[ 4 MINUTE READ] Learning a life skill and some life lessons
2019 was supposed to be the last year of my mother’s life.
When she lost her elder son in 1994, she received a message from Lord Krishna. She had spent 25 years with her son and would have to spend another 25 without. It would be her test of faith. Amongst the few enduring ways for a mourning mother to heal is to surrender to the divine forces that protect her.
She spent the week in May each year, that span the dates when he was born and died, in silent mourning. As each year passed by, the steady intensity of her grief during this week would remind me how hard it is to fathom a mother’s memories of a dead son. But her faith, simplicity and ability to spontaneously reach out to others with warmth expressed themselves through the rest of each year in ways that made her life meaningful and reassured me.
Last year, as the cathartic week of May approached, she enquired on my readiness for a life without her. It was then that I realized a deep lack of preparedness for that eventuality. As the months wore on, I teased her on the extension that Lord Krishna had apparently given her. She thought about it for a moment and said perhaps she had some unfinished business to attend to.
On weekdays I live in my mother’s two storied house in Vadodara. It is a relatively large house for two people. While my mother’s floor pulsates with a regular sense of routine, my floor has the wandering inertia of unused spaces.
I have never cultivated the habit of working directly with my hands to make or repair things. During my growing years, a cobbler outside our building gate would mend a damaged slipper. A short walk up a slope on the other side was the bicycle mechanic who fixed a puncture or a damaged pedal. Carpenters and electricians were always at hand to mend a broken door knob or replace a defective switch. Circumstances that required me to wash and press my own clothes or do the dishes were rare.
This absence of being grounded by my own daily routines was mirrored in my relationship with food. My appetite was an unimportant necessity, my food choices lacked discipline, my digestion was poor and I didn’t know how to cook.
One measure of the conveniences of the modern world are how little we have left to think or do about our everyday survival. Disconnected from the physicality of my own life, I lived within the corridors of my body. Neither indoors nor outdoors. Bound by tenuous threads to the transient and unfolding story of who I was.
It was in this backdrop that I returned to Vadodara a month ago amidst the lockdown, to restart my factory and learn to cook from my mother.
Mornings began earlier than usual so that I could bathe and be ready for our time together in the kitchen. We set the daal to cook before the vegetables so they would be ready together. A chutney to blend into the daal was made while the stove was left on sim. The sliced tomatoes and capsicum were kept on a perforated lid over the daal to get lightly pre-cooked from the warm escaping vapours. The use of utensils was minimized and available heat maximized by sautéing the spices and condiments for the daal in the same dish after the vegetable was done. As we waited for the vegetable to cook, the platform was cleaned and everything no longer required put back where they belonged. Peeled skins and unused leftovers were deposited in the stone bowl outside the gate for the cows that would wander by later each morning. The preparation of lunch culminated with a sample of each dish placed in three silver cups arranged on a silver plate in the Perumal Sannidhi (prayer room). The lamp was lit and water sprinkled on the food with a prayer and the resonant sound of a bell. An ancient family tradition that connected me to comforting childhood memories of my grandmother and a sacred space with unknown origins.
There is a growing familiarity with the kitchen that escaped me before. The easily accessible hook for the stove lighter. The ubiquitous role in every meal of the box with haldi, hing, rai, jeera and pepper, jar of salt and cup with gingelly oil on the left hand shelf. The tray full of tomatoes and box of diced coconuts in the fridge that merge their latent fluidity and inherent solidity into a chutney. The three sizes of mixer jars waiting patiently in a corner for their short but stellar roles. Inanimate objects in a poorly lit room have come alive as essential allies in a vibrant arena with whom I collaborate to sustain life within me.
‘What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say’. My mother repeated this observation by Ralph Waldo Emerson so often during our impressionable years, that it is the only quote I can recall extempore. But the most valuable qualities of a parent can often elude the sensibilities of their children. Despite the sattvic discipline in her lifestyle, her regular advice for me to wake up early, make my bed, pray and keep my room clean never had an enduring effect.
However, ever since she became my mentor in the kitchen, what is weaved into the way she trains me are her ideas about health & nature, planning & efficiency, simplicity & sustainability, tradition & faith. In addition to fixing my own meal, there is so much more that I have begun to learn and assimilate.
Something new unfolding at a subliminal level is reshaping my daily routines and me. I feel a more intimate relationship with the food I eat. As I consciously minimize the amount of oil and spices I use, there is a new sense of empowerment towards nourishing my mind and body. The positive example of my mother’s actions have finally begun to influence and guide me.
And for this I must acknowledge the importance of kitchens.