Flowers In Our Broth
May 27, 2019
In September 2018, the Supreme Court of India deemed Article 377 unconstitutional and effectively legalised homosexuality. There was much to cheer, but unfortunately, many parents still can’t come to terms with their children being gay. They go to extremes such as disowning them and never accepting their life partners. This needs to change. People in general, and parents especially, have to be more accepting if their children are part of the LGBTQ community. In this short fiction, a father pays an awkward visit to his daughter and her lesbian life partner, unsure of whether to accept or ignore their relationship.
Titli sips the stew, her head is bent over and a bun is tied high up on her head. Her black hair is glistening with coconut oil. A chopstick protrudes from the bun, giving the illusion of a geisha at work. The kohl-eyed city girl gives herself entirely to the moment, taking in the overwhelming aroma of the stew. Like a secret that is now out, it has seeped into all the crevices of the kitchen, sinuously touching every little open pore. Gently slurping some broth from the soft, rounded edge of her wooden ladle, Titli shakes the pan to stir up the bits at the bottom.
Rati pinches her ample bottom, and Titli’s concentration splinters. “Ah so there you are… wolfing down our dinner as is your wont”, a smile creeping around the corners of her mouth.
“My taste buds feel cheated! I was so enjoying this moment.”
Titli embraces Rati, “My love of food is legendary, and stew is my ever-favorite, especially one full of the flavours of celery, tomatoes….”
“And parsley, cinnamon, and freshly-plucked Basil.”
The doorbell rings. Startled, Titli’s arms fall free of Rati’s waist. Their questioning gazes meet, unsure and hesitant. Their eyes drop.
Titli pushes Rati back, pointing at the pan, handing her the ladle quietly. It feels as if the interloper is already in the kitchen. Rati stares at the ladle. Titli pushes her gently again toward the stew-pan. The kitchen seems too large, too open all at once, lacking any privacy. Rati moves toward Titli, handing her back the ladle, and makes towards the home entrance as the doorbell rings a second time. The noise is unrelenting.
“I’m sorry, am I intruding? Your mother wanted me to bring some of the freshly-made laddoos she prepared last night.” As always, Papa is unsure and apologetic. Papa is a man who doesn’t know quite what to do without Mom’s instructions, and here he is, holding a gleaming steel box in one hand, the keys to his Activa scooter in another. His shoulders are hunched and his posture denotes intense fatigue, the kind which wears a man down when he has never quite known which way he should ride, whether his choices are going to receive appreciation or brickbats.
“This is wonderful, thank you so much, Papa.”
Rati does not indicate that he is welcome in, her small apartment is getting darker as the Sun sets. Nearby, birds are calling their mates to return to their nests. A scooter passes by, whirring rapidly and honking, a door creaks open somewhere in the neighbourhood. Titli continues stirring the stew in the kitchen, feeling beads of sweat trickling down her spine as she waits for the father and daughter to exchange words. Her temple throbs, her heart beats faster. She shuts her eyes, and the aroma of the stew takes over her senses yet again. The perfume of the flowers blooming in their tiny garden enter via their kitchen window and seem to merge with bubbling stew’s smell, relaxing Titli as always.
“So, that was it beta”, Papa breaks the awkward silence. Both daughter and father stare at each other. Rati attempts to smile as Papa’s eyes sweep the small expanse of the main room. He hasn’t stepped inside yet, but he isn’t quite outside either.
“Would you like to come in, papa, would you like some water?”
“I just had some before leaving home, but, is a cup of chai possible?” Papa is curious, he wants to stay a little longer. As he steps inside he realises he has never entered Rati’s home. Rati had never invited her parents and Papa has come only thrice before, only to drop off something and turn away from the door at that. Today, the chance to see his only child’s abode beckons. It is time.
His eyes dart here and there, taking in the ambience, but why is he feeling like such an alien in his own daughter’s home, whose subtle presence is dominating the house? He cannot quite recognise it. He spies a pile of dirty laundry on a stool at the corner of the dusty room, and he observes the paintings on the wall, he cannot tell the artist but he can tell they are painted with an experienced brush.
“Is that one of your paintings, Rati?” he asks, pointing at a mural.
“Which one? That modern one? No.”
“The colours are a bit jarring, no? And what does this shape mean?”
“It doesn’t have to mean anything, and I like the colours.” Of course she does. She was always an oddly different kid, maybe even a bit strange. Mom was always obvious and outspoken in her critique of her daughter’s taste in art, clothes, friends, food, all of it. Papa only ever questioned with his eyes, at best, a word here or there. He preferred the quiet reticence of a man who knows his place, his wife had taken on the role of the ‘domineering one’ early on in their marriage.
“Let me get you some ginger chai with homemade cookies.”
Following every word of the conversation taking place in the living room, Titli quickly begins to brew some masala chai.
“Waah beta, now you bake also. Your Maa will be so proud.”
“Let’s not get carried away,” Rati laughs out loud, “I haven’t begun baking, nope, not me, a friend.”
“Oh.. eheheh” Papa can barely camouflage his disappointment as clearing of his throat. Rati smiles dismissively, rolls her eyes just a wee bit, and steps into the kitchen to get the tea and cookies.
Papa sits, wondering what he could say to connect with his daughter. He is keen to learn more of Rati’s life, today he is alone and unguarded. Rati enters balancing a teacup in one hand and the cookies in the other, and trailing her is a tall, big and pretty girl. Papa stands up right away.
“Namaste uncle,” says the girl.
Papa just stares.
“Namaste uncle. How’re you?” Titli is gifted with a melodious timbre, and she has decided to use it to its full effect today. She will not remain a secret, she will not remain silent.
