My mother’s gaze was whip-sharp and demanded my head to hang in shame.
Shame. I knew its taste. Tar and salt, the last drag of Marlboro Lights, straight through the filter, on a balmy afternoon by the beach. The Hindi word for shame sounds like its English counterpart but its form was floating in the vicinity of my brain, waiting to drop at a moment’s notice.
“Sharam nahi aati tumhe?” Have you got no shame?
I caught the word before it even escaped my mother’s mouth. Sharam tasted bitter like dandelion greens with a hint of unsalted cucumber. Three letters of the Hindi alphabet, swaddled together, to form a feeling.
Maa’s face was a mask of rage mixed with—as was typical of all mothers—bitter disappointment. My head hung low. I had just told her that I was living-in with my girlfriend.
“Who is this girl?”
“Alankrutha Nair,” I said, shaping my lover’s name, tasting every morsel of it; the saccharine sweetness of jalebi dipped in yogurt, the tang of tamarind in sambhar. A name I couldn’t forget.
Mother sat down on a nearby chair. I could almost see the wheels of her mind running, processing this news I had thrust upon her.
“Maa, it’s going to be alright. We know what we’re doing.”
“What is wrong with Rajinder Uncle’s girl? She is smart, talented… and most importantly, she comes from money.”
“Are you even listening to yourself?”
“I do. It’s you who doesn’t listen to me. You have never.”
“You’re being impossible…”
“This won’t happen here,” she said, with the piercing finality of an anguished mother.
“Maa, I love her.”
“Rajinder Uncle is your father’s friend. And your father has given him his word.”
“You father and I… we met directly on our wedding day,” she said. I had heard that story a zillion times, and also the sentence that came after it. Pyaar to ho jata hai. Love just happens. The taste of that sentence had a home on my tongue. At the back, rank, bitter, the taste of holding a life to ransom.
“Is this because of her surname?”
“Her… their way of living. It’s different from ours, beta.”
“I can’t believe I am hearing this.”
“If you love me, you’ll forget her. Tujhe meri kasam.”
Kasam. Promise. The taste of burnt roti, of overripe figs.
My cab driver listened to Mohd. Rafi songs as bitter, cold air hit my face on my way to the airport. I received a call on my phone but I didn’t recognize the name. It seemed familiar. Warm and comforting. I picked it up.
“Baby, how’d it go?”
Her voice was raindrops on a hot tin roof. A rush of sea as it meets the shore. My heart leapt out of my ribcage and the edges of my lips quivered. But the taste of Marlboro was back again. Shame.
“Not good. Talk when I get there?”
“Your tiramisu will be waiting for you, baby. Have a safe flight.”
“You have a sweet night,” I said.
My palms were sweaty, and my eyes burned from the shame of forgetting my lover’s name. The taste of a promise thrust unwittingly on me was back on my tongue.
She hugged me and held me for a long time. I lingered on my doorstep, savouring the moment.
“It will be alright, Prashant,” she said. My name from her lips felt alien. Something which once tasted like rose sharbat and honey on pancakes had now soured into an aftertaste of stale beer.
“Is the tiramisu ready?” I asked, not addressing her by name. It broke my heart.
She nodded and walked away, leaving the smell of lilacs and coffee hanging in the air. If I could gather those, and bottle them up, I could associate those smells with her name.
I checked my phone, and opened my Recent Calls tab. The last call was by an unreadable name just two and a half hours ago. The letters were jumbled and blurred, not making sense to my brain. The fog refused to lift. The curse refused to go.
I mouthed kasam under my breath, and this time, it tasted like burnt plastic.
“Prashant, I was thinking we should visit Kerala this month,” she called me.
“Sure.” I dropped my bag on the floor, and went to our bedroom. Beside our neatly made bed, on the bookshelf, there was a book she had gifted me, when we had just started dating. I took it out and flipped to the first page, eager to get a glimpse of her name.
To more flights into the beyond.
I held close the memory of our first kiss in that moment, desperately trying to reach into the past to clutch something. We were on a bus stand. It was July, evening, and a drizzle had just started.
“I guess I signed up for this when I moved here,” she’d said.
“See the bright silver lining, Alankrutha. I came as a bonus,” I’d said. A blatantly cheesy line which shouldn’t have worked. But it did. She had smiled and held my hand. I hesitated, leaning in. She leaned in, too.
