THE afternoon has difficulty dying. Four o’clock and there is no let up in the stifling heat that has left everyone gasping behind closed doors. Everything is still; even the breeze seems afraid to blow. Nothing moves, only a few dried leaves drift down unaided from the trees; they require no help to go, and there is no need or excuse for them to linger any more.     

Not a soul is in sight; only Rashmi is out on the terrace of her apartment, oblivious of the sun’s harsh gaze, staring absent-mindedly at the jar of pickle Ma recently made. It stands there in the sun, the tangy raw mango soaking in the spices and slowly releasing the wonderful taste that only Ma’s hands can make.

A smile plays on Rashmi’s lips. She is a young girl again, watching Ma slicing raw mangoes and mixing them with carefully measured spices, expertly transferring the mixture into sparkling clean jars. It is Rashmi’s job to take the jars to the terrace and see that they sit in the sun all through the long summer days. Rashmi’s mouth puckers up just at the thought of those sour slices of raw mangoes she quickly put in her mouth when Ma’s face was turned away.   

This summer, a lone jar stands on the terrace. Rashmi moves it further into the sunlight. This could be the last summer of pickled mangoes.

Rashmi looks at her watch. It is time for Ma’s medicine. She tiptoes to Ma’s room and stops at the door. Her heart gives a lurch as she peers inside. She has to look hard at Ma lying motionless on her bed; yes, her chest is moving, but Ma hasn’t said a word in the last ten days after she suffered a stroke.

Rashmi sits beside Ma and holds her hand, asking her how she feels, but there is only a slight moan in reply. She spoons the powdered medicine carefully into Ma’s mouth. Ma’s face contorts at its unbearable bitterness, but she is too weak to refuse or to even complain.   

Rashmi returns to the terrace, unable to watch Ma so helpless and constrained. The sun has grown just a wee bit weaker, but it is still too strong for the colony children to run outside and play. She lovingly moves the jar towards the reluctantly withdrawing sunlight and returns to Ma’s bedside.

She assures Ma the pickle is turning out fine and reminds her of the fun they used to have making jams and pickles several years ago. The sound of laboured breathing is the only answer she gets.  

Rashmi can hardly breathe to see Ma this way. She rushes back to the terrace, gasping for air. The jar of mangoes beckons. She picks it up tenderly, softly turns open the lid and, takes in the aroma of her mother in long, deep breaths. Unknown to her, tears trickle slowly down her cheeks, drip into the jar and season the pickle with salt they contain.