A Motherlode of Memories | Sthitee Mohanty
This essay is one of the winning entries of the inaugural edition of “First Word 2022, the Undergraduate Writing Programme’s (UWP) essay prize for Ashokans in their first year of undergraduate studies.
I hate kneading dough. My fingers sift through the soft wheat flour paler than my skin, but with the same yellow undertones. I pour a continuous stream of water from a jug in one hand, the other making slow circles in the flour. The water clouds. It turns into a muddy, bubbling mixture. I get in there to push, tug and pull. I do not hate this because it is exhausting for my arm muscles in some ways. Kneading makes me think good thoughts and I want to write them down. Yet my fingers are sticky with half-formed dough and I cannot hold a pen with dirty hands. I continue to knead. In the end, the thoughts escape from me, dissipating into the kitchen’s hot, sultry air. I hate this forgetting. The past and the present collide within my mind as I wonder what to make for dinner.
All of this is muscle memory. I’ve been doing it for a long time now. An endless amount of dough has been sacrificed to my childish efforts of making the perfect chapatti. Then again, I also played with it. I would sneak away enough in my little grubby fingers to make a thick disc. A bit more water would make it stickier. I’d throw it up with all the strength my young muscles could manage and it would stick to the ceiling with a wet splat. These were my only contributions to chapatti preparation as a child—a kitchen ceiling marred with dough discs. I do not treat the dough like that now. My brother will make the chapattis later. The dough resists my moving hands and I feel like I’m kneading my thoughts together. Fragmented incidents and whispered words arrange themselves into a straight line. They become substantial, much like the dough I am labouring over.
A considerable portion of my life has been spent in kitchens. As a child, I solved mathematical sums besides a bubbling pot of rice. An errorless task completion would earn me the reward of mouth-watering burnt rice wafers, scraped off from the very bottom of the pot. The kitchen was not very child-friendly, but it was easier on my mother this way. She could keep an eye on me and my work, while quickly whipping up lunch for all of us. If my father was not at home, we would have rice, dal, and vegetable curry. A sizzling pan of fish was cooked only on the days he could join us in the afternoon. Strangely, my mother always used the same brown-yellow paste in both preparations. I couldn’t understand why she did so. My father deserved better food upon his tired return from work. I had asked her why once. She had chucked me on the chin and grinned. No curry pastes in her kitchen skimped on garlic, ginger, and onion. It was the holy ruling trio of my mother’s food.
I step away from the dough. It is time to prepare the holy trio. Peeling garlic and onion requires the patience of a saint. If I go too hard on the skin layers, I will inevitably nick away some of the flesh. That is a huge waste in my mother’s books. I sit tight and persevere because I like plenty of garlic and onion in my food. Seeing the shiny, bare flesh elates me. Perhaps this is what someone feels when their partner puts out before the mandatory three dinner dates. I grab onto a vegetable peeler next, a hybrid of metal, rust, and plastic. Peeling off the skin of ginger frustrates me like nothing else. The device works only after wounding the knuckle of one of my fingers—a ritual blood sacrifice. After having finally peeled it all up, I get ready to chop them.
My grandmother had a small, smoky kitchen with a mud floor and walls. She would squat to sit on a rudimentary wooden plank with a curved blade jutting out. Her fingers would slick the black iron blade with water, cleaning it. She would place a hollow bowl below the blade before grabbing the vegetables she needed to cut. She would slice away the flesh in no time, and square chunks would fall into the bowl with rhythmic plops. I remain fascinated by the way her hands flirted with the bare blade. She was dexterous enough to skin the vegetables with that huge blade. I would always ask her how she does it. She would chuckle and tell me tales of feeding my father as a schoolboy, one who had a black hole of a stomach and endlessly demanded meat. He is still like that.
My mother taught me to cut vegetables with a knife—the city did not house such crude cutting instruments. I destroyed quite a few cutting boards before getting the hang of it. I never cut myself when I do it alone. Yet somehow, the knife blade always injures one of my fingers while I prep the vegetables under my mother’s anxious supervision. She kicks me out of her kitchen after that. My mother does not understand why I insist on helping her out in the kitchen regularly. For her, these are menial tasks. My time would be better spent studying for school. She does not understand the seductive power of her kitchen. Ground spices and hidden stories tease me every time I enter it. There is history in these turmeric-stained surfaces. It is the closest thing to magic in this mundane world.
