We moved around a lot. Like nomads. A few years in one town. The next few in another. My father’s restless nature wouldn’t let him stay in one place too long. He was much too idealistic to stand by the ways of a fast-changing work environment and it kept him at loggerheads with his employers. Therefore, the evident change of work place, a new opportunity searched and the move. And my mother, my brother and I had little choice but to tag along.
In every town, we found ourselves a place to call home. Until it was time to pack up and move elsewhere. The new towns always seemed unfamiliar; the homes stranger still. But that did not let that dampen my mother’s enthusiasm to get about unpacking. After the initial weariness wore out, she would set about meticulously arranging rooms and cupboards.
The same attention, however, was not bestowed on the kitchens we moved into. They were not the recipient of my mother’s enthusiasm. Delegated to the newly-appointed househelp, jars, utensils and sundry other items, were stashed on shelves and in storage, unsupervised. The enthusiasm was left lacking for every-day cooking as well. Growing up in a home where the kitchen was the domain of servants, her mother did not encourage her to learn even basic culinary skills. It was taken for granted that the girls of the house will never need to either.
As a young adult, she to learn to bake. But only while the cooks and helpers were taking their afternoon nap. She began to show promise much to the amazement of her mother who had never herself set foot in the kitchen. Caramel custards, trifle puddings, lemon soufflés and homemade ice-creams, she mastered them all. Not long after, she was married off to a dreamy, wandering public school teacher. It had all been quite sudden. Not much asked, not much said. Approvals sought and quickly received. She was allowed to meet the handsome, well-spoken suitor one summer afternoon over tea. A month later, she married him among much fan and fare.
In the years that followed, she had to learn to live frugally, with fewer means than she was used to. Still confused about why her parents had approved of this seemingly unmatched pairing, she distracted herself by decorating her home. Then her children came along in quick succession. My mother had little time to unravel the mysteries of Punjabi cooking: the perfect rajma, baingan bharta, bharwan karela, chicken curry and kadhi. Her attempts at making them fell short – both in taste and presentation. What probably frustrated her more was that my father never complained. He might have even, on occasion, defended his wife’s early relinquishment of kitchen duties, from protective disapproval of his family!
In the years that followed, my mother employed a string of part-time cooks. The thing about cooks is that while they care about cooking the food to one’s taste, they are much less worried about clean working surfaces. Oil spitted and splatted around the stove or the kitchen slab during their rushed cooking sojourns wasn’t a cause of concern to them. Nor was using separate spoons for salt and another for turmeric in the masala box. In the absence of the cook, we could count on my mother to quickly put together egg-bhurji, omelets, egg-curry as long as her small entourage of helpers did the chopping of onions and tomatoes. It didn’t take long to put out fresh rotis smeared with home-made ghee and piping hot egg-accompaniment to be relished with pickle. Eggs still hold a place of pride in our lives – a go-to food for all seasons.
Of the kitchens, the one in the mountain house, I recall with the most fondness. Perhaps because my brother and I, then as teenagers, were more certain of ourselves in the kitchen space. Midnight conversations, after our parents had fallen into slumber, warranted coffee, Maggie noodles or buttered toasts. The two of us would cautiously tip toe around the house, trying to avoid stepping too hard on creaky wooden tiles, as we made our way towards the kitchen. The wooden kitchen floor had been subjected to water spillage from the sink and that had swelled up the wood to acquire an uneven, bumpy exterior. That bumpy floor is what we stood on many a winter night whipping Nescafe instant coffee and sugar into a fluffy, drippy mixture. My associations with that aromatic concoction are strong enough to instantly revive a nostalgic lump in my throat.
On a sunny winter afternoon, the mountain kitchen witnessed the creation of a quirky dessert. Driven by her family’s collective cravings of the sweet tooth, my mother invented the ‘Kela cream.’ Not wanting to spend too much time away from her cozy spot in the sun, she engaged her inventiveness to chop up a few bananas, skimmed the cream off the surface of boiled milk and added a few teaspoonfuls of sugar into it. With a bit of careful mixing and folding of bananas and sweetened cream, she emerged into the afternoon sun looking gleeful. It might have caused great envy to someone to watch us gorge on it with pure delight.
As time passed, ‘Kela cream’ came to acquire a place of pride in our household. It came to be used as a reward for a range of purposes – behaviour to grades. In time, it came to symbolize affection of a parent who not only was hard to please but also did not willingly enter the kitchen. The ubiquitous banana dessert remains a cozy reminder of family bonding atop the aloof mountain that we called home for a few years.
For more than twenty-five years now, my mother’s kitchen has not moved out of a home in the metropolis. When they finally gave up their nomadic existence after my father’s retirement, a matronly Bengali cook was employed. Jyotsna came to own my mother’s kitchen as her own turf and learned to make meals to suit my parents’ simple pallets as they grew old. It is where family converged on festivals and occasions owing to my father’s failing health. Each time my aunts brought their contributions to lunch; my mother’s renunciation of the kitchen has been long accepted. It is the home where my brother visited and I visited our parents on weekends, as university students and working professionals. Memories of our conversations are laced with the tantalizing smells of tea and coffee. It was a home that I left to start my life as a new bride, to arrange homes and kitchens of my own.