This essay won the Barbra Naidu Memorial Prize for the Personal Essay 2019.

The theme was Voyaging the Kitchen.

The judge, editor and writer Tejas Harad, had this to say about the essay:

Shalom Sanjay makes a great use of metaphors, similes and vivid imagery to further her kitchen story. The essay also forcefully brings out the fact that food can’t be separated from the context in which it is procured, cooked and consumed

***

“The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” Amma said one Sunday afternoon. The house was drearily comatose. From the narrow living room, the grating whir of our old fan trudged on, nudging hovering mosquitoes to go their way.

It was a hot day. The sun felt crisp and dry to the touch, salt gathering on the tops of lips and in soft folds of flesh. My mother was grinding chilies. The pestle moved with determination, revealing a green paste that belied the orange flames that lurked inside. It would be added to the chicken that sat expectantly in the black kadai and roasted gently for hours, until I would be able to taste the dish from the smell alone.

The kitchen was Amma’s empire and she ruled it with a heavy ladle. Pots gleamed from polished shelves and glass jars of spices were lined in rows, ready for their call to battle. Cooking was a slow intimate seduction, creating something new with the flick of a wrist. Unlike the pristine shows I saw on television, with each ingredient diced and segregated into different bowls, she threw things in with wild abandon. Globs of yellowy oils, roughly cut cheeks of tomatoes and dollops of ashy pepper that would congeal to form a curry we ate reverently, with eyes half closed.

Image Credits: Alexa Robinson, Flickr

The saying was perplexing to a ten year old. Did this mean that to reach a Man’s Heart, doctors plunged their scalpels through the stomach? Or was Man’s Heart a destination I had to reach, hitching my backpack and traveling until x marked the spot? Amma didn’t explain and by then I was distracted, watching a tiny army of red ants carrying away crystals of sugar under her busy nose.

Amma was the 8th child in a long grocery list of eleven children. When she was younger, she would obediently line up with her siblings as Ammachi would feed them a mash of rice and sambhar rolled into balls. It was a ritual she held dear, a crowd of squawking children gathered around their regal mother bird. What my mother cherished was not the food itself, but the family gathering together at the same time every day, puzzle pieces that joined briefly to form a glowing picture.

When she met Appa, she was certain that she had her map ready and waiting. Ammachi had taught her the exact way to make the smoothest curd, so light and fluffy; it lay on the top of rice like the snow drifts on mountains. She knew how to snap the point of a ladies finger and check if it was fresh and tender. Her chicken curry was tart and richly brown, the flesh delicate and creamy. Success was imminent.

But Amma’s reasoning was wrong. Appa’s heart lay through his liver.

Empty bottles of cheap vodka clinked at the bottom of his pockets. In discrete corners of the house, the faded brown cardboard of discarded tetra packs wilted. Appa’s walk was a totter, his conversation a slur and his smile artificial. Her delicate mix of masalas were lost on the taste buds attuned to the sweetly sour rush of liquor. Under piles of old newspapers, we would come across empty containers of whiskey, drops of amber still perched at the rim.

He would often stagger in at midnight, his hands grasping at the door for support. Sloppily, he crawled towards the centre of the living room, his once ironed pants crumpled from sweat and reeking of smoke. To us, he looked like an ancient tree on the verge of collapse. His trunk swaying until he tumbled over; stretched out on the cold floor with a broad grin on his face. The front of his trousers dampened yellow and in his stupor, he would call Amma’s name until she felt nameless.

Money began to run low. On days when she was free, she would tug us along to K.R market to buy fresh produce. The stalls were a jumble of colors, nature at the heights of her ecstasy. Apples blushed pink in neat stacks, globes of shiny lemons and oranges nestled in thinly strung baskets and perky bundles of mint and coriander were everywhere.

She loved the fish market the most, despite the oily smell that clung to the area. Delicately veined prawns hid shyly beneath translucent shells while rows of silvery fish stared through blood-shot eyes. In rusted metal buckets, live crabs would scamper around, their menacing claws clicking roughly in annoyance.

