The Wisdom of Wheat Flour
Ma had poured a lot of wheat flour in that round vessel.
Usually it was Maya'di who did all the cooking, but when all the siblings came visiting their mother with their families, she alone couldn't manage in that kitchen with the huge earthen oven that ran all day long. My mother and some other aunts used to help her. The oven was about five feet in width with two outlets at the top, and you had to stoke the coal from outside. You could cook two dishes at the same time, which was a novelty for us. And it was at knee level, so all the cooking had to be done sitting.
After a hard day's work, when the huge earthen contraption was drowsy, with the embers letting out an orange glow from its bowels, Darling and Betty would want to retire in the vicinity, to catch the residual warmth. Sometimes I used to go sit with the dogs, but they didn't think much of me.
The kitchen was at the back of the bungalow, and was an open one. The dogs roamed free all night, and had access all around the bungalow. My grandma lived alone, with Maya'di the cook, and Sundar the watchman. Out of her five children, one stayed with her, but he too was busy all day. Hence the dogs. If one died, it was usually replaced by another Alsatian pup. And when it was time for the annual meet, the bungalow bustled with a lot of activity. The Australian cousins would love to explore the village, try to speak Bengali with us, the ones from Madhya Pradesh would converse in Hindi, and some of us from Bengal would try to keep up with our broken English and absolutely pedestrian Hindi. The four brothers and the sister (Ma) were mostly reticent people, hardly communicative or expressive, but not lacking warmth.
One evening I was sitting with her at the kitchen, watching her knead the dough for rotis.
“How do you know how much flour to use?” I was always curious. We needed rotis for almost 15 people, so the math always eluded me. How did she know?
“It’s always a smart guess, you can say. You can’t always be exact. Sometimes there’s extra and sometimes there’s a little short. It is much like every chance you take in life, you make an educated guess and go for it. There’s no telling how it will turn out to be. But there are always workarounds. Be it for kneading dough, or for something in life.” I wasn’t really curious about life lessons at the point in time, so I didn’t read her wan smile. “Our neighbors, Runu pishi? They used to take me to knead the dough every time they had guests over, because I am an expert in this.”
“But you don’t like to cook, do you?” I knew she hated the heat of the oven and disliked entering the kitchen. We’ve always had someone else cook for us back home in Durgapur. I hated the fact that she had to manage when the cook didn’t show up, but there was little I could do to help. I could chop vegetables, shell the peas from their pods, beat the eggs, and when we all went to our Grandma’s place in Dhanbad, I tried my hand at drawing water from the well but never succeeded, with the weight of the laden metal bucket dragging me to the edge every time. I also loved to watch Sundar unload bags of coal into the oven’s mouth early in the morning. I offered to take the dogs out, and got dragged everywhere by the beasts, but I never let go. The metal rings of the chains would sometimes make deep marks in my palms. I went with Sundar to fetch fresh, foamy milk from the nearby buffalo shed. When Ma had to cook, I tried to help however I could, but couldn’t fathom why it is the woman who has to take up this responsibility. There were other aunts who loved to cook delicacies, and took pride in it, but I hated the fact that it was always the woman. “Why doesn’t Baba cook?”
“No, let him not try. We might have to go hungry even if he attempts to.” My dad used to vehemently insist that he too could cook, but then we knew he wasn’t any good at it. He was busy collecting accolades for his collection of books, for being able to hold lengthy discourses about world politics and history, playing the violin, solving others’ problems, helping others with their assignments, etc. To the rest of the world he was a hero. A feminist, a socialist, talking animatedly about Joan of Arc, Eisenstein, Tagore, Ray, or M.N. Roy’s radical humanism. But the woman had to cook. I often wonder how he managed for ten years after Ma passed, but when I saw him in the kitchen all by himself, he was busy with his imaginary conversations. He was never alone. Ma was.
“You know I can manage with a roti and some boiled veggies. It is for you and your dad that we have to have elaborate food arrangements. And I don’t need more than one little cot. Have you seen the little green table fan? That was all I needed. I can’t stand the summers. Sometimes I wonder if this institution of marriage makes any sense at all.”
Then she went on to tell me how she never wanted to marry, but wanted to work at a museum after her PG in Anthropology. But opportunities were difficult to come by, and she ended up teaching. “Marriage is usually the end of the road for dreamers.” I grew up believing it, but when the time came to look for a profession, I first thought of joining St Edmund’s College for Congregation of Christian Brothers in Shillong. Ujjwal Routhe had told me how they get paid a fat sum, and all you had to do was believe. But I realized I cannot be a priest ever, because I wanted to sin. The fact that I wanted to commit it repeatedly wasn’t so clear in my mind then, but I needed the company of a woman. A Brother there couldn’t marry ever, and having grown up as an atheist, it really made no sense to suddenly turn a Christian. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find a place for God in my life. Like I could never decide on which tattoo to go for, I couldn’t decide on a religion when there was a choice. "Become a Buddhist if you really need to belong. Forget it otherwise," came the bored answer.
“But then you wouldn’t have had me, if you never got married, isn’t it?” I was baffled.
“No. But then I never wanted a child either. You’ve been a nice kid, didn’t trouble me much, and I do love you, but it is a superfluous thing to have a child. Like an appendage you don’t want. Your dad has a lot of expectations from you. But I don’t know how you will turn out to be. You seem to be doing fine, so far.”
There were exactly 60 rotis at the end of the conversation. And when in between all this she sang mellifluous songs by Tagore, my uncles quietly got up from their living room conversations and came to sit behind us, listening. As a kid, I had already seen through the soullessness of the violin back home. But her singing never got its due.
When much later in life she met my girlfriend, she told her the same thing. “Don’t get married, dear. Live in. These guys are everybody’s and never your own. The day you want, you can opt out.” By “these guys” she meant boys in our family in particular, I have a sneaky feeling. “Always be financially independent. And if possible, don’t burden yourself with a kid.”
The concept of living in was new in the nineties, and although urban Indians had already been practicing it, it wasn’t a trend that caught on with the middle-class as much. “Don’t do it in Benares. People won’t understand you there. Might even burn you at the stake, for all you know. Live in here, in Calcutta. But then Calcutta has no opportunities for you. Move to Delhi.”
Move to Delhi we did, but we couldn’t do justice to the wisdom she passed on. Today when I help at the kitchen and knead the dough, am always confident, though. Don’t worry if there will be a little extra or a little short, just take a guess and go for it.
Life will sort itself out.
About the Author: An editor and a motorcycling enthusiast, Arijit Ghosh has been writing for over a decade about everything under the sun, from soliloquies of unhinged minds or anecdotal accounts from his days in Benaras, to erotica, lost love, and the nuances of living as an atheist in multicultural India. He resides in Bangalore, subservient to his wife of two decades and a 14-year-old son.