My essay Discomfort Food in Dhaka Tribune looks at food from caste and class angles through the lens of literature.
The first time the appearance of food in a book shook me was when I read Om Prakash Valmiki’s Joothan more than a decade ago. I read the book in English translation, which retained Valmiki’s original Hindi title. This wasn’t, in all probability, merely a stylistic decision; it seems to have been a necessary one. For, the word joothan, like its Bengali equivalent eNthho, does not have a satisfactory English translation. The closest word that describes it — leftovers — is way too short of what joothan actually means — scraps of food left on one’s plate after a meal meant to be thrown in trash. In the autobiographical book, Valmiki describes how members of the Chuhra community — the caste he belonged to — would be served joothan by their upper caste masters as wages for manual labour. Valmiki describes, in excruciating detail, how the Chuhras would collect the remains of the meals left behind from an upper caste wedding, dry the bits of pooris they collected in the sun, and how he had to guard those pieces from crows, hens, and dogs. These dried bits, half-eaten by other people, would be saved for the rainy season, when they would be soaked in water and boiled, to be had with chili powder and salt or jaggery.
The generosity of a weekend morning and a teacher’s unlocked house. Her trust in us, somewhat excessive. To leave the property to a bunch of inquisitive adolescents; there, less for language learning and more for the telephone to make prank calls with, just a few, before the elderly tutor arrived. To then settle down on the sofa like monastic disciples awaiting ordination. With the trail of lessons moving through villages, bullock carts and heaving rivers, to let the eye settle on a glass cabinet housing pretty dolls in traditional finery — Japanese, Bengali, Rajasthani. The teacher’s off-school diversion. After the class — a walkabout of everything from the classics and satire to home-brewed verses on bygone Saturday mornings — pottering over to the dining table to uncover surprises waiting in neat porcelain saucers. Tea cakes, cookies, seasonal savouries. Bribes the teacher cooked to entice some not-so innocent teenagers to bite into the mother tongue just a bit deeper.
As she hurried for her train, a blast of snow slapped her cheeks, reminding Aruna of when she had landed at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport for the first time. The extreme weather had made her question her decision to come to Canada. It was too late, she had reminded herself.
When she landed in this haven for immigrants nine years ago, Aruna had been nervous. At their parting, her husband Raghu assured her, “It’s only a matter of a few months, maximum a year, Aru. I will be there after that.”
But those few months had multiplied into as many as it took to make nine years. Years that taught Aruna that time was as slippery as her husband’s promise to join her in Canada. Between trying to make a living and raising twelve-year-old Vishnu, she had aged by two decades instead of one. Looking at the mirror one day, Aruna tried to make sense of how it turned out to be like this—three lives that were supposed to make a family now fragmented like left-over noodle strands on a diner’s plate. Those early years they had spent together contained no suggestion of the later distancing. Her husband had seemed caring and involved, if excessively guided by his quest for a “good life.”
Now, snow and coffee — once alien to her– had become second nature to Aruna. And her good life had little to do with what her husband had imagined. She reflected on how time changes a person’s inner landscape in accordance with the outer one.
The train sped past white houses, streets, trees. Aruna planted her cheek, covered with the woollen scarf she’d wrapped around her neck, to the window. The thickly snow-decked walls that vanished and re-appeared on the horizon were home. She rubbed her glove-clad hands and sipped coffee from the paper cup that danced slightly to the train’s motion on a tray table in front of her.
Arriving in the province, she had felt confident of getting a job. Her many years as a lifestyle journalist in India couldn’t have been for nothing. So she consumed herself with the other variables—managing her son’s education, getting a health card made, securing a driver’s licence, and all the other minutia of moving to a new place.
But she rented a damp basement apartment and managed the other details with ease. Only the job eluded her.
In three weeks, the city had turned from an indifferent host into an unforgiving master. The city demanded labour from Aruna in order to grant her an extended stay. A conversation with her widowed landlady made the prospects look bleaker than the foggy winter mornings.
“Beta, I would suggest you try to find something at a grocery store. Or Tim Horton’s or McDonalds.”
“But Aunty, I worked in…”
“I know,” the landlady had interrupted, “you were a journalist. But this country doesn’t hand out jobs in your chosen field so easily. Maybe if you had a degree. But you don’t. You’ll have to be more humble, my dear.”
