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The rule had always been “Eat first, complain later”.
Eileen’s cooking was like good intentions that paved the way to Hell’s Kitchen. Her kitchen. She was a diabolical cook. Not “diabolical”, as in a fond, standing family joke about burning soup. But “diabolical” as in an obdurate refusal to combine ingredients in any way that resembled human sustenance. Her cooking was not just witches’ brew. It was apocalyptic.
[private]But as per the house rule Saleem and Sadia would eat the tripe which Eileen told them was fish, the broiled chicken with the gizzard and innards intact, her attempts at Desi cooking, “curries” drowning in coconut milk and overflowing with raisins which would offend not just any North Indian palate, but anyone with a palate at all. Contrary to the house rule, however, there was never a “later”. Never a time for Sadia to complain about her mother’s cooking.
Tension would build during each meal. Sadia’s mother’s ego was on the plate. With each reluctant mouthful Eileen felt rejection not of her food but of her very self. Pre-emptive tears would roll, like a child who thinks it will avoid a telling off if it cries before the telling off. But there never was, and never would be a telling off. Saleem may have hated his wife’s cooking, but he did love her; “Come on dearie, it’s not so bad. Every day there is an improvement.”
Sadia also hated her mother’s cooking. That was all. There were no other emotions devoted to Eileen. Packed lunches with Weetabix smeared in marmalade, not sandwiches. Crisps dipped in Marmite. Sour milk offered to her friends, “Just like lassi!” All these had done for love. As long as Sadia had been eating, her mother had been feeding her thus. No nurture, no love.
In other Pakistani households there was noise, laughter, parties, biryani, tandoori murgh, gulab jammin. But theirs was not like other Pakistani households. In theirs was Eileen and her witches’ brew. In theirs, nothing, no-one. What guests could you bring? What could you feed them? Even Eileen’s cups of tea were fraught with trauma. Her only acceptable culinary offerings were salads. Admittedly, salads well before their time: long before Jamie Oliver, Eileen injected colour and interest to her vegetable platters filled with fibre, GI foods and dried fruit. Her salads were like her; eccentric, revolutionary, out of place. And completely wasted on Saleem and Sadia. How could you feed your extended family on ghaspoos, rabbit food, as Sadia’s Uncle Mubeen, called it, “We are Muslims, we eat meat!”
Meat was a symbol of Muslim militancy. Muslims ate meat and Hindus ate grass in pre-Independence, pre-Partition India. Saleem, a student at the time, had attended a predominantly Hindu college. In the dinner hall, there was one Muslim table to every nine “‘cow worshippers'”. And if there was one thing that would offend those Ramayana boys it was the eating of large amounts of cow, of goat, of lamb, of chicken, in every possible way, for as long as possible, and indeed, until the cows came home. Saleem and his Muslim compadres would order pound upon pound of meat to be cooked and then eaten in front of their “fellow” vegetarian students. Meat dishes, relished slowly, eaten to excess and over hours, second and then third helpings ordered, to the offence and disgust of the students on the nine other tables.
Sadia always thought this story a little suspect. Her normally gentle, tolerant father would have a partisan, parochial glint in his eye. But the story had a bitter irony. Saleem was now himself more vegetarian than anything else, surviving as they did on Eileen’s salads, supplemented, yes, by take-aways ordered from the local Bengali restaurant. But Saleem would only buy the vegetable dishes. “I hate that adulterated generic curry sauce they smear on the meat!”
Eventually the salads and the bhindi and the bhaighan bhaji from the Bengal Lancer became too much for them. And Sadia, now tall enough (using a wooden stool) to stand by the hob, began to cook. The first recipe she learnt from her father was the family tarka dhal. She realised, when she thought of it, that the recipe must have been centuries old. It was uncharacteristic of other North Indian food in that in relied on only two spices (well maybe three, if you included the chilli for its flavour rather than its heat). It was the best dhal of any that Sadia had ever tasted and would ever taste. She mastered this dish and surpassed Saleem in her abilities.
Soon, they had exhausted Saleem’s basic repertoire of peas pilau, chicken korma and keema matar. Saleem and Sadia, now ambitious in their quest for taste, ordered from Pakistan the Mrs. Beeton’s of the Indian cookery world.
The book was written in Urdu script. But this was the forbidden language. Another house rule: No Urdu in front of Eileen: “Your mother must not feel an alien in her own home.”
In most British South Asian homes parents spoke in their native tongue to their children, then were heartbroken to hear the reply in English.
“Beta, kuch khana chahiye?”
“No, mum, I do not want any food. Leave me alone.”
In their house, no gentle mother to offer food. No mother tongue. Sadia hungered for anything that separated her from Eileen. Spoke to her father vigorously and often in his native tongue, only for him to reply in English, “Sadia! English, please! But yes, I will help you with your homework.”
