There is a whole album devoted to Boro Khala’s tomato plants. My grandfather passes the pictures around while my mother and I crowd around him. My grandmother, reposing on her favourite sofa, has seen them all. Yet she chimes in, adding to my grandfather’s narrative, pausing to point out her favourite patch of garden.
“This one your uncle grew from a seedling. Look at that—”
“And these over here, you don’t find these in New Jersey, you have to get these from some other state—”
My mother is particularly taken by the ghost peppers. My grandfather shows her where my aunt grows these, in the shade of the newly refurbished porch.
“That porch alone was twenty thousand dollars.”
“Twenty thousand?” My grandfather nods, flipping to a different picture of Boro Khala’s house. The blue tiles on the roof, the white of the façade, the curving driveway, the rose bushes crowding out the view of the red front door.
“From the front, who would know that a Bangladeshi family lives in this house? But then you go around the back and you see the lau and the kumra and the korola and you know, you know the deshi people are here.”
My grandfather is proud of the fact that Boro Khala is the only deshi family on their New Jersey street. That my cousin goes to school with kids whose parents work for the governor and the attorney general. That my uncle can coax ghost peppers and lau from the cold soil of their one acre plot.
“Take what you want before the locusts arrive,” my uncle jokes, pruning shears in hand, as my aunts kneel amidst the plants. “They always go through this like it’s some farmers market.”
It’s a warm day in September, the sun tinting the grass a deep forest green. My mother and my aunts have taken their tea into the garden, walking in slippered feet through the grass. My uncle, hovering close by but far enough, is combing through the rose bushes. The garden hose lies coiled at his feet. Only Boro Khala seems elsewhere, a red mixing bowl in hand, as she picks through the ghost peppers.
“That Lipi always goes for these,” she says. “Every time she comes by she wants to know, ‘ektu morich ki hobe?’”
“You tell her straight, ‘Na, morich hobe na.’” My mother and Mejho Khala collapse into laughter, while my uncle tut-tuts and Boro Khala shakes her head.
In the pictures my mother will take, we can see this moment. My two aunts, bent over the pots; my mother, perpetually behind the camera; my uncle, off-centre in the rose bushes; and myself, hovering beneath the trellises, not entirely in the frame but still somewhere there.
In the end, there will be seventy-six pictures in all, seventy-six pictures from four different cameras, all capturing the two hours spent in that garden of Boro Khala’s suburban home. My mother will compile the collages, using the apps she has downloaded on her phone. The collages will have the borders and titles, the curlicue text, the inspirational quotations framing the moment.
You will see my Mejho Khala and me, ghost peppers in hand, trying in vain to take a selfie. “Like this?” Mejho Khala asks, and strikes a pose that she culled from her own daughter—hips out, elbows bent in, head tilted. I strike my own version, head up but chin down, trying the best angle, looking for the best light. My aunt and I collapse against each other as frame after frame catches us off-centred, unfocused, over-exposed. In some shots my hair obscures my face. In other shots my aunt is quaking with laughter so that she is a blur in the pictures. My uncle’s left foot manages to make it into a few frames. Boro Khala’s ghost peppers remain consistently in the background.
My mother, camera trained on her sisters, will show me the video later. Mejho Khala and I and our ghost peppers, posing by the rose bushes and the dark blue SUV I parked in the curving driveway, rolling on the grass. In one shot my black and white shirt has ridden up, exposing my belly, but I am rolling on the grass and shrieking through my words, and my aunts are smacking their knees. I have not seen such unbridled joy from them. Not since the days when the four sisters and their mother would sit on their favourite sofa in my grandfather’s living room, drinking tea and laughing fit to burst. They laugh like this now, in these thirty-second bursts that my mother has captured. My uncle remains stoic, pruning shears in hand, but all you hear is garbled Bengali and snorting and hooting.
In one, I am leaping out from behind a rosebush. In another, my aunts are pretending to be airplanes. In another, Boro Khala is directing us to pose in front of the front door where the flowers look the best. My mother wants us to pose with the lau, so we end the day with several shots of us beneath the trellises. “Hold up the lau!” my mother directs, so my aunts and I frame the lau with our hands and smile.
From Australia my cousin comments, “Was posing with the lau really necessary?”
My uncle laments that the tomatoes do not look the best on their vines. These are the tomatoes he coaxed out of the cold New Jersey soil seventeen years ago, the plants that he keeps transplanting over and over again. Boro Khala wants to make a salad out of these, but her sisters want her to try her famous sweet-and-sour tomato chutney.
“Who has time for that?” Boro Khala says. Her bowl of ghost pepper is now full, the plants denuded. “We’ll do a quick salad, and then if they complain they can get themselves some of that doi bora.”
The light takes hours to bleed from the sky, and by the time night falls we are back in the kitchen, wiping our shoes on the floor mat by the patio door. Ten pounds of biryani take up two burners on the stove; in the garage, two types of korma steadily defrost. My aunts go back and forth on whether or not they should whip up a niramish. “I don’t need Lipi telling me that there wasn’t enough to eat,” Boro Khala says. “I don’t want to be one of those hosts.”
“Does it matter, though?” I ask. “It’s not that kind of a party.”
