She arrives with a small suitcase and several jute bags filled with food. Fried onions, pickles, dinner for tonight and lunch the following day. On the drive over, she picked up a crusty loaf of brun pav to go with her homemade jam. My mother has told her I need help.
“I’m here to set up your kitchen,” my grandmother says. She’s on a mission. She’s discussed it with her daughter and they’ve agreed that, left to my own devices, I’d continue on with two pots and a toaster for as long as I have this apartment.
I am new to Mumbai, but, at 26, I’m more interested in exploring the city than decorating. I moved here to work in the art world, to discover the many visual languages of this place. I am ready to become something, and though I’m unsure what, I feel certain I won’t find out in the confines of this flat. My grandmother looks around at the bare white walls, the crushed linen sofa and a collection of mass-produced tin lanterns on the floor. “What kind of sitting room is this? Where will everyone relax after dinner?”
I look around. Does she know I live alone? It’s June, and the sky outside is a violent grey. The monsoon season is upon us. My grandmother contemplates the clouds, and says we better get started if we’re going to beat the rain.
We begin at the market in Santa Cruz, and the wet air hits my face as we duck into a narrow shop. She selects a number of daals for my pantry, two different varieties of mung, reddish masoor. She points to the raajma, but I tell her I can’t eat it.
“I can’t digest it.”
She laughs, shaking her head, and asks for a kilo to be packed anyway. Next is rice. She forgoes the usual basmati for fragrant ambemohar. Then she assesses the varieties of millet and, making a face, says they’re no good, that she will send me some freshly ground flour the following week. She tells me that when my mother moved to the US after her wedding, she didn’t know how to cook. “We made a book with recipes, and stapled little bags of jeera and rye seeds on the pages, so she would know the difference!”
We move on to the next store, passing through a tunnel of steel vessels. I watch our reflections in the pots. We look nothing alike. Still, being with her feels like home. She decides on several shapes and sizes, including two pressure cookers, one big and one small.
“You can use the big one when you have parties,” she says. I smile. The parties I have will not involve me cooking, but I’m reluctant to disappoint her. She motions toward a dinner set. The plates are apparently shatterproof. Reaching over the counter, she picks up a bowl and drops it on the floor. The salesmen turn to look. The bowl sits on the floor unharmed. She bends to pick it up, smiling. “Nice, no?”
As we drive home, approaching my building on a curvy street appropriately called Zig Zag Road, the traffic comes to a standstill. Rain is falling in sheets. The water level is rising and I feel panicked. How long will we be stuck here?
My grandmother reaches into one of the bags. “Are you hungry?” she asks.
Before I can answer she pulls out two balls of gold foil. Inside is dark chocolate filled with rum. I pop one in my mouth. My throat and stomach warm and I ask for another. She produces a whole box.
She turns on the radio and sings a few lines of an old Hindi song that’s playing. She tells me she used to have a beautiful voice but the steroids she takes for her asthma have ruined it. We eat more chocolate and she asks me if I am in love with the man I am dating. I’m surprised. Probably not, I answer. She says that I shouldn’t get married if I can avoid it, that it’s better to have fun and be free. Then she giggles and rests her head against her seat, her eyes on the cars stalled ahead.