For the life of her, Amma couldn’t get the portions right anymore. Every night we tried to finish the food – the rice, the curries, the fried fish or chicken – and even if sometimes Appa and I succeeded, it left us bloated. The heavy dinners put me to sleep when I tried to study, and Appa started getting indigestion.
I’d wake up at three in the morning, my cheek stuck to the pages, and find him reading The Hindu out in the hall or pacing the veranda like a Gurkha. If we saw each other at night, we never talked, nor did we mention it the following morning.
The amount of food Amma made differed every day: sometimes there was a lot left over and we filled the fridge; other times, a mound of rice the size of a breast, or if we could stretch our stomachs, nothing at all.
The following week, my sister returned after her honeymoon. Coming back from college that evening, I found a note on the fridge from Amma. My sister had had an allergic reaction to mussels and she had gone to visit her, it said.
Amma hadn’t made dinner. Once Appa returned from work, the two of us spread the left-overs across the work-top and went through them one by one. The kitchen table looked like a Tupperware showroom.
Some of the food had to be thrown out, but some looked promising. In the end, we had fried cod, poached mackerel, curried chicken, some curd rice, white rice, long beans, stir-fried cabbage, and half an omelette – not all the same age. It wasn’t bad. And to me at least, it felt satisfying to empty the fridge.
When Amma returned later that night, she had already eaten. But the dinner she had been given at my sister’s in-laws’ didn’t agree with her. Attuned only to what she was used to, she spent the entire night throwing up.
Amma was sick for the next few days and ate nothing but amniotic porridge, slivers of lime pickle and flame-roasted tapioca papadums. We also ate porridge, but when we tired of it, Appa and I bought roti and egg curry from a sweaty eatery, and since the smell revolted Amma, ate it out in the hall. There, we spilled gravy on the couch and curry-stained the tv remote trying to find the right channel.
Amma started cooking again in less than a week. This time she made things she had never made before. She printed out recipes and stacked them on the slab under a potato. Like a factory inspector, she stood by the pan nibbling on her bic, check-marking each ingredient as it went in. One night she made Gobi Manchurian and another time, Chicken Rogan Josh. Neither was very good, but we didn’t complain.
Amma also began experimenting with different kinds of table arrangements. We would find next to our dinners, innocent jasmines plucked in their prime, or ikebana attempts in gravy boats; other times, there were decorative table mats and plates we had never seen before, depicting scenes from the daily lives of faraway people.
Once she made shiitake mushrooms, which we then ate by candle light, on light-blue plates that showed sailors playing cards.
Around the same time, our portions started shrinking. At first, more opulent than before, they slowly fell through a sieve. For a very brief period it seemed like the right amount, until soon they resembled the microscopic portions you saw on Masterchef. Eventually we were going to sleep half full of air.
My sister visited us that same week for the first time since she got married. She came alone and without notice, and walked about like she was checking for mould. Although she had lived here for twenty-four years, she went from room to room. She asked if this was new or if that was new. She told Appa that my room reeked of cigarettes. Her husband was a smoker too, but Appa and Amma didn’t know that.
My sister and I sat in her old room and I asked her how things were and she said they were good. She told me she had tried smoking and that it killed her. Her husband smoked the same brand as I did.
I wanted to ask her how much she ate when she lived here. As silly as it was, I couldn’t remember. But in the end I decided not to. Until recently, we were a family of moderate and inconspicuous eaters.
Sister didn’t stay for dinner that night, which was just as well – we didn’t have enough food. But after her visit, the portions grew once again. Sometimes we had enough food to feed another table. My jeans shrank. I began to sprout love handles like cherub wings.
On the night of Republic Day, not long after, we decided to take a break and get food from Real Beijing. Appa bought their specialty combination: szechuan fried rice, boneless chilli chicken, and raita. The food came in shiny red plastic containers with the logo of a dancing chicken. Amma wiped the table and laid the mats. I got the plates and cutlery, and Appa served.
Then, just as we were about to begin, sister called and invited us to dinner. We tried to stuff the food into the refrigerator, but it wouldn’t fit, no matter what we did. Not even the freezer had room to spare. In the end, we abandoned our dinner on the table – the rice still steaming – and left as fast as we could.
Aravind Jayan is a writer from Kerala. His work has appeared in many places including Out of Print, The Bombay Literary Magazine and Reading Hour.