(published in Bodies in Motion, 2005)
She comes home, rowing the boat with strong arms over the breakwater, jumping out to drag it up onto the shore. She was once a curiosity, and beggar children gathered to laugh, to point, to stare at this strange woman in her widow’s white, this old woman who goes out alone to the sea, every day, in her battered fishing boat. But familiarity breeds comfort as well as contempt, and they have long-ago grown used to her, this strangeness, this madwoman. They have heard her story from their sisters and brothers, their parents, and now no one bothers to tell it. They leave her alone, for the most part. They let her fish.
Most days she trades much of her catch. She wakes up long before dawn, goes out for cold hours in the boat that she has learned to care for, to watch over. Comes back with enough fish to trade for her other small necessities. Rice and lentils. Her goat gives her milk; her chicken lays an occasional egg. It is not much, but she is not as hungry as she used to be, these days. Once the fish are gone, she sleeps away the afternoon. In the evening she walks on the beach; she sits on a particularly large rock; she watches the waves coming in, going out. Since the servant woman died, two years ago, she has lived alone.
Some days are different; this is one of those days. It is monsoon season; the rain has been coming down hard for weeks, working its way through her not quite sealed roof, sending quiet trickles down the walls of hardened clay. There are days in the monsoon season when lentils and rice are no longer enough, when the insistence of memory overwhelms her. Those days, she stands on a teetering stool to reach the highest shelf; she pulls out her hoard of spices, from dust-brown fenugreek to crimson saffron threads. The rain stopped for a few hours this morning, but now it starts coming down again. She walks through it to the village center, her white sari plastered to her slight frame. There she trades smoked fish for rich coconut milk, ghee, fresh vegetables. The other women look at each other, and then tell their daughters: “Medha Aunty is cooking. Go. Watch.” As Medha slowly walks home, limping, the girls trail behind her, eventually gathering under the spreading banyan tree that guards the door to her small house. The monsoon rain is pouring down, slamming hard into the ground, and the children jump as they go, squishing mud between their toes. Medha walks blindly, eyes unfocused, nose deep in the scent of fresh mango rising from the full string bag she carries. Her arms should be aching, but on days like this, she doesn’t notice.
She enters the clean kitchen, clears a space on the table. She takes her large knife in hand, sharpens it carefully on a stone. The girls have crept up to the sides of the house now that she is safely inside; they peer in through cracks, over windowsills. She waits until they are settled before she begins to cook. It is another part of the unspoken bargain that brings her harmony with her neighbors; the bargain has kept her safe with them for decades; she is not about to break it now.
Medha starts slowly, but then catches the angle, the rhythm of it, and moves faster. She puts down the sharpening stone, places three onions on the table. Cuts off the top and bottom of each. Cuts them in half, length-wise. Peels the skins off, being sure to get each bit of brown. It is not a day for being careless, for being just good-enough. When she is satisfied, she rinses them in cold water, and then begins to slice them. Her eyes tear up. It is part of the price she pays for this indulgence. Paper-thin slices, from a hand swift and skilled with long practice. She has been cooking since she was eight? ten? At least sixty years now. Her mother would come and pinch the extra flesh on her arm, hard, when she did not slice thinly enough. Punishing her for two sins at once — for being too clumsy, too fat. Probably for being too dark as well, though Medha truly could do nothing about that. If her mother had lived to see her now, perhaps she would have at least conceded that Medha is no longer fat. She has become a rail-thin woman; wiry and strong from the hours on the ocean, slender from endless meals of rice and lentils. Two cups of each will sustain her in a normal day.
She slices each half-onion, holding it firmly, keeping its shape — then turns it ninety degrees, and dices it cross-wise. For this first dish, she needs a small dice, pieces that are less than quarter the size of her thumb. When the onions are finished, she slides them into one of her large Teflon pots. Her brother in America, Suneel, has tried to send her money; she refuses it, over and over. But one Christmas, he and his wife sent her a beautiful set of Teflon-coated pots and pans. Those, she kept. She loves the way the food slides right out of the pan, the fact that she can just rinse it and be done. She has no interest in the gadgets they send as well; one corner of the kitchen holds cardboard boxes full of unused kitchen toys: lemon zesters, garlic presses. Medha sent back a television recently; she doesn’t know what her brother was thinking. These days, it would only bring news of the fighting in Trincomalee, in Colombo. Young men dying, and now women too. Medha suspects Suneel sends money to the guerrillas. He has tried over and over to convince her to join him in America, but this is her home, and she is old. Suneel worries endlessly over her, and the war. Medha sees no purpose in dwelling on what she cannot help. But the Teflon — that, she likes.