Urdu and all things Pakistani became their dirty secret. Saleem took her every Saturday to the mosque for Quran class. Eileen was told Sadia was attending the Brownies. Saleem even purchased a uniform to reinforce the lie. And on Sunday he would dutifully accompany his wife to her po-faced, albeit well-meaning, ecumenical church; pulling the reluctant Sadia at his side. She sat at the pews, holding the hymn books, hating the rows of grey-haired pious women who were her mother’s friends.
Saleem’s family questioned why Eileen had not converted. He argued that Islam allows a Muslim man to marry a woman of the Book. And Eileen was oh so of the Christian book! No-one could fault her religious and charitable credentials. He reassured his brother Mubeen, “Don’t worry, Sadia is being brought up as a Muslim. Nothing else matters.”
And yes, Sadia each morning offered her prayers on her janamaz, kissing the Quran. And then hid the prayer rug and the holy book far from her mother’s crying eyes. Her father’s excuses, ever present: “Sadia, your mother is a very gentle woman. We do not want to exclude her in her own home.”
So that she would not feel “excluded” Saleem encouraged Eileen to practice her faith as she felt best. Each Thursday evening and Sunday afternoon Eileen would invite her church members for a pot-luck dinner; the luck being that it was Sadia and Saleem who cooked. Cooked for the predominantly vegetarian congregation. Saleem innovated with vegetable pilaus and dishes with paneer. Admittedly, Eileen would also contribute one of her legendary salads.
Sadia wondered how it was possible for vegetarians to eat with such rude gusto. Slurping dhal and fragrant rices: “Oh Saleem, no one can make a curry like you. You are so clever!”
“Sady, can you top up the plate of sauce?”
And Sadia would begin to explain that her name was S-A-D-I-A not … “Don’t worry darling,” Saleem would caution, “All that is important is that you know who you are.” She did. But did her mother?
One summer, Saleem had an unexpected bereavement trip to Pakistan. Sadia and Eileen were alone together for two uncomfortable weeks. The first Saturday, after Saleem’s departure, Eileen asked Sadia if she could cook for her an English breakfast. With bacon and black pudding, “You know what I’m like with frying.”
“Mummy, I don’t eat pork. I can’t touch it. I’m a Muslim.”
As Eileen unpacked the devil’s meat; “Don’t be silly Sadia, you’re not like them. Your father doesn’t want all that for you.”
The stench of bacon hung around the kitchen for weeks, long after Saleem’s return. Neither he nor Sadia spoke of it.
As years went by, Saleem and Sadia continued to excel on the Desi cooking front. But they were continually defeated by chapattis. Cooking chapattis cannot be learnt from a book, and this was long before the days of YouTube. Saleem’s sister, Tahira, was summoned from Pakistan.
She was delighted by the invitation. Eileen was the thief who had stolen Saleem from home. Sadia was a soul to be saved. Tahira was also disgusted by Eileen’s apparent domestic failures. “Come, Eileen Bhabi, I will teach you as well as Sadia.”
Sadia sat at the kitchen table opposite the hob, watching Tahira.
“Look closely, Sadia, at what I am doing. Maybe when I am gone you can help your Mammi?” Tahira put the gas on, placed the dome-shaped cast iron tava over it. She formed a dough ball, flattened it, then rolled it thin. Beat it out in her hands, making the comforting flapping noise of dough on floury skin. It became, bigger, thinner, rounder, beautiful.
“Now Eileen Bhabi, you put the roti on the tava when it is hot enough.”
With one hand Tahira held the uncooked chapatti. With the other she took Eileen’s. Held it for a second, then placed it on the tava.
“But you must first see that it is really hot enough,” nodding her head for emphasis, pressing Eileen’s hand, flat down, on the burning cast iron dome.
Before the scream, before the tears, before the realisation of the assault, in that second, before the sky was rent with Eileen’s pain; in that one second, Tahira held Sadia’s gaze. There was the slightest, tiniest, nod of heads. Aunt and niece in agreement. Although a second later they would both rush in with sympathy and Savlon, neither truly felt sympathy, guilt, compassion. Neither cared. Sadia’s only wish was that Tahira would take her back to Pakistan, far away from Eileen’s tears. Her only consolation was that Eileen suffered mild post-traumatic stress disorder at the very mention of Indian breads thereafter.
Sadia finally left instead to go to university. Eileen encouraged her with “See Sadia, if your father was properly Muslim he would not have let you leave home to study.”
