The kitchen gods must be perplexed today, she thought to herself. Thrown off-balance by the aromas and sights of bounty that livened these walls where usual offerings rarely went beyond functional. She imagined a deity concocted of the forms of deities she had seen throughout her life and lent to it a face with a crease of confusion between the brows.
He had asked for the Bible; nothing would calm his troubled soul. She imagined his struggle; she had not seen him read it in all the time they had been married.
Incongruent neighbours, the recipe register was right next to it on the dusty top shelf. Even the maid skipped it routinely while dusting; it was higher than the reach of her extended arm. The irony wasn’t lost on her that both books, equally distant, had become relevant so suddenly and one after the other. Yesterday, she had retrieved the Bible, today, she was pulling down the register. A square was etched in the dust-laden plank where it had sat all these years. Its eerie symmetry mocked her as she brought it down with as few fingers as possible, an inevitable scowl of disdain on her face, with the apprehension of the dust that would have to be brushed off, redeeming the object from years of neglect.
Both were gospels in a way. Both held secrets and wisdom from higher beings. Both were distant from daily life and its rush in the way special things were.
Today, as she pored over a script that was unfamiliar because of disuse, her mind wandered to another who was leaning into a scripture of another kind. They were both knocking at a threshold, seeking an algorithm for salvation.
She was depending on it for life today. She had to lose herself in the preparation. In the details of the names of ingredients she had to go out and buy for the first time, most of which were never stocked in the identical plastic jars that lined the inside of her kitchen shelves. She had to pay attention to their strange names, rehearse their pronunciation before going out, find out where to buy them from, bear the condescending smile of the shopkeeper which betrayed that he could tell it was her first time.
The quantities were small, the prices high. ‘Just for the one pot’, she found herself saying when he looked at her for details of quantity. Pinchfuls, handfuls, fistfuls, not enough for the usual references of minimum viable packaging. From a pile in the corner where they were stitched together loosely by a thick thread looping through their top right-hand corners, he pulled out squares of old newspapers to match the number of ingredients. The makeshift wrapping, the hand-folded parcels encasing the bearers of these potent aromas gave it a secretive allure, like something like child’s play, where they were exchanging token currency in a board-game for which they alone were privy to the rules, where they both had to keep the other’s secret in order for the game to succeed, in order for it to have any meaning worth their time.
The one pot only.
And a spoon.
No plate in between.
They were saviours today, the details, and the marginalia. As they bled their flavours and aromas, as the syrupy mixture coated the rice with a skin of sweetness, something from inside her fled the case of the body and clung to the newness, the preciousness, the sweetness, almost obscene, of the saccharine heart of her creation. The details of the fractions, written in the steady hand that guided her from beyond the veil of time, were so important today, they were all that kept her steady on her feet, all that kept the ground from giving way beneath her. What was the difference between ¼ and 1/2? How serious was it if she faltered between the two? Would it have any bearing on the perfection she was trying to create, the bite whose memory he would take to other realms?
When everything was mixed in, the last step, the writing whispered to her, was putting the lid back on the pot, covered in a damp cloth, and letting the flavours seal. That act was engraved in her memory. As children, they would monitor the progress of the dish by skipping jauntily into the kitchen at intervals, only to be chided sternly for having trailed in mud with their dirty shoes, told off firmly in a tone that brokered no negotiation, held no possibility of a concession, to wait until the ‘dumm was over’. They remembered, as children, the finality of the act and the word that spelt it. A single syllable, its sound of ‘m’ had gravity, a closure where no creases let in a glimpse of what simmered inside. She thought, as she uttered it, in saying the word, her lips sealed together like the pot itself, within which the circuitry of currents was birthing a miracle, while they stood stunned into reverence by the alchemy in progress. The way her grandmother did it, on top of the lid covered in damp cloth, she would place a beveled rust-coloured stone. Then she would go and shower, so that she looked fresh when it was time to serve it. During the hour that the pot rested on a low hob, a flame barely there, there was no one in the kitchen.
She remembered walking into that silence on steps of stealth, mind brimming with mischief. It was the quiet of cathedrals, a quiet that was not empty but pregnant, filling up all the vaults and chambers of the uninhabited space, its robes of patriarch fanned out in full flair. It was a quiet of reverence, made up, in part, of the confidence of the chef who had prepared the dish, the seriousness of the stage the dish was in, respect for the chef’s labour, and a quiet, unstated but ingrained knowledge of the place of elders and children in a home. The aura around the pot as it sat majestically on the shadow of a flame was so intense it was like a precinct that guarded the flavours with a quiet, austere dignity. Even though there was no one, and they could lift the lid and peer inside, they never dared.
