and make a salad of them. Almost everyone I knew considered these weeds, but she could make them taste good with the right amount of mustard oil, red chili flakes, diced shallots, and coriander leaves.
My mom used to send me over to her garden in the late afternoons to pick fresh vegetables for our dinner. Sometimes, as I ran to her yard, I’d call to her, “Nanumoni, Mum wants some Naga chilies.” After hearing me, she would bend down to my level, give me her giant toothy smile, and wave me over for a hug. Then, she would help me pick some puffy green chilies, which Mum would later snap in half and add to the vegetables or fish cooking on the stove, enhancing spiciness, flavor, and fragrance. The Naga chili is one of the hottest peppers in the world, and astonishingly, Nanu would eat them raw with her meals. Out of curiosity, I once threw quite a tantrum to imitate her, and to this day the memory of my burnt tongue sends a shiver down my spine.
* * *
After helping Nana water the plants and pluck a bottle-guard and some okra, we soon return to the kitchen. I become even more nostalgic, as memories of all the time I spent here cooking with Nanu and chit-chatting with her come rushing to my mind.
* * *
Growing up, my relationship with Nana was quite the opposite from the one I had with Nanu. He exuded authority and evoked a strange fear; he had a faint smile reserved solely for my Nanu. I remember when I was young, upon hearing the long calling bell that would usually indicate that Nana had returned from work, I used to hide behind the long, flowy maxi dress Nanu wore around the house. There was always some awkwardness lingering in the air during all of our interactions, which were usually limited to me fearfully touching his feet to seek his blessings or him giving me a customary hug during Eid.
While I missed out on having a playful relationship with him when I was young, my Nanu always played that role quite well. I still remember, at 5, I used to help her knead the dough for making paratha and threw a hissy fit when my rotis would not turn and become as round as hers under my rolling pin. While stemming and cleaning red amaranth leaves or spinach for cooking, I used to spill all the gossip about my school. She would reply with an abundance of thought and wisdom to my ridiculous questions as though they were serious problems.
When Nanu passed away, it felt like a piece of my childhood had been lost. I was afraid to let go of our one-on-one times while gardening or cooking. That’s when my Nana entered the picture.
* * *
My grandfather’s sinewy fingers marinate the pieces of chicken with garlic and ginger paste, chili powder, crushed nutmeg, mace, and other spices. In my country we are more used to eating the colorful feral chickens than the stark white farm-grown ones. Because their bones are very tough, almost impossible for baby teeth to crack, Nanu used to break them open using her mortar and pestle so I could relish the gooey marrow within.
As I watch Nana work, I cannot help but blurt, “What made you change, Nana?” Though my question is quite vague, he catches on to its real meaning. Shooting me one of his rare faint smiles and setting aside the marinated chicken, he says, “How about some tea, mamoni (dear)?”
The steel kettle whistles. Spooning the dry tea leaves into a pot of boiling water, I surrender again to my wandering thoughts. Analyzing the events since the death of my Nanu, I cannot digest the drastic change in Nana. He is like an alternate, male version of her. We do many things together that I only used to do with my Nanu: sun-drying turmeric, red chilies, and coriander seeds for grinding during hot summer; salting hilsha fish to preserve for the off-season; or dancing to ridiculous folk songs when cooking together. Never did I think that I would be doing all these things with him as I had done with her. After sifting out the tea leaves and pouring the colored liquid into the cups filled with a mixture of powdered milk and sugar, I walk to the porch with a tray in hand, holding my breath in anticipation.
Nana starts speaking before I even take my seat.
“I regret missing out on your childhood, you know. I always envied your Nanu. What an easy relationship she had with you while I might have come across cold. So, when she left, I couldn’t let go of the opportunity to turn around my relationships with all of you. I couldn’t think of any other way to rebuild our relationship other than taking her place in your life. Sounds selfish? Then so be it! Fighting in the war during the ‘70s made me the way I was. How could I caress your soft, innocent face with these same hands that I had once used to take lives, even if they belonged to enemies’?”
During his outburst, I notice him folding a betel leaf, rather neatly, into a conical shape between his wrinkled fingers after stuffing in chopped dry betel nuts, slaked lime paste, and fragrant tobacco leaves. I always find it endearing that he makes my betel leaf with a little more care than he does his own. His hands shiver slightly as he hands over that betel leaf, and I cannot help but notice a teardrop stuck in the corner of his eye behind his spectacles. I did not even see this man shed a tear when his beloved wife left him.
Honestly, I miss Nanu too. Her musky scent from always being out in the garden or in the kitchen, her warm smiles to all my over-excited ones after any accomplishment, her mock-scolds to my mischievous acts. But I would not trade anything. Her death exposed a side of Nana unknown to me until he took her place in my life.
Biting into the betel leaf, I attempt to steer the conversation to a familiar topic.
“Did you notice the latest stunt pulled by Sheikh Hasina to stay in power again? I can’t believe how sly that old woman is! Is this the country you dreamed of when fighting?”
Sipping the hot tea, Nana lets out a long sigh. His thin lips curl into a mocking smile.
After a minute, “After Hayaat, you make the best tea. I’ll definitely visit you in the States when I am craving it.”
I narrow my eyes at his comment. “I feel so loved right now,” I huff.
His boisterous laugh reverberates through the walls. Looking at his glassy, crinkled eyes, I cannot hold on to my mock anger for long.