Aruna felt a dampness envelop her entire body. The very idea of working in a grocery store behind the cash counter made her bones stiff. The dullness of the job, the ominous possibility of turning into an automaton numbed her. Yet, college at her age was nonsense. There was no money. There was no time. She had a child. She tried to adjust to the idea she would have to get started somewhere, even behind a counter, even wearing a funny uniform.
One afternoon, as specks of sunlight sneaked in through the shoe-box windows of her drawing-cum-bedroom, Aruna got out of the house, armed with her trusted jute handbag and the resumes inside it. The snow outside had melted only a little, and black ice lined the streets. The knife-sharp chill had turned the sun into a frosty pale-yellow orb. It bit into Aruna’s skin right through her thrift store jacket.
She walked into the shopping plaza in front of her. With lunch hour drawing near, several cars entered the parking lot. The passengers were headed for a pizza joint. A few stores away, Aruna saw some activity—a new store seemed to be opening. The men offloading furniture from a truck looked to be from her part of the world. She approached one of them, a hefty, mustached and sun-glassed man, wearing a long black jacket and smelling of cologne.
“Er, excuse me, is a new shop coming up here?”
The man turned to her and adjusted his glasses before replying,
“Yeah. We are opening a restaurant.”
Aruna allowed a sheepish smile and reached for the resume inside her purse. A crumpled piece of folded paper came out. By the time she straightened it, the mustached man had already moved on and was almost inside the new restaurant.
Aruna nearly ran to catch up with him. He turned around and stopped at the door.
“Here,” said Aruna, huffing, “my resume.”
The man took the paper from her hands and invited her inside.
And so she found her job–at the South Indian vegetarian eatery, right in the heart of the suburb that had been swelling with South Asian population. Being a Tamil Brahmin helped–in the end, it wasn’t her qualifications or experience, but ethnicity that mattered.
Nausea and nauseating people were what Aruna could recall when she thought of the initial days of her job. Serving the same combinations of gravies and lentils infused with tamarind, curry leaves and coconut, throughout her long shifts turned her stomach. She thanked her luck that daily breakfast was part of her job perks. By the time the shift ended, she hardly had appetite for anything.
But she would take that over the gut-churning invitations some diners extended to her.
“Join me for a late-night movie with drinks.”
“Hey, my wife is vacationing in India. Care to spend the weekend with me?”
“What day is your weekly off? I can come over to your place to keep you company.”
Aruna knew Raghu’s absence made it easier for these passes to be hurled at her. With time and some help from her co-workers, she learned to cite an activity with Vishnu as a credible excuse. Conjugal armour wasn’t necessary. Her son was both her shield and compass.
She couldn’t learn to deal with the apparition of longing, though. The one that showed up frequently, especially on weekends, when she served families huddled at table after table. She would imagine sitting at one of them, being teased by Raghu and Vishnu and giggling in the self-absorbed, vain way she saw some younger women do. After nearly two years, it dawned on her that Raghu probably didn’t want to come to Canada at all. His response to her entreaties in this regard had a tone of measured yet affectionate indifference.
A year later that suspicion was confirmed. The then-teenaged Vishnu had been caught in a drunken brawl close to their home. Aruna had received a call from the police at her workplace. Her boss reluctantly allowed her half a day’s leave. She rushed to the hospital where her son and two other kids had been brought for treatment. An inquiry had begun. Though her mind was spinning with the possibilities: trial, imprisonment, expulsion, worse; in front of Vishnu, she remained normal and even sporting, “Beta, you wanted to have a drink? You should have asked me. This isn’t how you take it–on an empty stomach. Wait until you are legally ready. We’ll have it together. Deal?”
He seemed to understand, his own fear making him receptive. She called Raghu the next day, still suffused with worry. He said:
“Hey, all this happens, Aru. It’s his age. Cheer up!”
“But you do realize that I am all by myself here. I have to face his teachers, the police, maybe even…”
“You will manage it all, my feisty lady,” Raghu had interrupted. “I am confident you will tackle it fine.”
Aruna had broken down over the phone, unable to accept her husband’s phony reassurance, his unconcern. Raghu had yelled that he was forced to be far away only because of Aruna and Vishnu. So he could give them a “good life.” Silently, she had thought of her lean bank account and wondered who, in fact, was getting that “good life.” But she had said nothing. If this crisis wouldn’t bring him to her side, she sensed then, nothing would.
