The phone kept on ringing. My husband Neil lifted his eyes from the book that he was reading, with somber indifference, gesturing me to receive the call. So were my teenage children, Vikas and Anhita, busy with their respective mobile phones—lost, inactive in the mid-January cold evening. We had gathered in the drawing room near the electric heater, and turned up the thermostat to the highest degree of heat possible on the appliance, to beat the temperature that had probably dipped to about 1 degree Celsius.
It was like forced physical suffering to momentarily abandon the coziness of the quilt, leave the warmth that eddied in gentle gusts of hot air from the heater, and reach the landline phone that was stationed in the corridor, outside the living room. The tintinnabulation of the phone stopped and I heaved a sigh of relief, but after a momentary pause, it recommenced. Walking up to the phone seemed to be a task in itself, trudging my way forward, feeling a strange numbness in my stiffened hands and feet while my teeth chattered as if the cold was throttling its fingers on my neck.
“How are you, my dear?” An unknown voice returned from the other end. “Are you able to recognize me? It’s your aunt Smita from Kolkata.” The voice continued without pausing for my reply.
“Ah…yes, yes…” I reacted with a faint recollection of an aunt—probably of the same name—who was my mother’s distant cousin.
“I’m reaching Delhi tomorrow by the early morning flight at 9 o’clock.” She declared jovially.
“Ok.” I gave a monosyllabic response.
“I’ll be staying at your place for a few days. See you tomorrow.”She said before hanging up.
It seemed as if the burden of the entire world was on my head, and the insurmountable reluctance—to entertain and engage in hospitality that included preparation of food during this cold winter—troubled me to the core.
Thoughtsofthe visitor flashed through my mind, as I moved onto the glass sliding door of the balcony, overlooking the road in front of our house. It was only seven or half past that and nobody was visible on the road, a nameless silence prevailed. The dense, blinding fog had devoured the houses at a distance of 30 feet across the street, while isolated sounds emerged from the nearby grocery store and the existing world around, that had vanished—become concealed, enshrouded in the mist.
A plaintive cry of a solitary dog was heard from somewhere. As I stared outside, a sense of morose, an ugly gloom overwhelmed me, feeling the bodily strength and energy fully consumed, as if I were dead—succumbed to the tortures, the ruthless tyranny of the biting cold—yet alive at the same time, longing for a change, a mode of reinvigoration.
Next day I woke up early at around seven o’clock to make arrangements for our guest. Though I was sure that she wouldn’t be able to arrive before the afternoon, as the early morning flights were bound to get delayed due to heavy fog, I still prepared myself to receive my Smita aunty. Surprisingly, she turned up before the time that I had anticipated.
I resembled the Bengali lady to a considerable extent—well-dressed, pleasant looking with a thin frame; an oval face, having large, expressive black eyes, full of motherly affection; her hair tied in a neat bun at the back of her head. After a round of initial pleasantries, Smita aunty proceeded to the guest room to freshen up.
The whole day went by reminiscing about fond memories and relaxing in the warming sunlight that spread across our balcony. She regaled me with narratives of my childhood incidents and unforgettable moments that she shared with my mother.
In the evening we all settled comfortably in the living room beside the heater, waiting for Smita aunty to join us. She came in after some time dressed in a yellow sari, with a matching sweater and a cream-colored embroidered shawl covering her head.
“Are you going somewhere?” I inquired.
“We all are going together.” She said cheerfully.
“What? Where will we go in this cold weather?” I protested, stirring myself—shivering at the thought of venturing outside—drawing the blanket closer to my body.
Vikas and Anhita looked up from their respective mobile phones.
“To the house, next door! They are celebrating Lohri. We are going to have a great time with people outside our world—merrymaking and having festive feasts.” She said, smiling genially.
“But we hardly know them.” I shook my head, stammering anxiously. “I’m not going anywhere in this cold…” I continued, rejecting the excuse offered to meet our neighbors.
Before I could finish, she enjoined, turning and opening the front door, “Yes, you are. Come on!”
We reached our neighbor’s house. They were a Punjabi family, an elderly couple, their middle-aged children, their spouses, and their kids of all age groups starting from five-year-old to that teenagers. All of them, dressed up in their finest attire, had gathered in the open space outside their home, moving around the blazing bonfire—lit with wood and cow dung cakes, spreading showers of golden sparks—setting up the whole festive ambiance in exciting spirit, clapping, humming folk songs and dancing the bhangra and gidda, occasionally offering fire oblations as prasad galore like peanuts, sesame seeds, jaggery, rewari, gajak, popcorn, puffed rice, corn seeds, praying for good health and prosperity and welcoming warmer days ahead.
Enchanted and moved by the warm, friendly reception of our neighbors, we watched Smita aunty dance to the tunes of the traditional music and reverberating drum beats. Initially, I lacked a participatory approach, but the jubilant mood of the revelers was contagious and unconsciously I started enjoying the occasion, observing them celebrate the festival with great gusto and enthusiasm.
