Fiction | Mrs Malhotra

My grandmother’s lips sometimes flow and mumble beyond her control. I watch her on the train, her eyes scanning outside the window restlessly. Her mouth moves, and I can hear the faint whisper – ‘sh-eh-ll’, ‘mac-o-don-alds’, ‘jo-li-mo-net’.

The words are strained, her brow furrowed. Each sound escaping her lips is a victory.

We get off the train at Melbourne Central, and I take her hand as we weave and drift through the crowd, our fingers a knot of connection that breaks the flow of the single-file streams around us.

Outside, the day is cool and overcast. My grandmother pulls her dupatta closer around her shoulders, adjusting it over her hair. She surveys the crowd as if she is standing on a precipice.

I touch her elbow and smile. ‘Chalo. Come.’

We walk towards the Queen Victoria markets, our spare hands holding a mismatched assortment of empty shopping bags. My grandmother maintains a low hum of chatter in Hindi as we walk, telling me about her most recent week in the home.

Her voice is relentless, the stream of her words rushing out in cathartic waves. Her shoulders seem to lose some of their tension as we walk, her steps grow lighter.

At the home, she tells me, they call her ‘Mrs Mal-how-tra’, the mispronunciation of her name becoming an alter-ego in a way, an identity she has learned to assume. Mrs Mal-how-tra is a quiet Indian woman. She rations her words like rupees that are here too little, gone too soon.

My grandmother struggles through each day in virtual silence, in a ward where the voices of others are a rumble of sound, only occasionally morphing into a word she recognises.

‘At home in India,’ she says to me in Hindi, ‘I would be sitting under a bay tree, eating paan.’

She says this often, a wistful refrain of longing. ‘Paan is much nicer than warm custard and jelly.’

The food at the nursing home is an endless burden, the bland meats and undercooked vegetables are a bag of wet sand smothering my grandmother’s fiery Indian tongue.  Chewing is like wading through mountains of grit, swallowing is a convulsion of the whole body.

I know that she yearns to be in her own kitchen again, even that of her girlhood which was nothing more than a portable gas stove in a room made from cowpats and clay, with a hand-woven fan to keep the smoke and steam off her face. There is an indignity for her in sitting in the grey and white dining room at the home, waiting for food to be served to her. To be so removed from what she consumes feels alien and unnatural. Unholy, in a way.

As we walk towards the market, the crowd seems to thicken and thin around us, a constant ebb and flow that feels inclusive and generous in the cool morning.

My grandmother walks close to me, her hand never leaving mine. She once walked this route herself every week, and with my grandfather before that. That was when she at least understood more English, even though she never fully learnt to read it or write it.

Now, each English word is a bewildering string of vowels and consonants, and her walk is less sure. She is uncertain, frail. She is old.

The first weekend I visited her, she was wary of leaving the home. She fussed in her room choosing the right dupatta, the right cardigan, tying her long thin hair into a plait and knotting it with a black ribbon.

When we entered the sunlit morning that day, her eyes had a look of wary wonderment in them. There was a sense of familiarity there, a rejoining of her nerves with the things that made them feel.

Now, she waits for me in the lobby every Saturday, her dupatta already draped, her handbag neatly placed on her knees.

My grandmother has lived in Melbourne for over twenty years. She was 62 when she arrived, a woman already filled with the sights and wonders and sounds of the small part of the world that she knew.

‘Being here was like starting all over again,’ she told me once. ‘It was as if my other life had never been. All that work, all of the struggles. We spent each day surviving. And then we come here, and everything is given to us.’ She shook her head with a sad smile.

‘We are very lucky,’ she would always finish, as if remembering herself. ‘Very lucky.’

We enter the crowded confines of the markets, bypassing the clothes and retail outlets and heading straight for the fresh food and deli section. The huge pallets of fruit and vegetables are so bright they are almost in technicolour, the shades of green and red and yellow implying tastes and textures that set my mouth watering.

My grandmother pauses at a vegetable stall, reaching out to gently squeeze a baby eggplant, checking it for bruises or rotting under the skin. The vendor stands nearby, watching her assessment. She glances at him and smiles.