Now assistant manager at the restaurant, Aruna was able to take the time she needed to attend the court hearings for Vishnu’s violence. They went on for a year. Those hearings, weekly meetings with his school counselor, and her increased responsibilities at work–tracking the accounts, preparing budgets, taking stock of inventory–all silvered her once kohl-black hair with a vengeance.
While she longed for the cocoon of a loving family, her middle age offered a different reality. Finding too little time face-to-face, cell phone texts and emails became her allies in raising Vishnu. Through them, she was privy to the heartaches, acrimonious debates, and insults edging on slurs that were at the core Vishnu’s growing up. But somewhere along the way, the rough edges of adolescence smoothed out, and Vishnu turned from an errant child into a friend. Aruna thanked her gadget gods.
“Stop working like a donkey, Amma,” he counseled.
“Oh and what’s going to fund your fancy professional keyboard?” she would quip, thinking of his musical aspirations.
“Maybe that will have to wait. I can practice at Karan’s. You cut your hours at any rate. You are going to collapse if you carry on like this.”
Slowly, Aruna stopped feeling Raghu’s absence. In fact, she began to wonder if she would ever be able to live with him again. Acquaintances and even regulars at the restaurant would ask questions about her husband. She knew that her silence suggested that he was perhaps living a good life himself, not working toward giving one to his wife and son.
Over liberal sips of wine and unrestrained laughter, her closest friends heard more than silence: “Know what? I couldn’t care less. Who is stopping me from bringing a man into my bedroom?”
But in truth, she had found in loneliness a better, more trusted partner. She had, to her surprise, become at ease with being alone in the bed. And as years piled on years, it didn’t seem to really matter.
The restaurant staff–the suspicious and glassy-eyed accountant Sethuraman, the helper boys, Gopal and Dinesh, and all the chefs–from the bulbous-bellied, middle-aged Bala to the bony, soft-smiling young Manoj–had become her extended family. Sethuraman confided his fears and reservations to her, whether at his son’s craze for violent video games or the “lack of etiquette” among nouveau riche diners. The chefs considered her a big sister and sought her advice on important matters like which insurance policy to buy and what made a good gift for a wife’s birthday.
But for all that, Aruna felt glad that the restaurant hadn’t turned into her home. Despite the chaotic dust-storm blowing through her life, she was determined to find a nest: A haven not just for her own trapped soul, but also for Vishnu and his mates to flap their hormone-charged teenage wings with slaphappy abandon.
After the fallout had settled from Vishnu’s brawl, once all the court hearings and counseling had ended, she had found them a town home. Her restaurant family had worked as moving crew, packing and transferring items from her chilly basement with care. Vishnu had saved some money out of his weekly allowances and bought knick-knacks as surprises for Aruna–a small Ganesha figurine, a wind chime for the entrance, a couple of guitar-shaped key hangers.
Evenings, which began at 10 pm when her workday ended, were a combination of m’s: music and masala. Vishnu had recently joined a local South Asian band and was composing music on his keyboard, which he would then test on Amma’s “unreasonably tolerant” ears. He would rebuke her at times,
“Amma, how can you find this nice? It sounds so amateurish.”
“Yes, but you would agree this is much better than what you played last time, wouldn’t you?” Aruna would say.
“Hmpff! You’re not paying attention. Never mind, go back to your cooking.”
And so she would. The kitchen of their new home had become her creative laboratory, spa, and refuge, all at once. The earthy whiff of cumin seeds as they spluttered in the hot oil in a skillet assured Aruna all was well. The pungency released by garlic crushed in a mortar- pestle or asafoetida in searing oil alluded to the spunk and excitement lurking within every seemingly insipid day.
While chopping onions for a Kerala-style fish curry, she smiled at the thought of how her palate had been transformed by Canada and its long winters as well as her son’s rapidly-evolving gastronomic index. Growing up, she would twitch her nose at the mere mention of fish; now she not only cooked it, gently simmering it in a creamy coconut milk stew, but also enjoyed biting into its flesh, spooning in some steamed rice and curry as well.
