Shankari Mani had been married for 31 years. Most of those years had been lived in an independent house on a tree-lined street that overlooked a park in Sivaganga Colony. At the time of her marriage, she was a qualified chartered accountant, an accomplished Bharatanatyam dancer, a decent club-level tennis player, a barely tolerable singer and a terrible cook.
This was all because of the single-minded, single-handed efforts of her mother, Bhagyam Ammal, who had molded Shankari into her ideal of a modern woman in the teeth of the biting disapproval of a large throng of multiple generations of old-fashioned, tradition-bound, interfering women both in and out of her family. Bhagyam Ammal, riding the crest of the women’s liberation wave that crashed over the country when she (Shankari) was a young girl, was determined that her daughter would be well-educated, cultured, and equipped with skills that would enable her to be self-sufficient.
She did not count the ability to cook among those skills. Indeed, she went even further. She loathed cooking, the sheer drudgery and lowly housewifeliness of it, the notion that a woman should be judged by something so commonplace, almost scorn-worthy, that required not even a smidgen of intellectual ability. Oh, how she despised cooking - she had been useless at it and had had to put up with years of snide comments, well-meaning suggestions and advice delivered in poison-barbed doses, and downright open contempt. No, Bhagyam Ammal wanted none of that nonsense for her daughter. Her Shankari would transcend the tedium, the thankless sweat-and-toil lot of the housewife. She would sail forward into the prevailing winds of women’s rights and liberation, she would be a trendsetter, at the cutting edge of society’s latest trend. She would lead the kind of life that she dearly would have liked to lead. And she would have nothing to do with the kitchen or what transpired in it.
The battalion of women who formed Bhagyam Ammal’s inner and outer family and social circles tut-tutted. But she did not care. She had long ignored their remarks and wisecracks, and their attempts to make her toe the maami line. Her rebellious streak had flowered into full bloom with the acid wash of her mother-in-law’s bitter barbs. The first thing that Bhagyam Ammal’s mother-in-law had told her - minutes after she entered her new marital home - was: “There are three people I want you to avoid in this family. Subbu Periappa’s daughter-in-law Lalitha, her sister Paru, and Rangan Athimber’s cousin’s daughter Lecchu. They have all the wrong ideas, and will be a bad influence on you”. Bhagyam Ammal, never known for her docility, and with a well-developed perverse streak even at that tender age (she was a mere 15 when she entered her marital home), immediately determined that Lalitha, Paru and Lecchu were the very people she wanted to get to know better. And she was richly rewarded for her impulsive decision. They were fun, these women, smart, witty, and delightfully irreverent. They took pride, not in their ability to mould perfect kozhakattais or to instantly spot a flawed diamond, but in the books they had read, the interesting people they had managed to meet, the trimness of their figures. They were not above swigging a tipple or two of their husband’s scotch, furtively at first, and then, emboldened by the number of married years under their belts, openly and defiantly, delighting in the appalled expressions on the faces of the witnesses to their “crime”.
But this story is not about Bhagyam Ammal. Let us return to Shankari Mani, that outcome of Bhagyam Ammal’s ambitious training and nurturing, the chartered accountant who could dance and play tennis and sort of sing but not cook. Whose obedient, compliant, eager-to-please traits were inherited from her father, snuffing out her mother’s boisterous ebullience in a sly roll of the genetic dice. Because Shankari was a compliant and obedient daughter, it never occurred to her to question or challenge her mother’s ideas. She adored her mother and admired her immensely, and very often felt that she fell short in her eyes - that she was not feisty enough, ambitious enough, appreciative enough of all the opportunities and options that her mother had made available to her.
When Shankari had been a young girl immersed in the angst that all young girls are, she would mull over the glaring differences between her mother and herself. Shankari felt like a pale shadow, an unworthy recipient of all her mother poured into her. In her harsh self-analysis, she lacked her mother’s charm, her looks, her intelligence.
