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The Burial

  • Published at 03:27 pm March 9th, 2019


Yellow Lentil Soup

I felt a tightness around my chest as we stood under a charcoal black sky, wearing all black for the burial. Even the wet earth beneath us looked as black as soot. When everyone had gone, I was left standing in the pelting rain, trying to almost memorize the blunt fact that my mother was gone. I bent down to touch the grave, as if to touch her. It felt like peeking inside a kaleidoscope, and suddenly it brought back unpleasant memories. Like a person under some ghostly spell, I took a stone and wrote on the soft soil beside her grave: ”She hurt me so much”. I rose and left. 

On my way toward the gate of the cemetery, the wind bellowed in my ears and somehow it brought back memories of burnt panchforon (mixed spices) that my mother used to throw into her yellow lentil soup when it was almost done. There were five types of seeds in panchforon; they sizzled in the hot oil, got semi-burnt and gossiped in low tones, tones only seeds can bring forth. The smell traveled with me, through the gate, out into the road, up to the bus stop and all the way home. 

Red Lentil Soup

The favorite food of my mother’s father was a bowl of red lentil soup, piping hot and stewed with slivers of green mango or sun-dried Indian plums. The aroma of soup with bay leaves and roasted whole cumin would fill the room; the crow of dazed ravens and clamoring housemaids and a sudden clatter of stainless-steel plates would join the smell, the atmosphere. After he’d finished his meal, some blue flies would sit on the scabbed corners of his plate. He would lazily try to wave them away and I would smell his armpits, a smell that is distinctly connected to my childhood memories, a smell that could pacify me, reassure me that good things were yet to come. 

In his later years he could not eat red lentil soup; his kidneys would not allow him to. Neither could he taste meat or fish. He had to be satisfied with a watery stew of animal protein. He did not complain, he did not make a fuss. After all, he had lived his life on a somewhat watery stew, floating on top of it, just a little away from the meat of success, but nevertheless soaked in satisfaction. He could take it easy. He could very well be the ladle described in the Upanishads, the one that lay immersed in the stew but could not taste it. I couldn’t have been content like that. I wanted the meat in the stew, I wanted a meaty stew, I could not let go of my life-long longing for something I could no longer taste. I could not let go of the taste of piping hot red lentil soup either. But something went away with him. The smell.  The smell that told me life would be okay without meaty chunks. That life could go on even if there were no meat on the plate. 

Mixed lentil soup

I met him far away from my bowls of lentil soup, which were lovingly made, with bluebottles buzzing above the hot air, so that the silence around was also hemmed with a gossamer of sounds. I met him in utmost silence. He came to me almost like a break-through, a fever, a spread of plague. I forgot to mark my door with blood, I capsized, floated again just to breathe in enough air to drink in a kiss. In my language, we drank kisses; in his language, it was just a verb. The grass was uncut around us and grew wild, plumage-like flowers. We memorized lines there, sitting face to face, feeling the Victoria Line gushing into the tunnel under us, whilst we turned damp with the passage of evening. The twilights visited me like the thousand glass panes of a palace façade, I was all lit. Then, one fine day, there were no lights to be switched on, no wicks to be lit, the palace just smelled of kerosene. Flabbergasted, I thought to myself, “but we are not dead yet”; I knew death by that time, it had never perplexed me like life. Then again, there were the dead bodies, which death hadn’t yet touched. Smooth, rounded soup-bowls of flesh slumped on the bed, dead to each other. Frantic with fear, I ran out of that palatial house. No matter how much I traveled, the distance between me and that house remained the same. I was the tortoise slightly detached from its shell, naked and open to the elements. 

In those days I could only recall the glorious twilights I spent with him, the smell of grass in our underwear, the journey we took back from the park to the tiny flat. Darkness foiled us and gave our sweat a silver glow. We stayed naked around each other, cooked cheap proteins like beans and lentils, which became better with each boiling. We just didn’t have time to cook or do anything else apart from love-making, something that I’d thought, rather foolishly, would also get better with time. 

Green lentil soup

I wish I could throw everything in the gaping hole of my mother’s grave to decompose, everything that blinded me each evening with its screaming dazzle, everything that glared at me with menacing eyes in the dark and witnessed that I was not ready to lose anything. For days I did not change my clothes, for days I did not go out of my flat to see the morning sun become rosy as it leaped into the eastern sky. 

Then one day I did. I faced the ditch in my head where everything was decomposing, disintegrating, emulsifying! I took a shower, I put on some clean clothes and then I went out of the flat to buy groceries. The sun glared in my eyes. I walked past the puddle on the walkway, disdainfully, and wrote a line about my well-being on a bloomer. I bought puy lentils because they looked strangely green. The man in Om Saai Store repeated a couple of times how to cook the green lentils. I came home and sat on the white bed. It smelled of cleanliness. I started playing with the little crocodile-green orbs of puy lentils. The game was easy. All you needed to do was to plunge your fist inside the pack of lentils and come up with a sentence like “If there are an even number of grains then he’ll come back; if odd, then play again.”

Shagufta Sharmeen Tania was an architect and designer before she became a writer. Her fiction and non-fiction have been published in the Bengali-speaking areas of both Bangladesh and India. She is the author of two novels and two short story collections, and her work has appeared in Wasafiri and the Asia Literary Review. Currently, she is writing a historical novel set during the failed Bengal Partition of 1905.