February 28, 2020
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Cooking Women

"What do they cook in your part of the world, anyway? Just potatoes and roti," my aunt would remark. The prize-winning entry in the third Outlook-Picador Non-Fiction Contest.

Cooking Women
illustrations by Jayachandran
Cooking Women
One monsoon in the 1960s, my father’s oldest brother died. His portrait hung in a room at the centre of our house, where all the pictures were. It showed just his face, looking up at a camera that had surprised him by appearing from the back. His bumpy forehead was creased with a baffled frown that seemed to ask why his picture needed to be taken. A week later, coming down our red stairs after an afternoon amble on the rain-slicked terrace, he stumbled and fell. The many-windowed room that the stairs landed upon was deserted; the bedrooms that led off it were empty. Twelve people lived in that house, but nobody heard him crumpling at the foot of the stairs. As he fell, one of his hands jammed in the wrought iron banisters.

Four days later, I was born, a month before I was due. There was no celebration, relatives didn’t crowd to catch a glimpse of the new baby. They were shaking their heads over the young widow and her fatherless children. Even Johnson’s Baby Powder couldn’t quell the deathsmell from tuberose, incense and boiled-up deathtime food. My father sat with his remaining brother, working out how far two salaries could stretch without snapping. Less money and more mouths to feed, one of them mine.

In an early memory, I am sitting on the floor, ringed by bell metal plates of rice and daal and faces beyond, imprisoning me. ‘Now we’ll eat you up whole,’ someone says laughing, ‘if you don’t finish what’s on your plate.’ I rushed for refuge from those communal meals to our own set of rooms upstairs. I thought our two rooms were the nicest in the house. The one with four long windows overlooking a tree-fringed road was where we did all our living. Like the windows in Charulata, ours were made for peeping through, their wooden shutters let me observe the world below unseen. Torn away from the windows for unwanted naps, I lay looking up at iron rafters cloudy with cobwebs; when I turned, ceramic electric switches formed a row of black-and-white doodle faces in one corner. It was in this room that my father’s mother, who died before I was born, before my father married, had been kept through her long mysterious illness. The picture room had a cut-out, mounted portrait of her—large, almost two feet high. It showed a seated woman, her skin the colour of tea, man-like hands folded tight. Her brown lips sagged at being imprisoned within a glass case. Perhaps her bad humour had something to do with her being an inert dinner guest at many games of House-House.

Real dinners? That was in our other room, which was actually an enclosed verandah, a portion of which had been further sectioned off. In one part, there was a bed. This part was my brother’s and mine. My mother cooked in the smaller portion behind the partition dividing the room. She had attempted making the dull grey plywood partition garden-like by painting large yellow and white daisies on it. For water in her little food room—it was never grand enough to be thought of as a ‘kitchen’—there was a metal drum with a little brass tap, and a bucket below to hold the spill. The cloudy water in the bucket, floating with slimy peel and tea leaves, had to be emptied out several times a day.

Our sectioned-off, make-do food room was a rebellion. The real kitchens in the house were on the ground floor, alongside the dining room and formal sitting room, which we seemed to enter only when a compounder came around to dot forearms with smallpox vaccine. We stayed away from them.

In the early years of my childhood, all meals emanated from the ultimate real kitchen downstairs. Here, my aunts and mother would cook for the extended family, aided by a helper, and a maid called Dolly’r Ma because she was supposed be the mother of a girl called Dolly. We awaited the day Dolly would accompany Dolly’r Ma, but when the daughter finally showed up it turned out she was called Kamini.

The ultimate real kitchen was large but dark, with a low sooty ceiling, and mud-coloured platforms rising from a mud-coloured floor. The cooking here was done on coal-fire stoves fashioned out of what looked like metal buckets thickly coated with yellow clay. The coals that went into it were fanned and blown upon in the courtyard outside until they lit to a red glow. After this, they were moved in, towards utensils lying in wait for them.

Vegetables and fish were bought afresh each day, refrigerators still being the preserve of the adventurous rich. Each day’s fish was first inspected in the courtyard corner, against the wall which had a small water tank by it, about three feet deep. Most of our fish was ‘bought dead’. Tradition decreed, however, that some kinds of fish had to be cooked ‘just killed’. The eel-like shingi and magur and the energetic thrashing koi that seemed to have some inkling of their fate came gazing up from their small water-filled containers, daring anyone to butcher them. They were thrown into the tank to swim around, falsely secure in their new home.

As the crows lined up along the walls like impatient mendicants before a temple, Dolly’r Ma would begin cutting and cleaning the fish out in the courtyard. She sat surrounded by bowls of water and a plate onto which she piled the cut fish. She clenched the fish firmly with both hands, her foot holding down the wooden slat supporting the vertical blade of the bonti. The fish slid against the sharp blade, their scales flying in a gaudy aluminium shower. Dolly’r Ma’s hands grew slippery with blood. She scooped out the innards, taking care not to burst the bile pouch that could tinge the fish with its bitterness. The crow calls grew more urgent. Sometimes I saw Dolly’r Ma push some of the innards and a piece of fish under her sari. She would look sidelong with a pleading smile, silently begging my complicity. Mostly, one of my aunts would stand watching her all through the cutting.

