Putting on a face mask and escaping into a story is a match made in self-care heaven. And what better theme to explore than the emotional meaning of our rituals?
Through this short story, we explore how for many of us, especially when we’re young, our rituals are the manifestation of our most meaningful relationships—and how their loss can cause deep longing and even an opportunity for reinventing ourselves. Put on your Manjishtha Mud mask, dive into this charming story, and reflect on what your rituals really mean to you.
By Aditi Ramakrishnan
Once, a little girl was running around playing in a garden. Suddenly, she stumbled upon rows and rows of beautiful flowers in a part of the garden she had never seen before. Nobody else was there, but she loved the flowers and wanted to pick some for her friends and family. So she climbed over the fence, went into the abandoned section, and happily picked her flowers.
“And just what do you think you’re doing?” said a scary, angry voice behind her. The little girl turned around, and to her horror, she saw her: the Mean Witch her mother had warned her about, wearing long purple robes and with long black nails and flowing hair and a stick (was it a wand?) in hand. The little girl stood paralyzed in fear.
“Well? What do you think you’re doing? Those are MY flowers and nobody is allowed to take them,” she said furiously, advancing on the little girl. Finally, trembling, she said “Please Miss Witch, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to steal your flowers! I didn’t know they were yours; I just wanted to take some back for my mom and my friends, they love these flowers!”
The Mean Witch huffed furiously… and she puffed meanly… and then, almost despite herself, she smiled. “Okay, fine. You are so cute it’s irritating! Take the flowers and go.” And the little girl was so happy, she took the flowers and skipped all the way home to her mom…
I slide further down in my seat on the bus, absently braiding my hair and staring into space. Amma made up this ridiculous story to tell me when I was four because I absolutely refused to let her oil my hair unless distracted by stories of Mean Witches and Pretty Flowers. What was the point of this story? Where was the plot? Why can’t all Mean Witches in my work life at twenty-five bless me with some sudden divine stroke of benevolence, so I can also la-di-da and skip on home with flowers?
And even though I brush this part away a little bit, where is Amma, and why can’t she make up these nonsense stories now also? Instead, since I I moved 500km away from home a few months ago, I now have to put on my Big Girl face and go do my Big Girl job alone every single day.
Letting homesickness show up as grumpiness, I slip out of the bus and into the grocery store. Mechanically I grab my staples off each shelf—bread, pasta, bananas (Amma said on the phone last night that any problem in the world can be solved with bananas. Who am I to argue with motherly pseudoscience). I’m acutely aware that I’ve been scowling at the vegetable aisle as if it’s done me a personal offense. Some ancient, angsty Arctic Monkeys number plays in my ears and makes me feel like I’m in that montage in a romcom where the world is reeling and the main character is on the verge of a full-scale breakdown—until some gust of magic Christmas wind blows and gives her a fresh lease on life.
My fresh lease shows up in the form of a boxed cake in the dessert aisle. When I was young—in my Mean Witch story era—every time Appa would go shopping he would bring back a little treat for me.
One toffee, some chikki, a pencil. He has set up a Pavlovian system in my head that yearns for a little treat every time there’s grocery shopping involved.
Today I am not feeling my best—and who’s to define what age being “little” ends at? I put the whole cake in my shopping cart and smile grumpily. I just know Saloni will roll her eyes at me when I get back to the two-bedroom we share (but will steal a few bites in the dead of night). I know it and I love her double-standard self for it.
Mechanically I bill my stuff, thank the billing man, go outside, and get onto the bus. I try to stay in my happy weekend bubble until I have to get back to the office on Monday. But I’m dreading it because of a Mean Witch comment last week that threw me off balance: “You need to figure out what more you can bring to the table than this, now that you’ve been here two years…”
What does that mean? I was hired to do this. In two years, I’ve gotten extra good at this. But now suddenly, because I’ve crossed some invisible two-year marker, I have to be able to do some unnamed "that”? It feels like last week I knew exactly what I was doing, but suddenly my ability and their expectations aren’t speaking the same language anymore. Maybe Mercury is in the microwave, or wherever it needs to be to turn my steady life topsy-turvy.