My eyes water as I cut the onions. I sniffle and cough my way to the end. A pale pink pile of chopped onions is soon joined by white discs of garlic and yellow fragments of ginger. My fingers stink, a raw scent that burns. I know that it will not go away even if I wash my hands five times with Dettol. I push the pile onto one of the bare plates before washing up the chopping board. My fingers run against the raised scars on the plastic surface. They feel soft because of the water rushing over them. My grandmother used metal, wood, and fibre; I use stainless steel, food-safe polymer, and colourful plastic.
No male ever dared to step into my grandmother’s kitchen in the village. They could only bring food from the market before being chased out of the room by her sharp words. Cooking was a woman’s chore. So her grumbling daughter-in-law slaved over the food under her supervision whenever the family visited the village. I’d sit there beside her while my mother turned pink in the heat of the wood stove. It was hard for her to cook in the rudimentary rural setting. Only Grandmother could do it. My mother did not understand her mother-in-law’s obsession with cooking. She thought of cooking as another task on the list, one whose completion helped her run her home better. She always did it by herself back home. My father was a disaster in the kitchen and we had been too young to help her. My father managed to make a mess of instant noodles the one time my mother asked him to look after us while she went out. He spilt half of the masala packet on the stove and the noodles were raw because he turned off the heat too soon.
I wander over to the stove, place a pan on it and call out for my brother. A few seconds later, he enters the kitchen and rolls out the dough I kneaded. His chapattis are beautiful. He works diligently at his only chore of the evening. He’s better at cooking than I am which delights my mother to no end. He doesn’t cook now because he is not allowed near the gas stove in my mother’s absence. I slowly pour pale golden oil into the yawning black mouth of the pan. It settles in quietly and I search for the gas lighter. My fingers turn the knob of the gas stove, it clicks, and there is a hiss. I attempt a few times to set the gas alight. My pulse quickens. I do not want to burn the house down. Fire rises, tinged with blue and orange. My grandmother’s cooking fire was a wonderful sight, with smouldering wood and wandering sparks. This kitchen stove gives me anxiety. Fires can be dangerous beasts in the kitchen jungle.
Mother told me that even this jungle has its loopy laws, extreme exceptions, and sly secrets. She taught me the basic spice mix of every curry. Fish basted in a stone-ground mustard paste made the best fish curry. The use of a fair number of curry leaves made sense—they were rich in iron. Adding a bit of sugar made savoury food better, and a bit of salt improved the sweet. Different seed oils added different nuances to the curries. The kitchen had treasures in every nook and cranny. One needed to tame and tickle the fire beasts to discover them. If I did not find them, I asked my mother.
My mother was a beast wrangler, her arms spotted with burn scars, both new and old. I had once asked her how she prepared meat despite being a vegetarian. She would slam down blocks of frosted meat onto the kitchen counters. A pale pink meant fish, a peachier pink meant chicken, and red meant mutton—though every meat bled, irrespective of its colour. Yet, my mother never got squeamish. I wondered why and asked her so. She told me that I would understand when I grew older. I did understand after turning twelve years old. Nothing fazes someone who has to clean up their blood every month. Little bubbles appear in the oil. I push in the chopped condiments and it sizzles deliciously.
My brother hovers beside me. He is sure that I will burn it. I open a ready-made spice mix packet and pour it in. He is scandalized. He has the patience to sweat over mixing spices in certain proportions; I have the wisdom to buy store-bought ones. He whines about my laziness while I push in the red-orange chunks of marinated fish, set aside to defrost before I got started on the dough. I ask him to finish the chapattis while I make the curry. He quickly rolls out three and sets a flat pan beside mine. He rushes through it, while I poke at the fish. I stir it slowly waiting for the gravy to bubble. Sweat trickles down my back.
We’re rather hungry by the time everything is cooked. We don’t have to wait for our parents. I ladle out the curry into bowls while my brother sets the table. Had my mother allowed him, he would have prepared a more elaborate dinner. I prefer simple things with simpler rules—fewer chances of messing up that way. The kitchen still scares me a bit. The reason behind this fear might be the effort of cooking or it might be the legacy of the women in my family. We start eating. Midway through the meal, I ask my brother if he can clean up the kitchen. His laughter surprises me. He tells me I pronounced kitchen as chicken. I still have a long way to go.