There was a writing competition last week; the central theme was food. Ha. Food and an Indian - the theme was a landmine of choices. How much of our lives revolves around food! As someone who cooks at least two meals a day (three on days when I’ve run out of cereals), it can get exasperating. I hoped to write something deep, rich with emotional textures and symbolism. At least in an Indian household, food becomes a veritable battleground – the manifestation of motherly (and other forms of) love and of femininity. Indeed, the preparation of a meal can make or break relationships in many joint families—the cracks appear in the kitchen and the lava pours forth on the entire family. As I mulled over these complex themes, an incident occurred.
I needed to assemble a couple of flatpack furniture, so I had booked a slot with a fitter. It was a cold but sunny Sunday morning when he arrived. Tall, lanky, hair slicked back, tattoos snaking up all over his arms. As is customary in any Indian home, he was immediately offered chai and breakfast the minute he stepped in. He gratefully accepted the chai, declined the breakfast and got down to work. Mid-morning, I began to cook lunch. I was preparing the staple Bengali cabbage curry - badhakopi aloo torkari. Unilke the South Indian kos poriyal, the cabbage is cut julienne, stir fried, preferably in mustard oil, with the accompaniment of diced potatoes, green peas, and the usual moshla.
As the cabbage cooked on low heat, I turned on the kettle for a second round of chai. The fitter’s work was taking longer than usual and I asked him if he was sure he does not want anything to eat. At least a muffin or a slice of bread since he’d started work early. No, he said, the tea will do. And very hesitantly, in a halting east European accent, he asked, ‘If you don’t mind, are you cooking the cabbage?’
And the most extraordinary transformation took place in this man. His face broke into a wide grin, like a child receiving a new bicycle, and I thought he was about to burst into a song. He said this aroma was the essence of his home, of his childhood, of his mother’s cooking back in Bulgaria. They baked the cabbage with cheese and meatballs and seasoned with homemade spices. Nothing like home-cooked food, he gushed. You are welcome to join us for lunch, the husband and I chorused. But he was hard-pressed for time since he had another work appointment. Tell an Indian woman her food reminds one of home, and there is no escape—his lunch was packed. He looked extremely delighted and I hope he enjoyed his meal.
Our paths may not cross again, but for that moment – how easily strangers from two different races shared a bond. We exchanged happiness in its purest form that day – he, of unexpectedly stumbling into an alleyway of his childhood; us, for having evoked that happy memory. We broke bread so to speak, and in its wake, all the so-called man-made barriers of culture dissolved. We may come from vastly different cultures, but our happy place is the same.
As my sister so eloquently reflects in one of her writings, the love and security offered in a home where food was cooked and families gathered for a meal, it is indescribable. I agree with her – reflecting on our childhood, there was a comfort in those kitchen sounds as our mothers opened and closed steel dabbas, set the pressure cooker or grated coconuts. There is comfort in those aromas of hot oil seasoned with hing and mustard.
Today when I visit my father, he insists on cooking for me. He’s got a knee problem that makes him limp, yet, he refuses to use the counter-top coconut grater. He insists on using the traditional eeLigemaNe, which requires him to sit on the floor. I know what stubbornness is, and I leave him to it. I’m shooed away to the balcony with a pile of pulp fiction paperbacks yellowed with age, and a bowl full of murukku to munch. I hear the familiar sounds- steel clangs, the iron grater running through the coconut shells, the familiar hiss of the ghee oggarne on hot rasam, and it lulls me back into a safe, happy place in my childhood. In a way, it is therapeutic for my father too – this creation of a tiny bubble as if Amma were there.
Sometimes, when I sit in the stillness of the morning and watch the bunnies and magpies hop around on the frost-hard swale, an overwhelming sense of irrelevance grips me. The whole world around me is going mad and I can’t comprehend anything; people taking sides about issues for which there should be no two sides, except condemnation – I can’t understand people defending cruelty, lack of respect, indecency, lack of empathy, lack of dignity. I think about all these people, perhaps broken irreversibly inside somehow. Perhaps they don’t have a place to travel to – like that Bulgarian. A place in their heart where they feel safe, happy. A place that can be recreated again and again, a place from where happiness can be fetched so easily, for so little.
This is also a course of mankind, this ebb and flow of cruelty and self-destructiveness. The only thing under my control is how genuinely I connect with people. Going beyond the superficial interactions; going beyond creating impressions, and just reaching out to another person with kindness and respect. That is my silent, imperceptible protest against all that is happening. Of course, I might flip one day and start sending out tiffin carriers with piping hot bisibelebath simmering under a layer of ghee, with the accompaniment of crispy chewda, curd rice seasoned with mustard and red chillies and pomegranate seeds – to any annoying pest of a human being…just to drag them back to a happy place where they can realise their humanness.
And the story competition? I discarded all the complex themes. What was I thinking? Food is simple. Food is fun. Food is positive. Food is love. I stuck to that.
©Sumana Khan - 2017