Arre Shiv. What is this? Your there is too much chilli in this daal. It is too thick. Go, add some water and a little curd, and then bring it. Yesterday, you didn’t put enough. Today you have put too much. Can’t you do anything right?”
Amma sat on a cane chair in her room, reclining on a cushion designed specifically to support her 84-year-old back. Her back had been giving her trouble for over six years now, ever since she had slipped in the bathroom. Oh, what a terrible fall that had been, and how bravely she had gotten through it all!
The floor had been wet and Amma had slipped as she strode towards the washbasin. As she hit the ground, she thought she heard the sound similar to that of a twig snapping. Then everything went black for a few seconds. The muscles on the periphery of her stout frame hurt. Her lower back hurt; her upper back hurt. Amma was not used to lying on wet floors, and the cold wetness of the floor seeping through the back of her blouse and petticoat gave her goose pimples. Amma called for help.
She had lain there, on the floor, for a full three minutes before anyone had heard her brave and loud cries for help. Ramu, who had been the cook then, had knocked on the door, but Amma, with only a petticoat and a blouse on, sprawled on her back, had refused to let the help help her. Though heavy, Amma was brave. With one hand on the toilet bowl, Amma had first pulled herself onto her knees, stifling several cries of pain. She had slowly stood up, supporting her paining back with her left hand, and then draped herself in the Japanese nightgown that her son, Shekhar had got for her from Singapore. The doctors later told Amma that she shouldn’t have taken this risk, and but x-ray’s revealed no damage to her spine. Amma smiled. As always, she had done the right thing.
Still, she remained in pain for the next week and Arindam, her grandson, sat with her for two hours every evening to keep her company. They even had dinner together, before he left for work. Ramu, however, lasted only for two more months.
Amma loved Maa ki daal, a preparation of pulses that she had mastered over the years. While her husband, a deputy collector in the Rajasthan government, was alive, guests used to drop in for lunch or dinner everyday. Guests would comprise of several prominent businessmen and jewellers and they would often bring gifts for Amma. Her husband loved the daal and had it every day. Inspite of other dishes being prepared, Maa ki daal just had to be on Rajsingh sahib’s dining table. And without fail, Rajsingh sahib, her husband, would praise “Gayatri’s daal”. Even guests were never short of praise, and it gladdened Amma’s heart when her preparation was appreciated. And so, she always took special care when guiding the cook about the quantity of Yellow Gram, Black Lentil, Rajma, curd and a pinch of chilli powder that went into the preparation. “Don’t cook it for too long, lest it lose colour,” Amma would tell the cook of the season.
Yes, Amma loved Maa ki daal. She also liked its taste.
But things had changed. Amma now resided with her son, Shekhar, and grandson, Arindam. Shekhar worked as a marketing manager in a large bank. He was travelling often, all over India. Often, he went outside India, usually to Indonesia and Bangkok, and brought back gifts for her and her son. Arindam, 26, was working in a big multi national corporation. He was in charge of a team of trained professionals handling technical support for several companies around the world. He was in important man in an important position. Amma was in charge of the home; Shekhar had separated from his wife, Saloni, a few years ago. Amma had never liked Saloni; she was never a good cook, and what sort of a mother goes to work in an office full of men, when she has a husband and a child to tend to?
Arindam used to visit his mother once every week, on Sundays. Amma had heard, from her friends, that Saloni had remarried, but she never asked Shekhar or Arindam about Saloni. Amma had no interest in that woman. She had tried to separate her grandson from his father. No, Saloni was of no interest to Amma. Besides, neither Shekhar nor Arindam spoke to Amma about her.
Shiv was the third cook that year. Amma never liked the cooks – they would either finish their work too fast and then sit idle, listening to music from that infernal radio set Shekhar had placed in the kitchen, or they worked too slow and she had to keep telling them to hurry up. None of them were specialists- they were just boys who cooked for a living. Teach them driving, and because it paid more, they would leave cooking. As such, they never enjoyed what they did. It was all about the money.
Amma disapproved of this philosophy; She had told her grandson “Arindam, beta, you must do whatever you enjoy. If you don’t like it, don’t do it. Live is too short to be wasted on something you don’t like doing. Money is secondary – you must be satisfied with your job.” Arindam took her advice and joined that big multinational firm. He must have loved his work, why else would he work late at night? But these so called cooks never learnt. They just didn’t understand the nuances of cooking, and neither did they seem to want to.
Amma took it upon herself to teach them how to cook, but they never stayed long enough – three months, and they would leave. One of them, Surender, had even argued with her before walking out; said that she would drive him mad if he stayed any longer. These young boys had no concept of loyalty. Shanti, Amma’s neighbour, had told her that Surender took up a job as a cook in Kailash colony, for Rs.1800, an increment of Rs.300 a month.
“So it was pre-planned”, Amma thought. “He just wanted more money.”
Shiv had been working in Amma’s house for three months now. Amma found his cooking adequate, but he still had not mastered the art of preparing Maa ki daal. But for her back, she would have been in the kitchen, guiding him. He was a quiet fellow, but slow. He wasn’t too intelligent either – sometimes, he would put too much black lentil, and the pulse would become too thick. On other occasions, he would put too little curd, and the pulse would have no texture. Cooking, according to Amma, was an exact science. One needed to be accurate, like in chemistry.
So, while Shiv went back to add water to the pulse with too much chilli, Amma rested her back on the imported cushion with the ‘Made in India’ sticker that Arindam had noticed and thought of times gone by, when Shri Kishanchandra, the owner of Kishanchandra Jewellers had requested that a little Ma ki daal be packed so that his wife might also taste it.
“She will call you, Bhabhiji. Please be so kind as to tell her how to make it so tasty.” Rajsingh sahib had beamed.
“She never did call me up,” thought Amma. “Did she not like it? Perhaps…”
It was Shiv. He had brought the daal, and stood at the doorway, casserole in hand.
“Perhaps Kishanchandraji dropped the container and spilled the contents. That is why even he never mentioned it”
Amma looked up at Shiv, who had walked up her. His face was expressionless. He placed the casserole on the table in front of Amma. Amma took a spoon in one hand, and patted the roti in the plate with the other. She lifted the cover of the casserole slowly, as Shiv stood in front of her, awaiting further instructions.
“You idiot? Can’t you do one thing right? Look at this daal. It’s completely lost its colour. Who told you to cook it for so long? This daal is supposed to be deep brown, and now it is light. Maa ki daal does not deserve to be made by you. But what can I, an old woman do? I will have to eat what is given to me.”
Not a word left Shiv’s lips. He stood, battered ego and all, and with his head bow
“If my back was okay, I would have told you how to make it. And look, this roti is cold now. How can you expect me to have it cold, with my teeth? Go. I will have to eat this daal, but I want a fresh roti. The daal has completely lost colour.”
Shiv started taking driving lessons with whatever little money he had saved up.
Nikhil recommends that Amma take a look at motivation theories, seek psychiatric help, or “get out more often”. But, most importantly: give the poor cooks a break; they’re just trying to make ends meet.