The Lokhi Panchali recited during kojagori lokhi pujo tells the story of Ishwari Patani. When Devi Annapurna sits on his boat, Ishwari Patani does not wish for riches, immortality, worldly pleasures, or spiritual well-being. He asks for ‘Amar sontan jeno thaake dudhe bhaate.’ (May my child be nourished forever with milk and rice.) This basic desire to keep children well-fed appears every time I speak to my parents. Every phone call begins and ends with the word — ‘Kheyechish?’ (Have you eaten?) The lingering smell of a Sunday afternoon lunch of kosha mangsho-bhaat (mutton curry and rice), for my husband, embodies the ultimate form of love and satiation. Born into a culture and language where many things apart from food are ‘eaten’ — aador khawa (to be caressed), jawl khawa (to drink water), maar khawa (to take a beating), dubay dubay jawl khawa (cunningness), cigarette khawa (smoking) — food in its tangible and material forms engulfs my entire existence.
But cooking and I do not share a seamless relationship. The relentless and endless tasks — of planning meals, chopping vegetables, cleaning, cooking, storing, serving — are excruciating, painful work. They inundate me, wash out the last morsel of my energy. At the same time, cooking is the only form of intimacy I can think of. Every morning I prepare and pack lunch in steel tiffin boxes for my husband because I do not want him to eat processed food. Every evening my husband prepares maach–bhaat (hot rice and fish curry) because I tend to skip dinner when I am sleepy. Our domesticity is centred around the kitchen, and we have learned to love each other through the endless monotonous, mundane tasks of each day. I have imparted this obsession to my son as well. My son and I are obsessed with watching the different seasons of Master Chef Australia. We check on YouTube several cooking channels such as Tasty, Domestic Geek, Pick Up Limes, and Peaceful Cuisine. We see, fantasise, and then share our dreams of relishing dishes with names my son cannot pronounce and with ingredients I shall never be able to procure in my mofussil town. But the unnameable sauce-like thing is not what glues us to the screen. Those wonderful machines placed on the countertop mesmerise us. So many machines: blenders, food processors, mixers, hand blenders, spiralisers. They dazzle us.
Our kitchen does not have any of these. My grandmother, mother, and now I use a sheelnora (stone slab mortar pestle) to make our mosla (spices). The long-handled spoon, when moved dexterously by our hands, serves to mix, blend, and juice or make a smooth paste. The pressure cooker has eased much of our worries, but it stands no competition to the ovens that spurt out freshly baked cakes, muffins, or chicken roasts. When my son looks greedily at the electric blender seamlessly mixing egg whites, sugar and butter to make a fluffy white froth that slowly transforms into a spongy cake — I think — he can almost inhale the smells of the Master Chef kitchen. He’s transported to a magical kitchen with white walls, an adjacent garden of herbs and edible flowers, and a cook who wears a white apron and a smile while preparing several dishes within 90 minutes. Did Roland Barthes foresee this in 1957 when he wrote in Mythologies: ‘Cooking according to Elle [magazine] is meant for the eye alone, since sight is a genteel sense?’ Or did Michael Jacobson in 1979 think his term ‘food porn’ might reach my kitchen in 2020? Jacobson had explained that he ‘coined the term to connote a food that was so sensationally out of bounds of what a food should be that it deserved to be considered pornographic.’ As I discard pistil and calyx from banana florets and mull over if ‘porn’ is appropriate to describe our experience, I see my son busy collecting the outer bracts of the flower to use as plates for his cooking. Barthes and Jacobson do not exist in his world.
I want to explain to his dreamy eyes that we cannot have a Master Chef-like white kitchen because the grease and oil will never magically disappear. I will continue to wear a sweat-drenched sari while cooking and the daily grind of preparing breakfasts, lunches, tiffins, tea, dinners will remain perpetual and monotonous. I want to scream — ‘You fool! How can being near the fire in this afternoon heat be anything but nice?’ Yet when my son walks into our kitchen, to look for utensils for his Master Chef-dreams, I do not stop him. Holding a spoon, with an aluminium bowl, vegetable chards, gourd or dry peels, and a massive stainless steel pot, he looks ready for the next MasterChef season! I do not remind him of our provincial location. For him, our kitchen has the same limitless possibilities that the chefs in his favourite programmes scream about.
‘Possibilities’ — that hopeful word in plural promises everything. Even if there is nothing to rejoice about in the present, ‘possibilities’ embodies a charm of what the future holds forth. Almost like Ishwari Patani of the Lokhi Panchali, I want to hold onto the permanence of the forthcoming future. In that future, my son looks armed with his pots, pans, ladles, vegetables, and flowers. Like the bees, plants, and animals, my son is closely associated with his everyday food. He sees the kitchen as an indispensable and inextricable part of his life. He cooks, cleans, serves, and eats with his family. In my son I see a ‘possibility’ that, even fleetingly, does not appear in the faces of most men I know or hear of. These men cannot chop, wash, and cook. When my son eventually starts cooking, I pray to Lokhi Ma, may he do without fancy gadgets, certainly not in a glamorous apron, holding a stop-watch and numerous measuring spoons. That would be a chef ’s kitchen. That would be the kitchen where somebody always cleans before and after, chops, and arranges everything for the cook. That kitchen is completely disengaged from the labour of producing daily meals. It is our mundane ordinary (and sometimes hot and greasy) kitchen I hope to see my son in. A space of nourishment and comfort, this kitchen would nurture his health and mind.
Our kitchen is the heart of all our stories. Even peeling garlic can transform into a slow meditative act if one relishes simultaneously different kinds of makha (a snack where fruits like jujube, wood apple, guava, raw mangoes are mashed in with green chillies, black salt, and kasundi or mustard sauce). The last memory I have of my grandmother is with this kitchen — every afternoon while she chopped vegetables with her bonthi, she chided me for not marrying early. She did not understand how could I write a thesis on nineteenth-century idea of marriage and companionship while remaining unmarried myself. She took the notion of field research literally! These days I teach undergraduate courses facing the laptop on the dinning table next to the kitchen. I juggle speaking and waiting for the pressure cooker to whistle.
Our idiosyncrasies and visible differences collapse in the kitchen. Our kitchen does not elicit a sense of wonder, excitement, or awe of the kind Barthes and Jacobson describe. Here, the act of cooking, serving, eating and cleaning translate into caring. And men, I hope my son realises, need not experience the kitchen only as a space of fantasy of a chef ’s world, a world of unattainable pleasure. Neither is it the space of a woman’s inescapable drudgery. Our kitchen is where the loudest giggles are heard. We embrace our vulnerabilities, argue, laugh and sometimes work silently in the kitchen. There is no glamour when we cook every meal every day. There is no oppression when we do that together. The dichotomy of a glamorous chef and an oppressed wife is a lie that alienates our kitchen from the rest of our lives. Nothing can be farther from truth. The taste, smell, and touch associated with cooking and eating are the most inalienable aspects of our lives. And this mundane, ceaseless, and endless activity binds us together. The act of relishing food and producing food are not different experiences, but ways to know and fulfil the desires of loved ones. And this my son can do only in the ordinary kitchen of his grandmother and mother.
** This essay was first published in Khushk Zubaan, Bepaak Jigar and has been produced here with the permission of the editors.
Dr. Aratrika Das teaches at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, I.I.T Indore. Her areas of interest are the Indian Translation Studies and the Gothic.