Mung Dhal

We settled down to dinner. My nani put down the pot of dhal on the wooden dining table. Aayan plopped down in the chair across from me. He looked sweaty, his hair shining in the light for the old chandelier above the table. The room smelled of cumin, cardamom, and smoke. The rotis in front of me were slowly deflating as my nana inched towards the table. He was 87, with white hair and a strange smile. He used to be taller, but he has stooped over, his back bent from years of people placing their secrets upon it. He was carrying a cup of water. The glass was multifaceted, the rim slightly chipped. He sat down at the head of the table, in a old, hardwood chair with a cracking wicker seat.  My nani went to the other end, serving everyone dhal before she sat down.

The cars honked outside, headlights shining into the thick air. The Mumbai skyline was grainy, pollution clinging onto the low-hanging, thin clouds. Large buildings tried to pierce through the sky. They stretched up with metal hands to part the rain, and breathe the fresh air hovering just out of reach. The cars piled up, pushing against one another in the endless race to be faster than those who came before. Drivers honked their horns, not to make anyone move, but to release the bottled up anger that made their heads hot and their minds foggy.

People scurried between the cars, feet pounding on, inaudible beneath the cars. Sandals torn, the soles worn down from years of running away from horns and taxes.

“Your mother phoned.” Nani’s mouth thinned.

Her eyes showed years of worry, built up in the form of wrinkled maps of traceable emotion snaking in jagged lines across her face. She had a shawl dripping down across her left shoulder. It was reddish brown, and diamonds imprinted across the surface with wax.

Aayan got up to turn on the fan, his chair scraping across the polished floor. The fan turned on, buzzing above our heads.  The window was open. A fly came in, followed by a translucent gust of tacky wind.

“What did she say?”

Nana tried to look calm, his eyes betrayed him. His hands clenched his tarnished spoon. His knuckles turned pale.

“The usual.” Nana’s hands relaxed.

Nani looked at me, her eyes expectant. I stayed silent.  

My mother used to call every evening, talk to me for hours, and tell me about her new home, her new life. She told me about the people, always rushing around, never stopping to breathe the air and forget.

“The car horns sound different here.” She sounded sad, her voice cracking in places.

She used to call every day, asking how Nani and Nana were holding up. They were the same, always the same. They loved walks, and Aayan still ate too many pani puris. She told me that the food was different, that the meat there was always undercooked, and the Indian food was full of oil. One night, she called to tell me that she had gotten a job, and I would come and live with her once she had earned enough money.

The calls stopped coming as frequently. Some days, I barely heard from her at all. When she did call, the conversations were fleeting and chilled. She told me she loved me, and hung up the phone.

If she loved me, she would have time to talk.

I walked to school every day, along the dusty, cracked streets. The crows flew above me, muttering to each other about things that only they understood. Nani always said they are the ones who see life clearly. They look down on it all, and realize the insignificance of us. We are just ants, crawling on the surface of meaning, touching it and shying away. Afraid of what we might find.

Aayan got up from the table and put his plate in the kitchen sink. We could hear the scatter of white-washed porcelain and leftover bay leaves. He turned on the faucet, the undrinkable water flowing over the silverware. The curtains flapped in the wind. The dishwasher turned on.

I woke up to the sound of veridian parrots getting into a fight at the tree outside my window. The clock in the hallway chimed five, the bells echoing around the carpeted hall telling me I should still be asleep.  I sighed, and sat up to shut the window.

The air outside was heavy. The sun was just starting to rise above the skyline, casting shadows across the buildings’ silver faces. The red reflected in the muddy glass, turning the low-hanging clouds a rusted amber. A car drove past, dark blue and stained. The dry mud splashed up, dusting it in gritty dirt.

I fell back down onto my bed, the pillows coming up to meet my tired head. The ceiling needed to be repainted. The alabaster flaked away in thin, waterlogged sheets. The room was dark, for the sun had not yet met my window. The fan was on, stirring up controversy in the pyretic air. The bathroom door was open, the faucet dripping into the mottled sink. The window in the bathroom was agape, a newly awakened crow sitting outside. A fly buzzed around my ear, circling my head in an attempt to land on my unbrushed, dark hair.

The chair in the corner of the room was worn, the dark brown fabric eaten away in certain places. Next to the chair was a small, stone table with a half drunk water glass on top of it. Some of the water had spilled on the rusty carpet, turning it a darker shade of red. The rest of the floor not surrounding the table was scratched, the stain fading, and the varnish coming off.  The door to the dresser was ajar.  The dresser was old. It used to be painted foamy blue, but it had faded to a musty brown. Inside, my clothes were neatly hung up, the hems dancing in the breeze from the fan. My shoes were in the corner, next to the thick, wooden door. My sandals were neatly facing the wall.

Finally, I gave up on sleep and went to the living room, brushing my teeth before I left.

My mother left almost six months ago. She bought a plane ticket and took only what could fit in her old, black suitcase. She bought a new pair of sneakers before she went. When she got there, she called me to tell me she was cold. It was March in New Jersey when she landed. She said the ground was muddy. It stuck to her shoes, creating a crust of greyed chocolate.

The phone rang. It was seven o’clock in the morning. I got up from the couch to answer it.


New Jersey was quiet. The houses neatly lined up next to each other. The lawns were groomed with multicolored flowers lined up along the edge, near the newly replaced curbs. A woman next door got into her small SUV, dropping her grey dog into the back seat. The woman drove away, the potholes in the road staring up at her car.

She walked to the mall, stopping outside the cold, glass door before entering. She entered the overly air conditioned space, the air flying into her face. She walked by a restaurant called Nani’s Kitchen and stopped. The smell of cumin mixed with paneer washed over her. She walked over, staring at the turmeric-colored chicken and the mung dhal.

She remembered her mother making rotis on Friday nights, the elastic, pillowy, pale beige dough being pulled and stretched by her olive hands. She stirred spices, grinding them together: cumin, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, peppercorns. She soaked lentils in filtered water, cooking them with red carrots and tomatoes. She carefully mixed in the spices, watching them swirl together in the already marbled water.

She ordered one plate of food to stay and pulled out her phone to call her daughter.


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