Picture Cue: Bong Mom Cookbook
It was still dark outside as Naina strained the two cups of tea and walked towards the picture window. She loved this time of the day, sitting by the window, reading a book and sipping her cup of tea. It was calm and peaceful, no jarring sounds of the television and no hustle bustle of daily chores. There was hardly anyone on the sidewalk except an occasional runner jogging past or an early riser walking the dogs.
Of late, she had been noticing an elderly desi ‘uncle’ strolling past the house around the same time. She knew from her parent’s visit last year how these routine walks sometimes became the only respite for the elderly parents. They went stir crazy in the house but couldn’t go anywhere for the lack of public transport. The weather was usually too extreme to take a stroll in the middle of the day. Early mornings or cool evenings was the only time one would see them strolling around the community. The men almost always wore pants pulled above their waists, full sleeved shirt, a cap and shiny new sneakers. If their wives came along, they too would sport matching sneakers under their saris or salwar suits. This man could have been a clone to the other seniors.
As the sun came up over the horizon, Naina put the book down with a sigh. They had invited a few close friends for dinner and she had a lot of cooking ahead of her. She carried the empty cup back to the sink and started preparing for dinner. Her husband, Ajay, and daughter, Nita, were still sleeping and she decided to do all the non-noisy chores first. Out came the whole wheat flour for the chapattis which she quickly and deftly kneaded into a big ball of dough. She rinsed and soaked a combination of toor and masoor dal with plenty of water.
Naina had decided to make brinji for the evening, an exotic south Indian pulao cooked in coconut milk. She decided to turn on the computer and check the recipe once more, “just to make sure I have everything,” she said to herself. The truth was Naina had studiously avoided turning on the computer since morning. She knew once she got on it, a couple of hours would easily go by before she got back to cooking.
“I’ll just check the bookmarked recipe and turn it off,” she reassured her doubting self and logged on. To her credit, she did go straight to the recipe. It called for loads of veggies, a spice paste of cilantro, mint, ginger, garlic and coconut. She decided to jot the recipe down so she wouldn’t have to come back to the computer. “I’ll leave a comment later,” she silently promised herself and the author of the blog.
For the spice paste
Naina stepped out in the backyard to get some mint leaves, marveled a few minutes at the beautiful morning sky that was soon going to turn hot and scorching. She picked a handful of mint leaves and came back in. She pulled out the browning, slimy-at-the-bottom bunch of cilantro from the fridge and dumped the whole thing in a colander. She ran water over it in the sink and started separating the good parts. There was barely half a cup of green leaves left after she was done with the bunch. “He’ll have to run to the grocery store to get some,” she thought with a wince. Just two days ago Ajay had asked her if she had everything she needed for the dinner party.
“Of course I do,” she had said with a confidence that defied the truth. He just looked at her with a resigned look that said, “I know I will have to run to the store at the last minute but I hope this time you are right and I won’t have to.” Naina hadn’t been lying. She just hadn’t bet on the cilantro turning bad so fast. Or rather, she had ignored to check on the cilantro because picking and cleaning cilantro was her least favorite things to do, as was picking and cleaning green beans, podding peas, cutting arbi and bhindi (okra). Coming to the US had changed all that. She got frozen green beans and sweet peas all ready to use. She had tried the frozen arbi and bhindi, all cut up and frozen. Those had been major slim-fest disasters.
It was eight o’clock by the time Naina had all the ingredients for the spice paste. She considered holding off on starting the magic bullet to grind the paste and then decided to go ahead. “Maybe today they can wake up to the whirring of the blender,” she smiled at the thought and plugged it in. The sharp aromas of ginger, garlic jostled with the fragrant mint and the nutty coconut as Naina opened the jar. Even then she knew that the brinji would be the highlight of the dinner.