It is not a party, not in the way Boro Khala’s circle usually does parties. It is the third Sunday of September, past the wedding season, but before the slew of holiday festivities grips the Bengali circle of central New Jersey. Boro Khala calls it a party because calling it a milad would be inappropriate. “We’re not doing a religious service, exactly,” she had explained to me over the phone, weeks ago when she called me in the middle of the school day. “We’re just having a few people over – fifty Bengalis or so – and feeding them, and remembering Abba.”
Threaded through her words was the chatter behind me, forty of my vociferous colleagues hollering their objections to a new schedule. I plugged my free ear with a finger and turned away from the door, trying to catch my aunt’s words.
“ – your mother will be coming in from Texas, and your Mejho Khala from Dhaka – ”
“I’ll be there,” I say.
They do not know my grandfather but they are here, nonetheless. Their cars line both sides of the street, from one end of Yale Drive to another. They leave their shoes at the door and swish their saris across the threshold. Immediately my aunts and my mother are upon them, pressing plates of jilapi and kebab, pouring cups of tea. My cousin and I hover uselessly, conversing in English with the children of the Bengali parents—who has been to Bali, who is moving to the one-bedroom on the Upper East Side, whose wedding was called off. These children do not know why they are here in Boro Khala’s kitchen, only that someone died, someone related to the host.
Three weeks ago, when the grief first struck, we were on the other side of the Atlantic. My mother in Texas, my aunt in New Jersey, myself in New York. We got on the phone with our siblings, in Virginia and Manchester and Dhaka, and we wept through the words we could not speak. Mejho Khala and her son, the only members of the family around, arranged the burial and the services and stemmed the avalanche of calls. We on the other side of the Atlantic talked about flying back, how improbable a trip might have been, how the last time we had spoken to my grandfather was years ago. “What is there to do?” we asked each other. “Why could we not be there with the rest of the family?”
This is why we are here, the three sisters and the two nieces and the one uncle and the fifty Bengalis of Lincroft, New Jersey. This is the closest approximation of a funeral service, a milad, even without the rosewater and the incense and the white sheets covering the floors. The women in attendance wear their regular saris. The men come in their polo shirts and khakis. The children wear their shalwar-kameezes begrudgingly, fidgeting with the orna in the September heat. The guests balance paper plates of biryani and korma, shove paper cups of tea under the extra chairs that have been brought out from the garage. The men sit cross-legged in the formal drawing room while the women float from the kitchen to the dining room. Already there is discussion of Lipi Bhabi’s daughter’s wedding to an American man; already I have privy to a conversation about how Lucky Bhabi’s fridge only had a gallon of milk in it on a given day.
This is not how I want to remember my grandfather. Yet, in the ten years that I have been apart from him, there are few details that I do remember. In my memory, he sits in his chair between the achar cabinet and the ironing board, under the fluorescent tube lights of his Moghbazar flat. He would smack his gums after polishing off his nightly glass of barley water. He liked his ilish maach smothered in mustard seeds. His favourite kind of roti was my grandmother’s, molded out of rice flour and steamed over low heat.
He used to speak at length of Boro Khala’s tomatoes, the month he spent at her home in New Jersey seventeen years ago. He was enamoured by the two-car garage, the trellises my uncle had constructed, the lau and eggplant my uncle was trying to grow, the ghost peppers that my aunt would mince and add into her korma and kala bhuna. Those tomato plants have been denuded now, turned into chutneys and diced into the salads. The ghost peppers have likewise disappeared into the korma and daal and bhuna.
This is the menu Boro Khala has decided on, the menu that has taken her a week to assemble. For the last three days her kitchen has been a symphony of sizzle and fry. Onions are diced and meat is browned. My uncle brings in the garden produce at regular intervals, sitting at the family dining table, peeling the cucumbers and the lau. My mother and Mejho Khala watch the various pots come to boil and edge around each other to make more tea. They have graduated from loose leaf to teabags, but the cups are replenished nonetheless. Meanwhile Boro Khala refuses almost all help, insisting that this is the way to do it, that she has been feeding fifty Bengalis over the weekend for the last thirty years.
It is only the morning of the dawaat that she accepts our assistance, so my mother and Mejho Khala roll up the sleeves on their sweaters and get to soaking the dumplings for the doi bora. In the video that Mejho Khala shoots and my mother narrates, I am standing at the kitchen counter with a whisk in my hand, tilting the giant silver mixing bowl toward the camera, saying to my aunt, “Is it recording? Is the little red button on?” For eight seconds you can see me whisking the cumin into the yogurt, my hair swinging, my Harry Potter T-shirt threatening to dip into the sauce. My mother laughs off-camera, “Dekho, Buri is finally in the kitchen!” and Boro Khala hoots in laughter. My uncle, obscured behind my swinging mass of hair, sits at the kitchen table and says, “Keno? She knows her way around the kitchen.”
This is the first time in my life my mother and my aunts and I have occupied this space together, all bent over our bowls and pans and knives and boards, all assembling piecemeal this feast to feed the fifty Bengalis of Lincroft, New Jersey. My aunts and my mother make my grandfather’s favourite things—the mustard a little more mustard-y, the chutney a little tangy, the doi bora with a pinch more chilli powder. I do not recall if this is how my grandfather liked to eat, only that he drank his barley water every night with his pills, that he saved the cartilaginous pieces of beef and goat for me. That he knew how I, of all his five grandchildren, would ask for the lime pickle and the sourest tok aamer achar summer could yield.