“Mmmm”, Nikhil utters relishing the Paneer Lahori (cottage cheese cooked in cream with assorted Indian spices and garlic zest) and helps himself to another serving. “Jaan, no one can concoct a North Indian meal as delightfully as you do. It’s absolute brilliance.” Nikhil tells her, mesmerized by her food as much that Sneha can actually see his mouth-watering.
Everyone, whom Sneha has known in her life, everyone who has tasted her food even something as little as a cheese popper, will be ready to endorse Nikhil’s sentiment. Her friends, her neighbors, her colleagues, her husband, her kids- there is not a single person who hasn’t been swayed with her culinary skills. Her friends call her to fix meals or supervise the caterers for a party. Her lunch/dinner parties are events people don’t even dream of missing because of the irresistible food. Her bhabhi often befuddled between kasuri methi and garam masala, calls her for recipes.
They tell her, “You should go participate in Masterchef, no one can beat you at food.”
“Why don’t you write a cookery book, it will be a bestseller.”
“At least try writing newspaper columns, will relieve us, horrid cooks, of so much misery.”
She has never been content with her cooking, it’s always a step behind perfection. Dal Makhni is never that creamy, the Bhaturas are never that fluffy, the balance of spices and tangy-ness in her Rajma is always amiss, the stuffing in her Paranthas is never evenly spread and so on. But simply, it is not what her mother cooked for her.
In her early forties, her mother often complained of abdominal pain; something that everyone including her mother thought to be because of indigestion. One day they even got her tested to rule out any suspicion, their family doctor (who was simply trying to materialize, on the number of patients surging by the day) run a casual gaze over the reports, assured them there was nothing to worry about and wrote out a general prescription. A month later, her mother developed a high temperature and after a few hours succumbed to it. It was discovered the pain, that everybody including the MBBS, MD Doctor mistook to be indigestion, was actually because of a dysfunctional kidney. The memory of that day is fresh in her mind- a pain that has not once subdued in the past ten years.
Food was her mother’s biggest passion, it defined her mother. Her mother, an avid follower of Sanjeev Kapoor’s Khana Khazana, did not like constraints being placed up on her culinary skills. Indian food stoked to perfection, she would try her hands on Chinese, Italian or Mexican delicacies, often recreating the dishes she had tasted in a fancy restaurant or in a kitty party.
Two days after her death, Sneha entered the kitchen, scrambled the refrigerator, the shelves just to get hold of something cooked by her mother and once she saw the box of besan ki pinni she held it in a tight embrace, childishly hoping to keep the pinnis with her forever as a souvenir from her mother. For days she longed for her mother and then in one of her sleepless nights she resolved that she is going to bring her mother back to life by cooking exactly the way she did.
She would spend hours defining attributes of every dish her mother had cooked, then zeroing in, on the ingredients questioning herself whether the Tomato Shorba was sour because of lemon, tamarind, or vinegar and then cooking the dish, vaguely guessing the proportion of every ingredient. But she hasn’t been able to revive even a single dish not even the chutney or achar (sauce and pickle).
Her mother would often coax her to learn cooking and she would always glibly reply, “I have all the time in this world to learn cooking.” Time, what a misconstrued notion, it is. You don’t realize its worth until you have none left.
She remembers an episode of Grey’s Anatomy where Izzie struggled with the chocolate muffins that her mother used to bake and later in the episode her patient, who happened to be a psychic informed her that the missing ingredient was coconut extract. Since then, she had secretly wished for a psychic, a dream or a divine signal to help her in the agenda but her prayers still remain unanswered.
Nikhil who reaches out for another Tandoori Nan, realizes that Sneha is lost in intent thought, gives her a slight peck on the back and asks, “Jaan, why aren’t you eating? Eat it before, we gluttons (winking at their twin sons) swallow the Paneer down our gut.”
She meets his eye smiling, “Namak thoda zyada ho gaya hai paneer mein, nahi? Naan thoda kaccha hai.” (The paneer is slighly salty and the Naan is a little raw.) She gets up from her chair picking up the casserole and says, “Wait, I’ll get you a kadak (crisp and roasted) Naan.”
As she strolls into the kitchen, leaving behind an exasperated Nikhil, she mutters under her breath, “A skill not yet acquired.”