Mamu was born in Burma but moved to Biratnagar when she was 6 with the rest of her large family. She spent days there until continuing her education in Kathmandu. Being from Biratnagar means a number of things. Usually, it means you love good food. It also means prickly skin and the overuse of Nycil. Because my mother hailed from a family that believed in education and landing good jobs, they usually had enough to eat. But at almost 11 siblings and no parents, food was continually broken down into fractions and thus, my mother, a skinny woman with a large appetite (a trait most people agree that I have inherited) always had room for more.
She went to school clad in white sarees in the sweltering heat. She had incredibly close friends; friends she would run to watch movies with risking the beating at home; who would walk behind her on days when red seeped through the white. I keep forgetting the names she recounts but two I remember, Padma and Bina, the latter who shares my mother’s name. Bina aunty was a whiz in the kitchen, as my mother fondly recounts. She shares random food stories with me about Bina aunty and her baking in particular, on days when we too try and bake dry cakes in the pressure cooker. It works. A trick taught by Bina aunty possibly, but I am unsure.
I remember having met her twice. The first time was when my mother and I were invited to her home on a holiday. I was 7 or 8 probably. I had a terrible mushroom cut that somehow worked and made me look cute. It had been an ‘anger haircut’; something I got because my father would keep complaining about the length of my hair.
I do not remember where her house was but I remember feeling like I had entered a palace of sorts when I reached her home. A huge looming house, classy interiors done up in white, furnished with leather sofas and chintz armchairs. White pillars inside the home. I looked about in awe as Mamu proudly showed me around her friends’ place. This was Bina’s. The rich lady who apparently baked great cakes. A small Japanese spitz ran towards me. I was and always have been afraid of dogs. It stared at me with its beady eyes and bared its little pointy teeth. Bina aunty then came in and shooed the dog away. She saw and laughed warmly at the supposed resemblance between me and my mother. Mamu beamed. I hid behind her.
I remember the rest of the day having been spent lounging from one room to another; one in particular had a large bookcase. The others are hazy in my memory. Lunch time had Bina aunty call me to her dining table. Food was served!
I felt betrayed. My dreams of chocolate lay painfully shattered. Perhaps my face was easy to read.
I walked quietly behind her. It was rude to run at other people’s homes. Mamu was strict when it came to things like these. I sat down nice and quiet next to Mamu. The usual assortment lay before me, puri, aloo ko achaar, seemi tarkari. This was all well. But where was the cake? That’s what I had come for.
‘Nanu, cake khanchau?’ asked Bina aunty.
I nodded frantically. She put a yellow crumbling slice of something on my plate.
This was cake? It looked like wheat. I had a bite. It was salty! In what universe is cake salty?! I felt betrayed. My dreams of chocolate lay painfully shattered. Perhaps my face was easy to read.
‘Cake maanparena?’, she asked, smiling at my pained expression.
I smiled a nervous smile. I didn’t want to be a brat and throw food. Mamu was strict about these things.
‘Bhayo chodideu maanparena bhane’, said Mamu.
I sighed. I could concentrate on my lalmohan now, which I gobbled up in one bite.
Two years later, Bina aunty visited us at our place. She brought with her a large package. I tried to catch a waft. The faint smell of cream reached me. A CAKE! But I had been fooled before. I didn’t want to take any chances this time.
‘Nanu, leu timro lagi cake cha hai!’, she said handing the package over to me and resuming her walk upstairs towards mother.
I rushed with it to the kitchen. Dada spotted the package and ran along. We opened the translucent plastic bag and spied a large colored box, the type used to carry mithai in. The lid was jerked off hastily. A large flat black forest cake lay perfectly perched on a square foil base. We gave it a lick-test. Our taste buds exploded at the sheer brilliance of it. We frantically searched for a knife and gobbled down large pieces. We fought for the cherries. Delicious, delicious. The cream was smooth as butter, perhaps smoother. The sprinkled chocolate melted like cotton candy when it hit the expectant tongue. Moist heaven.
She had baked this?! But….but the last one was like wheat! Salty wheat!
Mamu later spotted us huddled in the kitchen licking away at the cake and swatted us away like we were flies on sugar. She had me come upstairs and join her friends. This is what mothers do; put their children in dreadfully awkward situations. I cringed at the thought of having to smile like an idiot for strangers. But she had brought us food and I had an obligation to bring her my exposed molars.
The mythical Padma aunty had also arrived and was sitting in the sun, knitting. Apparently she knit all the time. I wondered vaguely if she also knit in the bathroom. But she was an interesting woman. She talked about Pamela Anderson’s famous boob-surgeries and I laughed hard. She was pleased. We had a bhogatey party, then some more cake later. It was a good day.
I only had these two memories of her; of her cakes.
Bina aunty passed away of cancer a few years later. I remember Mamu coming home distraught from the hospital. My mother’s face droops into this heart-wrenching oblivion when sad; she looks so far away like it would take forever to reach her. Her happy lines dissipate and give birth to worry lines. Her eyes shrink. Her mouth is a straight thin line. It was one of those days when this face made its appearance. It was enough for my mouth to tremble at the sight of her face. She sat alone for hours in the balcony that night. I crept behind the wall and watched her silhouette created by streetlamps a house away. She sniffled silently. I cringed at my helplessness. I only had these two memories of her; of her cakes. But my mother had so much more. Of many more cakes. And everything else that was as important or more. Now every time we have cake we remember her happily; her namesake, whom I have two stories to share and my mother a hundred; my mother Bina’s friend Bina who baked wonderful cakes.