Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Queen of Chapati

During a festival seven years ago, Shashi, a woman of the prestigious Brahmin caste lost her husband when his best friend murdered him over a sum of 35,000 rupees (the equivalent of about $1,250). During the 45-day period of mourning Shashi was not allowed to leave her house and was expected to lament his death with the many members of his family as they arrived day-by-day to pay respects. When it had come time to move on, Shashi was not allowed to remarry or to work, and if she were to follow her role in Hindu tradition she was required to shave her head and dress in white rags, living the remainder of her life in poverty, for those who supposedly knew better held her responsible for this senseless tragedy, which had certainly been a terrible consequence of dour karma. With two young sons to raise the option of renunciating the world was quite unfeasible. She needed work or at least help of some kind but her husband's family, who lived upstairs, refused her requests for aid and in fact stopped paying her utility bills. Shashi's downstairs flat went into a dry darkness, as she lost access to water and electricity. These were the desperate circumstances in which the widowed mother of two had to restart her life.

That Shashi would eventually manage to overcome the tragic circumstances endemic in this "secular democracy" is a tale of perseverance. Her story is not generally heard by most vacationing westerners and is not on Saturday's itinerary sandwiched between Buddhist rock caves and Jain temples. And if it weren't for her ingenuity I might not have been fortunate enough to meet her and her story would have remained an internal affair, a covered-up pimple nevertheless scarring the diamond face of India.

Shashi lives in Udaipur, which any badge-pinned guide worth his hyperbolic salt will tell you, is the "Venice of the Orient," flying past exaggeration into outright distortion, Venice being a coastal city of canals and Udaipur being an inland, aggregated city situated around a lake. The city is certainly most famous for being the primary setting of Octopussy, one of the James Bond franchise episodes in which Roger Moore is at his most cheeky (the movie plays ad nauseum every day in the numerous lakeside restaurants; will play in all likelihood until the end of the world—a waiter told me he's seen the movie 10,000 times). When the monsoons are good and drought is remote the lake shimmers, landmarked by a gorgeous palace in its center (rooms about the better suites running $2,500 a night). In fact, water—as a source of life and nourishment— is nearly supplementary to its aesthetic value, for when the lakebed dries business dies and India being a large country, the tourists roam elsewhere.

Shashi is not from Udaipur but from a neighboring village with very traditional values. Being from a good family of respected caste, Shashi was wedded to a handsome man of similar social standing and solid career prospects. Like most marriages in Hindu tradition, her marriage was arranged and the day before the wedding she had not yet met the man she was to spend the rest of her life with, having only seen his photo once before the ceremony. After the marriage, she left her family and village and the people she had known all her life for the big city.

Her husband ran a lakefront restaurant geared towards tourists. Like nearly all eating establishments in Udaipur, meals were served on the roof with a view to the lake and palace, insinuating the romance of the maharaja and a more gilded age. She bore him two sons and their family lived well. When a ten-day festival came to Udaipur seven years ago, Shashi's husband and his best friend set up a food stall to cater to the crowds. Their profits were excellent and when it came to split the money, the best friend proved to be his worst enemy. After arriving by scooter at his house, the friend suggested supper before business. Unbeknownst to Shashi's husband, the food had been heavily drugged and after he passed out his friend used a plastic rope to strangle him to death. Despite the cover-up, a police investigation found evidence of rope marks but even though the friend was indicted, tried and convicted for murder, he managed to bribe his way through the courts, serving a jail sentence of just one year, allowed to keep the balance of his dirty money.

Meanwhile Shashi received nothing that was rightfully hers and no compensation for the heinous crime. Instead of empathizing with her situation, her husband's family blamed her for the bad luck, cutting off her electricity and water hoping she would go away for good. They lived right upstairs, they saw her every day, and they did nothing for her.

