Just two days after last Christmas my great grand-mother left us for a better place to be with her maker. It was a tragic day and the first time had I witnessed death from a close quarter. As her breathing became more laboured – a phenomenon known as Cheyne-Stoking in the medical world – I held her hand and stood within eyesight, trying to provide as much comfort as possible.
Both my maternal Grandfather and Uncle are doctors and they were busy with monitoring her oxygen and several intravenous drips but I could feel through her hands that she was slipping away from us.
Didu, my grandmother was my Boro Didu’s (great grandmother’s) youngest daughter. She was completely pail with tears rolling continuously. My Didu’s face looked terrible with grief, shock, numbness and denial. I could feel that she was losing a part of herself. Words have failed me every time since whenever I wanted to put pen to paper about this awful misfortune.
The cruel irony of losing my great grandmother was right after her death. The urge to have her once again griped me since I needed her advice the most now as relatives started flocking in with the news of her demise. Within no time the house was full of relatives, many of whom we have not meet in ages.
My great grandmother was the greatest host I have ever known, she not only enjoyed cooking but her greatest joy was to feed people with her culinary delicacies and amazing taste and flavors. Her recipes were not only out of the world but even the aromas had her distinct essence.
There was not a single day I remember that she didn’t cook, she was a fabulous cook and considered the kitchen as her playground. Since her young days she has prepared scrumptious meals for hundreds of guest and relatives who always visited us due to some reason or other as my great grandfather was a very senior government medical officer.
For my great grandmother serving hot and delicious food was one of the greatest things that united a family together around the dining table. Her culinary magic was in those homemade meals which was the main ingredient of our happy and thriving family. She believed that cooking can be a life changing virtue and the more devoted you are in this art the more honest, kind and resourceful you become.
In the meanwhile my dad and grandfather got busy with the final formalities needed to performing the last rites. My mother and grandmother were not only grief stricken but were so devastated that they didn’t move at all. With a house full of guest and relatives I had to take situation in my hand, and I was already missing my great grandmother who in such a situation would have spread her magic in the kitchen and voilà we would have fantabulous food on our table.
It was getting late in the night and all who came from other cities and far off places had to be take care off. Food needed to be severed at the earliest but with so many people around what is to be made was bothering me and the option of online food ordering from local restaurants also was ruled out in this cataclysmic situation.
A cool breeze was blowing as I stood in the balcony very stiff. The cold wind had a soothing effect on my throbbing face. The dilemma of what to cook for the guest now started haunting me, I could hear my blood passing through my ears, and I was getting trapped in my own inability to decide. Just then the calmness outside made me remember the old virtues of cooking my Boro Didu used to tell me. She used to tell by feeding someone you are not only nourishing his stomach but also his heart and spirit.
Suddenly a mysterious force compelled me to go inside straight to the kitchen, I heard as if my great grandmother whispered into my ears to make “Khichdi” for the guest.
Every house in India has their own version of khichdi. It’s one of those recipes that get passed down, from mothers to daughters with constant improvements as you move on. But in our house the way my great grandma made it, was definitely our all time favourite. This version has whole spices, chunks of potatoes and other vegetables that became so soft that they almost melted into your mouth, and the secret tip of her was where she used to roasts the lentils (dal) and rice just a little before she added water. This tasty, healthy and delicious one pot meal with a thick porridge type consistency was her trade make. Many a times we used to foolishly object to her making Khichdi, but then she used to console us by saying that even in ayurveda moong dal khichdi neutralizes the three doshas – kapha, pitta and veta as it was the best detox diet.
I soon realized that indeed khichdi was the solution. I started to work as if someone was guiding me mentally. The required quantity combination of rice and two varieties of lentils (dals) – moong and arhar was put on a big pot. My hands worked on its own and within no time I was cutting carrots, beans, potatoes and cauliflowers into perfect diced shape like a professional chef.
Without even realizing I got the frozen green pees from the fridge and defrosted it. Everything was happening on its own as if I was under a splendid spell. Surprisingly for the spices – Cumin Seeds, Peppercorns, Bayleaves, Cardamoms, Turmeric, Chili Powder and even Salt, which was always a bother to locate, I didn’t struggle at all my hands went right where it was neatly kept in small plastic containers. I didn’t have a clue, how in next half an hour steaming hot Khichdi was ready to be served. Just when I got busy in distribution a divine intervention stopped me to put the topping of ghee exactly like my great grandmother would have done. It seemed as if I was under a mesmerizing charm and all this cooking and serving slowly changed from a herculean effort to a scintillating and joyous realization.
After I wrapped up the dinner fiasco, of all the countless comforting things said by guest, friends and relatives before leaving only one compliment was unvaried regarding the sublime taste of Khichdi they had that night. However for me it was as if my great grandma had made her last supper through me and kept her legacy alive.
By Udita Mukherjee