She sautés the onions in ghee, adding black mustard seed, cumin seed. She chops three tomatoes while she waits, chops them small and juicy. When the onions are golden, she adds a teaspoon of raw red chili powder. As it cooks, the smoke rises and makes her cough. That’s her cue to add the tomatoes, a few tablespoons of vinegar, a little sugar, and a mix of dry-roasted spices, dark and fiercely aromatic. As the tomatoes cook down she quickly peels and chops three large potatoes; this first dish is a potato curry, because that takes longest to cook. Into the pot. She stirs hard, turning up the rich blend of onion and spice, coating every piece of potato. She lowers the heat on the gas range (another gift; she remembers cooking over an open fire), covers the dish, and turns back to the cutting board.
One of the tricks to cooking a feast is to think about the timing of it as you plan the dishes. If you are making hoppers, soft pancakes with high, crispy sides, then it is important to remember that they are best eaten entirely fresh — that you will have to make them one by one and serve them to your guests. So you can’t expect to have ten or twenty minutes before the meal in which to make an array of sambols and chutneys. You must make those in advance, or do without. Certain flavors go together, but so do certain timings. If the timing is off, the entire meal may be ruined.
When Medha was sixteen, Suneel had married. Her mother, along with several aunts, had prepared the wedding feast. The bride and groom had stayed at their home for eight days, before taking the train to Colombo, to his parents’ home. Medha’s mother stayed up talking every night with the aunts, and so had allowed Medha to make the breakfasts. She had never cooked for so many before, and while she made enough food, there was always something wrong with it. Every morning, one of the aunts would point out, kindly, that Medha really had to be careful not to put too much tamarind into the fish curry, or too little salt in the sambar. After all, with her looks, it was important that she be a good cook. None of those breakfasts came out perfectly — somehow, she always managed to ruin them. Secretly, she was glad.
But now she has been cooking for sixty years; she has become better than a good cook; she is the best cook for miles around, and everyone knows it. That is why the children huddle in the rain, why young Rani, fifteen years old, peers boldly through the window. The girl is eager to catch the police chief’s son, and Medha’s cooking skills would be a potent lure. Medha could tell the girl that this kind of cooking is not learned by watching, or even by teaching — that it is only the passage of time that grinds the lessons into the muscles and bones. But she cannot be bothered.
Medha pauses before starting the second dish. She undoes the top of her sari, pulling the loose end of the fabric back over her shoulder, down across her breasts. She tucks it into her waistband, leaving her upper body covered only in her thin white blouse, less constricted. It will be easier to cook this way, though that is not why she does it. She chops three more onions, chops them finely this time. As they sauté, she sets eight eggs to boiling; they will be ready when the sauce is finished. Timing, again. Cumin and mustard seed, but this time only turmeric and salt are added. The onions cook gently, caramelizing, filling the room with their sweet scent. Nothing to make her choke; eggs should be sweet and slick, they should slide down your throat as delicate and ephemeral as honey. She made eggs for those bridal breakfasts; she watched Suneel’s bride swallow them greedily, the muscles of her slender throat shivering down. Medha had made eggs every morning for the pleasure of that throat.
The onions have almost burned. She must pay closer attention — nothing can be made perfect without the closest of attention. That is one of the first lessons. It is important to understand that onions cannot be allowed to burn for even five seconds — the slightest burn will coat the dish with an aftertaste that no amount of chili powder can disguise. Once things have started going bad, they are forever changed; there is no going back to that perfect moment, the one that could have been. Although sometimes, there may be a going forward. Burnt food has its own flavor, and sometimes, you can work with it, make it into something else that is, at least, interesting. But that is not her current goal. Today she is creating perfection, and the memory of it to savor. She pours cold water over the cooked eggs; she cracks their shells, slices them into the yellow sauce. She scatters golden sultanas over the top, and slivered almonds. This dish will keep well; she turns a plate over it, and sets it aside.
She stirs the potatoes. They are half done, and so is she.
Medha’s hands move to the front of her sari blouse. She undoes the hooks one by one, working from bottom to top. When it is entirely undone, she slips out of it, folds it neatly, sets it on a corner stool. Her breasts had always been small; now they are further shrunken. The cold still makes her nipples harden, and she can hear the children’s sudden whispering. There are no boys outside; only girls. That is one of the rules, strictly enforced, imposed by the parents, not by Medha. Only girls outside, who see what they will become in time. They have seen this before — still they whisper, every time. They enjoy whispering, as do their parents. That is one reason why Medha can live in peace in this village; she brings her neighbors more pleasure as present scandal than she ever could as past expulsion. It is at times like these that they have an excuse to tell her story again, what they know and what they guess. It will give them something to talk about for days, something other than the war. In a way, it’s almost a gift she gives them. Perhaps they know it. But she does not do it for them.
