Phuphee and her healing kyaele tchot

An aunt with a special banana roti recipe, a mother buckling under grief, and a weekly visit that restores faith in humanity

Updated - November 12, 2022 05:10 pm IST

Published - November 11, 2022 11:30 am IST

“Grief that has no witness cannot be endured. People need someone to witness their grief, to acknowledge it, to hold space for it.”

“Grief that has no witness cannot be endured. People need someone to witness their grief, to acknowledge it, to hold space for it.” | Photo Credit: Illustration by Priya Sebastian

Every Friday, Phuphee would make a special roti called kyaele tchot or banana roti. She made these for an old woman who lived in the village. She would often make these for family and friends in times of grief and sadness. I remember having it as a little girl. I had lost my pet fish, Machlee. He had been with me for a few months and had been swimming around in the sweet jar as happy as Larry, but one morning I discovered him floating at the bottom of the jar. I was heartbroken. It was how death introduced itself to me.

At the time I was, of course, inconsolable, but Phuphee cured me. She gathered me up in her arms and carried me to the kitchen. There she made a thick batter of mashed bananas, flour, sugar, honey and malai. The batter was fried in ghee and served with toasted nuts. She handed me a plate full of these comforting rotis and asked me to tell her, in as much detail as I could, about how I was feeling in my liver (she had a theory that we felt things with our liver and not our hearts).

I ate and talked. I spoke about my anger and heartbreak. My regret. My disbelief. My fear. My anguish. And more anger. How I wanted to break something, anything, so that I could lessen some of this grief.

By the time I had finished eating, the force of each of these emotions had somewhat loosened their grip on my heart. A few days later, I was nearly myself again.

As she grew older, Phuphee rarely made these rotis for anyone except for the old woman in the village. I can’t remember her actual name, but everyone called her Khaale. She was a quiet figure, someone who existed only on the peripheries of the imaginations of the villagers. Her husband had died about eight months after the birth of their only son. Then, 20 years later, her son, a schoolteacher, left for work one day and never came back. It is rumoured he was picked up by the army in a crackdown. Khaale tried to look for him, but she never saw him again. She appealed and begged in front of ministers and officers, and although nothing ever came of it, she still waits for him to return.

Unusual uses of bananas

One Friday, not long ago, Phuphee asked if I wanted to accompany her to Khaale’s house. I said yes, as I had always wanted to know what she did there. Phuphee is my father’s eldest sister, and she lives in a village called Babanaar. Out of his six siblings, she is the one he is closest to. So, we ended up there almost every week.

The Friday sermons started as soon as we got to Khaale’s house, which was more of a crumbling single storied hut than a house. You could hear the imams from local mosques blaring out their sermons and, in the process, drowning each other out. We didn’t knock as we entered Khaale’s place as the door was ajar. Khaale was sitting on the floor against a mud wall staring at nothing. Phuphee placed the small earthen pot in front of her.

Khaale picked up one roti and started eating it without saying a word. When she was halfway through the third one, she started to weep. At first it was gentle, almost as if she was humming to a baby, and then it turned into wailing. She picked the rest of the rotis and smeared them on her face and clothes. She tore at her hair; she tore at her skin. She slapped her face and she beat her chest. She wasn’t screaming or shouting but there were terrible, awful sounds coming out of the deep recesses of her soul. I watched, holding my breath, waiting for Phuphee to say something, to do something, to comfort this woman, to make her stop, but she simply sat there, looking at her. As the sermon outside ended and prayers began, Khaale started to quieten down. She sat down, wiping her tears and whispered into the air repeatedly, “Su mood ne kyenh, su roav mae [he did not die, he just got lost].”

Holding space for grief

On our way back I asked Phuphee if this happened every time she came here. “Without fail,” she said.

I couldn’t understand why Phuphee would go through this ordeal for Khaale every week. They weren’t friends and she wasn’t family. I asked her what was the point of it.

She let out a long sigh and signalled towards a chinar tree on the side of the road. We sat under it on a root that had sprouted above the ground. She lit two cigarettes and smoked in silence for a while and then spoke: “Grief that has no witness cannot be endured. People need someone to witness their grief, to acknowledge it, to hold space for it. That is just how humans are built. Most people are afraid of grief and will do anything to avoid it, but the funny thing is, it is the most certain thing in life along with death. We will all die. We will all witness someone dying. We will all grieve when someone we love passes away. Death is the only thing we have in common with each other. We cannot run from it. All we can do for ourselves and for others is to hold them and say, ‘I see you; I see your grief and I am here’. I know people are busy nowadays, but every generation is busy in their own way. Death will not slow down because we are busy. Death will still come and camp wherever it chooses. So, learn to acknowledge it for yourself and for others. This will allow you to go back to life at some point and start living again. Khaale’s son used to love the kyaele tchot. That is why I make them for her. For a few minutes each week, she feels she has a physical connection to him again. It allows her to endure for a little while longer.”

We walked back the rest of the way in silence, Phuphee smoking the rest of her cigarettes and me reminiscing back to the time she had held space for my grief, which now seemed so insignificant, yet, at the time, had felt immense and all consuming.

The first column in a monthly series that explores life’s little lessons through food.

A Kashmiri living in England, the columnist and new mum spends her scant free time contemplating life’s vagaries.

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