As in the case of most angst-ridden teenaged self-analyses, there was a whole side to the picture - the positive one -that remained hidden. So it was with Shankari. She was not her mother, no, but she was someone else whom she did not have the maturity or insight to appreciate.
Bhagyam Ammal was forward thinking in many areas, but when it came to her daughter’s marriage, her vision and her courage deserted her. When Shankari was still a teenager, she and her three comrades-in-arms, Lalitha, Paru and Lecchu, high on Scotch and feminist book-inspired ideals and principles, would rail about that scourge, the arranged marriage, and declare that there was no way they would subject their daughters to that outrage. Let them marry Muslims, Christians, non-Brahmins, they thundered, fine single-malt Scotch spraying from their mouths and dribbling down their chins, we will show the world that our girls are not shackled by medieval traditions! We will support them no matter what they do and whom they choose to marry! We are truly the liberated ones!
But, as Shankari edged towards her 25th year with nary a marriage prospect, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh or atheist (the boundaries of Bhagyam Ammal’s universe of eligible boys ended there) anywhere in sight, as Lalitha, Paru and Lecchu’s daughters succumbed to the undeniable eligibility and desirability of a doctor, doctor and engineer, respectively, worry began to nibble around the edges of Bhagyam Ammal’s beliefs. So when a proposal came her way, from no less than her most loathsome co-sister, that sneaky weasel who had joined ranks with her mother-in-law, her harshest critic and holder of the most ridiculously orthodox views, Bhagyam Ammal swallowed her pride and went forward with the whole despicable inspect-the-girl (her skin color, her hairstyle, her height, her weight, her gait, her sari, the crispness of her vadais, and who knew what else) routine. All went well, Bhagyam Ammal heartily approved of the boy, and Shankari married Mani.
Bhagyam Ammal had to admit that the loathsome co-sister had produced a good match for her daughter. She could now hold her head high with the best of the maamis and casually insert a reference to Harvard or seven-figure salaries or accelerated promotions and bask in the glow of their ill-concealed envy. Better still, her daughter did not play second fiddle to her husband with a job like substitute school teacher or secretary or office assistant, done to while away the hours and claim working woman status. Oh no. Shankari had a proper job, obtained on her own merits and high qualifications, her salary not some pocket-money pittance but one that helped the Mani family bank balance grow by leaps and bounds every month.
Shankari was very happy with her husband, Mani. Sometimes, though, she marveled, wondered, at how different they were. In almost every area they were polar opposites.
He read only non fiction. She read only fiction.
He loved company. She enjoyed solitude.
He was confident, self-assured, opinionated. She was shy, diffident.
He was disciplined, ruthlessly organized. She procrastinated, forgot things, did things on the fly, on impulse.
He believed fervently in the potential and potency of the capitalist economic system. At heart, she was a dyed-in-the-wool communist - or socialist (she was not entirely sure what the difference between them was).
He was passionate about politics. It bored her to tears.
He saw the world in black and white. She saw only shades of gray.
In restaurants, he ordered sparkling water. She ordered still.
To Shankari, this last point encapsulated perfectly the differences between them.
He sparkled. He effervesced. She was still, flat. Boring. Or so she believed.
No wonder Bhagyam Ammal got along so well with Mani. They were like two peas in a pod. And between the two of them they continued to try to mould Shankari into a confident, outgoing, ambitious career woman. And Shankari, pliant, docile, in awe of her mother and husband, their unfaltering authoritativeness, allowed herself to be putty in their hands.
To an extent, they succeeded. Shankari rose up the accounting ladder in her company at a rate thus far unseen. She was invited to accounting conferences, several in exciting, far-flung places like Buenos Aires and Johannesburg. She was well liked and respected in her office. Her salary rose steadily over the years, which enabled them to take family vacations in Europe and America. When her daughter was admitted to an Ivy League institution in New York, she and her husband were able to pay her expenses there without too much hand-wringing and while barely feeling the pinch, in no small measure thanks to her earnings. Busy with her career and family, the Bharatanatyam and tennis fell by the wayside. The singing, never in the forefront of things, withered away and died completely. And the cooking - on the rare occasions that she was forced to venture into the kitchen to cook - remained terrible.
