Past tense and kadhi pakodi

A funny thing happened at one session where I was discussing dementia challenges with some caregivers.

We were all talking of problems typically found, and I was sharing some anecdotes of mine, some mistakes, some solutions. There was one gentleman caregiver who was in a bad state, desperate for solutions of how to handle his father. He was sharing his problems and listening to what others were saying, making notes.

At that moment, someone who knew me well asked me about how my mother was doing, and as I began describing, this gentleman interrupted me with a shocked expression.

“Wait,” he said, “you mean she’s still alive?”

I was shocked into silence for a minute. Then I realized the source of his confusion: when I talk of the past, about what my mother did or the sort of person she was, or about my own caregiving experiences, I always use the past tense. Not just for the incidents, but also for things like, “My mother loved to read books,” or “My mother was a very intelligent, very independent woman” or “My mother used to love kadhi-pakodi.”

The only time I used the “present tense” was when I was describing her current state.

That constant use of past tense made this gentleman conclude, naturally, that my mother was dead.

“She’s very much alive,” I told him. “It’s just that I cannot, with any sense of reality, use the present tense while describing things that are so different from what she is now.”

Take, for instance, my mother’s great liking for kadhi-pakodi (a gram-and-yoghurt dish with fried dumplings is the closest I can explain in English).

It was a dish my mother absolutely loved. Alternate Sundays were reserved for kadhi-pakodi, fragrant rice, bhuna aloo, and stuffed karela. My mother was very particular about how “good” kadhi should taste, and made it exactly to that specification.

Those were the days when I could say, “My mother likes kadhi-pakodi.”

Then, when her problems started, her cooking started deteriorating. Often, she was not satisfied with the way her kadhi turned out. The curd was not sour enough, the kadhi was not cooked long enough, it was too thick, it was too watery, the pakodis were not fluffy enough, not soaked in long enough, or they had been too soft and had crumpled into the kadhi.

When I would cook kadhi (and it seemed close enough to what she had cooked for years, to my taste buds), she was even more critical, hankering for kadhi as her grandmother made it. My mother would repeatedly ask me to make it that way, and I would point out that her grandmother had died well before I was born, so how could I know what she meant? But by this time my mother had lost her sense of “timelines”, so to say, and expected me to have known her grandmother and sisters and parents (all dead before I was born). She thought I’d played with them when we were all children together.

Back to kadhi-pakodi.

My mother, desperate for that taste, would ask everyone she met whether they knew how to make “good” kadhi. Neighbors full of sympathy for this old lady whose daughter did not make her favorite foods, would send bowls of kadhi over, and my mother would eat it but grumble that it wasn’t good enough.

I guess I’d have said then, “My mother likes kadhi-pakodi but somehow she’s never satisfied with any version of it.”

Meanwhile, her stomach stopped cooperating with her in matters such as foods with gram-flour. Flatulence and “accidents” would happen. She would be in great pain after such a meal, groaning and agonizing for hours. She’d be in tears and helpless. Amritdhara and Pudinhara would have to be deployed, and they’d take time to kick in. Sometimes, they were ineffective, and my mother’s agony would not abate for hours. Reluctantly, I had to put a stop to kadhi adventures.

Then it was, “My mother likes kadhi-pakodi but it doesn’t suit her any more.”

To my mother, who could not remember things or connect things that well any longer, the correlation between food choices and severe stomach pain was far from obvious. She did not want the pain, definitely not. She expected me to solve the problem. But she also wanted her kadhi-pakodi, and thought I was being very mean by saying, we cannot give you kadhi pakodi, remember what happened last time? Of course she did not remember what happened last time–that is the nature of her problem.

So my mother continued to ask visitors whether they knew how to make “good” kadhi, and saying I did not let her eat it. I would say it doesn’t suit her, and she would tell them it suited her perfectly. The visitors fell broadly in three categories.

One, a bunch of them, lectured me on giving my mother the food she wanted. “If she can’t even eat what she wants at this age, what’s the point!” one such person said. When I explained her stomach problem, he said, “but she’s told me she can digest it. What’s the harm! If she is willing to eat it, why do you stop her?” I tried to explain that my mother couldn’t tolerate the indigestion, but he assumed that mother was making an informed choice of sorts, willing to tolerate any minor indigestion because of her love of the taste. He would not believe that she was unable to connect related incidents into cause-and-effect.

Another category of persons would send over a bowl of kadhi for my mother, often on a day when they knew I was not at home. (So the villanous daughter does not confiscate the proferred kadhi) This kadhi would be specially made for my mother, a showcase of how well these persons could cook, and was probably “heavier” than normal kadhi, more spicy and seasoned more liberally, and more likely to cause indigestion. I’d find my mother unwell that evening, but she (and these “helpful” neighbors) would hide the kadhi eating part from me.  They’d even bullied my maid into keeping quiet about it. Took a while debugging this part.

A third category stopped visiting my mother, because they’d rather not get into mother-daughter family problems, as one of them explained once 😦

It was still the days of: “My mother likes kadhi-pakodi but it doesn’t suit her any more.”

Now things have changed even more.

My mother has forgotten what kadhi pakodi is, and how she craved for it so much. She is on simple liquid diet, which is given to her carefully, a sip at a time.

What I say now is:  “My mother used to like kadhi-pakodi.”

And that is how I find myself describing my mother most of the time–using the past tense. Because what she is now is so very different from what she was earlier…

Hey, all of us change. Maybe we should use the past tense more often 🙂

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About Swapna Kishore
I'm a writer, blogger, and resource person for dementia/ caregiving in India, and deeply concerned about dementia care in India. On this blog I share my own caregiving journey, my experiences as a resource person for dementia care, and musings on life, aging, dementia in India, and such sundries. More about me and the work I do for dementia care in this set of pages:

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