She spent the rest of the day chopping, sautéing, stirring and frying. Two hours to dinner and she still had to clean the kitchen counter tops, load the dishwasher and clean the bathroom. The brinji was to be served hot, but she had prepared everything else. She sped up on the chores and remembered at the last minute to soak the rice in water before hitting the shower. She looked back appreciatively at the island counter. Steaming palak paneer, aromatic mattar paneer, pipping hot dal and warm rotis has been carefully transferred to white serving platters and covered with cellophane. Ajay was working on the salad and reading the instructions on the frozen pizza box he was planning to cook for the kids. The house looked clean, the toddler’s toys were under control. “Now, only if the guests would come on time,” even as she said it, she knew it was not something one expected of one’s desi friends.
All dewy from the shower, Naina went into the closet to pick out a t-shirt and at the last minute decided to wear something ethnic. She looked over her collection of sarees and salwar suits and chose a mauve salwar kameez she hadn’t had a chance to wear in a long time. A pair of small earring, a touch of mascara and she was ready.
“Naina, are you done?” Ajay asked from the door.
“Yes, I am coming. What’s the matter?” she asked with a hint of irritation in her voice. He was always harping on her about her long showers.
“There is a desi uncle in our living room,” he whispered.
“What? Do we know him,” she asked perplexed. They weren’t expecting any uncles or aunties for that matter.
“Come out, I’ll tell you later,” he said as he turned around.
Naina walked into the living room to find the desi uncle she had been observing taking a walk in the morning sitting on the couch, reading a Time magazine.
“Namaste uncle,” she said politely. She was too puzzled to say anything else.
“Namaste beti. I see you reading in the window every morning when I go for my morning walks. Today, I thought I will stop by,” he said.
Now that she could see him up close, Naina noticed he had beady eyes under his thick glasses and wispy, grey hair. He seemed to be in his late 70s.
“No problem uncle,” she said politely. “Good of you to stop by but today is not a good time. We are expecting guests over for dinner anytime…”
Before she could finish he clapped excitedly. “Desi friends? Good, I haven’t met a lot of desi people since I came here. It will be good to meet them. I’ll stick around. Don’t worry, do what you need to do. I will read this magazine till they come,” he said as he proceeded to settle himself comfortably on the couch.
Naina looked at Ajay who shrugged and motioned her to come to the kitchen.
“Why is he staying around? Who is he? Do you know him?” she blasted him with a flurry of questions.
“Calm down,” he said. “I don’t know him but it looks like he is lonely. He was telling me before that he stays all by himself the whole day while his son and daughter-in-law go to work.”
“So he decides to drop by our house and then stay for dinner!” she exclaimed.
“Well, we can’t do much about it now. At least it will make for an interesting evening,” he said with a chuckle.
“Leave you to find humor in a party crasher,” she found herself smiling as well.
Then there was the brinji to be made still. She set the big pan on the gas burner and took out the whole spices and the chopped onions. In went the spices in the sizzling oil, followed by the onions. She lowered the heat and let the onions caramelize. The green spice paste went in the browned onions. As the paste sizzled, Naina smelled the mint, coconut and the whole spices coming together in harmony. For a while she even forgot about the septuagenarian sitting in her living room reading Time magazine.
The green beans, carrots and peas were waiting impatiently for the onion- spice mix so she added those next and let them absorb the flavors for a few minutes. She heard the doorbell ring just as she was about to put the rice in the mix. She saw Ajay head for the door so she quickly stirred the rice in with the onions and the vegetables. A dash of salt later the rice was ready to be cooked in a mix of coconut milk and water. She quickly measured the two, added it to the pan, stirred it around once, turned the heat to low and covered the pan.
Ajay introduced all the guests to uncle and he talked to all of them nicely. After a while, Naina got too busy with setting the table and talking to her friends to notice the old man. He stayed around till just before dinner and then took leave to go home. “I promised my son I will be back home by dinner,” he said by the front door. “May I drop by once in a while beti?” he asked with so much hope in his eyes, Naina couldn’t say no.
“Sure Uncle, drop in once in a while,” she said grudgingly.
Back in the kitchen, all their friends had started gathering around the dinner table. The brinji was a hit as Naina had known it would be. But somehow she couldn’t enjoy her meal. A nagging feeling stayed with her that she shouldn’t have extended the invitation for Uncle to drop-by anytime.