It was always perfect, she remembered, as they all stood lined up for the final reveal, the flavours spilling like treasures of emperors unlocked. There was a care and slowness to the gestures at this stage, something studied about every little detail that betrayed a knowledge held in the bones, a memory that went beyond mere remembrance of muscles to an imprint upon a chromosome. There was a belief that could come only from the certain knowledge of having expended pure love and expecting nothing less in return. An exchange of equals.
There was never any betrayal. In all the times she witnessed it, she was always afraid that something might be amiss, that her grandmother would find, in that last moment, that something was overdone, some alignment of elements a little out of sorts, the temperature, the order of layers, the proportion of adornments, that some shortcoming would reveal itself unawares even to her, as all the children stood watching. She would fear that they would then have to bear the burden of her great shame that was suddenly theirs to bear and to hide.
Only today did she understand where that uncanny certitude came from, the pinch in the gut that told her, without having to look at the clock, when the dish was ready within the pot’s sealed universe. As she lifted first the stone, then the lid covered in the moist cloth, she instinctively knew which angle to lift it at, so that the rush of steam wouldn’t scald her face.
The bejeweled countenance of the preparation, the way the adornments sat atop the coloured rice like emeralds and rubies, the way bounty was displayed so unabashedly in the sprinkling of so many textures and substances that went above and beyond what was necessary or logical. The dish was like a bride, something about the way it claimed its jubilance, the way it was entitled in its purpose of festivity, the way it called attention to itself, the way it made no apology for its exuberance, the way it screamed, ‘I am short-lived, but I will live in my full claim of glory.’
The aroma had a life of its own. It announced her, steward-like, before her physical person. It cast a spell on the house, transforming its aura of bleakness, dominating the mood, stamping its mark on the moment, the day. It wafted through the rickshaw as she placed the pot on the seat before climbing in. Even the driver smiled briefly before the grim understanding. The address required no explanation.
Several feet above, at level with the barbed wire loops, she looked up to see the lazy-eyed guard resting his back against the row of gunnysacks, insouciant guardian of these uncanny frontiers. She thought she saw the curl of a smile appear briefly upon his lips, and a brief leaning forward of his otherwise indifferent frame, oblivious to those who journeyed between worlds under his watch.
Even the one who let her in every time had a softened expression, as he locked up behind them and disappeared into the corridor. He might let her stay a little longer than usual today.
It was the smell that made him turn his head from the book still open before him. Head shaven, frame shrunken from the abstinence of past days, his overalls hung loose on his frame today. Sporting a stubble of few days, he looked other-worldly, alien. Was sin such a burden to bear, that penitence shrunk a man by half?
The scent sweetened the sadness between them, the streaks of colour throwing up rainbows all over the unrelenting grey of the walls around them, rounding the harshness of the angles.
They sat next to each other on the wooden bench. Behind them, they could hear the boots of the guard in the corridor as he patrolled, and the clang of metal echoing knell-like as other doors were locked and unlocked. The space, the sound, their posture of worshippers before a scripture, it took her back to the church where they had been married, and where they often returned and found themselves alone.
It had come up the way random things come up in conversations between newly- weds after marriage. In hindsight, that indulgence, long since lost to the rush of life, seemed embarrassing, silly, a memory she would much rather banish.
‘What would be your last wish?’
He had replied at once, as if the reply had been waiting behind his lips to be beckoned.
‘To eat mutanjan, directly from the pot with a spoon, fast for some days and break the fast with it. To wake to its flavor in gratitude, like a starving man. Mutanjan, the way your grandmother cooked it, all details attended to.’
Naima Rashid is a writer and translator. Her first book, Defiance of the Rose (Oxford University Press, 2019) was a translation of selected verses by Pakistani poet Perveen Shakir from Urdu into English. Her writings have appeared in Asymptote, The Scores, Poetry at Sangam, Wild Court, and other places. She was long-listed for the National Poetry Competition 2019. She is a collaborator with the translation collective, Shadow Heroes.
Image courtery: Aanoosh Fatima, graduate in fine arts, her forte is abstract art, where she envisages in colours what she experiences visually. She loves music and good food besides her colour palette.