Letter from Lucknow #2: The War of the Mangos
I couldn’t have found a better host family. My host mother is the quintessential Indian aunty. She is old, maybe in her early sixties, with thick, leathery-brown skin, wavy russet hair, a single mole on her left cheek, and dark sunspot speckling her brow. She has a habit of worrying; whenever she believes we are acting shy with our meal, her mouth spreads across her face into a wide frown, she waves her hand dramatically toward the silver containers of food on the table, and exclaims,
“Aaaree! Kha Lo! Your stomachs are so small, or what?”
Her cooking is delicious and I always gladly accept another plate. She is a Musalmaan (Muslim), so we, unlike a majority of the host families, eat meat with every meal. It is like living in an Indian restaurant: constantly naan, biryani, daal, murg, bindi, chutney, rice, yogurt, and all sorts of gravies. Once, even, she prepared lamb ear and lamb brain. That was the day after I had fallen ill. I politely declined, but the other student, Abraham, enjoyed no such luxury. He shot me a jealous glare from across the table as he lifted the brain, brown gravy plopping back down onto his plate, into his mouth.
My host mother is an outspoken woman. She will give you her opinion about anything. Our conversations have included the state of Indian society, the Indian presidential elections, religion, corruption, life before and after the British Empire, migration, what makes a respectable Indian wife, and a man who can survive off of eating nothing but the fragmented shards of LCD light bulbs. She tells us many stories about the romantic relationships of previous students she has hosted in the past, like Robert.
The story goes that Robert met an Indian girl on the street and had decided to invite her to dinner. My host mother is constantly urging us to invite guests to “our home,” but when she discovered that Robert had invited a street girl, “Hay Allah!” (Oh God!) she was so embarrassed! She knew that this girl was up to no good; she suspected that she wanted to piggy back on Robert’s citizenship back to America. What to do? “Itani moti aur kali voh thi,” (so fat and black she was!) My host mother exclaimed at the table, bending toward us and enveloping us in her wide, shaking eyes. “Well, she came back one day, and I gave her a strong talking to. She never came back again.”
Up until now I still do not know her husbands name. He sits all day like an old curmudgeon at the end of the table in his peach button down shirt, through which you can see the outline of his wife beater. He has a vulture like skulk to his posture. His Hindi is completely indiscernible. I’ll catch the occasional word, but mostly I recognize the long O for commands as he points at various things for us to fetch for him—like sweets from the refrigerator or food on the table. I have tried to engage him in conversation, but our heart-to-heart might be a task remaining for the end of the summer. He is a Hindu. He and his wife married against the wishes of their parents, for which they were excommunicated from their family for years. I asked him which of the gods he prayed to, where I should go to temple. I was able to gather that he worships Shunkar (Shiva), and that there are a number of temples scattered about the area. He recommended I take flowers and fruit to Hanuman, the monkey God, for his blessing.
Perhaps one of the reasons I cannot understand my host father is because he is very ill. His kidneys are failing. He is not allowed to eat any salt, or drink very much water. His lips are dry paper flaps. During the day he constantly chews paan (a type of tobacco wrapped with betel nut in a leaf) to dull his pain. My host mom slaps his hand away from salty food. At nighttime she slings his arm over her shoulder and leads into the bedroom.
Although my host dad needs help into bed at night, he requires no help getting out of it. He sneaks back into the kitchen to steal mangos from the refrigerator while his wife is asleep. At night at the dinner table, she reprimands him for his dietary habits. In the morning, they squabble over what items the errand boy should fetch from the market, my host dad arguing his need for tobacco. Due to a combination of his wife’s vigilance and his sickness, he eventually concedes to his wife’s demands with a grumble. But his surrender is only momentary. The doctor comes frequently to test his blood. While he might be able to hide his covert culinary conquests from his wife, he is unable to hide his blood sugar levels from the eyes of science.
Now, my host mother has taken the offensive in the “war of the mangos”; she hides the mangos in buckets underneath the air conditioner and under rags behind the toaster. Near ten o’clock, as I finish my Urdu homework in my homework in my room, I am suddenly alerted to the sound of soft raping on the door. I crack it open to see my host mother with a finger drawn over her lips. She shoves the metal tray of mangos at me like a drug dealer might a customer on a dark street, with cop lights flashing nearby.
“Shhhh,” she says, glancing back at her bedroom door. Then she nods, lips pursed, and disappears.
My host parents’ sons often come to check on their father’s health. One of them runs the family jewelry shop, while the other owns a restaurant of Mughlai cuisine in New Delhi. My host mother holds a grudge against the eldest. His wife convinced him to sell their ancestral home, which explains their exile to this office-flat—an office which, at her son’s bequest, had been converted into an apartment. She does not like this living arrangement. Whenever guests arrive she seats them in the living room and is sure to share her mind.
(Written the Summer of 2012 in Lucknow)
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