In Isolation with Shikha Bafna

Location: Kolhapur, India

Like most grandmothers, my Dadi was suspicious of boys I liked and had made it her favourite agenda to feed me. In her eyes, I was like a person lost in the desert who had just returned home—I must be fed to compensate for all the meals I’d missed. I returned to India in the month of March, putting up with my grandmother like I always did when I wasn’t in Bombay.

My grandmother liked to cook. More than that, she liked cooking for others. That was her love language. We spent a lot of time together in the kitchen, where she’d sit on the countertop, look out the kitchen window to spy on neighbours, and cook. Often my grandfather would sit across the kitchen counter and shamelessly flirt with her. I’d spend my time working on assignments and designing graphics for clients on the kitchen table. She’d call me over to taste if anything needed more salt or ask me to grab something from one of the shelves. She would cup my face and kiss my cheeks. Say thank you. We coexisted like roommates turned best friends, both doing things we loved.

She’d wake up early in the morning, boil the milk, get a head start on breakfast, already deciding what to make for lunch. We made hummus, tahini, banoffee pie. Once, after seeing an advertisement on TV, I absentmindedly mentioned I was craving Hakka noodles. The next day, armed with a recipe she found on YouTube, she wrote down the ingredients and made me run to the market to get them. One of my aunts would often comment that I was a shameless child, making my grandmother cook for me when I could have done it myself. But how do you tell someone that their love language is wrong?

My grandmother passed away on a rainy July morning. Among the many other things, my grandfather and I lost was our appetites. The loss was heavy. Something I could not carry with me. So I let it sit around me and my grandmother’s kitchen, filling the empty house as the refrigerator hummed in the background.

I wasn’t hungry. But I needed sustenance and my grandmother’s relief. So for the first time, I cooked.

Where is the wheat kept? Where is the vermicelli you bought a month ago? Why did you leave me?

I cooked while my online classes played in the background. I cooked through my crying jags, at first angry at my grandmother for leaving, then crying again because I wouldn’t get to hold her ever again. I tore open milk packets, spilling a little no matter how careful I was. I boiled the milk, collected the cream that could be later used to make butter. I cleaned the kitchen counter every morning as she did. I cleaned it after every meal I prepared. I looked up easy recipes on Pinterest. I stuck a chart on my fridge that showed information on seasonal fruits and vegetables. I chopped the vegetables. I cut fruit diligently for myself every day.

I made ambitious trips to the supermarket. I bought ready-made batter for idlis and dosas. I bought cream and tetra packs of milk. I cried as the dosas burned on the stove. I made pumpkin soup. I made fried rice. I made curd rice. I made cacio e pepe with parmesan, much to the horror of my Italian friends. I cried through each dish. I cried as I ate garlic bread for breakfast and lunch because I couldn’t muster the energy to cook anything else.

While grief hung around, I never felt alone in the house. Loneliness did not creep in. The silence of the house was broken by mysterious industrial noises. Pipes creaking, footsteps on the above floor. Some days I was tempted to buy an ouija board from Amazon so I could ask my grandmother questions: where is the wheat kept? Where is the vermicelli you bought a month ago? Why did you leave me? The only thing that kept me going was that I knew I was in a place she loved. I was in a room where she did what she loved. I was doing the things she loved. I realised I was holding on to whatever I could find of her.

In India, when someone passes away, people who knew them give up something that that person loved. When my grandmother passed away, my grandfather gave up eating sweets. My aunt gave up mangoes. And yet, for me, this is a morbid way to remember someone. My grandmother would have hated it. She would have wanted us to have extra of something she loved, for her.

Grief is difficult to navigate. I am still heartbroken and there are days I still cry thinking of her. The only consolation is that as I cook through each meal, I know she is proud of me. More than anything she is relieved. To know my grandmother was to love her. There is no other way of putting it. To know that she loved me, that she wanted to cook for me, is a privilege nothing will ever measure up to.

By Shikha Bafna