Food was not a high point in the Shankari - Mani household. Over the years, Shankari had hired a series of cooks. The term “cook” was often very loosely used, and covered a broad and often baffling range of quirks, abilities and duties. One refused to cut vegetables and wash the cooking vessels. Another had a terror of the stove, and refused to light it. A third came apparently unendowed with taste buds, as a result of which most of her food was inedible. Yet another one fled the kitchen during the hours of rahu kalam. The only thing they had in common was the brevity of their tenure. There were early morning cooks, afternoon cooks, dinner cooks, weekday cooks, weekend cooks, north Indian cooks, south Indian cooks, Bengali cooks....over 31 years, Shankari had seen them all.
In between cooks, Shankari ventured into the kitchen with great trepidation and a sense of distaste and resentment, her mother’s words ringing in her ears (cooking is a waste of time, you should spend your time more productively, just boil some dal and vegetables and rice, the children should learn to adjust....) The children did not want to adjust to boiled dal and vegetables and rice. They expressed their opinion on boiled dal and vegetables and rice forcibly and heatedly. Shankari’s rancor only grew, but fortunately for everyone, these episodes were short-lived. Sivaganga Colony attracted a steady supply of cooks because of its proximity to several low-income housing colonies.
And now, Shankari was in the process of installing her latest cook, Dhanam. Dhanam was scrawny, blotchy-complexioned, shrill-voiced, with eyes shot through with ragged red ribbons, and with nothing about her to inspire confidence. Shankari’s heart sank when she beheld the bony creature in front of her - she looked like it had been days since she had eaten her last meal, she seemed to barely have the strength to stand upright, and she was going to cook for them? How would this skeletal woman swaying on her doorstep have the stamina to cook the three-course meals her husband and her son, neither of whom appeared to have grown out of their teenage eating marathons, expected, meal after meal?
Shankari sighed and led Dhanam into the kitchen. The thought flitted through her mind that life might be easier if she didn’t have to waste so much of time and effort training cook after cook, go over the same instructions, the dos and don’ts, time and time again. The thought flitted out as quickly as it had flitted in, and, with an effort, an attempt to inject some enthusiasm into her voice and manner, just the right touch of authority that elicited respect, a jot of fear even, but never animosity or rebellion, she showed Dhanam around the kitchen. She pointed out the stove, demonstrated how to turn it on and off, noting, with silent relief, that Dhanam did not flinch or recoil when the flame burst to life with a whoosh. She unveiled, with a flourish, her pride and joy, a new Sumeet mixie, and told Dhanam sternly that under no circumstance was she to operate it without her supervision. Dhanam let out a squawking stream of protest. “Amma! I will never do anything like that! What you tell me not to touch, I won’t go anywhere near! Ayyoyo, I won’t even think of such a thing, Amma....” Shankari cut her short firmly and continued with her tour of the kitchen: this is the exhaust fan, here is how it is turned on and off, this is the milk vessel, this is the special soap to wash the milk vessel.... Dhanam followed Shankari around, wide-eyed and appreciative of everything that was shown to her. She agreed to start working from the following day.
Dhanam settled in with gratifying rapidity and smoothness. She developed a puppy-like devotion to Shankari, repeating all her instructions with childish enthusiasm, showing rapturous gratitude for any praise that came her way. In spite of herself, Shankari was touched. She had maintained a business-like coolness with the dozens of cooks who had come and gone over the years, refusing to get embroiled in their personal dilemmas (of which there was no shortage, and most of which followed a depressingly similar script of a drunken husband or abusive mother-in-law), firmly cutting them short when they started complaining about the other servants (Shankari had managed to steer clear of most of the politics in her office; she had no intention of allowing domestic politics to overtake her life).
