Today there is cauliflower for dinner, washed and cut, white florets of boredom. Cauliflower was relief till it became an imposition. First grandmother and then mother-in-law told me how to cook it, as if the success of my marriage rested on the cauliflower. Then cauliflower, cooked whichever way, was a mush of nausea, smelling almost medicinal, unworthy of any effort, but today, because of lack of ideas and trips to the market, cauliflower. Cumin changes colour in hot oil, releases a warm aroma, nausea though still on this warm evening, as if failed suddenly in imagining anything new to do with cauliflower, so start with cumin. Cumin – the most homely and predictable spice here in India – is put in everything savoury, nausea mounting from nose to head. I will have to sit down for a minute, gather myself, straighten the head that is floating about; cauliflower is to be made for dinner. Now add onions instead of potatoes, maybe this will yield a different result. Not as routine as a dish made of potato and cauliflower, locally called aloo gobhi, like lovers – laila majnun. I attempt deviation with onions, now transparent, now brown, moved about in the oil, salted so as to not burn, though I like char on onions.
Onions not browning yet, still transparent, still raw, time expands in the oil, no release of delicious aroma. I am growing impatient, nausea rearing its head somewhere close to my chest. I swallow uneasy as I imagine what will become of the cauliflower with onions, a medicinal mush again, like life till now, at thirty-one–tasteless mush. Suddenly an opera has come on my classical radio app, the dramatic voice drawing my attention. I veer away from the stove – by the time I come back there might be more hopeful things happening in the kadhai. Nothing is happening except for some browning. Maybe add garlic;will that bringlove and excitement? I beat away at the cloves of garlic, by now sure of my failure. Garlic loses itself in the kadhai. Nothing comes off it except for aroma. In this evening of dejection, my listless hands sweep the plate of cut cauliflower; this way and that I use the ladle to cover it in oil and onions and cumin. I add coriander powder, cumin powder, and turmeric in a tired repetition, no new spices, no love, only boredom.
Should I let it fry? Or steam under a plate? Is it possible to take it somewhere, somewhere rosy brown? Burnt and edgy? Is it possible to be decadent with cauliflower? Or has that road been closed by the mothers and the aunts? I am borne down by this vegetable, only a vegetable, but symbolizing today the claustrophobia, the Emma Bovary conundrum of every marriage, husband chewing loudly like a peasant being the end of romance, of vistas to be explored, now only this floor, this wall, this stove and this vegetable. Now only dinner, again and again, and dumping it in the morning, then again, dinner after dinner, a light touch here and there, tits and ass, then from the top, with a few jabs and gasps of pleasure, and dinner after dinner – is there love in repetition? Is there love without repetition? The cauliflower slowly losing its form to the heat, on simmer, saving fuel as mother-in-law advised, not frying for health reasons as mother advised, and nausea mixing with the heat to make it particularly unpalatable – my stamp on the recipe if you will. I cannot bear to look at this any longer, so I cover it with a plate to concentrate the heat and go back at the table to look at my laptop screen. The smell of it cooking suffocates me – should I leave it simmering and run out?
If you are becoming someone at some place, and you are not in the kitchen, not vanishing in the sink; if you are outside, amongst men, and other women, working, marching, protesting, playing; if you are being, not this, but that, if you are not burning hands here and there or arms dotted light purple with hot oil; if you are alive on this day having not been raped and murdered or died in childbirth; if you are outside taking trips into the unknown, your hair uncombed, your clothes fashionably torn; I envy you.
I, who am here, now about to cook dinner, dal and roti on this day, the staple food of generations in north India, day in, day out, dal and roti, insignificant but filling. Tiny grains of yellow lentil, washed twice, soaked for some time though it is not absolutely necessary. Quickness is a relief, quickness is the key, quickness is all, one whistle and it will be done. So I pour some ghee into the pressure cooker, one dried red chilli and cumin, see them sputter in a few seconds, I could just pour the lentil over this along with water or I could add a tomato. As I cut the tomato I do not think of the money or the freedom I do not have, I do not think of those who are losing rights over their bodies, I only think of the Amalfi Coast, a trip never taken…
The tomato releasing its juice into the ghee reminds me of a particular breakfast from childhood and for a few seconds the warmth engulfs. But soon I pour the soaked lentils over it, stir it around, salt, turmeric, chilli powder and the ritual is done. The pressure cooker is shut and a whistle later the stove will be switched off. The dough has to be kneaded for rotis, water disappears into the powdery white, fingers move slowly through a sticky mass of brown, no one is on the edge yet, not even those who are in Dali’s paintings at the corner of cliffs. Now knuckles play the role needed in this creation of dough, you can also punch the dough if you want some strength, but for a simple roti, a soft, not wet, dough is fine.
As you break the mass of dough into tiny balls, not much by the way of time transpires. You flatten these balls on a wooden board, and maps of continents could materialize if you are not careful about making it round. You think and think as you move the rolling pin over the dough, think of years gone by, childhood friends and anger, college fights and despair, first love and rejection, then the flattened roti is put on a hot tawa and as you toss and turn it, you might burn fingers, you might remember a certain short story in which a young boy gets chimta for his grandmother so that her fingers do not burn while turning rotis on the stove, but slowly, by the third roti boredom sets in, it pushes you down, you hurry to get away and the last two rotis are uncooked in parts.
Onions, at all times, make you cry. When in the same room as you, mother cuts them talking of friends who have got married and are now blissfully pregnant, when husband chops them while watching a 1950s noir. When they are purple they make you cry, when they are white they make you cry, when on an island, they make you cry, when in memory of a small kitchen, they make you cry, till the tears blur the real and imagined.
