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Coconut Burfi


by C Iyengar

Tarun folded his dhoti up to his knees and took out the bag of fresh coconut from the hawker's market. He was going to make coconut burfis, Aunty Kamala made for him the last time she had visited Singapore. 

The first time, Tarun had sat on the kitchen counter and watched her grate and sieve and stir. She talked non-stop about everything from the clean streets to the busy Serangoon Road Indian market to his bachelor status. He felt as if he was the coconut being grated – no little detail missed her. 

"This flat is so big for one person, no?" she had asked. 

"I invite friends sometimes," he had replied. 

"Girl friends? Orgies?" 

"Iyoh, Aunty, take your mind off the gutter." 

"What's wrong with having girlfriends, my dear," she said. "You can tell me. Your mother is a prude, I know. Her entire family is like that. I knew that before she married my brother. How could one belong to a freedom fighter’s family and also Victorian British, all at the same time? I’d never know." 

He could never talk to his mother about this. It didn’t work that way in his family. From when they were little, they always went to Kamala Aunty for safekeeping their secrets. 

"I don't have girlfriends, ok?" 

“Not even one?” she asked. 

And every time they discussed anything from local movies to the new reclaimed land, she had somehow brought the topic back to girlfriends. 

"If she's Chinese," she started, sitting by Marina Pier, "that's ok too, Tarun. We'll learn their ways." 

"She's not," Tarun said with a laugh. 

"Malay then?" she asked. "Are you worried that we won't accept a Muslim girl?" 

"Stop, please!" cried Tarun. "Is this why you came down from the village? To interrogate me?" 

Tarun had moved to Singapore thinking it would be easier to have his own life, away from the scrutiny of parents and the rules of his upbringing. But it was all too much of don't ask, don't tell here. 

A week had flown by quickly since Aunty Kamala had arrived. They had taken trips to Johor Bahru to get bargains and an overnight in KL, going up the towers. She had done a full round of all the Murugan temples in Singapore. There was nothing more she wanted to see. 

"Even Murugan had two wives," she said, when they had entered the temple. 

"And his father was gender fluid," said Tarun. 

Aunty Kamala burst into a holler startling the tourists. Frankly Tarun was surprised she'd know the term. 

"Our epics are full of gods who had the freedom to do stuff," she said. "I think all this prudishness came with the Victorians. Not before." 

The last evening, as they sat in the balcony of their 14th floor apartment, with a bottle of Singa, Aunty Kamala sighed. "My youngest brother, Ravi, didn't want to marry either." 

Aunty Kamala wasn't even looking at Tarun. She stared at the night sky, struggling to compete with the city's lights. "He killed himself, that broken-hearted boy. My baby. I was almost his mother not his sister." 

"Why?" he asked. 

No one had told him about Uncle Ravi before. When was this? It was typical of his family to avoid difficult topics – illness, suicides, depression, and addiction. They were ashamed, but never enough to help. 

"No one understood him, I suppose," she said, and sighed. "He tried telling us in his own way. But those days, one didn't speak of such things." 

Tarun wasn’t sure people spoke freely even these days. Down below in the street, a police car sped by with sirens. Aunty's mobile phone rang in the living room. 

"That must be my preetham," she said. Like women from the previous generation, she never called her husband by name. Preetham - darling became his moniker. Now everyone called him Preetham Uncle and he didn't mind one bit. 

"Yes, yes, I've packed everything," she said into the phone. "I've checked my passport and the ticket. Everything's fine, preetham. Tarun is here to help." 

Tarun went to get another beer for both of them and handed hers. 

After the phone call, Aunty Kamala had decided to show him how to make the coconut burfis. "I haven't even taught the girls," she said, referring to the cackle of cousins and his own twin sisters. 

She boiled the water with sugar, letting it bubble and simmer. 

“Bubbling and simmering should lead to something good,” she said. “Like the sugar and the coconut. Otherwise you’ll be left with the glaze.” 

Then she thawed the coconut gratings from the freezer. 

“It’s ok to put away things in the freezer, but too long and it loses its freshness,” she advised as the microwave pinged. 

"Some people put flavours into this," she said. “But I believe the true taste is not changing the original. You are what you are.” 

Was she still talking about the burfi? 

The next morning there was no time to talk. They headed to the airport in sleepy silence. "We'll love you no matter what," she had said as she entered the immigration zone after check-in. "Bye my dearest." 

The ring of the doorbell brought Tarun back to the present. The coconut gurgled into the sugar syrup in perfect consistency. He switched off the stove and poured the mix on to the wax paper and smoothed it. 

The bell rang again. Impatient this time. 

"Coming!" he shouted as he let his dhoti out to his legs, patted down his perfectly ironed and checked his reflection in the living room mirror. 

"Hi Tarun," called Abhay. His smile was sweet as the coconut burfis. All that simmering did lead to sweetness. 

"Come in, come in," said Tarun. 

"Whatever you're making smells divine," said Abhay, sitting down on the sofa. 

"It's a divine recipe from my special aunt," said Tarun. "I told her you were coming and she wanted me to make this for you."

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