Aug 1, 2010

A tale of independence, Baingan Bharta and Global Kadai

Mrs. Mohini Kamath was chopping a mountain of onions while the two big eggplants cooked in the oven. She brushed away the tears trickling down her face and started on the garlic. She always liked to mince the garlic with some chopped onions mixed in. With the heat of the oven, the tiny apartment had become cozy and she started humming a Bollywood tune as she washed the tomatoes and started chopping them.

Aren’t we in a good mood?” she said to herself as she peeked into the oven to see if the eggplants were charred. She decided to give it a few more minutes before she turned off the oven. “They won’t have the same smoky flavor as back home but it is better than cooking it in the microwave,” she had explained to Naina the first time she oiled and put the eggplants in the oven.

Naina didn’t know how to cook. All she managed in the mornings, before Mrs. Kamath arrived at her apartment was a weak cup of tea. “I have to give it to that girl. She listens when I tell her something which is more than I can say of my own flesh and blood.”  She remembered how she had told Naina to grate some ginger in the tea and boil it a little longer. Now, stepping in from the harsh winter outside, Mrs. Kamath arrived to a hot, steaming cup of adrak wali chai (ginger tea).

My own daughter-in-law never offered me a glass of water,” she thought as she took some wheat flour and started kneading it with water. She did not realize she had stopped humming and was kneading the dough with a ferocity that would have surprised her if she could have seen herself.

It was ironic, she thought, how a cup of tea offered by stranger could make her feel appreciated. “Is that what happens when your family disappoints you?” she wondered.

“Aunty, this is so yummy!” Naina had come looking for her in her room. “How did she know I made the food?” She could overhear the guests appreciating the food she had slaved over all day, crispy Aloo Tikkis, spicy Baingan Bharta, creamy Aloo Dum, hearty Palak Paneer, subtly flavored jeera rice, Vegetable Pulao and cardamom infused Shikhand.

She waited for her son or his wife (that’s how she thought of her nowadays) to tell everyone that she had made the food. But all she heard was her daughter-in-laws’ “Thank you,” in that exaggerated accent she put on in front of company, as if she was the one who made all that food.

“Why are you in your room Aunty? Come out and meet everybody,” Naina had implored her. How could Mrs. Kamath tell her that she had been instructed by her son to stay in her room till the party was over and all his friend’s had gone home? She wanted to believe it was “his wife’s” instructions he was following, but she knew that it was as much her son’s wish as hers.

“Ma, you must be tired after all the cooking. Why don’t you rest in your room while the party is on? You will get bored anyways,” he had said but she knew what it really meant: “You are good enough to cook the food but not meet my friends.” She had been banished with a movie to watch on the small television in her room. Now, this strange girl had strolled into her room with a knock and was asking her to come out.

Na beti (daughter), I am tired. I want to watch this movie and then go to bed,” she had tried to muster a smile but her lips failed her.

“That’s ok aunty, I understand,” Naina had said with a knowing look and went away.

She had come back a few days later, when Mrs. Kamath was alone in the afternoon. “Aunty, I was in the neighborhood and thought I will check on you. May I come in?” she had asked.

Eager for company and a friendly voice she had let her in. Over a cup of tea Naina told her what she had come for.

“I know I am asking you this behind your son’s back but if I asked him, he would just turn me down. I was wondering if you would cook for me and my husband. We both work long hours and we love your cooking. We will pay you $600 a month,” Naina had said.

Mrs. Kamath had never in her life thought she would cook for other people for a living. She had lived a comfortable, middle class life in India, taking care of the house and raising a son while her husband worked. She had never felt the need to work the way some of her friends did, delegating cooking and household chores to maids. Then, she had looked down her nose at them. “That is karma for you,” she thought. If two years ago someone had told her she would be living in this foreign land and considering cooking for young couples who did not have the time or know-how to cook, she would have scoffed.

After her husband’s death, she had started to feel lonely and when her son asked her to move to US with his family, Mrs. Kamath accepted immediately. It took her all of six month to convert her savings to dollars, sell off the house and move into her son’s house.

“What a mistake that was,” she muttered as she remembered how her status in her son’s house had been reduced to that of a maid who cooked, cleaned and laundered. If only her son had more time to sometimes sit with her and chat. Or if the grandkids would gather around her and hear the stories she had wanted to share. Instead, they would go from school, to different activities and in their free time watch TV rather than spend time with their “old” grandma.

“What do you think, Aunty?” Naina’s voice had brought her back from her reverie. “Like you said beti, I don’t think my son would like that,” she had replied with a tight smile.

“Will you at least think about it?” Naina had asked her before leaving.

It had taken several months for Mrs. Kamath to finally decide to leave her son’s house. In the end, she figured she might as well get paid and appreciated for what she did for free every day.

But before she could leave, she had to learn how to drive. Mrs. Kamath smiled as she thought of the day she had asked her son to teach her how to drive. “Beta (son), then you or bahu won’t have to bother with groceries and supplies,” she had reasoned. She had surprised herself with her guile. Once she had her driver’s license her independence would be complete.

