Category Archives: Food

Please, don’t fast for me.

It’s that time of year again. Our calendars lined up with one festival after another. Navratri came and went, with lots of sweets and sundal being prepared and consumed. Eid was celebrated just a couple weeks earlier, and Diwali will be celebrated a couple weeks from now. It is a good month, especially for me, as the H celebrates his birthday this time of year as well. This means I can be usually found frantically searching for the “perfectly perfect” cake recipe, and soon thereafter, my kitchen counters engulfed in a cloud of flour.

Another festival is coming up in a couple of days, the Karvachauth. I have not observed it, but know many people who do. In trying to understand why a married woman must fast all day one day of a year, with nary a drop of water being consumed from sunrise to sunset, I am directed to legends and tales from the Mahabharata rife with morals portaying perfect ‘wife behavior’,  to asinine monologues in the blogging world about how it is the wife’s dharma to sacrifice for her husband, to explanations about it being a celebration of sisterhood(!)

I understand very well the rich emotional pull that rituals have, the weight of their nostalgia, especially once we get married and move away from home and begin to celebrate in our own new homes. Which traditions do you uphold? Which do you ignore? What makes you wistful? What passes you by so quickly you don’t even notice its coming and going? You begin to feel the weight of these things when you have to make these decisions yourself. Decisions that will become the traditions that your own children will follow (or not). But stuff you did unthinkingly as a child, begins to seem different when viewed through the lens of an adult. At that point, what do you do? And it is here I come to the reason for this post today.

In today’s day and age, what makes an educated woman want to willingly observe this fast?

Putting aside the blatant sexism that is screaming from every description of the ritual, is it because this guarantees a long, healthy happy all-things-nice-and-wonderful for the husband? Just by me not eating one day in a year? What about the husbands of those women who can‘t eat for many, many days each year because they cannot afford a pot of rice? Are these men reaping the benefits of this sacrifice? What about if I observe the fast twice a year?  Twice as much spiritual goodies for the H? What if I never do it? Does everything in my H’s life hang on that tenuous thread that is my food intake on that one day?

I cannot put aside any sexism for too long. Why the woman? Why, as I have asked before, is the brunt of all our traditions squarely placed on the shoulders of a woman? (and then later, to be told that we are the weaker sex and that it is but natural that we cannot do everything, and must not try to. But I digress. More on that later).

This is an actual conversation I had with someone last evening about this.

Me: “Do you plan to fast?”

Her: “Yes! I do hope it’s not an overcast evening. Sometimes the damn moon takes all night to make an appearance, so sometimes I just eat after it gets dark.”

Me: “Who cooks the food? Or do you go out?”

Her (aghast): “Go out? Of course not. I cook as usual, and a couple of sweets as well. I have to break the fast with a sweet preparation”

The conversation petered out after this point, as most of these things always do.

You might have noticed this hashtag making an apperance in your social media feeds “#fastforher”. It’s an initiative by that compulsive attention-seeking hack named Chetan Bhagat, that seeks to equalize the ceremony a bit. By asking men to fast along with their wives. And this is of course, being hailed as visionary and forward-thinking by his legions of admirers. Please, if you love your wife/husband and want to show it, go out for dinner and take a walk somewhere and have a conversation. Break open a bottle of wine and put your legs up on that balcony. Go visit your parents, or give them a call. Go watch a movie. Buy a book. Or just have a regular day doing your regular things. Any of this is preferable to starving yourself while simultaneously cooking up a feast, starving yourself while silently cursing the emancipated ways of the world and Chetan Bhagat, and being cranky all evening as your stomach rumbles merrily. If you’re a “forward-thinking” man (and no forward thinking man will actually need to go around announcing the fact, beating his chest), don’t join in your wife’s fast. Trash the entire ceremony and go eat at your favorite restaurant and give her a break.

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Hummus

Hummus

 Two days ago, the H and I stood undecided at Meijer. We wanted to get hummus, and were spoiled for choice. Stay with the tried-and-tested original? Roasted red pepper? Spinach-artichoke? Garlic? Cilantro? There were all calling to me, these neat little round tubs of delicious. It was a mundane conversation we have had many times in the past, little decisions of little consequence.

If you’ve been to a Meijer before, you know that there’s always a staff member who stands by the doors chiming “Welcome to Meijer” to every single customer who walks in. It is an exhausting way to earn a living. The lady who had greeted us earlier, walked over and smiled “Don’t you know how to make hummus?” in halting English. I wasn’t sure what to say for a second. Was she asking me why I had to buy something that can be made at home? Why would she discourage a purchase from the store, anyway? She was a tiny little thing, more than a head shorter than myself and simply dwarfed by the husband, and stood there with a tiny smile on her face. I told her I knew how to prepare it, but didn’t do so usually. She smiled wider this time and asked, “Could you tell me how to make it? It has chickpeas, no?” I gave her a quick rundown of the recipe. She had questions about the ingredients, how expensive they were, where would we find them in the store… The H stood by patiently.

When we were done, she remarked “I’ve always seen the hummus by this cooler. I’ve never bought it because it’s so expensive, but have always been curious how it is.” Once again, I didn’t know what to say. I pointed out that there was a promotion on it where you get two for the price of one today, and that’s why the H and I were trying to choose. The smile on that woman’s face! She grinned like a child, and told me she would pick two boxes on her way home today, for the first time. I melted a little.

