As she floats into the kitchen, I could taste the smell of ghee on the chapattis and the spicy aroma of vegetable curry. She takes an old rag and slides the lid on the aluminum pot to let out the extra steam, then continues to roll the chapattis with a wooden stick. Before lunch, the mail carrier delivers her the mail. Letters came to her every week from my father and before I could ask her what he had written, she had whisked it up to her room with a smile. Tearing one side of the envelope, she gently blows it open and sits herself on her husband's favorite cloth chair beside the heap of mattresses on the table, which she stacks every morning when the children had gone to school. With care, she unfolds the letter and runs her fingers on the paper. Holding it between her hands, she tilts her head to the left like a shy child and lies on her clasped hands to feel the writer's emotions. She carefully folds the letter, hides it amid the mounds of mattresses, and gently shies away to her chores. She is affable enough when she is not preoccupied with the house chores but at instances like these, she gets upset if she does not have her moments of privacy.
His writing was not scribbled; in fact, it was always neat and legible. He must have taken his most quiet moments to put the pen on the paper. At night when she had tucked the children to bed, she closes her bedroom door. In the quietness of the evening, she fetches her husband's letter once more. She sits on her bed placing the letter on the soft-feathered pillow, and pulls out her reading glasses from the drawer. A ray of faint sodium light from the street softly glisten the room through the window, then she lights the candle to give more light to her reading. Her life was much like the candle that burnt on both ends; her duties demanded the entire moments of the day. Rather than singing a lullaby, which she was deprived of as a child herself, she innocently says, 'Hui ja beta' (go to sleep son). She places her finger under each word and makes effort to pronounce the words with syllabic consonants. After a vain attempt, she places the letter under her pillow and with a gentle puff on the dancing candle flame, she drifts off into an abyss of pleasant dreams.
On Sundays, uncle Punja still came to eat with us, even when my father was in hospital, which was over a hundred miles away. Uncle Punja was short, not more than five feet four in height, and very slightly obese. He was loosing his hair at an alarming rate and his face was hairless. He had a very fair skin and wore a charismatic aura. Moreover, something about his eyes always fascinated me. For a while, I was comforted by this gesture of constancy and by my uncle's continued dignified calmness, which seemed the mark of a rare wisdom, as if a few kind words from him could suddenly set right all the troubles of our house.
Uncle Punja and father both came to Fiji Islands together from India and after all, they were immediate cousins. He always sat on my father's favorite chair with a cup of tea and read the letters my father sent, while the family sat around listening to him in the dead of silence. Mother always took her place by the door like a bride with a long veil over her head to respect my uncle, an old custom from India perhaps. She had her eyes shut almost to the end of the letter. Father never addressed the letter in her name out of respect, which I find quite appalling today. Every letter began with, 'Tell my brave knight,' addressed to me. Mother understood the letter was meant for her, she read in-between the lines. For days, she would wear the same smile of happiness unless she twists away into her strange logic for some reason.
When I turned seven, I longed for my mother's love that was most tender and sweet. She knew best how to place the pillow under my weary head when I was restless, fretful or violently sick. She knew how to speak the words of hope when pain became intolerable, 'Don't worry love, you will be fine, you are a brave knight,' she would say. Her skin was fair; and with her weary light brown eyes, she looked quite fatigued. Moreover, with tight-plaited hair wrap around her back, she seemed a little stocky. Father sat at the foot of the bed in his slim posture with imposing presence, lightly messaging my legs, inquiring about the pain like an obliging healer of bodies. He soothed my agony with gentle words, relieving the anguish of the long night. He promised me a pair of black shoes from the cobbler's shop that I always starred at, displayed in the window next to the Globe Theatre. He said we could go to the cobbler if I got well enough to walk there and it would be difficult for me to try them on if I was weak. The truth was he hardly had any money to buy them. Mother watched over me and softened every blow of pain by placing her hand on my head and running her fingers through my curly hair. She brought me up unrivaled among her other offsprings and I found myself growing with love and care and with no more than three pennies in my pocket each weekend.
When I was well, I spent most of my time alone, waiting for something to happen that would restore the normalcy of things, for Sugar festival, for inter-district soccer or for the school to begin in January. At school, at least, I could see Vinod, who was now busy helping his father in the jewelry store. Vinod was really my regular friend in the town, though he was a year younger than I was. His hair was always oily and he would not notice the rivulets of castor oil ran down his chin like the tears of sorrow. I constantly reminded him to wipe them off with his handkerchief. His most prized possession was his tri-cycle his father bought him on his sixth birthday. Once I rode his tri-cycle and his mother scolded me for doing so. Nevertheless, I knew Vinod regarded me as his ardent protector.
Mother called my father when dinner was ready at six o'clock. She always ate after she had fed the entire family. To my mother, dinner had this provisory quality about it, as if it was of extreme importance and it was standing in the way. It was a punctual commotion of an afternoon dream. If we were late, my mother would sit turned away towards the primus on which she made chapattis. She would stay in her stony silence for a short period until my father cracked a joke, 'You know son, I was not in love with your mother when I married her, it was after her first day of cooking that made me fall in love with her.' Mother would turn around with a smile and say, 'Fine, now start eating while I am making more chapattis.'
Uncle Punja's wife and mother had strong and friendly relationship. We called her 'Mouti Ma' (elder mum). She was tall, slim, very chatty and funny. She came home almost every other day for a visit. At times, she brought Lila, her ten-year-old daughter, so she could make the chapattis while mother sat with Mouti Ma and chattered for a couple of hours. Lila and I would go outside and play while Mouti Ma and mother were still deeply lost in their ingenious conversations.
Every Sunday, shortly after lunch, they would go to the temple to listen to the pundit read the Gita (Bible). The temple would be full, congregants spilling out into the porch; but a few places would still be empty for Mouti Ma, mother and me in the front row. When the sermon ends, someone young from the congregants would bring the Aarthi plate (a donation plate with a burning wick in clay bowel) and Mouti Ma would put a penny in the plate while mother would just bow with her clasped hands and take the blessing, she never had money to offer to the Gods.
Mouti Ma, out of courtesy would pull out a penny from her blouse to give to mother, and mother would refuse with a smile and a light tear from her weary eyes. It was something in my mother's fortune that made her feel invulnerable, strong, and strangely candid, for she knew quite well that wealth was not one of the things bestowed upon her husband's divine providence.