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Strange Gift

Priyanka Champaneri | Updated on January 24, 2021

Sweet and sour: After they left, Champa’s first thought was of the lemon pickle   -  ISTOCK.COM

That weekend came the news that Champa’s elder daughter was engaged, the proof arriving in the form of Jaimini herself standing outside the front door with a ring on one hand and Arun on the other. The diamond split the light whenever it moved. “Lab-grown, Ma,” Jaimini rushed to assure her. “Not from a mine.” Hemant laughed, and Champa pretended as if this meant nothing to her, but of course she was relieved; diamonds brought horrible, black luck to every woman in her line. She squeezed Jaimini’s face between her palms, and then they all sat and listened as Jaimini narrated the story of the proposal.

Rocky start: Champa pretended as if this meant nothing to her, but of course she was relieved; diamonds brought horrible, black luck to every woman in her line   -  ISTOCK.COM

 

Arun was a solid, pleasant sort, the kind of boy who looked good now but who soon enough would develop a paunch and a shiny area on the back of his head where the hair was already beginning to thin. Champa saw it all in a flash, the way she sometimes saw these things, a brief intuition that centred on the mundane but which always proved true. Still: Better a paunch than a bad temper, or worse. She handed around a tray of sweets, and then they all huddled around Jaimini’s phone as they video-called Lucky, Champa’s younger daughter, to tell her the news.

After they left, Champa’s first thought was of the lemon pickle. The wedding would happen in just three months; she needed to start right away. Within days she brought home lemons, salt, and two cases of glass canning jars from the bulk warehouse. Working through the lemons, she first gave them a quick wash and thorough dry, then sliced each into quarters. She tossed those in big glass bowls with the salt and packed the mixture into the jars. Hemant came wandering in for tea, and she bade him go to Starbucks instead. “Or make it yourself,” she added. She half hoped he might, but of course he went out the door.

The task was meditative, the kind of thing to stop the brain, as her mother used to say. Bah had made the same pickle for Champa when the marriage with Hemant was fixed, had spooned a bit of it on every guest’s plate at the wedding. And she’d kept behind three intact jars that she handed over during Champa’s first visit home as a married woman. They opened one after making lunch together that day, and the pickle was a pleasant burst in Champa’s mouth, with soft chew, sour, and salt all mingling on her tongue. A gift, Bah explained, that her mother had given her, and that Champa should give to her own girls, should she have any.

When all the jars were ready, Champa carried them outside to the deck. She had thirty in total, and that wouldn’t do; she unscrewed the lid off a full jar and tipped half the contents into a clean one. Thirty-one, far luckier. Her wrists were too weak to do the final tightening, without which the air would seep in and a furred white mould would develop. She found her husband in his study; Hemant gave a curt nod from behind his book when she asked for his help. But a half hour later, he still hadn’t emerged from his reading. Champa stood in the kitchen, thinking. Then she rummaged in a drawer until she found it: A piece of rubbery material that gripped the lids and allowed her to tighten them as well as Hemant might have, perhaps even better. Later, when he came in for dinner, he said nothing about the jars, though he could clearly see them through the patio door. They ate in silence.

***

Every day, Champa shook each of the jars and held them upside down to redistribute the salt, bustling outside every few hours to move each along with the sun’s arc. At night she brought them in. Soon, the piercing yellow rind turned soft and brown, and the contents shrank down to half the volume. She held her breath when she opened the jars to push the lemons down, dreading the telltale sign of mould. Her relief was palpable as she quickly retightened the lids.

She stayed busy with wedding planning, in accompanying Jaimini on shopping trips, holding the phone up when Jaimini needed Lucky to provide an opinion from afar. “You should do a black lehenga,” Lucky said as Jaimini was looking through racks of options for the reception, and Champa’s heart sank — black, never an auspicious colour. She held her tongue as Jaimini tried on a black net outfit embellished with gold. Jaimini looked stunning, but when she moved on and chose a deep emerald green instead, Champa felt herself unclench.

Weeks passed, and then, while sitting at the kitchen table one morning and writing out her weekly grocery list, she felt an odd pang of worry. She ignored it, but by evening the feeling had worsened. Champa called Jaimini, but the girl didn’t pick up. Then she tried Lucky.

“Arun’s a bastard, Mama,” her youngest said.

“But what happened? What?” Champa’s heart began to beat very fast.

“A week before the wedding, and he decides he doesn’t love her. He still wants to marry her, but he wanted her to know what she was getting into. And Jaimini says she’s still going through with it!” Lucky let loose a stream of insults, all the while saying she should have known, that there had always been something off about Arun. “Mama,” she said once her reservoir of anger was emptied. “Did you see anything? Did you get a bad feeling about him?”