But with Dhanam, inexplicably, strangely, Shankari felt differently. She was at home much more, for one. Her company had instituted a cost-saving drive, and she had volunteered to cut her work week to three days in the office. Financially, they were comfortably off, and Shankari thought that she would put the days off to good use by doing all those things she used to long to do when her children were small and she had no time to spare. Funnily, when she actually thought about it now that she had the luxury of a little time, that list that was so crystal clear, so enhanced with a shimmery halo when viewed through the distorting lens of fractious babies, rebellious teenagers and an all-consuming job, now seemed hazy, uninspired and uninspiring. None of the things she longed to do then seemed that attractive now. As a result, Shankari spent most of her days off from work lounging around at home, half-heartedly thumbing through magazines and articles her husband had ear-marked for her, starting books and never finishing them, filling her mind with snippets of this and that, nothing profound, nothing particularly enriching, nothing that she really remembered when she tried to think about it. Somehow, the time passed, and somewhat to Shankari’s surprise, she was not overly enthused when Monday came around, for another three days in the office. It dawned on Shankari that the challenges, the pride, the sense of independence, of having a career had, slowly, imperceptibly, lost their sheen.
At home, even with nothing substantial to do, Shankari felt at peace with herself. Her children were grown up - her daughter, away abroad, and her son, still technically at home, but felt as a fleeting presence only when food and money were needed. Her husband’s passion for politics had reached absurd heights (depths?) and not finding a receptive audience in Shankari for his probing analyses and long-winded denunciations of whatever politician was out of his favor for the moment, he spent more and more of his spare time writing letters to the editors of various publications (which never got published, which Mani was convinced was because of a conspiracy by the bloody left-wing idiots who controlled the media).
And so, alone at home with Dhanam, she began to spend a lot of time with her. It began slowly at first. Shankari would wander into the kitchen in search for something to nibble on, and Dhanam, an inveterate chatterbox, her eyes lighting up at the sight of her beloved Amma, would embark on a long-winded account of the goings-on in her home and neighborhood. And Shankari, who had heard versions of these tales from her previous cooks, but only as background chatter, paid attention this time. She found herself getting drawn into Dhanam’s life - her drunkard husband, not just any drunkard husband, but one with a name, a flesh-and-blood three dimensional real, live person who was capable of acts of great tenderness in between his bouts of drunkenness; her drunkard son, who, from Dhanam’s vivid descriptions also emerged in Shankari’s mind’s eye as a fully formed, living, breathing person, but alas, without any of his father’s positive attributes. She listened, rapt, as Dhanam spoke about her idiot daughter-in-law, a useless good for nothing shrew who could not even turn on the stove to boil water, who had ensnared her son by black magic and who was prone to mad fits of howling on full moon nights. There was a neighbor, a drug-addled violent lowlife who ogled lasciviously at Dhanam and her daughter in law every time they passed by, and who threatened to slice off their limbs with a machete if they refused his advances. Dhanam’s life seemed to be a relentless series of fights, mishaps, violently see-sawing relations with her husband, with the barest glimmer of moments of joy at distant intervals. Shankari marveled at her good cheer, that she was able to wade through such muck on a daily basis, with no end in sight, and still emerge with her sense of fun and wonder intact.
Shankari’s home was Dhanam’s sanctuary from the harsh realities of her life. Dhanam’s stories were a window into another world for Shankari - so near, yet galaxies apart in every way.
Life hummed along smoothly. The Mani family feasted on excellent food - delicately spiced, deliciously varied, mouth-wateringly nutritious, delectably presented - they ate like they had never eaten before. Shankari, watching Dhanam work in the kitchen, was fascinated by how deftly and effortlessly - and lovingly - she worked, chopping, slicing, frying, adding a pinch of this, a dash of that, tasting, adjusting, tasting again, frowning, mouth a-pucker, until at last she was satisfied. Then a smile broke out that illuminated her entire being, and made Dhanam, skinny, scrawny, homely Dhanam, look almost beautiful. For Shankari, for whom cooking was a wretched chore, a waste of time, it was a revelation to see that someone could take such pride, such joy, in this mundane, messy activity, like an artist creating a thing of beauty. She was fascinated. Inspired. Moved.
