& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The smell of cooking and prayers


Her face was heavily lined with wrinkles and these multiplied when she smiled her toothless smile. She wore thick glasses that made her small eyes look big. Her widowhood banished colours from her life and she wore only white. She was a widow for 44 years and then she died.

To me, she was my Baa – my grandmother. She was always there for me with her unconditional love, her over-protective and at times over-bearing care. She exuded an odour – a mixture of wheat flour, agarbatti, puja flowers and chandan; the smell of cooking and prayers.

She lived in the kitchen – cooking and praying in that small room made smaller by unnecessary furniture. A small mandir was part of her grocery cupboard – made of dull brown sunmica, it was quite a rage in India in those days.

Every morning, after my parents left for work (father quite early, mother at regular time), Baa would have a leisurely bath and then immediately gather her gods – framed photos and miniature idols – and set them up on a flat patlo (a wooden stand), sit on a chatai for her daily puja. It comprised a combination of chanting of Sanskrit shlokas, cleansing the idols with a sprinkling of water, applying tilak made from a paste of kumkum and chandan.

For each of the idol and the photo she had a separate shloka. The hour-long puja ended in a grand aarti which she performed holding a lit diya in the right hand and a small tinkler in the left.

She performed this ritual every day.

In the afternoon she slept and when she couldn’t, she wrote “Sri Ram” endlessly and fill up innumerable notebooks which she dutifully handed over to the priest at the Laxminarayan Mandir to be despatched to Haridwar and immersed into the holy Ganga.

In the evening when I returned home after playing with my friends, she was ready with a cup of tea that had more milk in it. It was her ploy to make me drink milk.

Almost every day we argued because I didn’t want to drink milk.

“I’m not a kid,” I said.

“Of course, and that’s why we’ll have tea together,” she responded.

“Your tea is darker, mine is so light.”

“It’s because I pour it in saucer.”

Although she had cooked all her life, she didn’t particularly enjoy cooking. It was more of a chore, a responsibility. She cooked in the evenings, sitting on a rotating stool because she found the concept of a “standing kitchen” alien to cooking as well as very tiring.

She cooked a meal of daal, bhhaat, rotli ne shaak every day and enjoyed cooking a few delicacies occasionally.

These delicacies had the smell and the flavour that were special to her cooking and unique to her home near Surat where she grew up and lived till she was old enough to join her husband whom she had married when she was nine. 

Nobody could (or can) cook Aadah ni daal, bajri no rotlo and lashan ni chutney (served with raw onions) like she did. My mother and my wife both do but it’s just not the same. Both, incidentally, possess exquisite culinary skills.

Baa also took considerable pains cooking dangerau to get the taste and the texture right. I tried googling for dangerau but couldn’t find anything remotely similar. Handvo is a close approximation doesn’t quite have the roughened feel in the mouth of dangerau, or perhaps, dangerau is just a local name for Handvo. 

I grew up in a cosmopolitan area in Andheri which had all kinds of people – all castes, all creeds; and therefore all kinds of food. Nobody in my family – none – ate non-vegetarian food. I did, I loved it and still do. Thanks to my neighbours, I had a veritable feat every day, and an enviable choice of non-vegetarian cuisine.

For Baa it was a sacrilege to cook non-vegetarian food at home but she ignored this indiscretion and allowed eggs to be cooked. She kept separate dull aluminum vessels for the eggs. All the other vessels were made of shining stainless steel. Later, much later, she discovered that I ate everything and her eyes couldn’t conceal her disappointment.

A million memories crowd my mind when I think of her. But two remain etched in my mind.

A relative died in an accident. I took her to meet the deceased’s family. The autorickshaw in which we were traveling stopped and we had to walk a long way. She was old, and the walk turned out to be an ordeal. Somehow, we reached our destination. I told her, “Ba, you’ve come here to console the family. Don’t talk about your nightmarish trudge.”

She was too tired to say anything. We sat there for a while, and then returned home. Her daughter (my aunt) came visiting us a few days later, and she was taling about me.

“He thinks about others. Dukhi thava no chey (He will suffer).”

It’s perhaps the best compliment I’ve ever got.

The other was when my sister left for the US a few years after her marriage. I had moved out too. My parents led a busy life and were busier now that they were free. She was all by herself in the house.

I went to meet her after work, “You must be feeling very lonely nowadays.”

Her reply stunned me. “Ekla rehvani tev chey, (I’m used to living alone),” she said.

That sentence has stayed with me now for nearly two decades since she died.

It’s probably the one thing that we’re not ever prepared to get used to and inevitably that’s what we have to learn the hard way in our lifetime – to be alone.

I was not by her side when she died. Mother told me she worried for me since I had moved out.

When I think of her, I realise how similar I’m to her in my attitude to life and living. She never consciously taught me anything. I just absorbed everything that I saw in her.

There are two notable exceptions:

1. I don’t pray (but I respect all those who do).
2. I relish non-vegetarian food (but I support the idea of a vegetarian world and I’m turning vegetarian this coming March).

(Read at The Weird Food Festival, Mississauga, ON. 02-02-13)

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