My mother, being the newest bride and wife to the youngest son, was not trusted to cook in the ultimate real kitchen. ‘What do they cook in your part of the world, anyway? Just potatoes and roti,’ my middle aunt Shanti would remark. For Calcutta Bengalis, my mother was ‘as bad as a Bihari’ for having lived all her life in Rajasthan. She was thought just about good enough to cut the day’s vegetables. Every morning, she sat on the floor surrounded by brinjals, potatoes and greens bulging out of hessian bags. She placed two basins of water by her side and began with the potatoes, holding each carefully against the blade of the bonti, guarded against the day she sliced off a bit of her finger with the peel.

She was twenty-six. In the humid, gossip-laden confines of the kitchen the melancholy wail of peacocks played nonsensically in her mind, Byron and Swinburne still faintly audible in the distance in lecture notes and Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. In Jaipur, now, she would wear her best chiffon sari, put a fragrant champa in her hair and go off to teach in her school. She would pool money with her friends and sigh in a cinema over the glint in Gregory Peck’s eyes. Surrounded by damp vegetables, she fed on images.

At times when Shanti was away, my widowed aunt Parvati, the unacknowledged chef among sous-chefs, taught my mother to slice potatoes into fine sticks quicker than anyone’s eye could follow her hands. And for the banana flower she would coat her hands with oil so its black ooze slid off under hot water. She would do most of the cooking as my mother watched. Even now, when my mother shows me how to make maacher jhaal the way my father’s family ate it, she explains, ‘Your aunt said, let it cook at a roiling boil, only then will the true flavour of the fish burst out.’

I never saw my aunt eat the fish curries she made. That didn’t make me pause. What did intrigue me though was a practical point. How did she cook what she must have forgotten the taste of? She made egg and mince-stuffed cutlets, prawnmalai, hilsa, and waited looking at us until we took a mouthful and told her how it had turned out. Her own cutlets were made of boiled beetroot, as close as she ever got to the colour red. She was even forbidden anything with onion or garlic in it. She had to ensure she didn’t eat food that made her feel over-energetic. Lust lurked not far behind garlic. Starved of the delights, she cooked for us. I wonder now about the memories on which she fed to sustain her spartan frame. My aunt’s skin had become translucent by her fifties. She had always been spare and hollow-cheeked, now her body began to cave inward. Crumpled map-paper covered the knotted green veins that went up and down her emaciated arms. There were many women like her among our extended family. They would sometimes sit down together, to their special food, after all of us had eaten and gone. Their chuckles and gossip would drift disjointedly for hours into our restless, sultry afternoon naps in darkened rooms.

Every week my aunt seemed to be fasting, so she ate even less. Each fast had a different set of rules. I envied her diet then. She might eat just fruit the whole day. Since rice was always forbidden on fasting days, sometimes she would eat loochis, which she would fry for herself after everyone had eaten. With the loochi there would be a simple potato, stirred around in oil. She could make even the staider among vegetables aspire to uncomplicated glory. She would cube the potatoes small, and saute them lightly in mustard oil to which a red chilli and a mix of whole spices had been added. Then, it was covered and cooked, with green chillies and salt. My own food, whatever it had been, could not compare.

Some fasts called for leftovers from the day before, everything cold and stale. At such times I never sat around while she ate, begging a share. For someone who consumed so little, my aunt’s existence depended upon the production of food. The more long-winded the recipe, the more she seemed to relish it. She would grind soaked lentils and add spices to them, usually asafoetida and aniseed. Then, she’d carry the mixture to the terrace and climb precariously up to the water tank in her billowing, starchy sari, making the sturdy cement tank look as if it was a ship about to embark with its improbable sail. She would spread a torn piece of an old muslin sari, as thin as the skin of milk with all the washing it had gone through, and place balls of the ground stuff on it. The sari, weighed down by pickle bottles maturing in the sun, would remain there for a couple of days, until the boris were little stones, ready for frying.

On winter afternoons, she would make pickle out of a wild plum that looked like a cherry. This is a fruit we called kul; in north India it’s called ber. There are many kinds of kul, but this kind, the most delectable, has almost vanished from big city markets. It was small, deep orange, and sweet and sour all at once. The pickle was a gooey mixture of mustard oil, mollasses, a five-spice mixture, asafoetida and chilli. It would mature gently taking in the lemony colour and warmth of the winter sun until it was just right.