All the way home, I couldn’t wipe the tiny smile off my face. I saw that she had really meant “Do you know how to make hummus?” What significance that one word has. It was a sobering reminder of the world being much bigger than this little bubble the H and I live in. How thoughtlessly we go through the daily motions of our lives, for the most part doing what we desire… while there’s a woman watching us a few feet away, who has looked at a humble package of $3.99 hummus many times and desisted buying it.

This little exchange was a valuable reminder of many things for the H and I that day. At the end of her shift, I hope that she spent a happy few minutes trying to choose what to get just like the H and I did hours earlier. And I hope it didn’t disappoint! 

 

Women and Traditions; Happy.

It’s not even 5 pm yet and the sun will set soon. The days are shorter, colder, whiter (yes!) and beautiful. Every evening the H stomps his way home, all tall and cold and trailing snow on the carpet. And it doesn’t seem to matter because it’s snow. Christmas is nearing and this time of year reminds me of Eliyamma aunty. Every year, for as long as I can remember, we’ve feasted on her plum cakes. This is a tradition beloved in Kerala, the Christmas plum cake. Rich and crumbly crust, baked a beautiful brown, studded with raisins and nuts and candied peel, these cakes do not contain plum at all but are known by no other name. We’d wait, all of us, for aunty to finish her marathon baking sessions for a taste of the best homemade cake I’ve had.

Last year, she passed her recipe to me when I asked. Mom woke me up so early that morning, and I went groggy, book in hand, to a warm house bustling with activity. There it was in the centre, a big urli, Sanu anna was stirring it gently, mixing the flour. Aunty was calling out instruction after instruction, Pappa walking back and forth, checking, correcting. Julia, Joanna watching TV, as yet unaware of the lovely tradition they were passively witness to, Sibi aunty smiling indulgently at Sanu, making jokes. I sat there for around two hours, watching the lovely alchemy of flour and egg and sugar turning into fragrant cake. The recipe I wrote down then is my most scratched, corrected one. Everyone offered me suggestions and corrections and tips to bake it the ‘perfect’ way. They shared generously, happily.

This is a generosity all women I know share.  Sharing this wisdom earned over years of experience, their own and others’. They pass it on, and I am lucky to know many women who have. My mother taught me everything I know about caring, be it for a person or a home or myself. My aunt taught me what the ‘unconditional’ in unconditional love means. Another aunt taught me by example just how undefeated it is possible to be. Raman aunty taught me music and so much more.

I don’t know if it’s because I am newly married and away from home, but their lessons trigger memories quite often. There are very few days, if at all, where I am not reminded of something my mother says or does, which in turn likely was something her mother used to say. A particular turn of phrase, even a turn of wrist while flipping a dosa in the kitchen. It might be as simple as me being homesick at certain times, but I am sure it is more than that. Every woman is shaped most by the older women in her life. They leave bits and pieces of themselves in her. She collects and stores these carefully, watching them grow and age with her. Their legacy never really goes away, even if it’s source might be forgotten eventually.

Next week, I will begin my own annual tradition at home and use the recipe Eliyamma aunty shared with me.

Of dads and grace

Last week, the H and I were both miserable with runny noses and itchy throats and all the ickiness that comes with a cold. I felt like a half-drowned kitten for the most part, and he wasn’t much better. Though the memory of a body without pains and aches seemed far far away at the time, as all colds go, so did this one. A morning finally came when we woke up as ourselves. I tend to go overboard in my complaints when I fall sick, which I do rarely (the falling sick part. Obviously).

Later that day, I got to thinking about my dad. My dad has had diabetes for decades now. In fact, he’s had it for all my life. So I grew up watching him not partake of the desserts that lined our tables on special occasions. I also watched him take small portions sometimes. I grew up watching my mum use the smallest amount of oil possible while cooking, watched her make a sugar-less version of everything that was possible to tweak in this manner for him and make full, rich versions for the rest of us, and I grew up eating salads and greens much, much more than the average kid.

All this has helped me enormously with my own food choices and with what the H and I put on our plates every day in our home. What I do not know if I have also imbibed with these habits, is my father’s stoicism. I grew up a happy kid, aware of his diabetes but never knowing or seeing the fear it generates even today amongst others. He didn’t let it adversely affect life more than it had to, and totally shielded us from it. This is a common thread that runs through most of them from his generation, their quiet strength. I have seen it mirrored in the attitudes of beloved aunts and uncles who share this with him too.

I have heard many times, and seen some times, that when you are beset by something unfortunate, whether or not it is of your own doing, most of the time, you will gain a grace that previously you did not possess. I have also seen people crash spectacularly when things didn’t go too well for them. But mostly what I have seen is grace. It is a quiet grace, upon which the weight of weighty matters seems to rest easily.

I read a magazine snippet this morning that left me shaken. The recently elected President Mugabe of Zimbabwe is alleged to have remarked that people who cannot stomach his win, supporters of his opponent, “can commit suicide”. This is a man who will rule over the entire nation, and not simply the people who voted for him. This is a head of a state. Political ideology has become a deeply personal issue. Everything is taken as an offence, an insult, an affront. Everything is personal.

Almost everywhere I look, I hardly see traces of it. Where is grace?