Memories of dad flicker in and out these days, the rumble of his guffaws, the way he would fling his gamusa over his shoulder, his relentless haggling with our gardener, the games he would make up for our gang of cousins and friends, his voice when he called out my name. ”Majoni”; yes, one call from him and my world would be in place, at peace.
Deuta was very fond of cooking and many a times I felt he should have become a chef. It was not everyday and it was not predictable, but once in a while he would come home and cook up a storm. Usually my mother and I watched him from a distance as he balanced ingredients in his arms, carrying them from the fridge to the counter. He used to lay them out, sometimes calling us to be his cooking minions, to fetch onions and tomatoes or to stir a massive pot of rajma curry. His hands moved swiftly as they chop chop chop, sometimes potatoes, sometimes garlic, paneer at times. He would never measure, but feel. He followed no recipe but followed his nose. A dash of haldi, jeera, and garam masala, sprinkling of salt and before you knew it every spice imaginable would assemble on the counter. And ghee, he would always cook in pure desi ghee. According to him food needs to be devoured and the cooking of it should be relished, enjoyed and savoured equally.
About last night. It took me about 45 minutes to reach home from the airport. The past few weeks have been one unending and painful blur at hospitals; life just gets so complicated at times. Once home, I headed straight into the kitchen to put a pot of rice on the stove — one cup of joha rice rinsed clean and two cups of water in a small sauce pan. I pealed a potato, cut it into four pieces and let it marry with the rice. As soon as the water came to a boil, I turned the flame nearly all the way down and closed the pan with its tight-fitting lid. In the ten minutes it took the rice and potato to cook, I washed up and changed, and got the pickle and ghee jars from the pantry. A gentle crackling from the base of the rice pot was the reassuring sound I’d been longing for, the signal that the rice was perfectly cooked, soft, plump and fluffy. I lifted the lid off, letting the steam escape and I caught a warm, moist, starchy cloud on my face.
Too impatient to let the rice cool as it should, I scooped some up into a bowl with a wide, nearly flat spoon and on top of it, a swirl of a teaspoon of ghee. I chose mango pickle, a couple of teaspoons did nicely for all of the rice in my bowl. On a separate plate I mashed the boiled potatoes adding bit of salt and pickle oil. I held the bowl in my left hand and dug the fingertips of my right into the bowl, working the ghee and the pickle around and into the rice, then I added the mashed potatoes….it was sublime. Not for the first time, I wondered what it was that drove me to seek this particular combination of foods in times of distress. I didn’t bother then to press for an answer, maybe happy in the knowledge that for the moment all was right with the world.
Some recollections refuse to leave, they wait patiently until we acknowledge and examine them. One of those is of our mealtimes when we were growing up. Dinner was the one meal when everyone sat together. We ate on steel plates, all of the plates had raised edges. Mine was oval in shape, my brother and parents had circular plates.
Dad could never withstand the temptation of hot rice, mashed potatoes, ghee and pickle. He would mix them in his plate and feed mom first, then us siblings and then himself, repeating the cycle until mom, who would still be bustling about the kitchen trying to get all the dishes out was done. Over the years, the circle on the table grew wider and noisier with more plates and more voices. Until the loudest link in the circle was no more.
Last night as I stood with my bowl of rice and breathed in I felt the furrows on my forehead slowly disintegrating. The crinkles around my eyelids started to dwindle and my cheeks eased back to their original stations. The aroma was swirling around me, I could try to describe its tang and taste in culinary terms, but in its ripples the steam held the rustle of mom’s cotton sari, it held the twinkle in dad’s eye as he told us the happenings of the day, it held my brother’s cackling laughter as he kicked my legs under the table . At that moment, the aroma was home. And from some distant corner I could hear deuta calling out ”Majoni”.
It hurts to think that you are not here anymore….I miss you deuta.
Until we meet, take care!