She watched her mother in law place the bowls of food in the centre of the dining table, as she set the table for three.
She peeked at Abhi, who had just wandered into the dining area, looking completely unaware that his mother had just announced that she had cooked his favourite meal. He had his iPad in his hand, and sat down at his place at the placing it in front of him it. She wondered whether it was work. She did not have to wonder for long.
“Another wicket down”! he announced.
His mother smiled indulgently at him. “Cannot stay away from cricket can you? Can my cooking tempt you”?
Abhi looked at the spread, “Lovely! Biuli-r daal and posto”! he said and started to tuck in.
She started to eat as well, wondering how she could avoid the fish. She hated fish, having always felt that it was the worst part of being Bengali and growing up in Kolkata. Fish was being eaten all around her, and she could not stomach it. Her brother used to love asking their mum, loudly in her presence, whether she had been adopted, as she was the only member of her extended family who did not like to eat fish. Her mum would insist she ate her fish, “It will improve your intelligence”, she would say as she devised new ways of making fish appetising for her daughter.
Her mother in law spoke again, bringing her back from her sojourn to her own family back in Kolkata.
“When are we leaving for the shops”? she asked. Abhi looked up from the iPad.
“Whenever”, he shrugged.
“Over here we have to do the whole week’s shopping on the weekend. Not like in Kolkata where you can just send out the servant to go do your grocery shopping daily”, her mother in law smiled at her kindly.
She nodded and bent back over her plate of food, wondering whether she should tell her mother in law that she had grown up in India, not the bottom of a well. She bit her tongue. She remembered her mother saying “Don’t try to push anything. Take it easy. Your mother in law will be there for a few weeks, try and learn as much about everything as you can, and then work out what will suit you best”.
“Yeah, just shut up for as long as your mother in law is there, and then you can show your true colours”, her brother had grinned at her.
The rest of the would be life lesson had fallen on absent ears as sister had given chase to brother.
She peeped at Abhi again, he was eating happily enough, though not showing much appreciation for the food, engrossed in the cricket match. She wondered what he would say, if she never cooked fish. Not that she knew how to cook, since she had never been interested in learning. Her cousin, who lived here in Sydney, across town, had told her that everyone learnt to cook, it was a survival thing, but she could not imagine herself standing over a stove sweating over culinary wonders. It just did not appeal.
“You know, you have only been here a couple of days, don’t worry, I will show you how to make a few simple things. And then slowly you can learn. You have that recipe book I gave you, just use it, it is very good”.
She remembered with a thud of her heart that she had accidentally on purpose left the book behind in Kolkata. She thought she might just say that the stress of going through the migration process, preparing for the wedding, working at the international company she had been in, had all taken their toll, and she had forgotten. Or she might not. Abhi was still watching the cricket. He did not speak much, even though he seemed happy to answer any questions. She thought back to the times she had met him prior to becoming engaged. He would speak easily and at length when prompted, but seemed to be a man of few words at other times. Actually he had spoken most when it had been only her and her brother in his company.
Later, at the supermarket she wandered around, a little cold in the air conditioning, but looking with interest at the way everything was displayed. It seemed so much smaller than the ones in Kolkata, but she had hardly ever been grocery shopping there, as Bonkai dada would buy their daily needs from the traditional greengrocers at the markets. So she did not have much to compare it with. She could see other glittering stores outside the supermarket, and felt a need to get out and explore there. Her mother in law was discussing what would be the best brand of rice with Abhi. She looked around and said, “I come to Sydney so often that I am now very familiar with the life style here, and I know all the brands. Don’t worry, I will stock up the kitchen for you, and you can just watch and learn.” She turned back to Abhi, “I will buy some plain flour as well”. Abhi had wandered away slightly, but came back at that and said, ”Will you finish the flour? Last time you did not, and I had to throw out the rest, as it got weevils”.
His mum flashed him a big smile. “Not to worry, I have found you a pretty bride. She will make sure no food goes to waste.”
Abhi walked away again, and she wondered whether her mother in law really believed that if she hinted often enough, her daughter in law would start to take an interest in cooking. She started to feel a little desperate. She was taking a few weeks holiday, but then she had to start looking for work, restart her career, start ticking off her to do list, everything she wanted to do in life. Making sure plain flour did not go to waste was not on that list.
She picked up a juice. Nudie, it said. “*Nothing but 20 oranges. With pulp”. She liked fruits and fruit juices. She tentatively put it in the trolley.