She takes a bundle of leeks in her hands, four thick stalks. She cuts off the ends, then begins slicing them, again, paper-thin. The thinner they are, the better. Her mother loved saying that. When not a single family offered for Medha, her mother insisted that it was because she wasn’t thin, not like her brother, her sisters. Small and squat and dark. Like a potato. Medha lived at home until she was almost forty; then her father died, and her mother became unbearable. Medha left then, bought her own small house with her share of her father’s money. Her mother had screamed her rage, but had been too feeble to stop her. The house was many miles away, far enough that she never needed to see her mother again. She heard, years later, that the old woman had died.
Medha finishes slicing and ends up with two large bowls full of leeks. She washes them in cold water, sluicing off all the dirt that had lain hidden under the skin. It takes some time. This is the simplest dish; four ingredients are enough. When she is done washing, she fries the leeks briefly in ghee, then adds turmeric and salt. She covers the pan and lets them cook on a low flame.
The leeks will take half an hour to soften, and all she has left to make is the fish, which will not take so long. But it takes time to unwind her sari from around her waist, pulling the fabric out of its tucks in front, spinning slowly as she unwraps each layer of fabric. She would like to dance, but her hip does not allow for quick movement. It aches in this weather, in the rain. The place where the bullet went into her skin, grazing the bone, feels twice as large, twice as sore, when the rain is pounding down, thumping against the ceiling, the ground outside. In America, it wouldn’t have been a serious wound. Suneel, or his wife, would have been treated at a white-walled hospital, half an hour and out again, all patched up, good as new. Here, she had lain on her dirt floor, bleeding until she lost the world and faded into darkness. Her servant woman away, visiting relatives — Medha had been left alone, unprotected in that house. She will never know if her neighbors waited, at all, when they found her. Did they run for help right away, for Pettiah’s son, who was studying to go to medical school in India? Or did they wait, deliberate? A chance to be rid of the scandal in their midst. The woman who had lived with her servant, Daya, for decades, in a house with only one bed. A woman they had insulted, behind her back and to her face. Did they wait, or did they run?
It doesn’t matter. Pettiah’s son had bandaged her up, and she had healed. She had refused to tell them if the man with the rifle had been Tamil or Sinhalese. They left her alone after that — her hip had, inexplicably, won her peace with her neighbors. It was not a small blessing, after all those years — it made days like today a little easier. She finishes her slow turning, the layers of fabric cradled in her arms. Medha folds up the sari with care, not letting any of the wet white chiffon drag across the dirt floor, and places it on top of the folded blouse.
She stirs the potatoes one last time and then starts the rice, lacing the water with saffron threads, a sprinkle of salt, and a tablespoon of ghee. She cooks the last curry standing in only her underskirt, a straight shift of unbleached cotton from waist to ankles. This is the most difficult dish — not because it is so complex, but because fish is fragile. It must be handled with care, neither over nor underdone. All the preparation must be done first, the sauce built carefully. Onions and ghee, cumin and mustard seed, fenugreek and cinnamon, cardamom pods and cloves, chili powder and a spoon of the dry-roasted spice mix. Salt. Tomatoes and vinegar and tamarind pulp, turning the sauce dark and tangy, so that already it smells of the sea. The rice is boiling; she pauses to turn down the rice to a simmer, to cover the pot with a lid. Then she returns to her sauce.
Add a little water, cook it down until it is almost ready — and then slide the cubed fish in, so gently. Make sure all the fish is covered with the sauce, then just let it simmer until it is done, without stirring at all. If you stir too hard, the fish will break apart, will dissolve into fragments. Her fish are soon simmering; she stirs the potatoes one final time; they have been cooking for an hour now, and are meltingly soft. Medha turns off the heat on the pot. The rice finishes, and she turns off that one as well. And then she is only waiting for the fish, counting the time in her head, watching seconds slide by.
When Daya died, Medha went to the funeral. The priest had carefully not looked at her as he spoke the final words. She had not cried, not in front of the villagers. That night, she rowed her boat out into the merciless sea; she lay down in it, and let the water carry her where it would. But when the sun rose, she found that she was not so far out that she could not row back. She returned to the barren shore. Medha gave away all her saris, and began dressing in white. At first the seconds, minutes, and hours had seemed unendurable, but eventually she began taking pleasure in them, in every second that slid by with her still in the world. It was a quiet pleasure, most days. Quiet was enough. Most days.
When the fish is ready, Medha turns off the last burner. She takes a plate down from the shelf, battered tin. She fills a tin cup with cold water. She serves herself rice, fish, leeks, potatoes, eggs. There is enough on her plate to feed a man four times her size. She undoes the tie on her underskirt, and lets it fall to the floor. She carries the plate and cup over to the wall; she sits down, cross-legged on the dirt floor, with her naked back against the wall, with the water sliding down, running along her wrinkled skin, over her ribs, pooling in her hollows of her hips. She takes a drink from the cup, and a sharpened edge cuts the corner of her lip. She balances the plate on her bony right knee, and, shuddering with pleasure, she eats.