In the dark leafy back garden that encircled the kitchen courtyard were neem, guava and bel trees. There was also an amra tree, another fruit that hung in the cusp of town and country—it hasn’t survived big cities and branded fruit—a green, sour fruit, with crisp white flesh that encloses a thorny seed. It could be made into chutneys but was tastiest raw, dipped in rock salt and chilli. Amra and kul-scented afternoons were the domain of women and children. In Pather Panchali, young Durga and her little brother Apu steal a bit of mustard oil and salt from their mother’s scanty supplies to make themselves a raw mango chutney, out of mangoes stolen from a neighbour’s orchard. The episode has all the thrill and danger of a bank robbery. Mid-afternoon licks of amram and kul always had that tinge of the illicit, a guilty union of self-indulgence between adult and child, whether the fruits were stolen or not.

Amra and kul united us with our mothers; bel was the enemy. It takes adulthood to enjoy the odd flavour of this hard-skinned gourd. My mother didn’t seem to like it either, and, fortunately for us, paid scant attention to its digestive properties. My aunt would urge glasses of its sherbet on us, it’ll cool your stomachs down in this heat, she would say. She would scoop out the messy orange pulp of the bel and press it through a sieve, then stir sugar and water and a little lemon into it. It would be kept covered and ready to be drunk in the evening, to take the dust and weariness off bus rides from school and workplaces. Like papaya, the bel has an unmistakeable memory of vomit in its smell. You have to grow into it. Just as there is one mysterious moment when youth flies out of the window and Danish Blue stops smelling of death in sweaty socks, so too there comes a time when bel starts smelling sweet and cool.

Once in a while my aunt would pack up some of the food she had made, and go to her brother’s house to spend the day. This was her only outing, other than her yearly visit to the Durga Puja pandal nearby or to a family ceremony. She took us along, my brother and me, sometimes. We walked to the end of the road and took a tram to the Kalighat tram depot. Kalighat depot was like a small magical train station in the middle of a city street, with narrow tracks snaking in and out, empty trams clanging up and down. Here, we waited impatiently for the sweet-seller, whose tantalising cry we could hear in the distance: ‘Logensh, chaatny logensh, nebu logensh...’ Would he come to us? Would the tram leave before he made it to our seats? When he came, the man had a large glass jar out of which he scooped sweets with a teaspoon, and deftly packed them in a twist of newspaper. We ignored the lime and orange lozenges, saving the ten-paise coins my aunt had handed out for the chutney ones, black, sour and sweet all at once. We were then ready for the tram to go.

When we reached the alleyway where my aunt had lived as a girl, she would show us a lamp post. ‘What happened here?’ we’d ask, though we already knew. ‘My cousin was tied to this pole,’ my aunt said, ‘and the Muslims put a knife into his stomach and took out his intestines.’ She would say this without any agitation. I thought of fish. We looked hard and hopefully at the pole for signs of blood, but there were none. Instead it had a hammer-and-sickle-painted poster on it saying ‘Brigade Chalo’. ‘Many people got killed, the drains were running red with blood,’ she went on as we walked up the alley to the house. I thought of fish. And then, ‘Now don’t be greedy here, alright? What I’ve cooked is for them, not us.’

At home, when we sat down on the red floor to eat, everyone got served the same food. The meal reflected the law of averages: nothing was cooked that could not be afforded by all. But Shanti came from an affluent family. At times I would notice her slide extra bowls across to her son and her husband. Usually it was something covetable, like lobster or crab, and we would try to look away. One afternoon, as I pretended to nap, I overheard my parents arguing. ‘I’ve had enough,’ my mother was saying, ‘I won’t sit there and watch that boy getting fed what our children can’t have.’ My father sagely and sleepily said it didn’t matter. It would teach us the value of good food and the ways of the world. ‘There’s no need for them to learn so soon,’ said my mother.

These rumblings went on a few weeks. I don’t know what extra bowl of food finally prompted it, but I heard some raised voices in the ground floor one day. After this, meals were cooked in three separate kitchens. My mother’s domain, as the juniormost, now became the impromptu food room upstairs, with a kerosene stove. She cooked her rebellion on a high flame: she began adding onion and garlic even to vegetables. Strains of Rajasthan and Mrs Beeton’s Cookbook entered our now unpredictable meals. Sometimes, we would get an omelette, sometimes sattu with yogurt. My aunts divided up the real kitchen. Refrigerators and cooking gas were around the corner, the days of communal meals were over.

No one in Calcutta would know where our house is any longer. Its wrought iron grills must be part of some fake antique villa, its venetian shutters pulped to plywood. Termite tunnels had consumed the walls. It was scorched sooty by the wet sea wind and the heat, an aubergine ready to be crumbled by the property-hungry. Only its floor had remained untouched by time and our indigence, shining redder and cooler than watermelon juice.

(Kavery Nambisan's Dr Sad and the Power Lunch, and Nilanjana S. Roy's, English Vegatables, Desi Steak, were joint runners-up. These, and other short-listed entries, would be available on the site from March 2, 2004 onwards.

Previous Contests:

Outlook Picador Non-Fiction Contest - 2001
Outlook Picador Non-Fiction Contest - 2000

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