Continued from: A Piece of Raw Ginger (II)
While I sat thus in a limbo, my mind raced. Could I help this woman find work, right here in Nagpur? Whom did I know here? On an impulse I sent a text to a friend, “Do you need a cook?” I asked abruptly. Imagine receiving such a text at seven in the morning! Having already hit the send button, I had no option but to kick myself. A few minutes later I got the reply, “I’ll have to ask my wife.”
On an aside, yes, that’s the kind of friends I have. They don’t waste time being flummoxed at my cryptic, unexpected and absolutely nonsensical text messages. Sangfroid just about sums it up. I didn’t ask him to ask his wife though. Saner counsel prevailed. I couldn’t very well ask them to employ a woman I met on a railway platform- not yet anyhow. I decided to wait a bit without going off half cocked. Patience, patience! I muttered to myself irritably.
Meanwhile, the woman next to me had gathered up her second breath, so to speak. She went off on a tangent telling me about the Marwari and Gujarati households she had cook for and the dishes she had mastered. Fluently and happily, she described one delicacy after another, teaching me how to make the many sweets and savories that form an indispensable part of Indian cuisine.
She described making kaju katli in which she gave detailed instructions on how thick the sugar syrup should be, how the cashew paste should be rolled out, how long I should let the katli set. For shakarpare, she told me to make sure I add a bowlful of finely crushed Parle G biscuits and fry them on very low flame. She also told me how gur-methi (jaggery and fenugreek seeds) kheer is made and what its health benefits are.
From there to traditional ways of cooking was a natural step to take. She described the bhakhris they make over wood fire, the masala freshly ground over a stone sil-batta. As knowledgeable as only a farmer’s daughter would be, she explained to me why masala ground by hand on a stone was far more flavorful that the one ground using a food processor. Cooking was her joy, it was obvious from the way she talked of it.
Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.
~ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
She took me straight back to my childhood when my mom would ask our maid to grind a bowl full of masalas everyday. Onions, green chillies, a bit of ginger, tomatoes, a piece of turmeric root, some whole red chillies, some coriander seeds and rough sea salt. And occasionally some aromatic spices like cumin seeds, cloves, green and black cardamoms and cinnamon added to the whole mix to make something special.
As for the stone ground chutneys! Oh, the aroma of freshly ground coriander, green chillies and garlic with a generous dash of lemon juice! My mouth watered with the memories she evoked! I yearned for food cooked that way… food I had distinct and fragrant memories of! A part of me mutinied and wanted to return home instantly with this woman so she could make good her implied promises! Alas though, prudence won! And I simmered down somewhat; though not fully.
From there she went into the traditional dishes of her village- describing food that is good for heath. Traditional recipes made with locally available herbs and vegetables. There is a leafy vegetable she wanted me to plant. I have no idea which one it was- she only knew the Marathi name… which also I have forgotten. I told her to come home with me, look after my garden and plant whatever veggies she thought were good to eat. I learned more about her in this passionate monologue than a ream of introduction would have told me.
“But you are going to Hyderabad, you said!” she exclaimed.
“Yes but I will be returning in three days. You can come with me then”, I replied cleverly.
“You give me your number, I will call and ask you. If you have reached Jabalpur, I will come over directly”, she assured me casually.
I pulled out a pen and a paper napkin and wrote my name and cell number on it. Handing it to her I said, “Keep this safely. Don’t lose it.”
She dug out a small coin purse from her bosom and carefully kept the paper napkin inside.
“I will call you. Do you know why?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“Because when you hugged me, I felt as if I was crying in my mother’s arms. Yet, I know you are younger than me. How did you make me feel like that?”
She stumped me again with that. I sat, my head bowed, absolutely, incredibly humbled. You astound me O Shiva! Stop overwhelming me now! Haven’t you done enough for today? I muttered a mute appeal under my breath.
“You had better note down my number too”, she said abruptly, kindly.
“Yes, yes. Of course”, I said. Fishing out my cell phone, ready to note down. I was glad to do something with my hands before I wrenched my fingers off their joints in my overwhelmed state.
She gave me the number and peered in to see if I was typing correctly. I paused against the name entry and looked up at her wordlessly. She understood.
“Praveen Daule”, she said.
I keyed in the Praveen and paused wondering what the spelling of DAULE would be. Her diction was not very clear because of the missing teeth.
“D-A-U-L-E”, she said slowly, clearly- in English.
When I looked up at her in amazement she said, “Yeah. I know the spelling of my name. I’ve also worked in a hospital. I knew the names of all the medicines. The doctor there used to like keeping me in the operation theater because I always knew which medicines she needed while she was operating. And I’ve never gone to school”, she finished proudly.
There’s one in the eye for you formal education!- you pompous over-rated upstart! I muttered to myself in glee!
“But this isn’t your name surely? Is it your husband’s?” I asked doubtfully. I don’t think she ever took her husband’s name, this traditional woman.
“No, pagal!” she tittered in amusement. “This is my son’s name.”
“So what’s your name then? When I call your son, who shall I say I want to talk to?” I asked.
“My name”, she said at last, “is Kusum Basant Daule. Tell him you want to speak with Kusum tai”, she instructed.
“So you are my elder sister and I am your mother”, I teased her.
She burst into a peal of modestly muted laughter. On and on she laughed, holding her stomach. What she restrained in decibel value, she more than made up for in animation. She shook all over. I am yet to see such deep, complete merriment. I couldn’t help myself from being drawn into her merriment. She wiped tears from her eyes more than once- and so did I.
It was after nine by then and there were lots of people about. We must have looked a strange sight, the two of us, laughing away to glory. The thought seemed to have occurred to her also for in between her gasps, she waved her hand as if to say, “What must all these people be thinking, watching us both” and burst into a fresh paroxysm when I nodded wordlessly. Oh, we laughed like a couple of giddy-headed school girls. It filled my heart to bursting and I hugged her once again.
Before my very eyes, her skin tone lightened. She seemed to have become ten years younger. I saw- in the way her wrinkles filled out and her eyes sparkled- that there was a difference between the courage of endurance and the courage of hope. What a amazing, magical thing is hope! One never knows whither it goes and from whence it is reborn… or why. All I knew was that it wasn’t there a while ago and now, lo and behold, it was present in all her glory! Such alchemy!
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.
We fell silent again, Kusum and I, exhausted. On an impulse I said, “Can I take a picture of you? I want to remember you always.”
“Dhut pagal (Hush silly)!” she chided me. “How can you take a photo of an old woman? Moreover, it will look so bad with no front teeth.”
“Of course it won’t! You look cute”, said I winningly, coaxingly. She grinned happily, agreeing at once to let me click her.
Very self-consciously, making sure her lips were clamped together so the gaps in the mouth wouldn’t show, she posed for a photo. When I showed it to her, she giggled shyly, her hand over her mouth. She looked as merry as a young girl who has just received an avowal of love from a dashing young Lochinvar.
Doesn’t she look cute?
To be Continued… (The next part is the concluding part… stay tuned!)