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Sunday, 12 February 2017

Sometimes, I see my mother beside me as I sizzle onions for the ever-comforting chitranna

It is midday in January 2014 and my multiple layers of clothing do little to protect me from five-degree London. Icy rain, coursework stress, undiagnosed illness have undone me. As has the relatively pleasant winter in London: It’s nothing compared to Scotland or Canada, but a full-time condition to be managed and attacked if you’re a girl from paradisiacal, 25-degree Bangalore.

Some gigantic joke runs amok in my cognition, playing on repeat events from seven years ago: 29th January, 2007. I have 20,000 words of academic writing due that week, but my brain’s top priority seems to be events from seven years ago to the day. It is newly and suddenly unbearable that my mother is dead, even though it happened years ago and I appear, for all purposes, to have moved on, made a new life. I cry freely on the bitter wet walk to university, beholden to nothing, but a compulsion to do something about this, confident my misery will not be noticed because of the rain.

That evening, I sit in my room alone with my newly resurgent grief, realise that I must establish my own rituals, that I must remember my mother beyond angrily complying with religious rituals. So the next day, I head to the stovetop, fry peanuts and brown onions to make lemon rice.

I don’t know where my mother got her recipes from. In comparison to my neurotic recipe-browsing, her pre-internet cooking might as well have been pulled out of thin air. Besides the staple rice-dal and vegetables, we were regularly treated to alu parathas and methi theplas, gulab jamuns and carrot kheer, pav bhaji and paneer butter masala — her kosambari brought the neighbourhood home. I inherited disappointingly little of my mother’s instinct for cooking. It’s possible that, as a child, I didn’t really care: I had my eyes on her closet full of cotton saris.

But I do have lemon rice. (It feels odd and overly Anglicising to refer to it as lemon rice, even though that’s what it’s called. It feels more accurate to just call it by its Kannada name: chitranna.) It’s what I turn to when there’s nothing in the house but rice and onions.

Mustard seeds, rice, onions, peanuts, turmeric, lemon. Mostly. It’s pointless without the peanuts, but is infinitely adaptable and has been before the term became a food-blog favourite. If it’s a festival or other special occasion, I separately shell and roast and the peanuts, grate in raw mangoes and top with fresh coriander leaves. Living in London or in my first flat by myself or when I cooked for my partner and me — this was all it took to feel fed, nourished, warmed.

* * *

But uneasy lies the hand that wields the spatula. Through my childhood, the idea surfaces that women should mandatorily know how to cook. Stories of girls initiated into the dark arts of industrial-scale chapati-making float about. In flashes, I realise that my sister is a talented cook; for my part, I dodge learning even basic survival skills such as cooking rice, and carry on with the business of being a particularly insufferable teenager. When my mother falls ill, we are lucky to find a reliable cook who replicates Amma’s best dishes. The coffee stays strong and rich. The lemon rice is modularised, the gojju (seasoning) made ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator. Heat a couple of spoonfuls, add rice. The chana dal stays crunchy; the peanuts come alive in the heat. It’s a meal that, unlike the much-vaunted two-minute Maggi, does come together in two minutes.

The January my mother dies, I find myself alone for vast swathes of time. I’m supposed to study for my upcoming exams; instead, I turn to my mother’s oven, an old Sunflame OTG. I lift it from its perch atop our refrigerator — no easy task for an often-anaemic 17-year-old. I carefully place it on the dining table, catch my breath, and preheat to 175 degrees, while I cream butter and sugar by hand. It is as if I have come home. I take a year-long course on writing poetry in which every poem becomes an opportunity for baking metaphors. Everything wondrous seems to be cake-like; everything beautiful seems to remind me of the slow beauty of a perfect crust. My fridge is always full of butter. All my savings are funnelled towards baking. My father notices my obsession and makes a generous donation to my habit.

One of my teachers agonises about why it is that her former (girl) students turn to baking so passionately. I think about this uneasily for a few months after I read that post. What’s behind my love for baking? Why do I feel so at home in the kitchen? Worse, is this some betrayal to my feminist education?

In 2015, I weather a particularly bad bout of depression at a friend’s place. I step outdoors for a walk, find the local fruit shop selling strawberries, and buy three punnets. A simple, pleasant human transaction. I carefully hull each strawberry with a spoon, cook them down and watch them bubble. Warm, sweet, life-red. Then into jars for friends. Another time, a few weeks ago, ill and alone, I collect every ounce of energy available and walk the 10 steps to the fridge to unearth a pear. It’s left over from a batch of poached pears a few evenings ago, when I hosted a friend. It feels starlike in its distance, the memory of that easy warm evening. In the power I invest it with, that pear might as well have been the famous and inexplicably hilarious corn kernel that pulled Allie Brosh from depression.

Then there’s chitranna: Ever-present, ever-comforting. But illness or no illness, chitranna is not a particularly balanced meal — perhaps the most nutritious ingredient is the turmeric. Maybe peanuts. Now back in Bangalore, with plenty of access to spicy chillies, I make my lemon rice with extra chillies and lemon, turning it so hot that I have to hiss and breathe through my mouth to cool off (does that ever work?)

* * *

Later that year in London, the seemingly impossible happens. By mid-February, the skies began to clear. I put away my coat, and think of things beyond how cold I am. I have been making do with mild lemons and fat unspicy chilli peppers, but allow myself to indulge in the slightly costlier limes and birds-eye chillies. My flatmates sometimes ask me if I’m making curry, because it’s clearly not the tame pasta or sandwiches that I usually live on. It takes me a while to explain that it isn’t pulao, it isn’t biryani. Rather than cringe-inducingly describe it as “south Indian spiced rice,” I list its ingredients, call it lemon rice. Even though I know that what we refer to as lemons in India are really limes, my pedant’s fondness for accuracy notwithstanding, lime rice doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

Mustard, rice, onions, peanuts, turmeric, lemon. Ginger, curry leaves, fried lentils optional. What’s not optional: The mustard seeds, ideally the larger variety. Someone I used to be in love with laughingly recommends that I order curd-rice at the cafe we frequent, especially because the mustard seeds are “like apples”, crunchy and plump.

Food, that other other f-word. Sometimes I forget, fleetingly see my mother beside me as I sizzle onions or brew coffee. I don’t really have an answer to that teacher’s distaste for her students baking, but I do have chitranna.

(Source: The Ladies Finger)

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