By Aditi Sriram
Once a year my mother wakes me up with her hand over my eyes. She leads me down the stairs (and around my brother’s outstretched leg) to the room where we keep pictures of various Hindu deities. She sits me down and only then asks me to open my eyes, which I do to trays of fresh, colorful fruit and vegetables, and glinting gold jewelry—earrings, a necklace, and my mother’s wedding bangles. A mirror is placed at the head of the trays so that the visual is doubled. The twinned copper trays shine and the gold bangles nearly pulse. I look into the mirror and see my mother’s face.
“Happy Vishu,” she says.
“Mmm,” I grunt in response, still half asleep.
For Tamil-speaking South Indian Hindus, Vishu is our New Year. The day is so auspicious that the celebration is supposed to begin from the moment you open your eyes that morning, and it’s imperative that they open to something bright and optimistic. My mother has spent some time the night before perfecting her still life: apples and oranges nestled among mangoes and bananas; bunches of grapes reclined on a pineapple, the finishing touches of gold. They are the symbols of prosperity, satisfaction and joy that the new year is ushering in.
It occurs to me then that mothers are like the New Year. Both promise brighter futures. Both allow for new beginnings—second, and third, and fourth chances. Both can induce hangovers. And both have days marked for them on the calendar.
“Hurry up and bathe,” my grandmother admonishes from her perch in the kitchen, regal in a dark purple sari. “You can’t be smelly today.”
Auspicious words, indeed.
Preparing and eating this pachadi helps us acknowledge life’s turbulences, reflect on them, and remain calm even when life serves us green chillies, so to speak.
When I come back downstairs in an Indian outfit and a red pottu on my forehead, my grandmother is pleased. But the getup is incomplete. She directs me back to the trays, to my mother’s bangles and necklace. I prefer simpler accessories—not heavy, not gold—but one does not argue with one’s grandmother on an auspicious day. I clasp the necklace on, but need my grandmother’s help to squeeze the tiny bangles over my hands. “Your hands are like mine,” she says to me in Tamil. “Knuckly.”
I’m able to contort my right hand enough to get the first bangle on, but my left hand will not cooperate, so I wear both on my right hand. While I grunt and tug at the bracelet, my mother is multitasking at the stove with her usual deftness, working on no less than eight separate dishes for lunch just a few hours away. Like every other aspect of Hindu culture, each dish is symbolic. The mangai pachadi, a sort of raw mango jam, is an aggregate of various flavors—sweetness from sugar; sourness from the raw fruit, bitterness from neem leaves, and heat from chillies—to represent a life that is at times sweet, at times bitter, and at times heated. Preparing and eating this pachadi helps us acknowledge life’s turbulences, reflect on them, and remain calm even when life serves us green chillies, so to speak.
But this, of course, is easier said than done. Even though her back is to me, I can tell that my mother is irritated about something. Most likely it is my grandmother, whose endless commentary and nosiness grate constantly at my mother’s ears. “Let her be,” I whisper to my mother, finally sufficiently bejewelled and released from my grandmother’s knobbly scrutiny. “What I can do to help?”
My mother’s bangles are not just tambourines, they are her sharp, slender nails, they are a home-cooked lunch, they are a warning to go to bed or else.
She points to a cutting board and a rainbow of vegetables: eggplant, okra, potato, mangoes, and bunches of cilantro. “Cut.”
As I wash my hands and then the produce, I hear a familiar sound. One I associate intrinsically, intensely, innately, intimately, with my mother, but it’s not coming from her.
I air dry my hands over the sink and listen again. My mother’s bangles are clinking against each other. On my arm.
While I cut the vegetables, slicing the potatoes and slipping over the okra, I keep hearing the sound, and it keeps tripping me up. It’s as if I have developed synesthesia: a sense that should only produce sound is now creating visuals. My mother’s bangles are not just tambourines, they are her sharp, slender nails, they are a home-cooked lunch, they are a warning to go to bed or else. Not just sound but sight, taste, smell.
The past twenty-eight years of this sound have meant only one thing: Mom. She’s coming upstairs, quick, get back to my homework. She’s inspecting her plants and testing the soil’s dampness. She’s finished taking a shower and is moisturizing in her bedroom. She’s pouring my grandfather’s coffee back and forth between two tumblers to cool it down before he drinks it.
There is a phrase in Tamil, arusuvai unavu, which refers to the six tastes that food can have: sweet, salty, sour, hot, bitter, and a savory-furry sixth akin to eating umami. The mangai pachadi my mother is stirring in a pot (into which I have dumped my oddly cut pieces of mango) is one example of arusuvai unavu. My mother’s bangles are similarly multiplex: they represent to me the emotions of motherhood: the love in every hug offered and hand held; the unending generosity of a hot meal—“I made your favorite”—the reassurance of her presence, folding laundry in the next room; the anger for the mistake her child has made, by way of a spank; and the peace, when the house is quiet and her bangles clink as she turns the page of a book in bed. (I count my list, I have five so far. Is there a sixth?)
There are idioms aplenty about walking a mile in someone’s shoes, but what about wearing someone else’s arms, or singing her song?
My mother’s bangles have signaled when she’s brushing her hair and when she’s washing dishes. They have conveyed how quickly she can walk through the house, looking for something, and how thoroughly she brushes her teeth (very; dentists are perennially amazed at her flawless 53-year old teeth). I know my mother is dressing up in yet another exquisite sari, not because the yards of silk swish as she drapes it on herself, but because her bangles are quiet, patient, anticipating the transformation when she is done. At this moment, my mother’s bangles sing not about my mother, but about my father, who turns from wherever he in the house to gaze at her as she steps out of her room in six yards of silk.
There are idioms aplenty about walking a mile in someone’s shoes, but what about wearing someone else’s arms, or singing her song? As I chop and peel, rinse and soap, type and print, serve my grandfather coffee and show my grandmother photos of her great-grandson on an iPad, my arms clink, and I keep looking around for my mother. Sometimes she is nearby, sometimes she isn’t, but I can’t shake her touch from me.
“Do you want your bangles back?” I ask her later that evening. We are moving slower now, on account of my mother’s sumptuous lunch.
“Don’t be silly; they look so nice on you,” she says.
“Yes, but they’re yours.” I can’t remember ever not seeing them on her arms.
“Yours, mine, what difference does it make? You never wear bangles; it’s nice to see them on you.”
And there it is, the sixth emotion: the giving of oneself. Without asking me—and probably, without asking herself—my mother is always giving me clothes, food, advice, support, clean towels, new socks. However strange and new I feel with my mother’s bangles adorning my arms, my mother feels the opposite. Natural. She created me, and has given everything of herself to raise me. She doesn’t see herself separately from me—what’s a pair of bangles? What’s a date in the calendar to separate past from present, or mother from daughter?
The gold bands are simple and thin—an infinite loop, a measure of continuity from one year to the next, one generation to its successor. But I study them on my own arms and feel silly. I do not have my mother’s presence, her gait, her ability to tie a sari without using a single pin. But if mothers are like the new year, and today is a day for resolutions, then it’s not too late for me to wish that one day I will lead my child to some place bright and auspicious, clinking just like my mother did.
Aditi Sriram studied Creative Writing at The New School in New York City. This essay was inspired by her mother, her grandmothers, her aunts, and her Harlem Mom. You can read other work by her here.