Kissed her silly and gobbled her up

Chotto-Ma loves going to nursery. She misses it during long holidays; she skips all the way to the school gate, ponytail bobbing, lips smiling. But last week  it suddenly changed. She didn’t want to go. She said she’d miss me, hugged my hand to her chest. And a river ran down her cheek.

Taken by surprise, we ran her through a gamut of questions: Did something happen in school? Was she sad, worried, scared about something? Had anyone been unkind?

Well, a boy had held her by the throat and pushed her a few days ago, she said, but that wasn’t why she was sad. Was she sure that wasn’t why, we asked. “Yes”, she said, “I just make sure I don’t play near that him any more.” I made a mental note to talk to her teacher about the boy, and moved on to other questions.

D and I asked her every question we could think of, but nothing. She wouldn’t say why she didn’t want to go to school, but she didn’t want to. All the while, she tried to blink back tears. We backed off a little; and told her to take her time, tell us what was bothering her when she felt ready.

A couple of hours later, as I sat there with dark thoughts flitting through my head – I have a viciously fertile imagination that travels like a drunkard’s sports-car – she came and sat down on my lap. “Maybe we can hug for A Very Long Time when I come back from school every day?”, she asked.

And suddenly, I knew. “Are you worried about me going back to work?” I asked. Many months ago, I’d talked to her about me returning to work after she turned four, I’d explained that she would have to stay at a childminder’s till we picked her up after work; I’d told her it would start this year, sometime in the summer. She knows it’s nearly summer now.

As soon as I asked the question, she buried her face into my hair. A long silence followed. “Maybe”, she mumbled after several minutes. So, there it was. A child, sad because her mother’s going back to work – nothing to write home about. But, it was what she said after the mumbled ‘Maybe’ that made me write this here. Here’s our conversation as it happened in Bengali. I’ll translate in a bit.

Me: Ma-r job niye tomar ki mone hoy?
She: Aami bhabi Ma office jaabe, tokhon aami ekta onno lady-r baarite thakbo. Ba-o thakbe na.
Me: Tokhon tomar sad laage? 
She nods, then after a silence, says: Aami jaani aami jeta bhaabchi, sheta jodi na bhaabi, tahole aamar school-e jete easy hobe. Kintu (and she touches her head), jokhon amar mathar bhetore eta khali bhaabi aar bhaabi, tokhon bhaaba ta stop kora easy hoy na.
Me: (hugging her, my heart in my dry mouth): Tumi eta niye kokhon bhaabo, shona?
She: Aami night-e bed-e boshe boshe bhaabi. Aar morning hole school-e jete chai na, Ma-r shaathe thakte chai.

Translated, that would be:

Me: What do you think of when you think of Ma working?
She: I think…Ma’s going to start work soon, and I’ll stay in another lady’s house. Ba won’t be with me either.
Me: That makes you sad?
She nods, then after a silence, says: I know that if I don’t think like this, it’ll be easier to go to school. But (and she touches her head), when my head thinks these thoughts, it keeps thinking it and thinking it, and I can’t stop it easily.
Me: (hugging her, my heart in my dry mouth): When do you think of these things, shona?
She: I sit in bed and think at night. Then in the morning, I don’t feel like going to school, I feel like staying home with Ma.

Of course, I talked to her about it some more, hugged her for A Very Long Time, and she felt better when she went to school the next day. It’ll pass, I know. But I still wanted to put her words down here, for nothing else but for me to remember.

{You’re just four, Chotto-Ma. Yet you sit at night and try to work through your worries without worrying us. You know your thoughts with utter clarity, yet say them aloud after much consideration. You’re just four, yet you try without being told to try. It makes me want to hug you in, in, in, and keep you safe. But, like you say, my tummy’s too small for you now.}

And so we did what we do best. We kissed her silly and gobbled her up and made her giggle till she could hardly breathe.

We also did a few other things:

D gave Chotto-Ma her first Aikido lesson – he’s been waiting to do this since she was a blip. (Throat-grabbing boy, beware.)

I sewed her a dress! It’s the first dress I’ve ever sewn, and though the finish was far from perfect, it made her a very happy bunny.

We read her this book of poetry by Freda Bedi, which we’d bought in Kolkata this year. Its words and drawings are wonderfully evocative – worth a hunt around bookstores.

And we made Shondesh. It’s a sweet that Chotto-Ma loves. It reminds her of Kolkata, and of people she misses very much. 

Notun Gurer Kanchagolla
(A subtle, Bengali sweet made with date jaggery. Jaggery can come in different forms – as a hard cake, or in a more syrupy consistency. The latter is called Jhola Gur, and that is what I used. It’s available in most Indian/Bangladeshi stores.)

Ingredients

1 ltr milk
Juice of 1 large lemon
4-6 tbs jaggery
1-2  tbs sugar

You’ll notice that the the measure for jaggery and sugar isn’t specific. That’s because the sweetness should be adjusted to your taste. You can skip the sugar completely and make the shondesh with just jaggery.

First, to make the Chhana or cottage cheese: Pour milk in a pan and bring to the boil. Keep the lemon juice handy. As soon as the milk begins to rise, lower heat, and pour in half of the lemon juice. Stir. The milk will begin to curdle instantly. Keep adding a bit of lemon juice, till all the milk has curdled into cheese. You should be left with the white cheese floating in a pale green water, called whey. Sieve the whey away, till you’re just left with the cottage cheese.

Leave the cheese in the sieve for 10 minutes to dry it completely. Then knead the cooled down Chhana (cottage cheese) with your hands for a few minutes.

In a non-stick pan, put the the Chhana, add half of the jaggery and put it on a gentle heat. Keep stirring in a gentle round motion. Taste for sweetness, and add more jaggery till you’re satisfied.

In a few minutes, the Chhana will start to tighten up. When it’s still soft enough to stir easily, take it off the heat. Don’t worry if it looks too soft, it’ll dry as it cools.

When warm, but not hot, divide them into portions, and with the palm of your hands, shape them into balls. Top each one with a raisin, or a cashew nut, or sprinkle of chopped pistachio.