“Oh, that is too expensive.” Her mother in law was taking it out of the trolley and exchanging it for another brand. She looked at the prices. It was true, the one she had chosen was twice as expensive as the one that her mother in law had just picked up. She blushed. Even though she would be able to recite all the currency exchange rates, she did not really know how it translated into daily living. As she turned away with a murmured word of apology, she noticed that Abhi was back at the trolley. He picked up the juice his mother had put in, and looked at it, and then put it back in the trolley. Their eyes met, and she felt her cheeks grow hotter, but then he strolled away again.
When they were back home, packing the shopping away, she saw that the Nudie juice had somehow made it home. Her mother in law made an irritated sound when she saw it, “eesh! We bought the expensive juice as well, by mistake. Look, Abhi”, she said going in search of her son, “should you go and return it”?
Abhi was lying on the sofa, legs dangling over the arm rest, arm over eyes. “why bother, its only juice”, he muttered.
She wandered back past him towards the bedroom, and as she turned the corner, she looked back at Abhi. She caught him putting his arm back over his eyes. Had he been watching her?
In the evening they went out to a friend’s place for dinner. “Everyone goes out every weekend for dinner”, said her mother in law. “It is a way to keep the Bengali culture going”. She turned back in her seat to look back at her quiet daughter in law in the back of the car. “Once you have learned how to cook, you can invite every one. I will make a list of all the people you need to invite and feed. I know all Abhi’s friends”.
The food was overwhelmingly good. It made her nervous even to eat it. Everyone made a great deal of her. They seemed genuinely excited to see her. They asked her about her work, her parents, her family, whether she liked Sydney, even though she had only been here a few days. They suggested places for Abhi to take her to, and congratulated her for arriving in Sydney during the best season. They made plans for outings together, in the end she felt she could become one of them. She was very grateful because no one asked her whether she could cook. A few of the women did mention some of their early faux pas with cooking, but everyone seemed to assume that she would be cooking very soon. She did not know whether to be glad that they had not asked her, or irritated that they seemed to assume she had any interest in cooking. In the end, once she could get the issue of cooking out of her mind, she enjoyed herself.
Late that night in the privacy of their bedroom, she ventured to ask Abhi, “will we be going to a honeymoon”?
He was taking off his watch and emptying his pockets of his wallet and other sundry items, but said easily enough, “of course. That’s what we planned, a honeymoon, once you arrived in Australia.”
He went towards the bathroom, but came back. “Mummy is here for another few weeks, but if we can plan it, we can virtually leave for our honeymoon the day after she leaves.”
She nodded. She had waited all these months for her visa, to resign at her old job, come over to a new country, another few weeks would work. She pulled his iPad on to her lap, and Googled “tropical island getaways”.
When Abhi wandered back into the room she was engrossed in trying to decide where to go, he lay down next to her, and leaned his head on hers, looking at the screen. “that does look nice, a definite possibility”.
It was quite late when she weaved her way to the kitchen the next morning, intent on making herself a cup of tea. There was no Meeni Mashi here to bring her tea and biscuits, while she lazed in bed wondering what to wear on a Sunday. She had to rub her eyes a couple of times. Her mother in law was cooking. Honestly, did she ever think of anything but cooking and food?
She felt like saying “eeesh, na baba”! but came forward docilely and picked up the frying spoon. Very soon her mother in law was happily aghast at her non existent luchi frying skill.
“Look Abhi, I might have to stay longer and teach your wife how to cook, otherwise you will go hungry”!
She had not noticed Abhi had come in and made three cups of tea.
“I don’t think we will, mama”, he said handing the women a cup each, “I know how to cook, I have for the last few years.” He wandered away.
Image credit: http://timescity.com/blog/bengali-cuisine/
For those foodies in the readership, who are not familiar with Bengali cuisine (or phrases):
posto: A preparation usually made with potatoes and white poppy seeds
biuli-r daal: A type of lentil
maach bhaja: The Bengali way of frying fish
Luchi: Fried puffed bread Bengali style
“eesh or “eeesh”: A typically Bengali exclamation, with no equivalent in any other language that I know of. It can range from expressing irritation to to expressing appreciation, to expressing satire, and much more. Usually used by women, somehow.
“na baba”: “na” meaning no, “baba” being a word for Father, but when added on to words like no, just emphasises the word, and has no special meaning in the phrase. So “na baba” would just mean “no”.