Sadia’s missing her father was trumped by her loathing of vegetarian cuisine. Her visits home were infrequent and truncated. She always attempted to avoid the bi-weekly prayer and pot-lucks. She had grown intolerant of “Oh Sady, don’t you look sweet in your Asian pyjama suits? Not really you though.”
Until she noticed a certain hesitancy in her father’s step. A joking, “Oh Sadia, I feel as I may be in the departure lounge.”
And then, oddest of all, the relaxation of the no-Urdu rule. Requests for Sadia to read the Quran to him, (in her terrible anglicised Arabic accent) and a desire for Urdu poetry; the ghazals of his youth.
Sadia found herself reading Islamic texts for what must be done when a Muslim dies (not that they, Saleem and her, ever spoke of death):
The body to be washed by the nearest male relative. What male relatives? All gone in Pakistan, no relatives here. All driven away by salads and saag.
The community to bear the body, to bury. The community being a gathering of Muslim men. There was no community here.
Sadia wondered what to do. There was no broaching it with Saleem. His only wish was the repeated “I do not want your mother alienated. You must look after your mother. Give her everything she wants.”
It came quicker than she thought. The doctor who signed the death certificate indicated that her father had been ill for many months. Saleem must have known for a long time that his life would be over soon. Eileen looked completely lost; like that child in mother’s form, who had cried tears at meal times. Saleem and Eileen’s love had been a rare and special one. Sadia, almost, maybe, for a moment, had some heart for her.
“Mummy I’m sorry. I must phone the Imam now and the mosque mortuary. Daddy’s body needs to be washed. He must be taken to the mosque. The burial must take place soon.”
The tears, the screams, “I don’t want that! I want him here. I want him in the sitting room until we bury him. My father’s body was kept at home. No mosque, Sadia.”
That afternoon, Saleem’s body was taken and embalmed by the Co-op funeral directors. They returned him the next day to reside in a coffin in the sitting room, until he was buried almost a week later. The only friends informed of his death were her mother’s prayer group. They all agreed, “It’s what your father would have wanted.”
His funeral was at least secular rather than Christian. Sadia couldn’t even call Mubeen or Tahira in Pakistan, so ashamed was she of this unclean burial. They might as well have boiled Saleem in bacon.
For the wake, Sadia cleaned the house till it sparkled. Filled it with jasmine and tuberose. Burned sandalwood joss-sticks, agarbattis. Found an amp and speakers used for festival events and blasted recitations of the Quran in every room. And prepared the food.
She went to the halal butcher, confiding only in him her father’s passing. He helped her lift kilogram upon kilogram of lamb, hard hen and mincemeat into the car. The only vegetables in sight, coriander and onion; the tomatoes were, after all, truly fruits. She asked him if he knew of any recipes where you combine different types of meats in one dish. The butcher laughed and said that he would ask his wife. She ordered from him a goat’s carcass to put on a spit roast in the garden. It would be placed in its entirety, head, eyes and all, on the table later.
“Sadia,” the butcher asked, “any vegetables from the front of the shop for salad?”
“No Uncle. No salad today.”
When the funeral guests arrived every surface was covered in stainless steel dishes with meat kebabs, bhuna, lamb and chicken korma, keema mince meat: the only green, a casual garnish of coriander. Even the rice dishes were biryanis brimming with chicken and lamb. Not one dish catered for the vegetarian palate. Even fish was banned. If Sadia could have put a dead animal in the tea, she would have.
The po-faced churchgoers arrived.
“Oh Eileen, Saleem was a prince among men.”
“Oh Eileen, what a beautiful service”
“Oh Eileen”, “Oh Eileen”, “Oh Eileen”.
“Oh Sady, you must look after your mother”. “Oh Sady, you must …”
And as they proceeded to the (flesh-laden) tables “Oh, we will miss those lovely vegetable curries Saleem made for us.”
“No one could cook curry like Saleem.”
And as they took in the spread, the spit roast goat almost baa-ed at them.
“Sady” (using sharp tones, surely not appropriate when speaking to the bereaved?)
“Sady, there is nothing here we can eat. There are no vegetarian dishes.”
“I know,” was the only unapologetic reply.
It was the final year of Sadia’s degree, but Eileen showed no signs of coping with independent living. A promise to a dying father is still a promise. Muslims are enjoined to care for even the most unjust of parents. The degree could wait. The cooking could not.
Each day a different dish.
“Oh Sadia, this dhal tastes almost authentic. As good as any restaurant.”
“Yes, Mummy. Do you want a chapatti with that?”[/private]
N. S. R. Khan is of Scottish and Pakistani parentage. She was a criminal defence barrister for several years. Her first short story is published in Too Asian, not Asian Enough, edited by Kavita Bhanot. A further story was performed at the South Asian Literature Festival 2011. This has been adapted for radio and will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2012.