At least her name was still alive in my memories. I tried to form it again, and it came out broken. A succulent jalebi which has been left to dry. Cold sambhar.
“You know I re-read this book recently.” I turned abruptly, startled, and my heart skipped a beat. She stood there, holding the tiramisu.
Tiramisu, the word doesn’t taste remotely like the dessert—it tastes better.
“So, what did you find?” I took the dish from her.
“It has lost much of its old charm, you know. Like meeting an old friend after a long time and realising he has turned into a raging old bigot.”
“Well, you can always read better books.”
“Yes,” she said, tilting her head to one side. “We can.”
Maa called the next day to talk about Shipra, again. How the talented Shipra is running a cosmetics business and how it is growing and how she is thinking of developing an app. Oh look, how charming Shipra is because she gifted a stash of make-up, absolutely free of cost. Oh look, she wears such a nice, Punjabi, salwar-kameez.
Shipra. The name tasted like a hailstorm in winter. Tongue stuck to a frozen pole. Cold. Empty.
I could not shout at Maa on the phone. I couldn’t fight. I asked about Papa. She asked if I had eaten. I told her my girlfriend had made aloo-gobhi, and Maa grunted disapprovingly. Obviously, Shipra could make better aloo-gobhi. And yes, Maa had tasted that too, because Rajinder uncle invites the family for dinner every weekend.
“When will you learn to cook something?” she asked, all of a sudden, and I didn’t have an answer to her question.
Then, the conversation devolved into weather, and nosedived into a cursory goodbye. Before disconnecting, I said I loved her. Which is also why I am in this place right now, where the woman I call my girlfriendis sitting beside me, on the bed, watching Netflix, and I can’t call her by her name to ask, “What are you watching, let’s watch together,” and I have to resort to monikers like sweety, honey, pumpkin, and, our favourite, kinu.
“The Haunting of Hill House,” she said. “But you hate horror.”
“I can try today,” I said.
I was living my personal horror. Nothing else could have scared me anymore.
The next day, her face disappeared.
I woke up after her. She was in the washroom, so I decided to make some tea for us both. She liked it oversweet, and I really had no preference. She liked Parle-G biscuits with her tea and so did I. I prepared everything, set the cups neatly on the tray, and walked out of the kitchen. I saw her standing in the living room, drying her hair. Her smell was a whiff of lilac, with a tinge of rose. But her face, oh god, her face.
Featureless, bare, like her eyes, nose, lips, had been spooned out, leaving only a concave surface. I stood rooted. A pit formed inside my stomach, and a shiver coursed through me. The tray I held trembled, threatening to fall down at any moment.
“Hey, good morning!” she said. “Wow, you made tea!”
“I… uh…” My words slipped out like water. I could give them no shape, no form, nothing. What was I to do when my lover had no face?
“Well, what are you standing there for?” she said. She moved towards me, to take the tray from my hands. I staggered back, and at that moment, my face must have betrayed some undefinable terror, which she caught immediately.
“Prashant, is something wrong?”
Wrong. Soggy chips, chalk, and leather. Nausea built inside me. I shivered some more. Everything was going wrong.
“Kinu…” I tried, but I couldn’t. The taste of tar and salt and cigarettes had to go. The shame had to evaporate, and she was the only one with reason. But my resolve was not enough.
“I don’t think I put in enough sugar. Can you have a taste and check?”
I couldn’t tell if she smiled.
My shame simmered inside me and made me hollow. My days were made of pocket-sized horrors of having to encounter her ghost-like face. Could you truly love if there is no face to your love?
The next Saturday, we drove to the nearest bank to get a joint account opened in our name. The security guard nodded at both of us, chewing his tobacco, red spittle forming on his lips. “Long line today,” he said.
“We’ll be fine,” I said.
We entered the bank. I followed and joined another queue. She stood behind an old woman who was trying to both manage her purse and a manuscript worth of papers. The woman seemed flustered, at the edge of panic, and dropped the papers, scattering them across the green marble.
My lover helped her pick up the papers. The old woman thanked her profusely, then went about her business as if nothing had happened. Just another day at the bank. My lover cast a glance at me, but I couldn’t make out her expression.
