From a Daughter to a Father: A Memoir

Lopa Banerjee

Lopa Banerjee

The concoction of mustard oil and canola oil is a queer one, and it has been through trajectories diverse, unsettling. The concoction scampers through the folds and creases of the chicken being cooked; the way the kitchen spatula works to let the chicken pieces with bones and the big potatoes and chopped onions and minced garlic soften and turn succulent with the killer combination of the oils and the Indian, rather Bengali spices.

A dash of salt twice, a pinch of sugar once, just the way that a father’s sharp, indulgent tongue had always relished it. The tongue of a father that became embittered from time to time too, hashing and rehashing those queer indictments and lingering words of admonishment that would be best explained, perhaps, as ‘a father’s legacy for his daughter’, at once unnecessary and inevitable.

“I won’t cook, ever in my life!”
“Won’t cook? How would you get a husband if you don’t?”
“I don’t want a husband…I will rather have servants cook for me.”
“Servants? Are you sure? You can’t get a glass of water for yourself, pampered overtly by your mother! Servants will only tell your husband to drive you out of the house!”
“It’s not your house, or your kind of future that will be mine, it’s the kind of future I would build myself.”
“Build yourself! I see…but with what? With two pennies and your English education?”
“If that’s what you think, yes, English education and two pennies it is!”

In a damp, enclosed kitchen, moist with the aroma of sweat and smoke and an assortment of Bengali spices, the mother has cooked her way to her erratic husband’s heart, the husband and the daughter colliding from time to time in the house, burning in their differences. In an open kitchen, ten thousand miles away from West Bengal, in the quiet suburbs of a mammoth southwestern city in America, a daughter chops some more onions in a white cutting board placed on a granite countertop, her back facing the cooking range and the ovens where multiple food items are being cooked. For the moment, the skillet cover has to be opened, to add the extra onion slices and a couple of red and green chilies.
A teaspoon of mustard oil bought from the Asian grocery store is added to the concoction, the oil that dances in the body of the brown curry that the father has relished during his first and last trip to the alien land to visit his rebel daughter.

“Chamatkar (Splendid)!” The father exclaimed while tasting the chicken curry with his fingers.
“You know, the roasted Cornish hen you make is even better!” He said again.

The daughter, trying to get into a domesticated skin by now, with spurts of rebellion still showing when she washes baby clothes, throws away soiled baby diapers, bangs the front door shut to walk past the corridors, looking at the miles of snow and the wind drift outside the huge glass window at one side of the corridor. The husband of the daughter whom the father had envisioned as a staunch chauvinist long before he met her, works on chopping onions, whipping eggs, making waffles in the kitchen. The husband who had once been drawn to the dark, shaded eyes of the daughter, the gray shadows that flirted with the opaque white of her being, making her a miasma of wayward thoughts, hard aspirations and an irrefutable energy, often misconstrued.

The world that she has wanted to build, with her ‘two pennies and English education’ reared its head stronger every day, but there has been an unspoken ‘want’ always, the want of words never spoken between the two that could bridge continents, the want of childhood wounds, adult scars never attended to, sleeping in their graves.

Only that now she is a parent too, and these wants appear in new forms, new avatars when her own girls prance and preen in the light and shade of the room, when she sucks full throttle their words and the little nuances of their incessant fights. 

What is she fumbling with, then?
With the aimless words that have swam in her consciousness like numerous small fishes swimming in the water? With the act of getting caught in the weeds of her cantankerous thoughts since her girlhood days? With the cacophony of the strong, odorous storm of the dual of words, or with the calm after the storm with which she has signed pacts since forever?

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“It’s an educated Brahmin family who came to see her. Why was she brimming with anger, tell me? Who does she think she is?” The mother is summoned, to throw light into the whims of a rebel daughter. The mother trembles with fear, lest the daughter gets more severely punished for the act. ‘I….I don’t know, maybe office stress.” She tries to cover up. Within seconds, the daughter storms into the room.

“I give a damn to a Brahmin family, I hate being who I am, bearing the legacy of forefathers believing in casteism and racism, and god knows what else!”

“How dare you speak like that about your forefathers, your grandfather or his father? Don’t you know we are Brahmin Pundits, and how much the people here revere us?”
“All I want is to be free…free from the shackles of caste and creed and race! And I want to achieve…”
“Achieve what? By trampling over forefathers’ ideals of centuries? Do you think you can ever be greater than them in any way?” Her sentence is cut midway. Both the father and daughter tend to their long-nourished narratives of differences. One hole in the wall, one dint in the surface, and it all gushes out, unabashed.

And it has gushed out, spilling over the courtyard where the father has uttered his Slokas in Sanskrit, invoking all the Gods he could remember and his ancestors, long dead, his face smeared with the thick lathers of his shaving cream…it has gushed out, the incessant outcome of neurotic words exchanged, words twisted and turned over and over again, by a difficult love. The daughter, often craving to be the soft petals of a blossoming womanhood drenched with the rain of filial love, but ending up being a roaring, raving storm, bearing a torrential rain without a prelude, or even without a closure.

