The afternoon rooftop sojourns in my grandparents’ palatial house remain to be one of my fondest memories. The feel of the uneven cemented floor against my bare feet evoked the sensation of freedom from the mundane routine life in the city.
When my ma and grandma would retire for an afternoon nap, preceded by a scrumptious lunch, I would tiptoe to the second floor — the space that I reigned for the rest of the afternoon. I would climb the cold rust-colored flight of cement stairs to cross the narrow hallway leading to the bedroom.
A king-size bed on one corner of the room housed pillows enough to rest half a dozen heads. The batik printed bedcover had a dusty smell to it — evidence that the maid had ignored my grandmother’s orders to spread out a new one.
Four large windows flooded the room with sunlight, forming a blind-like pattern of light and shade on the bed. I would rest my head on the warm pillows and fight hard not to fall asleep. The droning ceiling fan, sounding like a distant lullaby, would add to the lull. I would gaze at the neighbor’s sprawling unkempt garden where a troop of monkeys in the mango tree would entertain me briefly.
When thirsty, I would reach out for the black earthen pitcher on the bedside table. A steel glass sat upside down on the mouth of the pitcher. The gulps of ice-cold water down my throat would finally break the spell of indolence.
My attention would then be diverted to the concrete shelf, lining the wall on one side of the room. Rusty aluminum trunks and wicker boxes of varying sizes lined the shelf. They housed my mother’s childhood memories — her dolls, books and dresses. Dolls that I often played with; books that I would eventually read and dresses that were redundant. I would ferret through ma’s belongings to get a feel of what she used to be like as a child.
But it was not the room, but the roof adjacent to it that enticed me the most. The brown door, which led to the roof, would thrust me to build a sea of memories that would last me a lifetime.
I would spread a mat on the floor and lie down studying the sky above. I would engage in a staring contest with the sun. I had clouds for allies. They would float by and obstruct the potent sun now and then, bringing relief to my eyes.
Tired, defeated and hungry from the contest, I would run to the room to get the orange resting at the bedside table. I enjoyed the occasional squirts of juice that irritated my eye while peeling the fruit. Slowly chewing on the orange slices I would extend my feet off the mat to touch the scorching floor. The floor which had been basking in the afternoon sun. I would begin counting to see how long I could bear the burn. I had to almost always stop at 20.
Bored, I would move on to a new game — I would be a schoolteacher just like my grandmother. Ma’s dolls from the wicker boxes played the role of my unruly students.
Next, I would don the role of a runner, like my mother used to be during her high-school years. The roof transformed into my running track. I would run from one end to the other, as fast as I could.
It has been 14 years since I last visited what was once my grandparents’ home. Last week when ma called to inform me that the new owners have razed it to the ground, the feel of my apartment’s cold wooden floor against my bare feet seemed unbearable.
My grandmother, like yours, was a treasure trove of recipes. Her simple alu borir jhal — potatoes and lentil dumplings coated with a spicy mustard paste — is something that holds a special place in my heart. For the past few days, I have been reminiscing about the good times I had at my grandparents’ place and cooking one of her recipes just seemed the right thing to do.
Heat mustard oil in a pot and add some kalonji seeds and a few green chillies slit into halves. Once you hear them crackle, add cubed potatoes and saute them for a while. Now add the lentil dumplings along with some water and salt and let it cook till they are soft. For the final touch add a teaspoon of mustard paste and a generous drizzle of mustard oil. Enjoy!