And then thinking of a friend called Emily who stood outside the window while you cut them and cried, “I came to Europe to study creative writing and look at what I’m doing. I am cutting onions,” and Emily laughs and says, “Don’t worry, I am sure George Eliot also cut onions,” and you laugh through onion tears.
Where I come from, we cannot think of life without onions and tears. Onions are the mainstay of curries, they are the heroes of tadhka, the frying of onions is the smell of Punjabi homes on most evenings. We eat them raw, sliced long or in rings, sometimes with mint chutney, when as children all of us cousins met during summer vacations and most special occasion dinners consisted of rajma-chawal, my cousin and I kept our eyes on the salad plate to see who gets their hands first on it and takes the raw onions and if anyone was greedy, a fight would ensue, mothers would come running out of the kitchen with onion in one hand and knife in another. “Do not fight, it will take two seconds to cut another.” But to some of us that compensatory onion would be less of an onion. It would not have the tanginess of the lemon and salt from the salad, it would be still pungent, but it would fulfil the purpose of adding the necessary crunch to rajma and chawal.
Then, in other worlds, in other cuisines, in other countries, I learnt to make do without onions. It is one chore less in the kitchen and probably fewer tears, but when I go back to mother’s home, raw onions, cooked onions, fried onions, onion paste, all forms of onions and tears appear.
Except that cousins live in different continents now and we haven’t fought over a plate of salad in the last ten years. The memory though, still as pungent, can bring tears.
Washing dishes can bring to fore questions not yet pondered upon; that of the sun rising behind a hill or the sun setting as seen from a cafe next to the sea, the diffused yellow light making all the things on the table seem unthreatening, almost lovable, as opposed to now when the yellow of the arhar dal stuck to the bottom of the pan reminds you of all that has not been accomplished.
Failure permeates the grime, the ground coffee mixed with water forms a layer on the sink, maybe because of oil from the fried fish; the leftover grains of rice stuck to the pressure cooker or the slippery egg on the wooden spatula that refuses to dissolve in soap is a ready metaphor for the terrain you navigate daily. Eyes turn glassy and mind rushes through streets of virtual information, it jealously encounters acquaintances who have tenured jobs, and those who are sitting in Shakespeare & Co., or the ones with their feet in the sea in Trivandrum, those with published papers or dissertations, those who run their own lives, those who only deal in intellect and not in dirty dishes.
Then the sink clogs, the drain is darkness – a darkness akin to that of a publisher or agent’s silence – you use the spoon to probe, see what the malaise is, but instead of releasing water it throws up more of it in the sink, now onion peel, broken rice, pieces of fish flesh and green leaves of coriander are floating about, as you try to sift them out with fingers, controlling revulsion, it reminds you of the failed attempts at striking a conversation with a commissioning editor at a book launch, a curly haired woman who was obviously more interested in the tortilla chips and salsa than your book, and who later rejected you saying that she “does not quite get your story.” Maybe there isn’t enough salsa in the story, you wonder, and finally the water is receding into the drain. Maybe this is sign that today someone will reply. Maybe today someone will see that there is no story being told, nothing is being told, that what has been written is an incomplete book of life, without imposing events or narrative, maybe. In the end, the stains of coffee on the steel sink are rubbed away with palms.
At some point in the last week I was losing my mind but the kitchen kept its calm, handing me a spoon when required, finding me a bowl when needed, it could have been messy but it was not unnecessarily whimsical. I, on the other hand, was gazing too long into space, letting myself be pulled into insufficient webs of fantasy. I wondered, could it be fatigue? Anxiety? Something I ate? Monosodium glutamate? Wine in the afternoon? Coffee overdose?
The curries thickened and my heartbeat quickened. This was not love, this was panic, incomprehensible panic; the ground was not slipping away but the skies were darker. It was raining often, and often one craved chai and samosas, food wired in from childhood rains, running around in the darkened verandah while mother and aunts sat with cups of evening tea, samosa from a neighbourhood halwai’s shop and spicy green chutney. Rain was an excuse to indulge, to celebrate, to call out to cousins across the verandah and dance about in the first few drops, till mothers pulled us away telling us that rain water makes you itch and will make you sick.
Then last week when losing my grip, seeing the physical world receding, I tried to anchor myself in motherly instructions; do not think too much, do not drink too much, do not love too much, do not eat too much, use spices moderately and oil just enough to cover the potatoes, do not deep fry except on special occasions, for the one in the kitchen also bears the onus of the family’s health. Excess is warned against, passion is not welcome in the domain of sanity that the kitchen is – except that I had recently read of alchemy in the kitchen in a book on Leonora Carrington.
Carrington saw alchemical blue rose in the cabbage, followed recipes from 16th century cookbooks and served a hare stuffed with oysters to her surrealist friends. Her kitchen was a studio, a kennel and a nursery; it was magic, chaos and abandon. So here, in between good sense and alchemy, is my kitchenly consciousness, swinging to aromas and colours, madly blending ginger and chilli, moderately steaming rice, then on a whim mixing wine and cream, then dispassionately boiling eggs – the clocks have started melting but the ladle still holds its shape.
About the author
Shivani Mutneja teaches English Literature at Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce in Pune. Her poems have appeared in The Literateur, Nether Magazine Radius (from Center to the Edge) and The Brown Critique.
She can be found on Medium - https://medium.com/@shivanimutneja