“You come to ours and I’ll teach you how to make bread properly,” he said to his granddaughter. “Using a bread maker is not really making bread at all. It’s not proper bread. I’ll teach you properly, not like how your Mum does it.”
He had wanted his son, his only son, to marry his niece, his favourite niece. Even now, he spent as much time with her as he could whenever she came to their city to visit with her young son. She was the daughter-in-law he had always wanted, but instead, he let his son choose. The right thing to do, but only because he wanted to be so forward-thinking, so enlightened; deep down, he always wished he had been more firm about it. But he couldn’t, he had always struggled to reconcile traditional cultural values with his desire to be progressive and western. But this one, she didn’t even like them and he could tell.
Anila glanced at her toddler, conscious that she was more than likely listening, but didn’t really understand. But soon she would, though Anila. She’d understand soon and that’s when it’ll begin. Your mum just isn’t good enough. It’ll start small: the fact that Anila didn’t kneed her own bread, by hand, and instead chose to use a machine; then bigger things like the untidiness of the house. Come round here if you want a tidy house. Then the fact that Anila was so strict with sweet treats and food in general, desperately trying to stave off inevitable obesity and propensity to balloon that was so rife in her husband’s family. You can’t eat this puttar, your Mum won’t let you. It’s not us stopping you, your Mum won’t let you. All the while subconsciously sending the message that life with them would be infinitely better. She knew her daughter had their genes, she was reminded of it every time a family member looked at her and made sure they announced she looked nothing like her mother and everything like her father; but she clung desperately to the anchor if she controlled her diet her baby wouldn’t succumb to the various food-related ailments that plagued them all. It became an obsession, not allowing others to feed or cook for her; Anila took food with her every single time she went to their house, just to hammer the message home. The message that this was one thing about her daughter’s life she would control for as long as she could, though she could already see the belts and harnesses on the dining chairs, ready and waiting, patient and hungry for their next meal, licking their lips, preparing themselves.
Aisha’s cries pulled her back into the room and Anila focussed her whole being towards her toddler. It was about survival. Don’t say anything, it really isn’t a big deal. She repeated the refrain over and over inside her head until the words merged, crashing into each other, thudding, colliding, smashing something inside her. Aisha had taken a tiny tumble and looked to her mother for comfort. Inside herself, Anila made herself smile, so it showed on her face, reassuring and comforting, a mother’s smile. She willed the smile to reach her eyes, to show her daughter it was genuine, and as the smile travelled from her lips to her eyes, Anila inhaled. She’ll never be yours, not really. She doesn’t have your name.
“Sohni!” A shrill cry pierced the room and cut through Anila’s thoughts. “Oh my granddaughter’s here! Come to Dado!” Anila handed Aisha over, the cargo she carried inside herself for nine months and a lifetime before that, a cargo intended for someone else. As her Dado covered her face in kisses, Aisha struggled to free herself and get back to the floor so she could play.
Making sure she was never too far away, Anila sat down, away from the the doting grandparents and watched surreptitiously, warily. She was never quite at ease there, and never would be. Something never felt right inside herself; she was an imposter they willingly let into their home, because she was married to their son. Their only son. She was reminded of that every time his mother spoke: “We only have the one son so…” A refrain that punctuated many of her sentences in the first few years of their marriage, it hung around Anila, following her around like pungent fog, threatening to engulf her; it was as if having one son and one daughter was somehow her fault, so she needed reminding for the first few years. She’ll never be yours, not really. She’s their only grandchild.
“Mama.” It was always statement from Aisha, a need for validation from her mother every so often. She would always look to her, beckon her, then carry on playing. Her anchor on the turbulent seas of babyhood, she still needed her mother. For the moment, Anila held onto that, Aisha needed her. A teacup fell to the floor as she played and Aisha kicked it out of the way so she could shuffle closer to Anila. “Mama.” Her inlaws watched. Bending towards her daughter, Anila stroked her head, murmuring words of encouragement, indicating she should go and play with her grandparents.
“Acha, you don’t pick her up and give her pyaar like you should. You should give her pyaar when you pick her up,” said Aisha’s Grandmother, as if not kissing her would scar her.
The kissing wasn’t for Aisha, it was for her grandmother. Her words shrieked, “Kiss her so I can watch!” Anila pursed her lips, and tried to smile again. She distanced herself further, determined not to be comfortable; in six years of marriage, she had stop trying to be comfortable, and instead strove for discomfort and estrangement, wearing them like stretch marks. Pregnancy hadn’t blessed her with celebratory stretch marks to show she outwardly owned the scars of childbirth; it was another reason to believe Aisha was never hers: if she came from her, internal scars were not enough to prove it. She’ll never be yours, not really. They love her more.
Shuffling over to the toys, Aisha continued to play and drew all eyes magnetically towards herself. Anila breathed a sigh of relief, a heavy sigh, burdened with demons of her own making. Her thoughts plagued her because she allowed them to, invited them in and closed the door so they couldn’t get out again, creating her own monsters, moulding them lovingly, like children.
“Do you want some chai?” Aisha’s grandmother broke open the door to her thoughts and came flooding back into her head.
“Na, no thank you, I’ve just eaten. We just ate before we came.” She shifted in her seat. Do you want some?” Anila asked her husband, who was busy on his tablet computer.
“No, I’m alright thanks.”
“Have some. If not, have some fruit. There’s lots of fruit in the kitchen.”
“We’re alright really, we will get something if we want it, honestly.”
They must eat something before they went home, they must. “I’ll get some nuts out then.” Aisha’s grandmother forced herself up from the floor and walked towards the living room door. The possibility of her son and daughter-in-law not eating something, anything, before they left was unacceptable. It wasn’t about the food, it had stopped being about food years ago: it was about about control. Anila had taken her son, her only son and married him, had a child with him and taken him. When they came to visit, they would eat, whatever time it was. She had taken him and she would eat. Determined to make them eat, she ignored Anila’s protestations and requests that she just come and play with her granddaughter. She would eat. She had taken him. It was the only way to have foie gras. She had taken him.
Anila inhaled, welcoming the demons in, this time closing the door and bolting it harder, stifling herself. In the kitchen, Aisha’s Grandmother ruminated on how many different types of nuts and biscuits she could load up onto one plate. Holding his phone and dotingly watching his granddaughter, the image of his niece in his eyes, Aisha’s grandfather waited. On the corner of the sofa, his son rested, excluded from their unholy triangle, pulled in three directions, yet somehow not included. On the floor, Aisha played, oblivious to the struggle rolling in the storm clouds above her. But soon, she won’t be oblivious, thought Anila, soon her mouth would be opened, soon, the food will be poured down her throat and the gavage would commence. She’ll never be yours, not really. The demon grinned. They’ll make her theirs. However they can.