I truly cherish the time I spend with our maid, Anita. Our relationship is a unique one – it isn’t characteristically Indian, because my job isn’t to order her around and ‘keep her in line’ the way it might be in an actual Indian household. The westerner in me is more interested in the opportunity to talk to her and gain insight into her world – a sector of Indian life that is otherwise closed to me. But as someone who grew up in an Indian family, much of what she says has inherent meaning for me, and by observing her as a living emulation of this culture, I am often able to piece together parts of my past that have seemed incongruous to me for years.
Every day, for the last three weeks, Anita has been teaching me how to cook. Cooking with Anita is another relationship altogether. Our roles are effectively reversed – she is the master, and I am the student. Every morning, she jars me out of bed with a stream of unapologetic doorbell rings, we make tea, and in her regular spirit of tough love, she teaches me how to make a new dish, apna haath se.
So far, I’ve learned quite a few of the standard dishes: dal, bhindi masala, aloo gobi, baingan bhartha, biriyani, pakora curry; a few breakfast staples: upma, poha (chevra), and of course, my favorite aloo paranthas; snacky things like pakoras with imli chutney and hara chutney, and the characteristic breads: puris and roti.
Measurements, as you can imagine, aren’t in neat sizes like cups or spoons. They are aesa, jaisa, itni, zyada nahi, aap ki swaad. However much you feel like putting in. Whatever tastes good. Not too much. More.
“Now add the masala,” Anita says. How much masala? “To your taste.” Anita, I don’t have taste. Tell me what to do. She looks at me with endeared pity. “Ok, come on. Put a few spoons of dhania… a little more…”
Anita chastizes me in good fun for my clunkiness — a ‘real’ Indian girl simply would have known certain things from childhood. At one point I asked her what a certain spice was, and she said, “Sarsonh”. Having no idea what that was called in english (and therefore, how I would find it in America), I asked her to pour a few seeds into my hand. When she saw me putting them in my mouth, she slapped me on the back and said, “What on earth are you doing?? You can’t just eat sarsonh!” I said, “Well, how am I going to know what it’s called in English if I don’t taste it?” She was perplexed as to how that would help… but it was definitely mustard flavored.
It goes both ways, though. Our roommate’s family had sent us Easter candy from America, including some Peeps. She wanted Anita to try the Peeps, thinking that, given the sometimes sickening sweetness of Indian sweets, she would take to them easily. Anita couldn’t take more than a bite. She asked me what they were for. I explained that we celebrated a holiday called Easter, and that these were traditional easter candies. Like barfi (a rich, dense, milk-based Indian sweet), but for Easter.
Ah, she understood. This was American barfi! Suddenly she was very interested. “I have to take some for my niece and nephew! I have to show them what American barfi looks like!” I felt kind of like a parent who tells their child about Santa Claus for the first time, not knowing whether they are instilling in the child a sense of magic and imagination, or simply lying through their teeth. I don’t think Peeps have ever been referred to as American Barfi.
The thing that I find the most difficult is the basic act of making roti (flat, round bread). With most dishes, it’s just a matter of cutting things and putting them in the right order in the kadai to cook. But there are so many pitfalls in making roti: depending on how much water you add to the flour, and how quickly and often you add it as you knead, the dough could be too soft and sticky or too hard and, as she says, “strict”. There is a specific technique to making the balls of dough before rolling that allows the roti to be perfectly circular. And then even in rolling, it’s possible to mess up in so many ways – the dough sometimes sticks to the surface, often a single wrong roll can make the whole thing into square or triangle or part of the dough doubles over on itself. And then there’s the rhythm of rolling out a roti in the same time it takes to cook the previous one. If you dally or get distracted by rolling, the roti burns. The ultimate test: after the roti is cooked, you remove the tawa (the flat pan on which the roti is cooked), and put the roti on the open flame to char – does it puff up from the inside? I have yet to achieve the perfect puff.
Needless to say, Anita’s roti are perfect every time. She confessed to me that when she was younger she had a penchant for making roti – when her mother would try to send her to sewing school, she would go over to a friends house whose parents were older and whose mother could use the help with cooking – she struck a deal with them so that they would tell her mother she was in school, and instead she got to make roti all day. She said this with a mischievous excitement. Making roti was always her favorite thing, and she was a pro by the time she was five years old.
Every day I knead the dough for roti. As with everything else, there is no safety in numbers or proportions – you just add water to the flour and keep kneading until it becomes a certain consistency – as soft as possible so that it rolls out easily but doesn’t get sticky. A little salt to taste and a spoon of oil to keep the dough soft and moist. Every day for the last three days, something has been off – there isn’t enough water, I’m not kneading it hard enough… but finally yesterday, she felt the dough after I thought it was done and patted me on the arm. Shabash. It was perfect.
I find that I think entirely in Hindi when I cook with her. When I’m describing the recipes later to my roommates in English, I often can’t think of the words for spices and vegetables immediately, or they just seem incongruous when I say them. To me, potatoes are things that you mash with garlic and chives, or bake with rosemary or make into french fries. Aloo is what you put in paranthas. They feel like two different things to me, even though the the vegetable is the same.
The other day, I was trying to ask her if she put coconut in the green chutney that is so common here in India. I kept saying “Coconut, you know? How do you say it in Hindi? The green thing that you get on the street and drink the water from. We use it in our chutney to thicken it up… What’s the name of it?” We went back and forth for a few minutes before she said, “Nariel?” YES. That was it.