The bus passes by Sebastian Residency.
What kind of silly nonsense is this—why am I tearing up in front of the hair oil shelf in this grocery store? Okay, SURE, Amma used to oil my hair once a week but now I’ve grown up and moved away. There is no excuse for hair oil shelves to make me emotional. I brush off the idiotic tears, turn around huffily, and bump into an elderly lady, knocking her bag of groceries over…
“Oh god, I’m so, so sorry… Please let me help you with these… I don’t know where my head is…”
She smiles. “Slow down, my girl! Here, let’s pick them up together…”
I insist on carrying the bag for Carol, all the way home. She lives in a building across from mine called “Sebastian Residency”. We walk up one flight of stairs to her flat, chatting about her and me and her cat and my Amma. Her flat smells slightly of said cat. She makes me milky tea and offers me a Marie biscuit from a plastic dabba. The biscuit has gone soft in the dabba, but it doesn’t matter. I eat it. This lady makes me forget that I cried over a hair oil bottle. I love her.
I come back for more soggy Marie biscuits next week.
And then the next month. And the month after that…
I feel a slight pang in my bus seat thinking about this memory. The image of Carol dipping a Marie biscuit in tea flashes in my head. I haven’t seen her in two months because of an avalanche of work. And the absence of cats, tea, biscuits, and buildings named Sebastian is palpable.
I wish I hadn’t skipped my monthly Carol meetings. I wish I could see her more often. I wish Appa were here and we could go grocery shopping.
I wish I had the time to do more in life, and I wish I could afford to do less. I wish I knew what I was doing. I wish I knew what to do.
I wish, I wish, I wish. The next thing I know, I’ve unloaded my groceries at home. I’m sitting on the floor, eating my cake whole like some sort of uncouth toddler, dipping a spoon right into the middle and not even bothering with slices.
“Oh my god, you silly child…” (Saloni’s threshold for childhood is one month younger than her).
“You haven’t eaten dinner and you’re already elbow-deep in dessert. What’s your dinner plan?”
I shrug and lick off the frosting with my finger.
“You still haven’t figured out your replacement for that dabbawala uncle?”
“And you haven’t ordered yourself anything?”
Then came the patented Saloni sigh. “Come here…”
She pulls me up by the hand and starts to shuffle around the kitchen. Frying pans and pots come out. What is she doing? I don’t cook.
She is ladling butter into a kadhai. And doing miscellaneous chopping. “Pass me the chili flakes.” “Send the pepper this side no?” We are now role-playing the Disney movie Ratatouille: I am the scrawny ginger chef boy, and Saloni is Remy the rat (the real chef).
Is she making dinner for me?
Spiraling though I was ten minutes ago, the smell of garlic frying in butter is irresistible. I find myself becoming more and more involved. “Wash some spinach leaves.” “Pour one cup of milk into that.” Saloni’s instructions are getting more complex, and I am somehow executing them. Maybe I am Colette the chef, not the useless ginger boy?
Is she making our dinner with me?
Forty minutes, several instructions of cascading complexity, and one hilarious plating mishap later, there’s a plate in front of me.
And I find, to my surprise, that I’ve covered leaps and bounds in my mind. My heart is content. In the last hour, Saloni has made me sous chef, promoted me to chef, made me laugh, taught me things, and, in her charming, effortless way, brought us closer together. A mere paprika sprinkle ago I was terrified about everything. But now, one pasta at a time, things don’t feel quite so scary. Maybe I will go see Carol next weekend. Pasta. Maybe I will text Appa a picture of this meal. Pasta. Maybe I will talk to my manager tomorrow.
What about if not? What if all I’m really sure of is this pasta right now? For the first time in the whole day, shockingly, the thought doesn’t make my mind and heart race.
Because even if all I know is this pasta, Saloni and I made it together. And that was unadulterated fun and immediately calming. It’s a good enough start for me.
She watches me smile at my food like a loony.
“Same time tomorrow?”
I look up at her and smile.
Same time tomorrow.