This is a story about longing, and marmalade, and longing for marmalade.
It was the morning of my fourth day in India. I was on my way to see the Taj Mahal, but what I really wanted to see was a nice cup of tea. Since our arrival, I had not been sleeping well, and the food—how I had been looking forward to the food!—was not agreeing with me. Especially breakfasts. As is typical when I travel, I could be thoroughly adventurous at lunch and dinner, but at breakfast I nursed a shameful longing for a non-adventurous menu of tea, toast and marmalade.
I have an odd history with marmalade: as one of my father’s favorite substances, it was always on our breakfast table, and as a child I loved it on dosai, the thin rice pancake of south India. But I developed a grudge against the stuff after reading "Ten Fingers for God," a book about my father’s life and work. In that book, the account of each of my siblings' births occupies at least a paragraph of text—sometimes whole pages! My arrival gets exactly half a sentence: “Besides Pauline, they took along another new product: marmalade.”
Having slogged through five previous birth stories, the biographer had clearly run out of ideas, and saw the opportunity to use my birth announcement as no more than a segue to the entertaining story that followed. (And it is a good story. When I was barely a month old, the whole family sailed back to England for a stay of a few months. The last time Dad had visited, post WWII rationing was still keeping marmalade off the grocery store shelves, and he was worried. He suggested that Mum make a gigantic supply of home-canned marmalade and pack it in our trunks, cushioning the tins between layers of clothes. Arriving in London on a freezing January day, Mum discovered that there was plenty of marmalade in the grocery stores, which was just as well. Because when she opened the trunks she discovered something else: that the seals on the tins had not been adequate to the rigors of a sea voyage, and that our marmalade was now acting as a sort of marinade for all the family’s winter clothing.)
It took me a while to get over the discovery that marmalade's status in the family was exactly on a par with my own, but I had moved past that, and it was once again my favorite toast-topper.
Anyway, back to the story. I had been eager to see the Taj. I might have been less eager had I known that this trip started at 4 a.m. and included over four hours of driving each way in a moldering bus—sorry, “luxury coach”—with no padding between the seat springs and my bottom. At the last minute Mum and Dad could not come along, a switch in plans that I regretted at first, and viewed as highly suspicious after a few hours on the luxury coach. We rattled along the highway in the pre-dawn gloom, with the driver adopting the standard Indian practice of blaring the horn every 30 seconds. I stared out the window at the empty, flat landscape with one phrase repeating itself in my brain: this had better be worth it.
I was not by myself; a friend of our Delhi hosts had agreed to be my companion. The engine was too noisy for conversation, so Sarah and I sat side by side without speaking. Not so our fellow passengers, who were a boisterous lot from somewhere in Eastern Europe. They were in a fine mood, thanks to the large quantities of beer they were drinking. I felt like the unwilling guest at an early morning, mobile, Slavic frat party.
This had better be worth it.
I decided to write in my journal, and unlatched the drop-down table in front of me. The table dropped down—all the way down—to rest upside down on my feet. So I wrote on my lap: wrote the vibrations coming up through my feet, wrote every pothole in a jagged scrawl. Soon I had a page of squiggles that my five-year-old would have been proud of.
At 7 a.m. we pulled into the parking lot of a large truck-stop style restaurant, joining a number of other luxury coaches. This was obviously the stopping point of choice for all the tourists doing the Taj day trip, so the chances looked good for the kind of breakfast I’d been missing. I felt a tiny upsurge of enthusiasm as I eased myself stiffly out of my seat. The tour guide told us repeatedly that we must be back on the coach in 25 minutes. “Not twenty-six!” he shouted into his microphone, with a hearty chuckle that brooked no disagreement.
The restaurant was plain and noisy and packed with small tables. Harassed-looking waiters in black suits observed our arrival with no pleasure. We looked at the menu and I was guiltily thrilled to see a number of western items on offer. I decided on eggs and toast, feeling confident this would bring me in well under deadline. There was no specific mention of marmalade, but really: who would offer toast without it?
Several precious minutes ticked by before we snagged a waiter. We placed our order. Then I asked, “Will this come with marmalade?”
The waiter nodded energetically. “Yes, marmalade.”
I smiled. “That’s lovely. And tea, thank you.” The day was definitely looking up.
Seven long minutes later the tea arrived. And ten minutes after that, when we had drunk the pot dry and wished we had ordered two, our food came. I looked at my plate, on which sat a hard fried egg, two triangles of toast, and a dusty-looking blob of dark red jam.
“No marmalade?” I asked the waiter.
“Yes, marmalade,” he said, bobbing his head in the same lively nod he had used before. I dipped my teaspoon into the jam and tasted it.
“Well, actually, it’s not marmalade,” I said, apologetically. “But that’s all right.” I was not looking for an argument. A few members of our group were already finished, and leaving.
“Yes, marmalade,” the waiter said again, a little louder, and pushed my plate an inch closer to me, as if all I needed was a better look at the substance in question, to be convinced. I looked hard at the jam again. I realized we were seeing it from two very different positions. I was seeing it from the position of it not being marmalade, and he was seeing it from the position that he had 100 customers and there was another big coach pulling into the parking lot.
“Lovely,” I said. With that settled, I had a leisurely 78 seconds in which to eat my breakfast.
Back in the coach, I remembered something. In many languages, the word “marmalade” can actually just mean “jam.” Now I really regretted the time I had spent disagreeing the waiter, over what turned out to be a vocabulary matter.
But I felt as though my mistake had been deeper than that. I had been thinking of another India, the one where, whenever I sat down to breakfast, there was marmalade. Now I reminded myself: that was not anything to do with India. That was just my Mum, who made the marmalade because of my Dad, who loved marmalade.
The tour guide turned on his microphone and began to tell us the story of the Taj Mahal: the creation of a monument to lost love, numbers defying belief: 10,000 laborers for 17 years, or was it 17,000 laborers for 10 years? Either way, it was a story I was to hear many times that day. But for now I closed my eyes and remembered a different demonstration of love.
The labor of it was what Mum seemed to relish. The scale and complexity of the operation—the muslin bags full of pith and peel, dripping their bitter treasure into bowls, the exactitude of timings and tastings—all this was her domain, and she presided over it with an energy that I believe was driven by her joyful anticipation of one particular moment. Not the moment when a dozen jars were brimming with hot, fragrant gold. No, the moment after that, when she handed the pot and wooden spoon to my father.
He would sit down at the table and apply himself with a surgeon’s precision to the task of scraping every last drop from the inside of the pot, then licking it off the spoon. Mum, cleaning up the kitchen, would glance at him now and then, shaking her head and laughing at the extravagant care he took not to leave a molecule behind in the pot. This was his labor, offered in response to hers. In exchange for marmalade, the transparency of his delight.