Food–not the grub people stuff themselves with to satiate hunger, nor even the gratifying ingestion of chosen foods to fill one’s ego and belly on special occasions–but the unsung yet care-sodden home meals, the mothers’, grandmothers’ and distant aunts’ creations—had become Aruna’s lodestar in a territory that offered her unparalleled freedom–to be messy, to fail in experiments, to not stop experimenting. And it gave her the ability to make her son happy.
“When I move out, I am taking you with me. I don’t want to miss this awesome food,” he said one morning as he sipped from a glass of mango shake. Every summer, Aruna would buy boxes of mangoes, expensive as they were, having been imported from India or Pakistan, to make sure that Vishnu could have his mango shakes and lassis for breakfast.
“Why would you need to move out at all?” Aruna asked. “This house is all yours, Beta. But you will give me the third floor, won’t you?”
“The entire third floor? Nah, Amma, you can’t have my music room, no way.”
Laughing, they argued over the proposed division of the house for half an hour, before agreeing on letting it be the way it was–with Vishnu deciding what part of the house belonged to him. That sometimes included his mother’s bedroom. Contrary to feeling betrayed or wronged, Aruna found her son’s near-feudal sense of ownership to be a snug blessing. Anything to make him stay in the house–even if that meant sleeping on the living room couch for nights on end.
Things had started falling into a pattern, like the predictable rhythm of seasons in Canada. Aruna particularly cherished the fall, when leaves changed colours faster than a painter’s brush strokes–as sensuous reds flirted with boisterous yellows and fiery oranges, the thermometer’s dipping mercury made bodies seek the embrace of jackets and light cardigans, sunset morphed into huge pumpkins and descended on grocery stores and maple syrup flowed indulgently over pancakes at breakfast tables. And schools re-opened after the summer break. For a mother of a teenage son, what was there to not love about fall?
Autumn also awakened the writer in Aruna. At first, she fed long nights that refused to bring sleep with DVDs of the latest Bollywood flicks. But she tired of them. On those restless nights, she wrote, remembering the career she had left behind years before. If food acted as her release, writing was her plunge–the deep-sea dive that took her on secret, often uncomfortable journeys. In writing she was compelled to confront and listen to the many women within her–those whose roles she played in real life and those whom she could never be. The single mother, the survivor, the lonely spinster, the comforting cook. The charming partner, the dependant wife, the fighting feminist.
When a freelance opportunity to write for a lifestyle magazine came along, Aruna grabbed it with her raddled hands. An occasional article on parenthood, a sometimes report of a cultural event, an infrequent restaurant review–the writing wasn’t exactly soul-lifting, but it was better than washing dishes at the restaurant, which she had continued to do even after becoming a senior manager.
Then, Bharat, the restaurant owner started complaining to Aruna about finances. He had incurred a substantial debt and would be cutting down on staff. The words dropped on Aruna’s ears as a whipping hailstorm. She knew what it meant. She told Bharat she wouldn’t survive without the restaurant; that it had become a part of her. The continuance of her job had become a reality as simple as the nonexistence of her husband. Losing this “normal,” which had taken years to make, scared her.
Bharat had tried to calm her, “I don’t want to let go of you either. I can’t. We’ll find a way.”
As a start, he suggested part-time work for her. Aruna understood that would also mean part-time salary and didn’t know what to say. She hated the idea of asking Raghu to send additional money: for nine years, he had paid their electricity and phone bills, but no more. And Vishnu was at least two years away from making his own money.
Her hours were cut. The numbers told her that adding the expense of college education didn’t make sense. And yet, a sense of vindication surged within her as she ran: not away from her Canadian life, but deeper into it.
The restaurant went on, and so did she. Through the bleached, bleak Ontario winterscape she rode a train into the city. Thrice a week she attended classes at the college alongside students half her age: broadcast journalism. On two other days, she volunteered at a local TV station. Restaurant work now meant just a few hours in the evening. The digits on her salary cheque had dropped.
For the first time in nine years, nonsense made total sense to Aruna. She was in possession of her power and her possibility, and for the first time she allowed herself a solo flight over an uncertain territory.
The frosty surroundings reminded her that the white always changed to green, no matter how old or young the trees were. As she glided above the ennui of routine and the relevance of marriage, Aruna breathed free. So did all the strands of hair on her cigarette-ash head.
First published in Stealing Time literary magazine (print) in 2013.