As we stared on, she would exchange friendly banter with the vendors. Amma wanted ingredients for the cheapest price, stretching the food allowance to its breaking point. She was adept at this, buying river fish that she cleaned at home, the scales falling through the kitchen like sprinkles of glitter. It was marinated for hours and shallow fried, till the meat slipped off the spindly bones with barely a touch.

Image credits: Ivan Maksimovic

Appa’s drinking was never consistent. Much like the roads in Bangalore, there were smooth stretches followed by months of bumpy tarred lanes riddled with potholes. His moustache would bristle and then smile and occasionally lie limply against his lips.

The bottles began to clink more than the coins in his wallet and the shoestring budget began to contract. Stress gathered in lines on Amma’s face, little cracks in once smooth plaster. One evening, her stores were the lowest they had ever been, a miniscule layer of dal dotting the bottom of a canister. She surveyed the kitchen in dismay. Her army was faltering, on the verge of a devastating defeat. Inside the fridge, a sad squashy carrot rested in the vegetable section.

She sent me to my aunt’s house, clutching two small bowls with strict instructions. “Please may I borrow some rice and dal?” I blinked up forlornly at my relatives, attempting to look as woebegone as I knew how. I had also rehearsed saying the infamous Oliver Twist line, just in case nothing else worked. My lower lip trembled and the meager eyelashes I had, fluttered with the speed of a hummingbird.

“Oh the poor dear” she clucked, patting my head with unnecessary force “what to do… with a father like that.. my god..” Aunty shook her head disapprovingly before loading my arms with as much food as I could carry, heaping me with additional promises of more if needed. At home, Amma smiled thinly, a slight pursing of her lips.

That night Appa hobbled in, his eyes alight with glee and his cheeks glistening with a thin sheen of sweat. On the table was his dinner, a paltry plate of swollen rice and runny curry. “I want kebabs” he stated jocularly, as he fumbled to untie his shoes. Amma stared at him. If eyes were the windows to the soul, hers were shut, bolted down with thick nails.

“Where should I get kebabs from?” she replied equally as coolly. In that second, she looked like a cowboy in a western film, staring down her rival with the barrel of her gun. Appa gestured wildly towards the kitchen “From there.”

“The only chicken I see here; is full of alcohol” Amma announced. The bullet had been fired. The smoking gun returned to the holster.

Anger is bitter, like coffee. A single drop can change the colour of any milk. Voices rose higher, the sound bouncing off the walls in strident leaps. Suddenly, Appa’s hand moved, lifting the steel plate and flinging it through the air. Grains of rice flew haphazardly, browns streaks spattered on the floor. The plate landed with a metallic thud.

In the ensuing silence, Appa puffed his chest out, before waddling away, one hand already delving into his pants for his next drink.

Sometimes, it is the back that holds a world of information. My mother was turned away from me, her face averted as she stood tall, watching my father walk away. It slowly began to collapse on itself, taut tendons turning to jelly as she slumped forward. Clenched fists loosened, hanging flaccidly at her sides. The wreckage of Appa’s dinner was strewn around her, a warzone with no victor.

I can’t pin point when Appa stopped drinking. There was no plot twist, no obvious bend in the road. In life, it’s difficult to pin point the moments that lead to new beginnings.

Recently, Appa celebrated nine years of being sober. He sips lemonade without sugar and gulps down tea and coffee as he patiently reads the newspaper. At my sister’s wedding, he confided that he couldn’t even remember the taste of alcohol and that he had often felt lost, like a fish swimming alone in a dark vast tank. “Without Amma…” he sometimes mumbles before trailing off.

Over time, Amma’s hands began to turn to metal. The joints need regular oiling from a tube of Moov she keeps by her bed. Arthritis has hit her hard, limbs turning stiff and unwieldy. Her visits to the kitchen are far and in between but filled with a burst of flavor.

The kitchen is now Appa’s domain. Lacey strings of onion are fried with pods of pungent garlic. He makes his famous meat soup, a dish with golden broth and chunks of roasted beef. Every evening at five, he prepares a cup of milky coffee for Amma. He knows her rituals, keeping a small bundle of bananas for her and heating up food till steam rises in large clouds.

Amma’s map may have been wrong, but it’s clear she reached her destination.

Featured Image Credits: AbsurdWordPreferred, Deviant Art.

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Shalom Sanjay

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