Naina and her husband, Ajit, had helped her get a cheap apartment and a few of their friends had hired her as a cook. She brought Ajit’s ten year old reliable car and she was all set to embark on her new journey.

She had figured out that with her savings and her income from cooking for a few families, she could live comfortably. On weekends, she had started babysitting, not only to supplement her income but also to while away her time.

Her son and daughter-in-law were not happy at what they perceived was her desertion. “What will people think?” was her daughter-in-law’s concern. Her son tried to dissuade her in his own way. “How are you going to manage by yourself? You don’t know enough English to get by. Why do you want to leave?”

How could she tell this son of hers why she wanted to leave and be on her own? All her life she had always put the interests of others before her and she had been happy to do it, or so she thought. Here, in this land, away from relatives and friends, she finally had a chance to try it out on her own. She wanted to do what she liked doing best but with dignity and respect. Mrs. Kamath knew her son wouldn’t understand. She could only hope that one day he would. Till then, she had the baingan bharta to finish.
(End of fiction)

This piece of fiction, written for Of Chalks and Chopsticks, conceived by Aqua and hosted by Sra, is based on some of the older women I have come across in the US. They work here as cooks and nannies. For many of them, food is the only tie that connects them to their roots back home.

Mrs. Kamath’s Baingan Bharta (eggplant mash)

1 large eggplant
1 tsp of cumin seeds
1 tsp of turmeric powder
1 big onion, chopped fine
1 green chili, chopped fine
5-6 cloves of garlic, minced fine
1/2 tablespoon of ginger-garlic paste
2 medium sized tomatoes, chopped fine
1 tsp of dhana-jeera powder (cumin-coriander)
1 tsp of garam masala
A handful of peas (optional)
Cilantro for garnish

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Oil the eggplant, put it on a cookie sheet lined with foil and bake it in the oven for 20-25 minutes. Turn off the oven and leave the eggplant in the cooling oven.

Heat a couple of tablespoon of oil in a heavy skillet. On medium heat, add the cumin and turmeric, stir for a minute till the turmeric starts smelling fragrant.

Add the green chili and chopped onions. Cook till onions turn translucent, about 5-8 minutes on medium heat. Halfway through, add the chopped garlic and the ginger-garlic paste.

Toss in the garam masala and dhana jeera powder as the ginger-garlic paste starts giving off a delicious aroma. Stir for a few minutes before adding the peas and the tomatoes. Cover and cook till the tomatoes are mushy and the peas are tender.

Meanwhile, take the eggplants out of the oven and gently peel off the charred skin. The oil should make it easy to peel. Chop the skinless eggplant, making it as mushy as possible.

Add this to the cooking tomato-onion-peas mix. Add salt and cook for another ten minutes before turning off the heat.

Garnish with chopped cilantro and some lime. Serve with chapattis or rice.


July has not only been one of the hottest months in our neck of the woods, it also has been a busy month for me. I have been constantly falling behind in my posts. This story should have been up and running by 31st of July but since I was running late, Sra graciously let me submit it before she did the roundup. If you liked my story and want to read an excellent piece of fiction on first love, head on over to her blog.

Speaking of which, my roundup for the B2B event will be up after the 5th of this month. So, if you have any last minute entrees, send them in.

Is it against the protocol to announce another event before the roundup? I don’t know, but Cilantro’s Global Kadai rules stipulate that I announce it on the first of August. So sticking to the rules of the host, I would like to challenge you to Indianize tofu. There is a wide array of possibilities here, for example, substituting paneer with tofu to make palak tofu or making tofu stuffed paranthas instead of aloo paranthas. If you live in a part of the world where access to tofu is limited or nil, try making your own, like this. With so much creativity out there, I am pretty sure there will be some great recipes. Here are the simple rules:

1. Make an Indian recipe using tofu as the main or one of the ingedients.

2. Include a link back to this post and to Cilantro's original post.

3. Make sure the recipe is an original one. If it is adapted from another blog or a recipe book, give it its due credit and link.

4. The last date for submission is September 1st. If you are late by a couple of days, email me at this address. If I haven't posted the roundup, I will accept and include your entry.

5. Older posts are welcome as long as you link them to this event announcement and Cilantro's. No need to repost them.

6. Don't have a blog, but have a great recipe to share? Email it on the above address with your name, location and the name of the dish. You will get your name on the blog and we will get another recipe for our collection.


  1. I was eagerly waiting for this fictional post from you and here it is finally. Enjoyed reading every bit of it Jaya and you are indeed a wonderful story teller/writer.
    The baingan bhartha looks delicious.

  2. Thanks a lot Supriya. You know just the right words to boost my ego. :)

  3. hi Jaya,

    Bharta looks so tasty and yummy..i love this authentic dish but never got chance to prepare..must try

    i am looking forward to the new event...i have some recipes and will definitely share is a very nice as we will surely some innovative ideas of using tofu...happy hosting


  4. Loved it, as usual. :). It is always a pleasure reading your stories Jaya.

    Tofu it is then. will try to Indianize to the best of my abilities ;).


