From my journal, 15 November
For the entirety of the first month with my host family, the kitchen was a ‘do not enter’ zone. In this space where chai was always brewing and rice was always steaming and vegetables were always frying, my host mom set the rules – and apparently, one such (unofficial) rule was that the kitchen should remain basically off limits to me.
I came to realize this relatively early on, after recognizing an undeniable pattern of consistently being politely led out of the premises whenever I would attempt to make my way in. As the norms stood, no matter how many times I tried, I could never actually clean my own dishes or pour my own glass of water: whether it was a cup or a plate, my host mom would always manage to wrestle the dish from my grip before I ever had a chance of reaching the sink. For someone who was used to spending a substantial part of the day in the kitchen, I could not help but search for a possible hypothesis to make sense of the situation. Maybe it was some Indian custom of sorts that I was still unfamiliar with? Or perhaps rooted in a (comprehensible) fear that I would make a mess of the space?
Either way, it is safe to say that I was not expecting an invite into the ‘forbidden kitchen’ anytime soon. And yet there I found my host mother this morning, nonchalantly signaling me over as if she had done so hundreds of times before. Still unsure if the hand gestures were in fact directed to me, I cautiously made my way in, only finally loosening my shoulders when no objections were made to my approach.
Once in the kitchen, I took in the space and the sights and the smells, acknowledging the tray of vibrant spices and the basket of peeled potatoes and the cabinet of instant-noodle Maggi. My eyes then eventually made their way to my host-mother’s hands, hard at work on a task I could not yet name. Her fingers sunk deep into a ball of pliable dough, bangles clinking against one another as she kneading with both strength and grace. The effortless sequencing of movements screamed confidence and familiarity and ease – the years of practice, of repetition, and of dedication sprawled before me. Swiftly grabbing the rolling pin, she began to form perfect circles out of what only seconds before were shapeless blobs of flowery paste. Not once was there a moment of error of pause, of hesitation or doubt. And as not to disrupt this continuous flow, she then tossed the circular disks onto an iron skillet in one fluid motion, barely glancing over before starting the process over again.
My focus now continued to remain on the pan, where the dough, rising ever-so-slightly and trading in its pale complexion for a golden hue, was in the midst of a period of transitions. The combination of the stove’s heat and of my host-mother’s touch had brought these disks to life, and it was only in this moment of metamorphosis that I was finally able to put a name to what was during all of this time being prepared: chapati.
Ah, the ubiquitous chapati – its presence essential at every meal, its ability to soak up any daal or scoop up any sabzi incomparable. Never failing to appear on my tali, it had become a source of reliable comfort to me amidst the sea of foreign spices and flavors and colors that make up Indian cuisine. And yet, in the weeks that I had been with my host family, not once did it occur to me to give thought to the work put into its daily creation, to the time invested in kneading and rolling and cooking it into existence. I realize only now in hindsight just how short-sighted that had been.
Standing besides my host mom this morning, not a word was exchanged. There was no small talk, no mention of the weather, of last night’s cricket match, or of the latest Bollywood movie. This, however, would all have been unnecessary: before me lay bare years of tradition, of family pride and wisdom that needed no explanation. I was a mere witness to a mesmerizing process, watching as dough was rolled out and tossed onto an iron pan, as colors gradually darkened and edges crisped and bubbles timidly appeared.
In all the weeks that the kitchen had been off-limits to me, not once would I have guessed just how humbling an experience entering for the first time would turn out to be.