by Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar
‘Ahhh,’ my mother-in-law’s scream breaks the rhythm of her glass bangles as she rolls perfectly circular rotis for my father-in-law’s lunch. I rush to the sweltering kitchen and apply ice to her inner wrist, which is red but not badly burnt. We enter the cool living room where my father-in-law sits under the ceiling fan eating from a big steel plate with tiny bowls of daals and curries arranged along its circumference. My mother-in-law pulls a stool behind his chair.
‘Manju has never burnt her hand before,’ he tsks and brings a spoonful of daal to his lips without lifting his gaze from the cricket game he’s watching on the TV. The remark sets my mind spinning. I married into this family exactly on this day, a week ago. I’d heard sagas from married cousins and watched TV soaps about mothers-in-law, who, sometimes openly, sometimes slyly, offload their kitchen duties to the daughters-in-law as soon as their sons get married.
She’s never had a daughter-in-law before, I want to reply to my father-in-law’s comment but don’t. I know a new bride is not supposed to talk back.
My father-in-law licks his fingers repeatedly which I’ve observed is a sign indicating he needs more rotis. ‘A man’s plate should be refilled before he asks,’ my mother-in-law had said at the lunch table the day after my marriage.
The pitch and frequency of my father-in-law’s smacking his fingers grows. I remember my mother had asked me to keep away from chores for at least a month. ‘Let the henna on your hands fade before you pick up the broom,’ she’d said.
My mother-in-law fans herself with her sari and gestures towards her husband’s plate. I walk to the kitchen, tie my red, silk dupatta around my waist and start pinching lemon-sized balls from the dough. I roll a ball with the wooden roller into a disc but it refuses to stretch into a perfect circle. My father-in-law raises a brow when I place an oval roti with jagged edges on his plate.
At dinner, my husband, who used to ask for refills until last night, starts licking his fingers between rotis. I mutter under my breath, curse the day I agreed for an arranged marriage to a boy who lived with his parents, and rush to replenish the two male plates.
Next morning, my mother-in-law slips in the bathroom and is bed-ridden for a week. It’s her first fall. She’s growing old, she says, though her smooth skin belies the statement. The heat of June in India and an elevated mother-in-law status can drive a woman to do crazy things that start to make perfect sense.
In the tiny, airless kitchen, which becomes my home, the henna color on my palms blends into the dough I knead and rinses off with dirt on the potatoes I wash in the kitchen sink. Sweat rolls from my hands into the rotis—which are now compass-perfect—from my hairline into the curries I stir. When the heat gets to my head, I spit into the daal before serving it. A little extra salt and enzymes won’t hurt anyone, I decide.
Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar is an Indian American. She was born in a middle-class family in India and will forever be indebted to her parents for educating her beyond their means. She is a Pushcart and Best of the Net nominee; her work has been published online in Ellipsis Zine, Lunch Ticket, Star82 Review, Cabinet of Heed, and also in print, most recently in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. She blogs at Puny Fingers and can be reached at Twitter @PunyFingers.