The Pallu -- creative nonfiction by Madhalasa Iyer
My mom runs down the decrepit sidewalk, her bare feet tickled by the crabgrass emerging from the pavement cracks. Her taupe petticoat and the long pallu of her sari trails behind her like the contrails of the flying jet engines. The daylight cascades on her coffee skin like intricately woven threads of gold, and beads of sweat drip from her brow. She slows down and wipes the perspiration off her forehead, careful not to smudge the four colored layers of the powdered, sacred ash. I stare from the window-seat of my bus and wince as my friends look out and point at the “Indian woman in the long dress” like she’s some kind of artifact placed on the shelves of the Smithsonian culture museum. My mother catches her breath, smiles and points to the lunch box that I forgot at the front room’s credenza. I swiftly shake my head and mouth “I’ll eat in the cafeteria,” afraid that the flavored rice powdered with masalas would sprinkle the word “Indian” all over me. Mom’s smile drops and her eyes lowers down to the sidewalk. She places the messy strands of her hair behind her ear and mouths bye, before turning away and walking back home.
I don’t realize it then, but I think I’m protecting her. I’m not. I’m just embarrassed.
My parents plan a Friday night dinner at one of those palatial restaurants where the menu prices look like a death notice. It has this fancy French name, which even after three years of French lessons, I cannot pronounce. The whole restaurant looks like a scene out of The Devil Wears Prada, which I persisted through a couple of weeks ago as my mom continuously commented on Anne Hathaway’s picturesque fashion sense. I look around and cringe at my mother’s choice of ethnic wear to a place like this. They place the vegetarian dishes at the table and my mom repeatedly urges me to converse with the waiter in French. The waiter stands there awkwardly, his hands folded against his chest and his glance swiftly moving between all the members at the table. I stare at my food and avoid eye contact with my mother and the waiter. As I eat, some pieces of my ratatouille linger in the commissure of my mouth. My mother notices this and instead of grabbing the neatly folded bow-tied napkins, she uses the pallu of her sari to wipe the corners of my mouth. I get apprehensive and I remove her hand from my face, shaking my head so that others know that I don’t belong to the same family. I grab a napkin and look around to make sure no one is looking at us. Every other table focuses on their own conversations and no one seems to notice, but my paranoia overcomes my train of thoughts. My mom’s eyes droop and she twists back in her chair and returns to her food.
I look at her face and I realize it then. I’m not protecting her. I’m just embarrassed.
I get up early one morning for a dentist appointment and I watch my mother cook for us. She grabs the salt, the pepper, the cardamom, the asafetida and sprinkles them over the food. She smiles as the fragrance of the biryanis wafts to her nose. I stand behind the wall near the staircase and observe her culinary skills silently. As she grabs the spatula, she burns her finger on the side of the wok. I wince and I get worried about her burn. My mother shakes her hand, and uses the pallu of her sari to momentarily cover her finger. After a couple of seconds, she forgets about her burn and returns to cooking for us. When I was little and sat on the kitchen countertop, greedily licking the scrumptious food off the spatula, my mom smiled and told me that it’s important to remain happy while cooking, so that the joy can get transferred to the person eating the food. I watch in repentance, as I see my mother smile through her pain and mix the flavors of the biryani for our family.
Looking at her face, I realize it then. I should not be embarrassed.
In the chilly wind and with soft, slow drizzles, the next time I forget my lunch, my mom runs to the bus stop again. She holds out my lunch box with hopeful questioning eyes. I smile, ignore the presence of the friends around me, and walk down the three steps of the bus. I walk up to her, grab the lunch box, and like a scene from a cheesy family movie, I slowly place my arms around her neck and I hug her. As the droplets fall on the muddy soil and the misty air fills with petrichor, I feel transformed. I feel as if I’ve metamorphosed from a larva to a chrysalis to a butterfly. I feel as if I’ve changed into a new person: a better daughter, a better human, a better soul. I look at her beaming face and at that point, for the first time, I am no longer embarrassed. My mom gently sighs and uses the pallu of her sari as an umbrella to protect me from the falling raindrops.
Madhalasa Iyer is passionate about many things: writing till she has used up all her pens, wearing out the pages of books, finding heuristic solutions to all her problems and dreaming with her eyes open. In the future, she hopes to live in a society where equality isn't a question and we are all fluent in the language of compassion. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Best Teen Writing Journal, Scars Publications and the Formula, and she is a speaker for both TEDX and EarthX.