One of the many things they don’t tell you in college—even though they know in advance—is that when you graduate, they stop feeding you. One moment you get three square meals a day, no questions asked, and the next, you’re passed out from hunger in front of the cafeteria doors and they’re stepping around your twitching remains.
The summer I graduated, I lived in an apartment near Philadelphia with some friends. At first all was well because one of us could cook and everyone else shopped and cleaned. But eventually the cook moved out. The stress of ordering pizza put a stop to the cleaning, so, like lotuses in the proverbial muck, we learned to rise above the ring of green slime in the bathtub and the ants in the kitchen sink. This too worked fine for a time. However, the day inevitably came when I discovered that I was the last remaining, near-broke occupant of a highly toxic apartment, and that it was lunchtime.
Determined to take this on the chin, I tottered to the phone and called my cousin in Baltimore. “Chicken curry? Are you sure you want to start with that?” she said. I wrote down her shopping list and in the supermarket, where it turns out they don’t keep recipe ingredients all in one place, bought the stuff that I could identify: chicken, garlic, onion, and yoghurt. At home, my cousin seemed reluctant to believe that they didn’t have any cinnamon or cardomom, but she patiently talked me through the cooking.
It wasn’t a brilliant meal, but it was much better than starvation. I could make it with skeleton ingredients, it filled me up, and it impressed the hell out of my American friends. I ate chicken curry twice a day for two weeks, and then decided that my future lay in India, where every part of daily feeding, except the actual process of digestion, can be outsourced.
Despite my best efforts, however, there have been stretches in the last ten years when I’ve had to shift for myself. In those moments I developed a frank fear of vegetables and spices. Their aspect at the point of purchase is unfamiliar and often unlabelled (zucchini, cucumber and squash are all just long green things to me) and their behaviour on the fire is openly subversive. Okra shrinks, lentils expand, salt makes things watery, and everything burns the second I step out to watch Friends. Even fruit is treacherous. If it weren’t for the kindness of a passing stranger in the market place, I’d still be checking the ripeness of mangoes by shaking them near my ears.
Fear keeps me docile and sheeplike. My grandmother, who is a gifted cook and micromanager, handwrote and photocopied her recipes, and bound them into little books. As we climbed, turn by turn, into the leaky little buckets we were pleased to call our own lives, she slipped us each a copy. Her recipes say “First peel the ginger” and “Step back because it will splutter”. It makes me feel looked after, and supervised, and safe.
If today I can occasionally even enjoy cooking, it is because through that little book I feel her ferociously competent presence at my elbow. It makes me a bit braver; if not enough to get creative, then at least enough to work from memory rather than by cleaving to the paper. I still call her and my aunts a lot with questions about potatoes and flame size, but my heart races less.
Of course, even my grandmother forgot to tell me what happens when you heat oil in a pan that still has a little water in it. Even today, somewhere in Bandra, there is an apartment with a nasty smear of grease on the ceiling.