Papa is unable to respond.
“Actually, I think your mother is waiting for me, I’ll have chai next time.” And he makes for the door. He is unsure of how to react to this girl, the one he presumes is the painter-‘friend’, the one who bakes for his daughter.
“Papa,” says Rati, “Sit down, please. Finish your chai. I’m sure Maa will understand.” Papa is not in a mood to obey, and he prepares to leave.
“Wait, Papa,” the daughter pleads. He halts.
Rati slowly moves toward Titli, deep affection in her eyes, a wall of protection cocoons them instantly. Papa doesn’t say anything, neither do the girls. The steel container with the laddoos lies unopened on the yellow tablecloth.
“She’s my dearest friend, uncle. We choose to live and paint together. We try to make money by selling our work. We met years ago at Kala Kendra, Rati thought you wouldn’t accept our friendship.” Titli has broken the awkward silence with more awkwardness.
The aroma of the stew, mingled with the perfume of the flowers, drifts into the living room. Does Papa smell it too? Does it help calm his curious and unsure self?
Titli’s tall and full figure gently nudges Rati to say something, but she remains quiet.
“I should leave now, but please empty the steel container. Rati’s mother won’t like me returning without it.”
“Please stay uncle, join us for stew and toast for dinner.”
As if snapping out of a daze, Rati proudly adds, “Yes papa, Titli is an excellent cook. Can’t you smell it?”
A hundred thoughts enter Papa’s mind. Stew and toast is no dinner. So this girl’s name is Titli, how unbecoming, she is more of a cross between an Atlas moth and a dragonfly. What will he tell Lalita if he stays- that their daughter and her mate invited him to dine spontaneously, and he would rather sip stew instead of indulging in the sumptuous meal she has prepared?
Sensing his discomfort, Rati convinces him to at least finish this tea. They settle down once again. But Papa remains lost in his thoughts. His daughter dresses like a man, behaves like one, and is living with another woman who was probably in charge. Why couldn’t she have gone the way of every ‘normal’ woman? Why had they not married her off at the right age, to the ‘correct’ person?
“So uncle, tell me how was Rati as a child? Was she sullen, or cheerful? Was she helpful around the house? Did she read a lot, talk a lot, tell me all, uncle, how was Rati as a child?”
Papa is dumbstruck. This moth girl is not letting up. Why can’t she just let sleeping dogs lie? Why won’t she pretend? Why won’t she play-act? Why? Let us be, child, let us live guarding our sanity with what we wish to believe.
Reluctantly he begins, “she was a good girl, but not academic. She always coloured anything she could lay her hands on.” Papa’s eyes begin misting over. He is reminiscing. It was a happy childhood. Parenting Rati had not been tough. He pauses as he travels back in time. Titli waits patiently for him to go on.
“She was friendly, cheerful, loved by everyone. Her mother was very proud to show off her artwork, always. I, on the other hand, wanted more than just colours in her future.” Papa’s emotions are shifting. He remembers his expectations coming in the way of his affection.
“So then? How did she get into art school- without your blessings?”
“She always had her way, till she finally moved out, against our will. She would not marry, she said she was not the marrying type.” Papa’s eyes are now clouded with anger; his breathing is deeper, harder.
“But she is happy uncle, maybe this is how she will stay happy. And ultimately that’s what matters, does it not?”
“How can anyone be happy knowing they cause misery?”
“If it’s the only way you can survive…” Titli confidently continues, “one has to choose, and sometimes one chooses the harder and longer road.”
“So she was right in running away?”
“I did not run away” Rati finally enters the conversation, albeit softly.
“You told us you wished to make your own life, with a mate of your choosing.”
“But I did tell you, Papa. I could have disappeared without as much as a word.”
“You informed us. You don’t inform your parents, you take our blessings, our permission, and that is the right way.”
Rati looks away trying to blink away the tears. Title takes her hand, looking pleadingly at Papa. Papa looks down. Finally, relenting, he gets up, opens the steel tiffin, and offers Titli a laddoo.
“These are the best laddoos, made by Lalita, Rati’s mother. Have one.”
Is this a peace offering? Titli looks at Papa as she draws one large ball of sweetness from the box. Rati moves into the light.
“Me too, please, Mom’s are truly the best,”
“Uncle, this is smashing! Please thank Aunty.”
Papa’s face falls at the mention of his wife, his fatigue returns. Rati walks over to papa, places both her hands on his stooping shoulders, and presses them.
“Papa please keep coming, and one day, bring Maa also. I’d like that.”
Papa looks at his daughter and manages a sad smile.
“I don’t think Lalita will come. I don’t know if I will return either. But I want to. I can see you are okay, and sometimes knowing that can be enough. If I come back, I want to sample this nice-smelling stew and toast. ”
“Okay… Papa. But can I pack you some stew? Titli’s stews are the best.”
“Someday, beta. Not tonight, some other night… I hope.” Papa leaves with the empty tiffin box. Rati and Titli hold hands, pressing till they hurt. They close the door behind Papa, and look at each other, smiling through tears.
Not only a writer, Kamalini, is also a trained classical singer (Indian classical) and a teacher of French and Spanish. She regularly jams with a group of musicians. Her short stories and articles have been published in magazines, blogs and journals such as Parenting, New Woman, Café Dissensus and Coldnoon. Recently one of her essays, entitled Probing The Dermis, was published in a book – Twilight’s Children, Chronicles Of Uncommon Lives. Her first novel, Naked Beneath The Midnight Sun, will be published in 2019. You can follow her blog, here.
Read her articles, here.