Some feet shuffled, some papers fell, here and there. The bank was loud and smelly and hot this Saturday, a day which tasted mostly like salt and apples. A day which was a contradiction.
Her queue moved, gingerly.
“Sir, your turn.”
I turned and noticed I’d reached the counter. The teller at the other end of the glass eyed me.
“I, uh, am here to have an account opened.”
“Savings or current?”
“Savings,” I said.
“Single or joint?”
“Joint,” I said. She handed me a form which I almost snatched. By this time, my lover was by my side.
“This happens every time with queues, doesn’t it?”
I nodded at her and scribbled my name on the form. But when it came to writing hers, my hand shivered, the pen poised an inch above the paper. I gulped, and my shirt stuck to my skin, drenched with sweat.
“What are you waiting for, Prashant?”
My name was stale beer. What was her name?
“Sir, it’s lunchtime in five minutes, please hurry.”
I could sense her eyes drilling holes in my head. She was distant, her face not even a memory in my head. The curse which had seized my brain was now complete.
Burnt roti. Overripe figs.
“Prashant… write my name,” she said. Her voice came from across seas, a din. My grip faltered, and the pen fell, making an inkblot on the dotted line where her name was supposed to go.
“I… I don’t remember.”
Remembrance. Taste of lemon, taste of memory.
She’d been pacing to and fro. The conversation we had was sour but important. It had to happen someday. The smear across her face had extended to her neck now. She was blurring away.
“I am sorry.”
She stopped. “Say my name.”
“A…” I struggled to voice the first syllable, and only air came out of my mouth.
“Do you love me?”
“Hell yes I do. More than anything in the world.”
“Then remember…” she said. “For our sake.”
She held me. If I could taste moments, this one would taste like sweet kheer with almonds and saffron strands sprinkled on top.
“This is not on you,” I said. “This is on me to fix.”
She separated from me, and the brief warmth we’d shared was gone. I couldn’t tell what was going to happen.
“What does my name taste like?”
I told her.
Yet again, her face just hovered there, ghostlike, unreadable. But now I knew.
“The kitchen is well-stocked,” she said, and almost ran towards the kitchen before I stopped her.
“No, I’ll do it.”
She must have smiled at that moment. Eureka moments are happy moments.
It took four hours to prepare everything. My arms hurt from stirring the sambhar, and the tips of my fingers were singed from accidentally touching the sizzling kadhai every now and then. My brain was a dense fog from the effort of preparing just the right batter for the jalebi. I was, basically, a bumbling buffoon in the kitchen.
When the moment came, she tasted the sambhar first.
“It’s good but it needs a bit more spice,” she said, smacking her lips.
“A bit of red chilli. Just a pinch of coriander.”
I did as was told. She tasted it again and nodded. It was my time. I blew some air on to the teaspoon and brought it gingerly to my lips.
The sambhar was tamarind-tart, with just the right amount of spice, the same way as I had first tasted it in Chennai. When I had first met my lover. A shape soon formed on my lips, and my tongue moved, finally making an effort. My brain could tell me to pour out a name. A. L. A… I tried, and half her name fell out. A. L. A. N… But half of her name was another name, and I tasted salty bacon. I knew why.
I picked the jalebi and ate it. It was sweet and crunchy, the antithesis of sambhar. I savoured every morsel of the dessert and licked my fingers clean. As soon as I did, her name came out, fully formed. Alankrutha.
The blur on her face melted and it was no longer the grotesque concave mask. It was her. Completely, her. Alankrutha Nair. Two onyx black eyes, one short nose, full lips.
“I see you,” I said. “God, I see you.”
She held my hand, which was sticky with the jalebi caramel, and kissed it. I leaned over and kissed her on the lips. In that moment, I felt I could never lose her. I felt invincible, and a sliver of my heart told me that she felt the same way too.
So, when we parted, I took a leap, despite my earlier misgivings. I finally popped the question.
Yes. Yes, the small word, tastes like sparkling wine, corn on the cob, sticky rice, and pudding.
A couple of months later, Alankrutha and I visited Delhi. We’d gotten blessings from her parents in Chennai. A final stamp of approval still remained. This was something which needed to be done.
Luck. Luck, the word, tastes like chewing gum. And bad luck is when you start choking on it. This is what happened when Maa opened the door.
