Any one who knows me even for a few days know that I am not a willing cook. But many don’t know why…
Since April 1980, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale had taken residence in the Harmandir Sahib complex in Amritsar, Punjab. In 1984, Prime Minister Mrs.Indira Gandhi ordered an Indian military operation called ‘Operation Blue star’ to establish control and remove Bhindranwale and his armed followers from the Golden temple at Amritsar. Dr.S.Krishaswamy, an internationally renowned documentarian was invited personally by Mrs.Gandhi to make a film on Operation Blue star to show case India’s military action to the entire world. The film maker, roped in his Hindi speaking Producer and wife Dr.Mohana, to accompany him for the entire filming of over 40 days inside the Golden temple. She was the first civilian woman to enter the complex during that period. I know, you are wondering what this has to do with my cooking!
When mom and dad had to leave overnight to respond to the Prime Minister’s call, my sister Lata, was preparing for her tenth board exams. I was in my eighth standard in school and my brother Bharat, a year younger. Even as she was packing, mom gave me instructions on how to cook a meal. She made it clear that Lata’s focus would remain her studies for this period. So it was up to me to ensure food was put on the table. That is when I discovered words like ‘pesenjifying’ and ‘ooravechufying’ – don’t bother if you can’t read these. That is how I took notes of my mom’s instructions. My knowledge on cooking till then was such that when mom said ‘soak the tamarind for 5 minutes and then use’ I assumed I had to drain the water and use the pulp! In many ways I think my brother invented the art of cutting vegetables with a common scissor – not the kitchen variety. Forty five days on our own was a challenge in itself. But more was to come…
We lived in a locality called ‘Adayar’ in South Chennai which was considered outskirts at that time. There were hardly any shops and not a single restaurant. Our only link to the rest of the world was through the Adayar bridge connecting us to ‘mainland’ Chennai. 20 days into our sojourn alone, Chennai was hit by a storm and there was a gaping hole in the bridge. Traffic was stopped, power supply stopped, milk delivery stopped, shops were all closed and my mom had never taught me how to use a pressure cooker! I didn’t know how to keep rice without an electric rice cooker. We were hungry, out of food and out of milk and curd – our staple diet. Not many relatives or friends lived on this side of the bridge. We made good with stale bread and butter and enthused ourselves that it was a candle light dinner. To top it all our living room was flooded and we learnt how to fish!Looking back it was some of the best days of our lives – totally responsible for ourselves and yet no body to report to!
The association stuck for a very very long time in my mind – cooking is for survival. I never thought of it as expression grounds or creative endeavour. In many ways it will always remain simply a necessity. But somethings have changed…
My mother (in-law) has some amazing recipes and my sister (in-law) is an fabulous cook. But I never found any joy in exploring my culinary talents, if any! Many a time I wouldn’t even recognise the ingredients when they discuss recipes. I remember even arguing with my mom, saying ‘I would never ask my husband to change his profession or change the way he works. Why then should I change the way I cook?’ To compound my aversion to cooking was the feeling of constantly being judged. 3 to 4 meals a day, everyday – always open to comments and well meaning suggestions. It just wasn’t for me. During Ganesh Chaturthi, simply hearing the procedure to make Modak (Kozhukattai) I realised women must have been so totally jobless in earlier times to invent a recipe that needed such a long procedure at the end of which you get to eat a few mouthfuls of ‘maybe’ tasty dish. Fourteen years of trying hard had not made a single dent on my cooking abilities nor on my acceptance levels! And then a miracle happened…
No I didn’t suddenly become a Master Chef ! I found one – ‘Bhaiya’ – my Bihari cook who fortunately learnt all the ‘home recipes’ from both my mothers (mine & my husband’s) and is very much an integral part of our lives for the last five years! So why this article now?
Finally I have begun to enjoy cooking! Bhaiya is away on a long leave and here I am re-discovering some pleasures of cooking. Warning! Rome was not built in a day! So don’t expect an invite to a meal by me any time soon! But somethings have most definitely changed.
It began with my accepting having to give up watching my Sun rise for I had to be in the kitchen. He peeps in during Sunset to see me at work! One morning as I opened my refrigerator, I realised I had forgotten to buy vegetables on my way back from work the previous day. It was too early for the shops to open and I had to finish the job for I had a host of things lined up for the day. As I peeped into every nook and corner trying to figure out what I had and what I could actually cook with the available material, I realised all of life is actually a big kitchen. You don’t get to choose your ingredients. But the recipe is yours and you get to eat it. The moment such a thought came, everything now seems to have greater meaning.
The ingredients are already there – everything needed to make life happy. But the recipe is each individual’s. How I choose to add the ingredients to cook life in my kitchen will result in the life I dish out for myself. Blaming Bhindranwale for my lack of culinary skills will not fill my stomach. What ever may be the circumstances, in life’s kitchen, you get to cook your own dish – blaming doesn’t make it taste any better.
Sometimes we don’t wait for the dish to fully cook – a complaint my entire family has for me. I am not patient in the kitchen. Life’s bounties take time to reveal. You cannot hurry them up nor give up too soon.
Sometimes you have no clue on how to use an ingredient – at least I don’t. So many of our talents remain under utilised. We keep looking only at what we already know and don’t give an opportunity to explore other ingredients of life.
Very often we go looking for special ingredients, but in vain. This is life’s offer to you – you can’t keep searching for the magic ingredient to make your life happy. Salt hasn’t a taste of its own. It only enhances everything it is added to. You are that magic ingredient that enhances the quality of your life and makes you complete.
Everything about cooking is balance – neither too much nor too little. So it is with all of life – neither too much nor too little. My grandmother taught me never to waste food and I promised myself when we lost her that I would never waste food. It goes for life too – never waste an opportunity.
My husband would so often say – ‘who says it is a waste if someone else eats? Don’t use me as the garbage’. Same goes for life – never waste an opportunity but you can always pass it on to someone else. It is better for some one to do it right rather than to hoard it just for yourself.
If you hope to make a new dish tomorrow, you better clean up tonight’s mess. Same goes for life.
And the most beautiful realisation was this morning as I sat typing this article. We were hungry and ready to eat. Even ordinary dishes are so tasty when you are really hungry. I realised the only question every one needs to ask themselves in life’s kitchen is ‘am I hungry for life?’ Then, life is yummy!
Written by Gita Krishna Raj | Published in infinithoughts in August 2014