An elderly woman told us about the legend of Dulla Bhatti, popular folklore associated with the festival of Lohri. During the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar there lived a man named Dulla Bhatti in Punjab who was like Robinhood. It was in his praise that people sang the song “Sundar-Mundriya” on the joyous occasion.
Though it had been quite late at night, we had a refreshing get-together and returned home only after having a sumptuous dinner, savoring the classic Punjabi winter delicacies—a bowl of piping hot sarson da saag (teamed with bathua and palak made it a mouth-watering treat)along with irresistiblemakki ki roti, enjoyed with a dollop of white butter, pindi chane with bhatura or puri accompanied with onion, pickle, chilies, jaggery, and delicious, melt-in-the-mouth til halwa (flavored with dry fruits and garnished with cardamom powder).
The following morning I woke up—earlier than usual—to the clamor of utensils coming from the kitchen. On rushing there,I found Smita aunty busy kneading a rice-flour dough and in a separate plate lay dumplings of beautiful shapes—oblong, round, half-moon.
“It’s Makar Sankranti! Our Poush Parban!We have to prepare pithas (pancakes). We are just like sesame seeds, black outside while white inside. At different stages of life, efforts need to be made to remove the veil of outer darkness that overshadows the light, the purity, and tenderness inside us.”Her eyes bore a serious, solemn look, as she pointed toward the sesame seeds kept in a bowl.
I recalled the days when my mother used to prepare those mouth-watering traditional Bengali sweets diligently and worship goddess Lakshmi on every Poush Parban. She would prepare thepithas with freshly-harvested rice flour, coconut, milk, and date palm jaggery—pati shapta, puli pitha, chitui/chitoi pitha, khir puli, gokul pitha, dudh puli, ranga alur pitha. Though not a good cook myself, I admired the skill,had a voracious appetite, and gorged on them.
“Let’s finish cooking these quickly and serve them for breakfast.” Smita aunty insisted, with unbridled enthusiasm and excitement.
At the breakfast table, Neil and the kids kept inhaling the long-forgotten comfort of the aroma of freshly fried pancakes that kept streaming up from the dishes. They ate the pithas along with khejur gurer payesh (rice pudding cooked in milk and date palm jaggery)in absolute silence. At the end of the meal, they were full of praise for our culinary endeavor, warmed and soothed by our efforts.
In the afternoon, Smita aunty took me to a Tamil family’s house in our neighborhood. It was their festival of Pongal. We draped ourselves with luxurious silk saris. On the way to their place, I observed that the dull, greyish-blue sky above was enlivened with an array of colorful kites.
I noticed mango leaves and marigolds tied onto our neighbor’s entrance, and a rangoli (made with rice flour) adorned the floor. Welcoming us with open arms, they treated us with Pongal (a sweet dish of fresh rice boiled with milk and sugar, tempered with ghee, cashew nuts, raisins, and jaggery), lemon and tamarind rice, vadas, vegetable gravies. I was awed at my aunt’s extraordinary capability to socialize with those whom we had known only by face and probably, didn’t interact further and get past an initial “Hi!” or “Hello!”
In the evening when we assembled in the living room, I felt a sense of happiness and positivity. Surprisingly, the kids looked more active, and excited than before, and were eagerly waiting to accompany Smita aunty on her lively expeditions.
Wondering what the matter could be after a long time passed and she didn’t show up, I asked the kids to look for her.
“Who is Smita aunty?” The kids enquired, shocked and puzzled with surprise.
“How come you all don’t know her? She has been staying with us for the past couple of days.” I said hysterically, with an impatient eye roll.
“We didn’t have any visitors of late,” Neil said, shifting his gaze towards me.
“Don’t you remember that she took us to the party next door?” I asked, laughing aloud, suggestive of disbelief, and irritable derision.
“No. You were the one who took us along with you to our neighbor’s house.” The kids said, watching me with mouth agape, restless with confusion.
I lowered my eyes as a nervous agitation crossed my face.
“Your imagination is doing wonders.” Neil smiled quietly while opening his laptop.
I was bewildered, yet exhilarated, on finding the reality that lay before me. Was there any Smita aunty that wished to rejuvenate ourselves?
Or, was it a part of me that reintroduced us to our beloved traditions and unique festivals, bathing us in the fun and enjoyment of those festivities—bringing back the generosity through the abundance of nuts and dry fruits, the joy of relishing savory dishes, the harmony and essence of mouth-watering pancakes and rice puddings, and the warmth and selfless love of sesame seeds and jaggery?
About Sreelekha Chatterjee
Sreelekha Chatterjee’s short stories have been published in various national, and international magazines and journals like The Green Shoe Sanctuary, Storizen, Indian Periodical, Femina, Indian Short Fiction, eFiction India, The Criterion, The Literary Voyage, World of Words, Writer’s Ezine, and Estuary, and have been included in numerous print and online anthologies such as Chicken Soup for the Indian Soul series (Westland Ltd, India), Wisdom of Our Mothers (Familia Books, USA), and several others. She lives in New Delhi, India.