Saturday, January 16, 2010
Maya felt a sense of quiet contentment as she watched the grated carrots bobbing gently in the simmering milk. So far, everything had gone without a hitch. She glanced at the recipe book propped by the gas stove and proceeded to meticulously execute the next instruction: Bring the flame to high heat, add sugar and ghee and stir well till the ghee shows separately.
“So you’re making carrot halwa?” Maya turned sharply on hearing her mother-in-law’s voice, her bliss fading instantly. Her spirits sank further as she saw that her mother-in-law was accompanied by old Mrs. Diwakar from next door, the official gossip-monger of Kairali Lane where they lived.
“Er, yes,” said Maya, making a brave attempt to inject cheer into her tone. “I thought I’d give you all a surprise this evening!”
“Ah, what a good daughter-in-law you have, Mrs. Varma!” Mrs. Diwakar piped in. “Now my daughter-in-law…”, and she plunged into a litany of her daughter-in-law’s innumerable flaws and follies, which Mrs. Varma listened to with apparent interest.
But Maya knew pretty well that her mother-in-law was far from pleased. Though she’d been married just three months, she had already discovered that her mother-in-law, a very amiable woman in every other way, resented anyone encroaching upon her kingdom, the kitchen. Not that Maya minded… most of her culinary adventures, right from the time when at the age of twelve, she added salt to a pudding, mistaking it to be sugar, had been absolute fiascos. And now that she worked as a teacher in a high school, she had enough and more of uncorrected test papers, work sheets and assignment books to keep her busy all evening after school, and was quite happy to let her mother-in-law bask in stardom in the kitchen while she enacted minor roles like chopping the vegetables or helping her clean up after dinner. She would often watch in quiet amusement as her mother-in-law bustled around at meal-time, the joy and pride evident on her face as her son asked for a second helping or made a casual comment on her pickle’s great taste.
However, even the most modern and liberal-minded woman will acknowledge that a delicious dish is the easiest way to a husband’s heart and this realization is all the more prominent in young, newly-wed wives. It was precisely this reason that had spurred Maya to venture into the kitchen that Saturday, after gleaning from her husband that carrot halwa was his favourite dish. She hadn’t fancied seeking help from her mother-in-law who was obviously over-possessive of her culinary crown, and decided to rely on her own intuition and the recipe book.
“Rahul just loves my carrot halwa!” Mrs. Varma suddenly declared, her bosom swelling with pride and she looked at Maya with what was unmistakable rivalry in her eyes. Her mother-in-law’s caustic look made her feel all the more uneasy and she started stirring with greater vigour. Even as the older ladies immersed themselves in small talk and gossip, Maya could feel her mother-in-law’s eyes constantly following her as she went about her work.
In a short while, the carrot halwa was ready, looking enticing with the almond and cashew garnishing. With great trepidation, Maya took a spoonful, hoping for the best. Bitter disappointment engulfed her like a tsunami wave as she found that her carrot halwa was far from perfect- it was too greasy and had a sickeningly saccharine taste. She suddenly became aware of the two pairs of curiously watching eyes and quickly cleared her face of all expression.
It was at this juncture, as Maya stood with the bowl of carrot halwa in her hand, struggling to maintain a poker face, that Rahul entered the scene. “Hello everybody!” he said cheerfully as he strode into the kitchen, still in his office suit. “For once, my boss didn’t want me to work overtime!”
Suddenly, he saw the bowl of carrot halwa in his wife’s hands. “Wow! Carrot halwa!” he exclaimed in great surprise and delight. “I did smell something nice as I entered the house!”
“Maya wanted to give you a surprise,” Mrs. Varma explained, a rather sarcastic edge to her voice.
“Great!” Rahul beamed. “I am absolutely famished!”
“No! wait…” Maya tried to protest but Rahul had already snatched the bowl from her and taken a spoonful.
Maya looked away, not having the strength to watch her husband’s far-from-flattering reaction, her mother-in-law’s subsequent gloating expression…. Her anguish deepened as she thought of Mrs. Diwakar, who could be trusted to see that the news of the tragedy of her carrot halwa spread like wildfire in the lane and became the hot topic for gossip among the women of the colony. And she earnestly wished that the earth would open up and swallow her as she stared intently at the tiled kitchen counter, her cheeks crimson at the thought of the imminent humiliation. The two older women were watching Rahul expectantly, like eager onlookers awaiting a judge’s verdict.
“Mmmm….delicious!” Maya could hardly believe her ears as she heard her husband’s spirited response. She looked up instantly, genuine astonishment replacing the downcast expression in her eyes. Rahul’s face was a picture of pure relish! She looked on in bewilderment as he greedily dug the spoon into the carrot halwa again and again…and again- until there wasn’t even a speck left to bear testimony to her culinary disaster!
“Oh no!” Rahul suddenly cried remorsefully. “What a pig I am! I didn’t leave any for you all!”
“No matter, son,” said Mrs. Diwakar. “I’ve just had my tea and anyway, my doctor has advised me off all sweets and savouries.”
Presently, Mrs. Diwakar, rather bored by this tame and uninteresting conclusion to the domestic episode, went out to inspect the banana saplings in the backyard and Mrs. Varma followed her, looking deeply disappointed. As soon as they were out of sight, Rahul turned to his wife and gave her a conspiratorial wink, grinning in the boyish way she liked so much. A sudden deluge of love and gratitude washed away all the words that she had wanted to say and all she could do was smile back. But she knew he understood. As Rahul left to change his clothes and take a shower, Maya felt her eyes misting over.... She knew she had married a special man.