She grew up seeing her mom in the kitchen. Her aunts, grandmas, older female cousins and random ladies, all bent over the stove, cutting chopping vegetables, roasting spices and powdering and grinding and tasting and sweating and laughing and gossiping and sometimes cursing through the process.
It was a female domain.
The males part of this process was the finale. They came to eat. To occasionally praise, relish, and feel good at the end of the meal. They’d rinse their hands outside at the tap or the sink and walk away feeling satiated.
One can never imagine something if there was no precedent. Women cooked. That was it. She heard an occasional complaint whine from her grandma on how her second son was forced to cook because of his wife’s quixotic nature and she clucked her tongue. In the same tone, she would continue on the good old days when there were only males who cooked and who cooked great meals.
“Nala Bheema paakam.”
Quoting the famous line that proclaimed both Bhima (of Mahabharata fame) and King Nala (of Nala-Damayanti fame) the grandmother announced in subtle excitement that her now lined, experienced eyes belied, that men were indeed better cooks. With a sigh,m she would wrap her pallu again and tuck a large fold into her wrinkled waist and move on muttering under her breath and telling no one in particular “those were the days, the good old days”
..and thus she grew up. As a child, a teenager and then an adult and a mom and a wife.
Her husband could cook a good meal. That was hearsay. She never once imagined to ask and neither was she offered. She assumed the role she was meant to play and was caught up with the intricacies of life, the relationships not to be questioned, the personalities not to be showcased and thrust for the world to see. Her hands were full.
..and then she met him.
They spoke about things she never spoke with others before. Of food, of skills, of life, of songs and of cuisines and the love for food. She didn’t love food, she mainly liked it coz it was sustenance. Cooking requires patience and she never really could afford it too much, coz one day in her 30s she woke up to realize that time and age was passing her by and her 20s were squandered away doing the mundane and the necessary things to maintain that mundane. Time was not on her side, and the easiest to cut time out of was the food prep.
He spoke highly of food. The intricacies of its taste, the pride at which he could wield a knife that he never did before, and the spice levels and the soaking up of the textures and the smells to make it a work of art, a thing to enjoy and maybe even post on Facebook for the ladies to drool.
These were the thoughts running in her mind as she sat perched on a bar stool, chin propped by her palms watching the stove and him in front of her.
He worked fast. Way fast. She recognized that speed all too well. It’s what happens when the mind is racing and the body in its effort to keep up, starts working faster. She’s been there, it was interesting to watch it outside her, like an out of the body experience. She didn’t speak much and she knew he wouldn’t be able to talk much anyway, so she watched. Trying hard to not butt in, or help clean or chop, or offer unsolicited advice or critique or just maybe voice the running commentary on all things exciting that led to her sitting perched on that stool.
The onions were chopped fine. She watched with fascination on how his fingers curved, just like they are meant to with good practice, the knife slices through them, the garlic that was spoilt enough and the particular way in which he sliced them out of the plastic to throw in the compost, the tomatoes that went into the blender and the amused way she thought “By god, he is juicing them, not crushing!” and was gently admonished to shut up and go back to her place. The cauliflower being chopped and nuked before adding and the salvaging of the masalas out of the pantry to add to the simmering pan.
He worked like a robot. Like an energizer bunny. The character popped in her head and she smiled ruefully. Her mind mirrored the tangy pan in front of her. The cauliflower slowly cooking through the gravy, she missed his warmth, the smile and the happiness on being in the moment liek she was.
She started reacting without realizing, and the smile was slowly starting to fade. The happiness inside was fading. She fought to hold on to it.
His movements were clinical and choppy at best. The mind was oscillating from warmth and joie that she once knew him as to restrain and the numerous things he added on to his mind in a masochistic way that she now came to realize.
She reacted. She became quiet.
It hurt. It disappointed. It was unfair.
She thought of entitlement. Of the right to be happy and to be in the moment and to enjoy the little excursions of life she fought hard to hold on to. For his sakes and hers. With the speed of a free fall, thoughts entered her head. How he didnt want her there in the first place. How much he looked awkward as she sat in a place that was scared to him and his wife. How he would rather he tapping at his computer than cook a meal. How much he’d rather go live in a cave and not care for social obligations. How much she reminded him of a life he could have once had and doesn’t anymore. How reality is strong and how grounded he is in it and be completely puzzled on why she wasn’t.
She smiled and busied herself with the now frisky cat in the couch. Playing and cuddling her. Creating sounds to drown the silences between them.
He was happy. She knew it. He just wouldn’t allow himself to be.
She was happy. He knew it. She couldn’t allow herself to be unbridled about it, lest she gets shut down with how he would not react and be a part of it.
He couldn’t live in the moment.
She could only live in the moment.
The frozen rotis were now ready and she was handed a plate. She started tearing them into pieces and took a taste of the cauliflower curry. She loved it. was perfectly tangy and though she could have used some more spice, it was perfect. She ate silently, with him asking her and prodding her with questions on how it was and if she had enough and if she wanted anything else that he could rake up.
She ate silently.
Words were enmeshed in the emotions that strangled her throat. The roti making it way through the cracks and the spaces, slowly and with great deliberation.
“THIS IS NOT HOW IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE OK?”
“Why won’t he chill a bit? Why does he look like a taut string?”
“God, am totally encroaching! He just doesn’t want me here. 🙁 ”
“THIS IS SO UNFAIR! I TRAVELED ALL THE WAY JUST TO BE NEAR HIM!”
“I know sweetie, he has his head full, he will be okay soon, maybe when we finish dinner, he will be his normal self…?”
“He actually cooked for me. I reminded him of his promise long ago, and he said he would and he did it. HE ACTUALLY COOKED FOR ME! OMG”
“He is adorable na? even with that grumpy Atlas face he has on?”
“I want to hug him. I wish I could hug him as he is chopping those onions. I have always wanted to. That’s the visual I always had in my head. Just to hug him while he cooked for me. .. but now seeing him and his “touch-me-not” body language, am scared to even jump off this stool. Let me just sit here quietly.:( “
“I wish I could hug him”
“I wish this wasn’t happening. I wish I could do a Ctrl Z and start all over again.”
“God, I wish I could disappear.”
“God, how much I love him :-)”
“Thanks for the dinner” she smiled weakly. She knew she didn’t sound genuine. She wished she could. He waved it off.
She almost blurted “Think it could have used some less salt”
..and then she remembered that tears are salty. Both the happy and the sad kind, and she had swallowed equal doses of both. It was her fault that the curry was salty.
He cooked for her! That was a first in her life.
Him. Cooking. For her. A first.
She hugged herself to sleep that night with a smile that held her tears in its curve.