Instantly a world opened up and memories that had been latent for years flooded back into my conscious mind. Nariel (nah’-ree-yul) was what we decorated in tin foil and put on trays with sweets, with which we celebrated our lunar birthdays (which I grew up calling my “coconut birthday”) by making prime numbers of clockwise circles around each others heads. Nariel was what my grandmother would grind by hand into chutney after my dad took it out into the garage and cracked it open with a hammer. The word ‘coconut’ feels tropical to me, but nariel is something entirely different. The world was unlocked.
Growing up, I was used to calling foods that we cooked at home by their Gujarati names (most of which are the same or similar in Hindi). While I had very few instances of confusing the two languages, it was always harder with foods, since there were many items for which I never learned the English words. I remember a time when I was in elementary school, shopping at the supermarket with my mother. We passed some okra, so labelled, in the vegetable aisle. I was floored. I didn’t realize that ‘okra’ was an English word. Consequently, the words ‘coriander’ and ‘cardamom’ still seem weird to me – I will always look at those foods and think dhania (or even cothmir – which I only this year realized was the Konkani word for coriander) and ailchi (which is the Gujarati word – in Hindi it’s ilachi).
Even the foods themselves call up long forgotten memories. At one point, Anita was telling me that sometimes she came home late, and didn’t have time to make vegetables, so she would just eat rice and achaar (spicy pickle). While she probably said this to extract some empathy from me, I suddenly remembered how much I enjoyed the rare times my parents went out for dinner and left me alone at home with my grandmother — while my parents would have none of my antics, I was easily able to convince my grandmother into letting me eat rice and carrot pickle (which is still one of my favorite comfort foods) as my dinner.
When Anita chastised me one morning for mindlessly adding water to the aata (dough) until it became too sticky, I recalled an instance when my grandmother had to step out of the kitchen for evening namaaz (prayers that must be done exactly at dusk), and left me alone to prepare the aata for our roti that evening. I couldn’t get the proportions right, and I kept adding more flour, then more water, then more flour until she came back, not half an hour later, horrified to find the huge disaster I had created in a pot on the kitchen floor.
These memories come back to me because suddenly they are in a context that makes sense. I recount them to Anita as we cook, and she gets my meaning immediately. Of course she would understand how crazy it is to have a daughter who refuses to put dal on top of rice – who eats the rice plain and the dal in a bowl with a spoon, as a lentil soup of sorts. Bilkul pagal ho gayi. (She has gone completely mad.)
As the weeks go by, our regular topics of conversation have become well-worn: the standard gossip about when people in the house are coming and going, things the landlord says, her long-standing power struggle with the cook downstairs, and the ongoing saga of her firstborn son’s questionable ways and dealings with ISS-mack (which it took us awhile to realize was her way of saying ‘smack’, which, from what we can tell, is the word for some sort of recreational drug – probably not actual heroin) that forced her to bottom out her savings and commit him to a rehab center against his will a few months ago.
After speaking for the better part of three hours a day, the old topics have been exhausted and give way to new ones — just today, she asked me how earthquakes happen. My mind worked overtime, as I tried to stretch my limited vocabulary to explain various natural disasters – tornadoes, tsunamis, hurricanes – I described each of these phenomena, and the nature of the damage they left in their wake, in as much detail as I could manage. I wonder what images formed in her mind as I spoke.
One morning, as we paused for chai before rolling out that day’s roti, she recounted her her memories of the day Indira Gandhi was shot, in October 1984. Anita had been at her mother’s home in Gurgaon (a suburb of Delhi). Her first child, Asha, was two months old. As the houses and businesses of their Sikh neighbors were burned down around them in the riots that ensued, she was so scared for her child’s life that she hid her under a stack of bedding. Anita, being a child herself at the time (she was married at 13, and was 14 when Asha was born), didn’t realize until later that in trying to protect her daughter, she could have suffocated the girl by accident.
These stories, these personal accounts of India’s major historical events, are so important to me. By the time I knew enough about India to ask my grandparents to tell me those stories, they had both passed away. I will never know what they went through during Partition, how they felt when they had to uproot from Surat and move to Karachi, how they felt about the country and people they left behind. So I cling to these stories that connect me to India through the people who have lived through its major events.
Perhaps someday I will have my own stories to tell, as I continue to be present for some of the events that take place in this country. For now, there is only this one: I moved to Delhi the night before Anna Hazare was scheduled to begin his famed hunger strike. I remember waking up in the Taj Mansigh Hotel on the morning of October 16th, impossibly jetlagged and in disbelief that I was finally in India, and hearing people murmur the news to one another. At that point, I had no context for understanding the issues — all I knew was that an elderly and much revered political figure was threatening to slowly take his own life in the name of removing corruption from the Indian government. Over the next few weeks, people flocked to India Gate in droves, standing for hours in the thick, humid air to support this man who planned to sacrifice his life for his beliefs. Those were my first images of Delhi.
On a recent morning, as Anita and I were drinking chai and eating the poha I had just made, she asked me, “When are you coming back to India?” I don’t know. “But you’ll be back, right?” Probably. Maybe in a year or two. “You’re coming back, though? For sure?” Well… yes. For sure. But I won’t be able to stay in this apartment. The landlord is already showing it to other people. “Ok, so stay with me! Come and stay in my house in Gurgaon.” I don’t know… it’s far away from everything. My work is mostly here, in South Delhi. “It’s ok. I come from Gurgaon every day. It’s cheaper to live there. They don’t rip you off the way they do here.” I don’t know. Maybe… “So, you’ll come back next year. And you’ll stay with me.” She’s decided it already.