Theen,’ she says, her smile faltering as she hears her own voice. ‘I-I want… three.’

She holds up three fingers to illustrate her point. Her slips into Hindi are more frequent now, more jolting to her when she expects to speak in English and the words won’t come. They say that as migrants get older, they revert strongly to their first language. For my grandmother, it is as if she never learnt English, as if those terrifying and transformational first months of life in Australia never happened.

I am anxious at her side, but remind myself to stay still. I can not make it easier without also making it harder in a way.

We bustle through the markets, exiting back into the dim daylight with our hands full of shopping bags. On the train ride home, my grandmother is animated, cataloguing in long sentences each of the vegetables she chose and the perfect blend of ingredients that will make its subtle flavours shine in a curry.

We escape the confines of the train at Westgarth station, and walk the short block to my house. Away from the city, she visibly relaxes, her hand no longer reaching for mine. She ambles beside me the way that she used to over a decade ago, when she would walk me home from school, her dupatta a bright beacon at the gates singling her out from the horde of suit-clad parents lethargically waiting beside her.

My house is a one-storey terrace on a street of identical buildings. I share it with a friend who is never at home, her inhabitation taking the form of late night door slams and empty, still-warm coffee mugs on the sink each morning.

I let us in, and my grandmother follows me down the long, cool corridor to the kitchen. She immediately starts bustling around, pulling out a pot, a chopping board, two knives, a spoon.

I love to watch her in the kitchen. She is as deft and graceful as an athlete, the way she peels and chops each potato, dices the eggplants, pours the oil into the warmed pot in a lazy circle.

While the curry simmers, we sit at the kitchen table. She cuts a mango into pieces, handing me a slice.

“In the village, we would never wait for these to ripen,” she tells me. “Too tempting, too impatient. We would cut them down from the tree unripe, and take them home for our mothers to peel and chop.”

“You’d eat them unripe?” I ask.

“We’d dip them in salt and chilli and eat them like you eat those disgusting ‘chips’,” she laughs. She pronounces ‘chips’ as ‘cheps’, not knowing a word in Hindi for them. She hates Australian snacks, doesn’t understand how something that can be eaten without tamarind chutney is considered a treat.

The curry eventually cooks down to tender heaps of eggplant and potatoes, golden from the turmeric she added sparingly.

Outside, the shadows have begun to lengthen. We pack the curry into two containers – one for her and one for me. She tucks hers back into a shopping bag, wrapping it in an extra one just in case the oil leaks.

The trip back is restrained – the walk, the train station. We change trains at Central station and I make her sit in the disabled seating while I stand next to her. It’s busy with afternoon passengers, people swaying in the same rhythm.

My grandmother seems to grow more and more subdued as we near the home. Her chatter gently runs to a stop, and her hands hold onto her shopping bags more closely.

I watch as her shoulders turn in on herself a bit further, and she wraps her dupatta more firmly around her hair.

We get off the train and walk the short distance from the station to the home. The gates rise up high above us at the entrance, whether to keep people in or to shut others out, it can’t be said.

When we enter the reception, I turn to my grandmother to say goodbye, and there is a moment of unrecognition. She is small, papery thin before me. Her distant eyes look into mine, and she offers me a fixed smile, a polite pat on my hand.

“I love you,” I say, bending to kiss her cheek.

“I love you too,” she says in her accented English.

She has become Mrs Mal-how-tra again, the echo she has learnt to repeat.

In her mind, I know, she is sitting under a bay tree, chewing paan.

Image: Igor Ovysannykov


Patel Family Hotel & Cafe-38Zoya founded Feminartsy in 2014, following four years as Editor-In-Chief of Lip Magazine. She has been writing about feminist issues since the age of 15, and has had work published in a number of publications. Zoya was Highly Commended in the Scribe Publishing Non-Fiction Prize 2015, was the 2014 recipient of the Anne Edgeworth Young Writers’ Fellowship, and was named the 2015 ACT Young Woman of the Year. She is represented by Curtis Brown Australia. @zoyajpatel

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