But, somewhere at the back of her mind was a nagging fear, that things were too good, that this state of affairs could not last and had to end, just like the tenures of all her previous cooks. Constant change was the only constant in Shankari’s life as far as cooks were concerned. And so she began to take notes on what Dhanam was doing. She had a vague idea that if - or heaven forbid, when - Dhanam left, she would dispense with the whole cook business and take over her family’s meals herself. After all, they were all older and should and would surely adapt to not having a full-scale banquet at every meal. And with notebook in hand, she believed that she could quite easily manage an approximation of Dhanam’s meals.
She sat quietly on a tall stool in a corner of the kitchen and never took her eyes off Dhanam as she moved around with an agility and economy of movement that was balletic in its grace. At times, Dhanam was like a spinning top, whirling around the kitchen as she peeled and chopped an array of vegetables at lightning speed, stirred a pot of boiling dal, ground a complex masala with a magical combination of spices, seemingly in all places at the same time. And then there were periods when time slowed down, as Dhanam crafted a dish with infinite patience, or lovingly tended to a pan of milk at a whisper of a simmer, or just stood still, watching, waiting, while time and heat performed their miraculous alchemy, and the aroma in the kitchen caressed them like a baby-soft blanker.
Shankari’s pile of articles and books to read grew, unread. While Dhanam was in the kitchen, the phone went unanswered, and visitors and salesmen were treated with the brusqueness accorded to an unwelcome intruder. The two women worked in silence - Dhanam, cooking, and Shankari, furiously writing. Dhanam sensed that her beloved Amma did not want to listen to her chatter, and now poured all her energies into creating ever more delicious dishes. Watching Shankari sitting there, awkwardly hunched over on her stool, her notebook balanced on her lap, Dhanam felt cherished and special.
As the weeks passed, a subtle shifting of balance began to take place. The relationship became one of equals, not that of employer and cook. And eventually, even more subtly, the balance began to shift still further. Shankari began to idolize Dhanam. She praised her cooking with embarrassingly gushy compliments. She bought her saris, jewelry, cheap baubles at first, then necklaces and bracelets from the city’s fancier boutiques. Dhanam protested vigorously at first, discomfited perhaps at the slightly deranged gleam in Shankari’s eyes. Even more discomfiting, Dhanam was sworn to silence about these gifts. Nobody in Shankari’s home - the other servants, her husband, her children, were to know anything about these gifts. Dhanam had no idea how to react to this strange new Shankari, with her slavering devotion that was tinged with a worrying hint of the manic. Fortunately - or unfortunately, depending on how one viewed the situation - Bhagyam Ammal, whose health was failing, and whose finely honed ability to sense when things were not quite the same had blunted and was fading, lived in another town with her son. She would have quenched this ridiculous development (as she would have viewed it) with a single icy glare.
And gradually, Shankari began to change in ways that she would never have anticipated or predicted. The placid, calm person who had never stepped out of line, never done anything that might upset anyone, never once rebelled as an adolescent, who had always put the feelings and needs of others ahead of her own, staged a mini-mutiny, a small-scale insurgency. The once devoted wife, mother and daughter became withdrawn and uninterested in anything not connected to cooking. She snapped at her husband when he tried to talk to her while she was absorbed in her cooking notebooks (which seemed to be most of the time). She cut her telephone conversations with Bhagyam Ammal short by claiming to have a slew of things to attend to (not entirely untrue: there was alchemy happening just a few feet away, magical phenomena that had to be documented in exacting detail). Her emails to her daughter were bland, lacking soul and thought. She was actually relieved that her son spent so much of his time sleeping or outside with his friends, as this meant less time attending to his demands and more time on her notebooks.
