Column | Longing and a side of tehar

Every woman needs a sisterhood. This one comes spiced with song, poetry and turmeric

June 23, 2023 11:45 am | Updated 04:39 pm IST

Though their troubles are as individual as them, a common thread runs through, connecting them to each other — longing.

Though their troubles are as individual as them, a common thread runs through, connecting them to each other — longing. | Photo Credit: Illustration: Sonali Zohra

It is a warm July morning. We have a few days off school, and I have been sent to Phuphee’s house. When I stay with her, she always lets me sleep next to her because she knows I am terrified of sleeping on my own. Phuphee’s room has two sets of windows, both on the same side. Even when it is bright outside, only half of her room is lit up, the rest sits softly in half light. The glass on the windows is made up of different hues of yellows, greens, reds, and blues. When the light streams through them, it results in a riot of colours as if a million rainbows come to life all at the same time. She always leaves the windows open during the summer and it mystifies me that mosquitoes invade every other part of the house except her room. She always teases my uncle about why there are so many mosquitoes in his room.

“What kind of a peer [spiritual doctor] are you?” she would say to him. “Your patients will have to rid themselves of malaria first and then work on their souls!” He would seethe.

This morning, while I lay on the floor bed, I could hear Phuphee saying her morning namaz. After a little while, I hear her recite the Quran, so I get up and walk outside. She is sitting under the walnut tree, with a shawl draped over her shoulders. As soon as I am close, without even looking up, she lifts her left arm high above her shoulder, making space for me. I snuggle up to her, breathing deeply the scents of cardamom, cinnamon and flour, and listen to her. When she is done, she says prayers over me and blows on my face and chest asking God to watch over me. But suddenly she is distracted by something. She looks up at the sky and whispers, “They are coming.”

“Who is coming?” I ask.

Walle [come],” she says, offering no explanation.

We walk into the kitchen, which is starting to get busy. My eldest cousin sister is there. Phuphee picks up a huge copper deeche and announces, “I will be making tehar [turmeric rice] today’.

As soon as she says this, all the other members get to work on different things. Some start on breakfast and some on lunch. Next to her kitchen garden is a massive apple orchard, in the middle of which is a little grass covered clearing. She puts down a small carpet on one side and takes out her large samovar, which will keep the kehwa [tea made from cardamom, cinnamon and saffron] hot. When it is ready, she makes a fire on the side and cooks rice with turmeric and salt. When it is done, she places it in a large metal bucket and adds golden fried shallots and a little hot oil. She places it next to the samovar along with a jar of warmed mustard oil. A few minutes later, I see a group of women walking towards us. Most of them are from Phuphee’s village whom I recognise, but a few I don’t. I wonder why they are here.

They greet her and then sit on the grass. One lady takes charge of serving the kehwa and another of the tehar. They are all chatting amongst themselves, when one of the ladies, who is around 70 starts singing. Everyone calls her Aapa. She sings a poem by Habba Khatoon, a Kashmiri poet. As she sings the others join in. Some shed a few tears and some sigh. She speaks about how loving and gentle her parents were when they were still alive, how loved and safe she had felt with them and how it had all changed when she had gotten married.

‘Only women understand that a longing left unexpressed will turn into a festering sore and those are difficult to heal’

‘Only women understand that a longing left unexpressed will turn into a festering sore and those are difficult to heal’ | Photo Credit: Illustration: Sonali Zohra

Her lips tremble, her eyes lower to the ground as she speaks of how she still longs to see them, even now when she is a grandmother herself. She slowly picks up a morsel of tehar and places it in her mouth, weeping gently, her tears traversing the lines of her face. Another woman gets up and sits behind Aapa, undoes her scarf and starts gently applying warm mustard oil to her scalp. You see the relief washing over Aapa’s face and it is an image I will never forget.

Another lady who recently got married to a coppersmith in the village sings about the lack of affection from her husband and how she wishes he paid as much attention to her as he did to the copper utensils he makes. Phuphee passes her a cup of sweet, steaming kehwa and holds her hand.

A young woman recites her longing using the words of a dead poet. She sings of an unrequited love. To which an elderly lady replies, “Allah taala deenai taar [may God take you across this river].”

Every woman who is present sings and talks about what troubles her and what she longs for. Though their troubles are as individual as them, a common thread runs through, connecting them to each other — longing. Longing which exists within the hearts of these women who spend the entirety of their days and nights looking after families, homes and fields but barely have a second for themselves.

I learn that day, these women from the village and occasionally from other villages, gather every so often at Phuphee’s house. They never tell her in advance, but whenever they arrive, she is always ready with tehar, kehwa and warm mustard oil. They sit together for the whole day talking, reciting, comforting each other. They eat tehar, drink the soul warming kehwa and massage mustard oil into each other’s hair, trying to reduce the weight of the longings that they carry in their hearts. These longings which have become a part of their very existence but cannot be mentioned to others, because women do not talk of longings or desires.

Later that evening, while she smokes her two cigarettes, I ask Phuphee why they have these gatherings and why they make tehar?

“I guess it represents longing and healing, a prayer, and an answer to that prayer. We gather because a woman needs another woman, a sisterhood. Only women understand that a longing left unexpressed will turn into a festering sore and those are difficult to heal.”

Saba Mahjoor, a Kashmiri living in England, spends her scant free time contemplating life’s vagaries.

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