By: Anne McGouran
Kate is a Burmese-Indian octogenarian with scornful dark eyes in a heavily lined face. The top of her head just about reaches the height of my armpit.
“My husband dropped dead in his surgery at age thirty-two. To support my five little ones, I taught at a private girls’ school in Dharamsala. I adored the teaching but not the housework. Housework is just a bourgeois fetish.”
“Dharamsala…was that in the sixties?” I ask.
“Yes, during the first wave of Tibetan emigrations. Did you know I tutored the Dalai Lama’s niece? Not the brightest bulb, that one”—Kate stares off into the distance… into the Outer Himalayas—“I was always the first person up in the morning. I’d pour warm milk and curd into a chati, cover it overnight with a blanket, then churn it for our breakfast. The nuns all adored my lassi. I still get letters from Sister Veronica. That slyboots used to slip Santra Goli candies into my mailbox when I was having a hard time with the spoiled rich students. Sister V. and I are the last ones standing. Soon enough we’ll leave our bodies so nature can work her magic. Our energies are continually recycled, you know. We pass from death to life over and over again. It’s nothing personal, really.”
Kate sighs and tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. Silver hair that gleams with scented oil. When I admire her sari with the embellished green leaf border, she flaps at me and tut-tutts: “This is just cotton. You should see me when I dress up for a wedding!”
The sandalwood chest in her tiny bedroom holds a lifetime of special occasion saris.
“Everyone says green is my best color. The teal sari is Nepalese, and that one has hand-stitched kantha embroidery. Oh, but it’s so sad I can’t wear my favorite ones anymore! I’m so skinny—all that heavy beading drags me down.”
When Kate starts wildly thumping herself on the chest, I grab her flailing elbows and gently lead her into the kitchenette. Turmeric roots are drying on cheesecloth-covered frames. The pegboard is hung with perforated ladles and long-handled sieves.
“Do you like my museum pieces?” Kate says. “That’s a jharni spatula. That’s a shanani for removing stones from grain and a sannyasi for grasping hot cooking pots. I still use this old mortar and pestle for chai. By the looks of it, you’re a Vata constitution, so you should drink turmeric boiled with sugar.”
When Kate clambers onto the step stool, I reach out to steady her. “Here, let me get that,” but she slaps my hand away. While I sit on the only kitchen chair, Kate pulverizes fennel seed and cloves, then steeps the pungent mixture with ginger and cinnamon.
Seated in her sun-room, we nibble chapatis with fresh coriander chutney. Kate tops up our milky tea with a shaky hand.
“So what subjects did you teach, Kate?”
“At the boarding school, I taught history: the British Viceroys, colonialism…all that. At the day school, I snuck in world religions and women’s rights. We held wonderful salons in the teachers’ mess with tea and Victoria sponge cake. A few of us even wore pantsuits and smoked cheroots!”
Kate reaches down and violently deadheads several geraniums. “Time to face facts, Martha Washington. You’re definitely fading.” Then she points at the kitchen pantry.
“Can you reach that top shelf, dear? You’ll find a box marked ‘Nutrine Fruit Candy.’ That’s it! Oh my!” She chortles, tearing open a bright orange pouch with her teeth. “Confectionery is my lifelong vice. I really shouldn’t because of my diabetes—
There’s an alarming crack as Kate bites down on a hard orange candy. She removes it from her mouth to examine its juicy center, then sucks on it with undisguised avidity. “Sadly, they don’t make the rose petal-honey flavor anymore.”