The very next day Uncle showed up at around nine in the morning. Ajay had left for work and Naina was getting ready to drop Nita to preschool.
“Uncle, I am about to leave the house,” she told him rather curtly.
“I won’t be long beti. Just came to borrow a Time magazine, if you can spare one,” he said meekly.
“Of course you can borrow a magazine Uncle. I will get one for you,” she said feeling guilty for her curt tone earlier.
She got him a couple of back issues of Time and he took them gratefully and left.
He returned two days later, this time around ten o’clock. “I came to return the magazines you gave me,” he said in that same grateful tone.
Naina was in the middle of doing laundry but he seemed to want to spend time chatting. She would reply in monosyllables to his questions but he didn’t seem to take a hint. If she made an excuse to duck into the laundry room he would get up and study the photos and the paintings on the wall. If he saw her coming out, he would start telling her about some incident that happened long time ago in his life. Finally, she had to tell him she needed to be somewhere and if he could come later.
“Of course beti, I have all the time in the world. I will stop by tomorrow,” he said as he left with two more Time magazines.
As soon as he left she called up Ajay at work. “Guess who was just over at our house, again?”
“I don’t have time for guessing games. Who?” he asked with a little irritation in his voice.
“Your Uncle. He came to return the two magazines he borrowed the other day and left with two more. I am fully expecting him to be back soon,” she said.
“Just don’t open the door to him next time if you don’t want him to come in.”
“As if it was that simple,” she retorted as she hung up.
The fact was, Naina liked to keep her blinds and windows open in the day. She liked her bright and sunny house and it depressed her to keep the blinds closed. The only problem was it also allowed the person at the front door to peek in from the side windows and see if anyone was inside. Americans usually never took that liberty but the old man was not from here. She knew very well that there were no privacy rules in India. An open window or door was an unsaid invitation to peek in or come in.
Naina wasn’t surprised when the old man started turning up more and more often. Sometimes he would come to return the magazines. Sometimes, it was just to sit and chat. It didn’t matter to him if Naina was busy cooking or feeding her daughter or in between chores. He would ring the bell, invite himself in and make himself comfortable. She was getting tired of keeping up a polite front while trying to stifle the impulse to throw him out.
After a while, she started to keep the blinds in the front of the house closed and monitoring the doorbell. They had neglected to install a peep hole when they had first moved in the house, so she would have to lift the blinds just an inch to check who was on the front door. Even with all her vigilance, one day she was startled to see him looking back at her through the chink in one of the blinds.
On a pleasant, breezy day Naina would normally have kept her front porch door open. But in order to avoid Uncle from coming in, it had been bolted shut. The blinds were drawn and cars were parked inside the garage. For all indication, there was no one home. Then, the bell rang. By now, Naina had learnt to recognize the one short one long bell Uncle used to ring. She quickly turned the TV down, gathered Nita and the three of them huddled in a back room.
Her daughter found the whole proceeding mysterious.
“Mamma, what is going on? Why are we in this room? Who is at the door?” she opened a volley of questions.
Ajay tried to hold her close while Naina thought of a reply. “Nita, we are playing a game. Remember the three piggy’s story you like so much. Let us pretend we are the three piggys and the man ringing the bell is the big bad wolf.”
Nita’s eyes opened wide. “Which house are we in mamma? The brick house, the mud house or the straw house?”
“What do you think?” Ajay asked her with a chuckle.
“I think we are in a brick house. Right mamma?” Naina nodded yes as she tried to block out the insistent ringing of the front door bell.
This story, which ran to 300 words short of 3000, is my very late, last minute entry to Of Chalks and Chopsticks, currently being hosted by Sandeepa of Bongmomcookbook. Little did Aqua know that her original idea would become a beast of words for me. I have to say I am glad to exercise the infant writer in me every month and read fabulous pieces of fiction written by the likes of Sra, Sandeepa and Aqua. This story was inspired by the first picture cue given by Sandeepa.