“These acts won’t be tolerated in my house, as long as I’m alive.”
“So do you want to imprison me, suffocate me with your blatant, meaningless rules? You’ll find no luck trying that with me!”
“Do you want to live your entire life doing what you think suits you, when it really doesn’t do you any good?”
“Give me one concrete example! Will you?”
“One example? I can give you thousands. For the start, your argumentative nature…your opposing every single rule in the household!”
“And you…you impose those rules, don’t you? Have you really thought what I have sought for? Have you attached any importance to it, whatsoever?”
“Your audacity is hard to bear…you’ve never learnt to stay within your limits.”
“And why should I learn that, pray? To remain in your good books, which is a waste of my time anyway, since I am perennially a wrong-doer in your eyes?”

….Words, sentences and their queer algorithms whoosh past her mind’s window; she leans against the railings of the train’s window, crossing those surreal miles of nondescript train stations in search of a home away from that temperamental father’s home. A home where her mere belongings of a few clothes, a desktop computer, a saucepan for boiling rice and eggs, a bar of soap and milk chocolate to ward off depression would be enough to sustain herself for months, and even years, hoping against hope that men she has had befriended in turns, will emerge as chivalrous saviors, as father figures in the garb of soulmates, or partners for life. Men, who come in her life as sweet acts of serendipity, then drift away, lured by sweeter tides, but then she lets her impossible dreams dangle in the wind of her subaltern realities.

Words, sentences which have again, lost their shores, on the cliff-edges of an evening when all differences nurtured and their meanings have gone for a toss. The father with a bruised, bandaged head and the daughter with sweaty, trembling hands holding his belongings, a tattered khaki-colored bag and a black umbrella, try crossing the bustling city streets. The daughter had stormed away from home twenty-four hours ago in a fit of anger, empty-handed, with an empty stomach.

“You’re sure you won’t need any food on the way?”
“No…will just have dinner once I reach home.”

She looks wistfully at the street vendors selling sweetmeats and pani-puris, thinking of the lunch which her mother had prepared the day before and laid the table with, the lunch that she skipped while going out of the house in a wild rage, the episode of her nervous breakdown in her institute a few hours later, aggravated by her empty stomach.

Curious, well-meaning, concerned faces…faces brimming with news, mouths pregnant with messages to convey at the seminar hall of the old, rusted institute, where she remains unconsciousness for a while, floating over fluffy, benign clouds, pulled by a father on one side, and a daughter on the other. Wait, it might as well be a chariot, a winged one, and the tug and pull of it appears so surreal…
In the real world, she is lying on a hard, makeshift table, and expert hands check her pulse and her heartbeat. She opens her eyes with a concerted effort, with labored breath, asks for water.

“How are you feeling now? We’ve informed your parents. Your father is coming to take you home, he’s on his way by now.”

The father, a tattered father torn between his threatening patriarchal, chauvinist legacy and his turbulent sea of anxiety for the daughter, lying unconscious miles away, in yet another part of the city. The father who banged his head and fell down, unconscious, collided by a bus while crossing the busy street in a desperate bid to reach the institute where the daughter lay, unconscious.
The winged chariot dangles in her eyes yet again, as the daughter’s furtive eyes meet the father’s a couple of hours later, the father escorted by a couple of men from a nearby hospital to the institute, where the daughter has waited.

“Why is his head bandaged? What happened? And all this blood in the head?” She asks.
“It’s a long story. First rest, you both, then you’ll listen.”
Yes, she fumbles for words, sentences which have again, lost their shores, on the cliff-edges of the evening, as they both cross the bustling streets. 


At 12.30 am, half-an-hour past the midnight hour, the amniotic fluid inside the womb has exploded, and the heavily pregnant daughter wipes some of the water trickling down the cushioned chair where she sat with her laptop and academic deadlines after a late dinner at the family dinning table.

“I told you not to be so utterly careless about your movements and the timings of your meals. Look what you’ve done now. It’s more than two weeks early than the expected date of delivery.” The mother toiling in the kitchen till the wee hours of the night, comes up to the table.
“It’s nothing. Sometimes, I have low bladder control these days.”

The pregnant daughter argues zestfully, wiping the cushion of the chair with a tissue, while a Bengali soap keeps playing in the television at the living room, soundless, amplifying the midnight silence in the room. Was it the same soap that played on the television in the noon when the mother was cutting the vegetables in the room for lunch, when a petty scuffle between the father and the daughter brewed again and turned into a volatile fiasco? The dual of their words reverberated in the walls and the ceiling of a new home in a new continent where the parents have arrived, to welcome the birth of their grandchild, the seed of a new generation.

