“To write in the first person is like taking your clothes off in public.”
-Pedro Juan Gutierrez, Tropical Animal (a novel).
I won’t make that ridiculous claim that “I was born as a feminist,” for much like anyone born in a middle class household, I grew up imbibing sexist ideas so deeply inherent in our basic day-to-day co-ordinates. Since my childhood, one of the things that attracted me was cooking. Unlike most boys of my age, I did not enjoy much of cricket and other outdoor sports. Running around and hooting made little sense to me. I instead loved to hear the crackling sound of fish or onion being fried in hot mustard oil, the smell that invaded my nostrils immediately watered my mouth.
I disliked reading books as a child but was enamoured by the world of cartoons and motion pictures. I must have been about ten or twelve years old when I first entered our kitchen with the intention of cooking. My mother, an average Muslim woman (whatever that is supposed to mean), tried hard to dissuade me. “You must go out and play cricket, this isn’t meant for boys,” she would argue.
But I still persisted and spent hours sitting idle inside our spacious kitchen. I observed how things were done: how my mother would use a cloth every time she’d open the steaming pan, how she cleaned the table meticulously after cooking the meals, how she’d wipe her face with her achal while screaming at my sister for watching TV at high volume. At first, when all arguments available in her arsenal failed to persuade me, she used other motherly tricks: take money and buy this, go outside and see your aunt or to go and watch TV since Mogli is being shown.
Exasperated, she even used violence to make me see how wrong I was. I suppose since childhood, there was in me a Columbian spirit. I knew how to bear sorrow lightheartedly and continue doing what I thought I must be doing. Despite beatings and sweat ,I’d sit with blunt knives (sharp knives were strictly forbidden) and chop the leftover of cauliflower or even scales of potatoes.
This was a kind of practice, which gave immense confidence to my imaginary and utopian culinary skills. [In my imaginarie, I had already become an expert cook even before I could learn the art of adding salt to food]. Sitting there inside the kitchen, I’d spent hours doing this: by now, I suppose I and my mother had reached a truce.
My aunts and sometimes my elder sisters would come inside, see each other and giggle among themselves. I’d pretend not to hear them and carry on with my work with the pretensions of a juvenile scientist engaged in inventing something rare. I was allowed to slice the waste with a blunt knife, but cooking was still largely forbidden to me.
Slowly, as I grew up in my boarding school, I don’t know how but I decided to become a cook. (Psychoanalytically speaking, I guess the prohibitions had a severe effect on me.) But I was intelligent enough to understand very soon that, “I am not going to waste my life cooking food for rich people.”
I thought I was meant for better things in life: reading and writing, my two honorable obsessions. By the time I was nearing my school graduation, I had the good fortune to spend time with a certain mamu (maternal uncle) who, though married, leads a typical bachelor’s life. He smokes cigarettes right inside his kitchen and leaves the newspapers inside the bathroom.
Those months that I spent at his bungalow in Salt Lake were decisive for me and my culinary career. Early morning we’d wake up, and go straight to the kitchen. I would normally wash the utensils, hearing his sermons on Marxism. “Working men should unite,” he’d say such things to me. I was slowly grasping his points but I still could not make out the clear picture. My subsequent reading would force me to say in the best of Platonic tradition that: “these were the things that I already knew, although I did not have words to express them.”
I still remember that evening. Outside it was pretty cold, the wind blew and the dry leaves of tree rustled on the metallic road making a hissing sound. Stray crows were returning back to their nest. The wind gave one’s body an electric shock. Words endlessly poured from my mamu’s mouth on October Uprising while I cooked my first ever chicken curry minus the salt: my rotis had the look of black papad.
But my experiments with truth did not discourage me. Instead they made me more adamant. I cooked without bothering as to how it tasted. There was no audience to applaud my skills but like a lonely traveler on the road of life, I continued surpassing one milestone after another. Frankly, I don’t give a damn if cooking makes me appear today as feminine; I cook because deep in me is a belief that being human we all must have some basic skills: washing clothes, polishing shoes, and cooking are few of them.
I have learnt this from Gandhi that a man/woman must do all his work by him/herself, if he/she so desires to live in a classless society, a society based on a perfect harmonious equity. It is possible that by tomorrow, it would make one a misogynist if one cooks, but as I just said: who the hell cares?
I cook because now after years and years of struggle, cooking for me has become poetry. I like seeing people eat what I have cooked – observing their Adam’s apple as they swallow what I have just cook gives me a strange edifying pleasure. I cook because all my girlfriends have been tremendously impressed by it.
Just months ago, one ordinary morning, I was walking in the green campus of my university. I was carrying a bag with me and as per our itinerary after lunch hours, my girlfriend Debolina and I were supposed to bunk our class; so at 2:10 in the afternoon, both of us left in her car, the car soon reached the racing course. As usual, I was kissing her publicly without fear, guilt or shame; I was feeling her wet slippery lips on mine.
I was enjoying her sharp bites on my lips. Once in a while, we both would stop kissing each other, look at each other’s eyes and we again pound on each other like hungry animals. The car then stopped near Princep Ghat and we both got down. Just as we sat down, I took out the packet that had beef kebabs and she greedily smelled it and began eating it… and then she said with a sweet innocent voice which is all the more erotic (and when she is about to say something at times like these, her lovely fish-like eyes dilate and grow in size), “Baby, these kebabs are as good as orgasm.” I had laughed to my heart’s content. Thanks to my Will–to–cookery.
March – July,