  5. Loved reading this story. Very well written.

  6. Jaya, half way through the story I forgot that I was reading fiction! Great stuff girl, you've really got a knack for this. Good for Mrs.Kamath! Was it inspired by someone you know?

  7. i just loved reading the story which brought out so many emotional as well as practical aspects..bhartha looks yumm..

  8. Yeah, I've heard of these people but never heard of an actual story like this. Thanks for this nicely-written story - it captures the loneliness of this woman well, as well as the hesitation she felt at becoming other people's cook and nanny.

    And thanks for the nice words about my story.

  9. Good read and an equally good Baingan ka Bharta. Best wishes.

  10. That's a very touching story Jaya.Loved reading it :).

    You are tempting me to send a couple of entries by extending the B2B ;).Tofu for this months global kadai!!I am definitely in....

  11. droolworthy and yummilicious baingan bharta.

  12. @Sig, thanks. No, I don't know anyone personally, at least with a story like that. I was just trying to imagine what would prompt an elderly woman to take up cooking in other people's homes. :)

    Thank you Sowmya, Sra, Sanjeeta, and Kitchen Queen.

    PJ, bring it on. You know you are getting a whole section. :)

  13. Thank you Siri, Sathya and Jayashree.

    @ Siri, you are so sweet.

  14. Perfect Bharta Jaya. Luv the story.

  15. As always, loved reading it. Your writing has this very effortless flow to it that the reader just gets drawn in.

    As for tofu....ummm...I'll sit this one out :)

  16. Thank you Khaugiri.

    Aqua, thank you. That is hight praise coming from you.
    I am sorry you will be sitting out the tofu. I was looking forward to your creativity. You never know, this might be like the eggplant.

  17. Thank you Khaugiri.

    Aqua, thank you. That is hight praise coming from you.
    I am sorry you will be sitting out the tofu. I was looking forward to your creativity. You never know, this might be like the eggplant.

  18. I liked your story. Delicius Baingan ka bharta. Regarding Tofu, i will what i can come up with.

  19. Jaya, your fiction has the ring of truth. I remember reading a newspaper article not long ago about a group of older Indian immigrants in California who gather each morning to have coffee together-- it was the only place they could open up because no one at home talked to them. Some had been relegated to garages and basements by their kids. It was truly heartbreaking.
    I love that Mrs. Kamath took control of her life-- kudos to her, and to you for a lovely story.

  20. Thank you Swathi.

    Vaishali, I had no idea about the California situation, but I have come across a lot of older generation Indian ladies who are cooks or nannies in a lot of Indian homes. I was just trying to imagine what prompts these women to take up work in their old age.
    But I have also seen a lot of parents come here to take care of their son's/ daughter's household but once the work is done, they have nothing to do, no one to talk too. So maybe, this fiction was inspired by a combination of the two.
    I am glad you liked my story. :)

  21. Your story had me hooked!! Love the baigan Bhartha too!!

  22. Was waiting for your story Jaya. While I admire such elderly people who cook/babysit, I think this story does bring into perspective a lot of their cases.
    Very well written, i was totally lost in it.

  23. Great bhartha and an excellent piece of fiction. :) Wish I could write half as well as you Chalk and Chopstick ladies!

  24. Very well written. And a great recipe to end it.

  25. Hi
    For the story,I second Sig,
    Its heart touching and very close to reality.
    And delicious bharta.

  26. Thank you Mina, Sandeepa, Aparna, Radha and Nivedita.

    @Aparna, you are an excellent writer. May be you could give it a try the next time around.

  27. Wow...what a great story. Loved reading every bit of it. Very well written.

  28. Hey Jaya.. very touching story. I actually met a couple once who did this, moved out of their son's or daughter's house and started working together at a local super-market. I remember the lady saying that she worries that she is old and might drop the large boxes or stuff in the store.. and her hubby told her happily, "Its ok, it's not your box! If the box is important let them fire you, these stores are a dime a dozen." :D

    Baingan ka Bharta is such a favorite!

  29. Hi Jaya,
    Loved reading every bit of it, and can imagine their courage and at the same time their plight..
    baigan Ka Bharta looks delicious as well.
    hugs and smiles

  30. Jaya that was really such a touching story..

  31. Amruta, Jaya and Srivalli, thank you.

    SS, thank you. This story was intended to be a piece of fiction and I certainly don't know anyone who has gone through such a situation. You are the second person to tell me that stuff like this happens and no one is more shocked or surprised than I!

  32. Amruta, Jaya and Srivalli, thank you.

    SS, thank you. This story was intended to be a piece of fiction and I certainly don't know anyone who has gone through such a situation. You are the second person to tell me that stuff like this happens and no one is more shocked or surprised than I!

  33. Jaya here is the link for the Global Kadai entry. have sent you a mail too.

    I still have not read this post :-( will come back.


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