The vegetables and the fish smattered with turmeric and salt and pepper and Bengali spices spluttered in the skillet in the cozy cocoon of the kitchen, but the daughter had made a quick, sharp exit from the room, from the home already, with her invincible temper and her empty stomach. Well, almost empty, since she had consumed only half-a-cup of tea and some spoons of oatmeal in the early morning, trying to be a good girl following the doctor’s commands. 

“Hate to be in a quarrelsome family with a quarrelsome father bossing over me since I’ve started to know the world. Can’t it be a bit different, just a little bit different here, in this other part of the world?” In the university where she studies, the daughter loiters impatiently in the huge hall of the Student’s center, the cafeteria, thinking whether having a cup of café latte would break her resolve to fast for the entire day, as she had sworn at home.

“What new happened again now?” The husband queried over the phone.

“Ask them…rather ask him, who started it all today since morning!” He knows it is part of the same web of stories woven around the father and the daughter, stories of mismatched tunes and loud outbursts, stories of pent up storms and gushing, incessant rain. It had been a staple news to him since they had met online, since he understood during their daily rendezvous that he would remain by her side, and one day, it all might sink into oblivion.

A life, apparently different than his, slashing through the rigmarole of life with anger as her weapon of choice.

Anger has boiled on the surface for the long while, even as she has sipped her café latte and nibbled on the blueberry muffin in the cafeteria, anger that has slowly settled in the vicarious pores of her heart and the bulging stomach, unable to hold the baby any longer. Anger, that has lurked in the shady nooks of her being even as she comes back home in the evening and has eggs and toast, putting on an old Bengali family movie which the family can watch together.

Anger is the slight tingling in her heart as the husband decides post-midnight that she needs to be taken to the hospital through the emergency door as her water has really broken technically. Anger, the fraternal twin of a difficult love waxes and wanes. The husband waits inside the car as the father comes to the daughter and touches her forehead and stomach lightly, with vigorously shaking hands making gestures of prayers, chanting a healing mantra in Sanskrit with his quivering lips.

……Inside the apartment, two months later, his eager, quivering hands hold a soft bundle of an infant that the daughter has borne after a difficult labor. He keeps cradling the baby as she continues to whine and refuses to take the milk bottle after she has finished with her usual quota of two ounces.

“Chup, chup, Shona, chup, chup (Quiet, my darling, be quiet) …” He utters time and again, but the infant’s wails skyrocket, an extension of the daughter’s rebellion pitted against his tough love, but this time, there is love leaping from his body and his consummate senses, blossoming into a nameless, welcoming realm. Love that sprouts from a porous state housed within himself, a hunger to look for love that is tame enough to give in when tough love has surrendered. Tough love has softened, melted into wishful oblivion with a huge sense of entitlement. The infant girl and the music of her incessant cries, the music of the progeny of his progeny is the reality of their rebellion, the promise of a truth, never uttered.

It’s a different kitchen, two new homes later, an enhanced kitchen turning old and worn-out again, and the smell of the cooked chicken curry wafts in the kitchen and the living room, mingling with the smell of incense and sweets offered to the father, or rather his framed photograph that the daughter has kept in the living room, along with a framed photograph of her mother.

The concoction of mustard oil and canola oil is a queer one, and so is the smell of incense and flowers picked fresh from the front yard of the house, kept in front of the framed photographs, as the mind of the daughter traverses through paths, zigzagging through continents, unsettling.

A dash of salt twice, a pinch of sugar once, she reminds herself once again, as steady and insistent as her rhythm of rebellion that has held her strong, levelling life, death and everything in between.

It is the third death anniversary of the father, and the sixth death anniversary of the  mother has passed some days back. She has worked her way through the chambers of her turbulence. Life has brought along with it surges of travel-scarred, naked memories. Death has opened the floodgates of more memories, but in the end, brought a deep calm. Or, has it, really?

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Author Bio: Lopamudra Banerjee is an author/poet, editor and adjunct instructor of Writing, living with her family in Texas, USA, but originally from Kolkata, India. Her memoir 'Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant's Wayward Journey' and her debut poetry collection 'Let The Night Sing' have received honorary mentions in The Los Angeles Book Festival and New England Book Festival 2017 respectively. Her manuscript of ‘Thwarted Escape’ has also been First Place Category Winner at the Journey Awards 2014 hosted by Chanticleer Reviews and Media, USA. She also received The International Reuel Prize for Poetry in 2017 and The International Reuel Prize for Translation in 2016 (for 'The Broken Home', her English translation of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore's novella), both instituted by The Significant League, a literary group. She has authored five books (memoir, poetry and translation) and co-edited four anthologies of poetry and fiction. Her literary work has been widely published in many e-zines and anthologies. Recently, she has been an honorary poetry fellow at Rice University, Houston, and a featured poet at many other prestigious forums.

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