The earlier pang deepened into a stab. For Lucky to ask that... My girls are logical, Hemant liked to say when catching up with friends. None of that old-fashioned nonsense in them. He and the girls thought she was silly and backward, a slave to the whims of superstition and the evil eye. If they listened to her at all, they did it grudgingly, mockingly, even. All Champa could think of was the shining bald head, the soft rounded stomach. She squeezed her eyes shut.

***

Lying in bed next to Hemant that night, Champa’s thoughts turned again to Arun. All those years, from when Arun was just Jaimini’s friend, to when he’d become something more, Champa had looked at that boy’s face and seen nothing, and that had reassured her. Now, she realised she should have seen it for what it was. Because nothing really did mean nothing — no feeling there, no spark at all for Jaimini. A dull terror rose within her.

The next day, at Jaimini’s apartment, wedding clothes strewn everywhere as her daughter made jewellery choices, Champa tried to bring it up. The ceremony was just a few weeks away, time was passing quickly, if Jaimini changed her mind no one would be angry —

“Lucky shouldn’t have told you, Ma.”

Champa tried again. “But is this the right thing? Are you sure?”

“I’m sure, Ma. I’m fine.”

And then the day of the Ganesh puja came, and Lucky arrived from California. She cornered Champa in the garage, where the pickle now sat, ready to be delivered to the caterers.

“Mama, aren’t you going to do anything?”

Champa pressed her lips together to keep them from trembling. “I tried. She said she was fine.”

“See, you always do this,” Lucky said. “You never say anything when we need you to.”

“And if I did do something, would Jaimini listen? Would you?”

“But Mama —”

Jaimini popped her head through the door, looking for something, and Lucky shut her mouth. “Of course you are here, Ma,” Jaimini said, smiling. “Always looking after my wedding gift.” Champa looked down at her hands, cradling one of the jars, as the girls went into the house. She’d inherited her mother’s hands, and Jaimini, she knew, would find herself with the same pair decades from now. For a moment she was back in her mother’s kitchen, eating that lemon pickle, teasing her mother that it was a strange gift, wasn’t it, a strange thing to give to a newly-wed couple. Just one item out of the other things, the pots and pans, the linens and clothing, that formed the trousseau to prepare her for married life.

Had she been prepared? All those years when she was fasting, waiting for Hemant to come home before she ate, her hunger like a deep pit within her, only to have him walk in hours late — The meeting went over — and I didn’t ask you to wait, did I? When the girls were young, laughing at her as she chased after them with salt and chilli, trying to remove the evil eye because she’d seen the jealous stare from the girl Lucky called her best friend, and Hemant had shouted at Champa to leave the children out of her nonsense — had the pickle, had any of those other things readied her for the anguish she’d have to swallow?

In the third month of her marriage, she’d opened the last jar. The seal had been difficult to break, but when the lid came away the entire surface within was covered in mould, a white layer with spots of black and moss green. She visited her mother that afternoon, heart pounding. “Bah, what does it mean?” Her mother looked in the jar, looked out the window, looked everywhere except for Champa’s face.

“It means things will be difficult.”

A week later, Hemant announced his visa request had been approved, and they’d be leaving for America.

***

The morning of the wedding, Champa sat watching the girls getting their make-up done, listening to them chatter and laugh like in the old days when their happiness was all she could grasp hold of to keep going. Yet there was something strange in Lucky’s voice. Champa found she could not meet her younger daughter’s eyes. Jaimini rose to use the bathroom, and as soon as the door closed, Champa stood.

“I need to make a quick trip home,” she said, gathering her things, and she walked past Lucky’s protests out of the room. She was careful getting in and out of the car, trying not to muss her sari or her hair, keeping her face still and her eyes dry so that her make-up remained intact, pressing the button to open the garage door as she pulled into the driveway.

Twenty-eight jars of pickle sat in the hotel kitchen, with strict instructions to the caterers to make sure every guest received some on their plate. The final three sat on the garage floor, ready for when Jaimini would make her first visit as a married woman. Champa picked one up, admiring the colour within, knowing without tasting that the pickle was perfect. Then she grasped the top. Her wrists strained until the lid finally gave, just enough for air to find a channel to make its way in. She loosened the other two, the action becoming easier with each one. Then she rose, got back into the car, and shut the door.

After the calm: Driving back to the hotel, she imagined Jaimini returning home from her honeymoon in Hawaii   -  ISTOCK.COM

 

Driving back to the hotel, she imagined Jaimini two weeks from now, returning home from the honeymoon in Hawaii. Getting the pickle out to enjoy with dinner, then calling Champa when she discovered the mould in all the jars. Perhaps she’d note how careful Champa had been, perhaps she’d ask how it could have happened.

Sometimes the pickle goes bad no matter how hard you try, Champa imagined replying. It isn’t worth lingering over. Just throw it out.

 

Priyanka Champaneri lives in Virginia, and her debut novel ‘The City of Good Death’ will be published by Penguin Random House in February

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Published on January 24, 2021
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