Left to her own device, Shashi betrayed the rules of her caste. She had her sons visit the guesthouses to retrieve laundry, which she washed in the very early morning as not to attract attention for she was not supposed to work. Later she snuck out at dawn to clean hotel rooms. It went on like this for nearly five years, a desperate time with almost no money and both fear and shame dominating her emotions. Then, less than two years ago, one of her sons brought home two Australian tourists who wanted to learn how to make chutney. And that was how she found a way out of the darkness and a calling that would utilize her charms and talents: cooking classes.

In Udaipur, the competition is cutthroat. Around the streets of the tourist enclaves on the north side of the lake, signs, bulletins, and flyers for cooking classes are as ubiquitous as announcements for the 7pm Octopussy showing. Many of these schools have been in operation for years and in becoming profitable have, in the balance, lost a certain homespun touch. Classes can fill a dozen spots, can charge up to $25, and with nearly all the vegetables prepped there is little hands-on participation for students—consequently the event is more that of an expensive meal rather than a learning experience.

Shashi restricts her classes to three students for that is the limit that can fit comfortably in her kitchen. The kitchen adjoins her living room, where her home-from-school sons put their feet up on the family bed and watch television. It took us four hours to prep and cook the entire menu—masala tea (mixed with fresh-ground cardamon, peppercorn, and ginger), potato and onion pakora, coriander and mango chutneys, aubergine and tomato curry, vegetable palau, naan with cheese and tomato, potato parantha, coconut sweet parantha, and a stack of chapatti, the dishes variously spiced with anise, oregano, garlic, tumeric, cumin, chili pepper and sugar, a comprehensive overview of a very regular Indian diet.

Two years ago when Shashi began her classes she did not speak a word of English. Raised in a Rajasthani village and a fixture in the household under her husband's shadow, she did not learn any vocabulary until she discovered her talent for teaching. In the beginning she relied on hand signals for communication, but being attentive to the tourists' a-ha exclamations regarding what she wanted to express, Shashi catalogued a phonetic dictionary of common words, culinary and otherwise, that began to pepper her vocabulary: "grind," "stir," "heat," "boil," "flip," "cauliflower," "peas," "waste," "burn," "knead," "dough," "rolling pin," "spatula," and eventually she learned the tragic words which chronicled her life story: "murder," "bad man," "police," "bribe," "injustice," "widow," "bad luck," "abandoned," "shame," "fear." In conversation she makes the grammatical mistakes typical of people speaking English as a foreign language, dropping noun articles and mixing tenses; she has a preference for imperatives ("Flip now!"). Nevertheless, her concise speech is quite clear, her culinary directions nearly flawless, and it is quite a feat to learn how far she has come in so short a time as a result of her assiduous note-taking.

Indian food continues to be a mystery for Westerners. Quality in most restaurants is often elusive. I could taste the difference in the food Shashi taught me to cook: the recipes being quite specific about spice content, length of cooking time, the balance of ingredients. Her precise interpretation of common Indian dishes is spectacular. Having spent six months in India on various trips, the food I cooked under Shashi's guidance had been one of the great meals I have had. She is a bit of an underground sensation in Udaipur, surviving and succeeding on word-of-mouth alone. Still despised by her husband's family she shares the building with, she is now envied for her good luck and the well-deserved popularity that she's earned for herself. Her sons are nearly of age, university-bound, likely for positions of hotel management and decent salaries which according to Shashi means the misshapen fortune that darkly characterized the family in the past is gone and they have grown to be most eligible bachelors.

It's been suggested in some Indian literature that a woman directly transfers her emotions into her chutney so that the eater of samosas and pakoras consumes not only mango, mint, or coriander but regret, sorrow, love, indulgence, heartbreak, tenderness…and perhaps this may be the very reason her meals are so wonderfully palatable. There is a strong, redemptive spirit here, seasoned with salt and lemon juice, blending effortlessly into the chili taste. Like all the very best meals, it is rejuvenating.

Edited from an earlier draft dated 2008

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