Inside the folds of her silk sarees, in the corners of the wooden closet,

my mother keeps a bottle of dried red chilies hidden away from my father’s eyes.

On days Kiran Pishi, our maid, comes back, after being ritually fired,

my mother takes it out, studies the whole red chilies

through the glass of the bottle, tries to rip open their redness

looking for something that she cannot find anywhere in the room

not in the family pictures on the walls

not inside the pages of the books on the mantelpiece

not in the decorations on the fancy china cups reserved for special guests

not inside the threads of the cotton sheets on bed.

Kiran Pishi lights up the stove, lets the blue flame hit up the tawa

my mother and Kiran Pishi confront each others’ eyes,

smile in a conspiracy where there isn’t any place for me.

Kiran Pishi roasts the chilies on the tawa,

my mother slices the guavas in wedges,

I watch the chili flecks turn black                crispy                then crispier

When I begin to cough, my mother and Kiran Pishi laugh,

wipe the tears falling down their cheeks with the end of their sarees.

You’ve no powers of endurance, my little wimp,

ma says, kissing my cheek.

What’ll you do in your in-laws’ house, mamoni?

You don’t even know how to make a cup of tea, Kiran Pishi says.

Because it is her one evening of respite, ma ignores the comment—

although she has forbidden everyone—my father, aunts, grandma,uncle, grandpa—to talk

to me about two things: marriage and in-laws who come wrapped with it—liked a birthday gift.

They sit on the floor of the kitchen, my mother and Kiran Pishi, eating the guava wedges, dipping them in the fried chili sauce, sprinkling them with salt and black pepper. They cluck-clack their tongues on their teeth, smack their lips, gossip about other women in the neighborhood.

And then, there are no more guavas—

no black chili flecks clinging lovingly on to its green.

Only a blackened iron tawa, stains of mustard oil and remains of fried chili flecks

between them

My mother raises herself from the floor—

Kiran, make sure you air the house well. Your dada

cannot stand this chili-smell, as you know well. And, oh yes,

scrub this tawa well. Make sure all the grease has been rubbed off.

Me, she pops at the back of the head—

not too soft not too hard, but just enough to remember:

Don’t you dare utter a word of this to your father.

The bottle of red chilies, once again, gets lost within the folds of her sarees,

waiting for Kiran Pishi to be fired

and reinstated one more time

so that it can come out in the open.

Copyright © 1999 – 2024 Juked