She kept silent as she invited us inside. The familiar living room where I’d spent half my life lounging felt like an alien, blockish space, with strangers staring at me as if I had blasphemed. On the sofa sat Rajinder Uncle and beside him sat Shipra, clad in a blue-green salwar-kameez. They were having chai and snacks. A sharp, nutty smell of freshly fried samosas hung in the air.
Alankrutha squeezed my hand. I had to do this right.
“Namaste, uncle. Hello, Shipra.”
Both of them nodded.
“Meet Alankrutha,” I continued. “We are getting married.”
The samosa fell from Rajinder Uncle’s fingers. Crumbs and potato filling scattered all over the carpet. There was a long, uncomfortable silence.
“I always felt something was wrong,” said Rajinder Uncle.
“Well, now you know.”
He hadn’t expected me to retort. A vein throbbed on his temple. Shipra was unsure whether she should stand in such a situation or keep sitting. I felt sorry for her.
“Come, Shipra, let’s go.” Rajinder Uncle stormed out of our house. Shipra cast a long, wistful glance at me. Then she too followed her father.
Maa sank on the couch, grabbing her head. Alankrutha went by her side immediately. My mother seemed to have aged five years in that moment.
“Aunty, are you okay?” asked Alankrutha.
Maa looked at her and then back at me. I stood, my hands inside my pockets.
“You just won’t listen,” said Maa.
I shrugged, and in my shrug was a defiance I didn’t know I had. “What do I have to do to convince you that this is what I want, Maa? I love her.”
She didn’t answer me. Her eyes, almost glassy now, as if drenched into a pit of despair and cold memory, stared at the empty space between me and Alankrutha.
“His name once tasted of methi, and cloves.”
“What?” I couldn’t fathom the magnitude of the information which had just hit me. I exchanged glances with Alankrutha, who squeezed my arm.
“I forgot my father’s name…” she continued, then paused again, as if gathering courage to speak further. She took a deep breath. Her chin quivered as she spoke next, because the words were tough. “Your father and I didn’t meet directly on our wedding day. We had been seeing each other for three years, secretly. And when the time came… I ran away with him, because your grandfather wouldn’t approve. The curse latched on to me… and… His name is probably still there, somewhere at the edges of my memory. I can’t recall his face. Broken cloves. Rotten methi. And some sand.”
“Maa, why didn’t you tell this to me earlier?”
“I was afraid of losing you. The curse…” She held my gaze. But her eyes were distant, and her words raw. “I thought by binding you to it, I could somehow keep you in my sight. So at least you would not forget me. But I now realise how wrong I was. Forgetting is not in our control. The onus of remembering falls on us.” She’d held those words for so many years, and now they were out, washing over me like an ocean wave.
I sat down beside my mother and held her hand.
“My love for her. and for you. is too great,” I said. “I can bring it back, even if I forget it.”
“I still remember when you drew an apple and a glass of water when asked to draw ‘mirror’ in eighth grade. That’s when I knew I had to protect you.”
A pause built between the three of us which was shattered only by my mother’s next words.
“Fried Hilsa. Pomegranate seeds.” she said, after long, holding my hand. Then, she looked at Alankrutha. “That’s what I taste when I say the word ‘sorry’. I am sorry, beta.”
A weight lifted off my chest. Alankrutha gave me a does-this-mean-we’re-okay look and I nodded.
“Do you love him?” Maa asked my fiancée.
“Yes,” Alankrutha said.
“Hope you know what you’re getting into. He listens to no one and can’t cook even if his life depended on it.”
“Actually… that latter part isn’t true.” Alankrutha held me as she said this. I grinned at her. I knew immediately what I had to do, lest I forget the name of the second person I love the most in the world.
I went straight to the kitchen.
Mother. I swirled the word in my mouth. There was no shame this time, no kasam to be made. Mother, the word tasted like hot butter-soaked parathas, ginger tea, and a whiff of cinnamon.
Amal Singh is a screenwriter, author, and a cat dad from Mumbai, India. When his cat is not judging him, he can be seen drafting a novel, or trying to bake brownies in a cooker. His short fiction has previously appeared in Apex Magazine, Mithila Review, Syntax & Salt, among others. He tweets at @jerun_onto.