Oh, those notebooks! There were a dozen of them by now, compact, spiral-bound lined notebooks filled with Shankari’s handwriting. There was no method or organization to any of it, just recipe after recipe running up and down page after page, scribbled into tiny margins, a crowded crush of coconut sambhar followed by fried noodles crammed between spicy green beans and paneer pulao chased by an incoherent semiya payasam. Eggs sat atop cheese toasts that were squashed by densely detailed steps for trifle pudding. Slowly the handwriting, once legible, withered into a spidery scrawl. The recipes became a mere collection of words strung together haphazardly, dicing, frying, steaming, grinding, cloves, coriander, onions and rice blending together in a meaningless blur. The notebooks were stored beneath a pile of petticoats and blouses in Shankari’s chest of drawers, invisible to all, lovingly patted and caressed by Shankari, the stack readjusted gently and carefully when another one joined their ranks.
Something had to change. This state of affairs, tautly tense, stifling, constricted, that excluded all but a single obsession - cooking - could not last indefinitely. Shankari was aware that her behavior exceeded the bounds of normalcy, but she had neither the desire nor the energy to do anything about it. Her husband tried to reason with her, talk to her, find out what was driving this baffling change, but she lashed out so bitterly that he retreated, stung. A midlife crisis, he consoled himself. It had to pass. He retreated further into his magazines and newspapers. The once loving couple barely spoke to each other any more.
For the first time in her life, Shankari waded into a life that was of her own making. She was doing things that she wanted, not what was expected of her by her family. She had found a focus for her energies with nobody guiding, pointing or pushing her to it. And as for what anybody might think of all this - well, she didn’t give a damn. Damn. Damn damn damn everybody . She spoke those words aloud to herself, softly at first, and then (making sure nobody was within earshot), aloud. She started a new notebook with them: Damn. Damn. Damn. Written in bold black ink across the top of the first page.
And yet, Shankari was not happy. A mother’s words, her hopes, dreams and desires, never really go away. Memories of a family’s love, the pleasure savored from making someone happy, the essence of one’s personality, always remain. Shankari’s actions might have been kindled by resentment, a long-suppressed spark of rebelliousness exploding into life, but now guilt joined the turbulent mix of emotions that had shaken her very core. She knew that she was letting down the people dearest to her, that if they knew how she spent her days off, scribbling nonsense (for that was what her notebooks had degenerated into) for hours on end, they would be appalled and saddened. She started telling lies, haltingly at first but then with increasing boldness and brazenness, about all the things she was busy with. She claimed - to her mother, her husband, her daughter, her few friends - to be doing research, coyly skirting around just exactly it was that she was researching. Research: how grand, academic and pompous it sounded, yet also how meaningless and empty it was. And meaningless and empty was how Shankari now felt, even as the pile of notebooks grew out of their drawer and spilled over into the next one. She was in the grip of something that she could not and did not want to escape, because she did not know what else she could escape to.
Shankari was jolted out of all this when she received an email from her daughter in faraway America. It was a breathlessly excited, happy email. She had found the man of her dreams - Matt, an American, a brilliant classmate who had topped their university, whose father was a world-renowned economist and whose mother ran her own business publishing children’s educational books. Matt was crazy about Carnatic music and her daughter had told him that her mother was a trained singer besides being a high-powered executive and Matt couldn’t wait to meet her and hear her sing.
Shankari read the email - first in delight, then in horror.
This boy Matt, and his family, so accomplished, so distinguished, which was all great, but what would they think of her? Sitting in her nightgown all day with precious little to show for herself than those stupid notebooks. Oh, Shankari was proud, even if that pride was buried beneath a muddled thicket of pique, rebellion, resentment, complaisance, kindness and stubbornness. She cared very much indeed. She could not let down her daughter. She had to act. Immediately.
Shankari did three things. She told her boss that she wanted to resume working full time, that she was ready for the promotion he had been urging her to accept. She called up her childhood music teacher and told him she wanted to restart her lessons with him. And one evening, she ordered her gardener to light a bonfire, and into this she threw her entire notebook collection. She made Mani come and watch, and the dear man did not say a word, but he sensed that he had got his wife back and put his arm around her shoulder and gave it a squeeze. She looked and him and smiled, and together they watched the black smoke drift up, up and away.