Whistles by Himadri K. Sanyal


It will still take a while. Chickpeas should be boiled for 12-15 whistles, approximately 20-25 minutes on a low gas flame, which gives me enough time to chop the supplementary vegetables like onion, tomatoes and prepare the spices’ paste for the chole, the chickpea curry. Till the pressure is settling down, I hastily chop down the cauliflower into little florets to make a vegetable fry to go with rice and chole which altogether will fill up the three divisions of my new serving steel plates providing a very nice look to guests, or let’s say a ‘well stocked’ look which is definitely more essential to satisfy middle-class cravings. In my opinion, chole is the best dish to serve to guests, it just requires some soaking and boiling with no chopping involved and it presents a rich look and also tastes very good, but perhaps the later reason is more to do with me since I make chole exceptionally well. That’s what Sanya, my today’s guest, has always told me. Although one shouldn’t serve chole to the same guest upon every visit, but this case is an exception, since Sanya, my childhood friend, is a fan of my chole since I started cooking, and she only insists that I cook it every time she comes over. This coming over is however taking place after three whole years and other than her short call to announce her visit to us, there was surprisingly no habitual culinary demands. The phone conversation broke abruptly after her four months old daughter started crying. Last time she was here, her two year and few months old son just went around crying and throwing things all over the house. This now reminds me timely of putting all fragile things away in a safe place, beyond the reach of her two children. It still pinches me a little to think of the clay doll that my aunt had brought for me from a handicraft fair from her hometown which was broken mercilessly by Sanya’s son. Sanya did apologise many times since she knew my love for the handicrafts, but her mother seemed so unapologetic about the whole situation and made it obvious from her attitude that children were special blessings by gods, and therefore they stood above any such man-made things. 

O.K, here goes the first whistle and now rest of the whistles will follow quickly. In a way, cooker’s whistles are so soothing, and they mark the progression in the kitchen’s life and perhaps also in my very own. I lowered down the flame some more and the cooker’s shrill went to simmer and I heard the frail voice of my mother- “Aparna, you are in the kitchen, aren’t you?”. I actually heard only the parts of the sentence like “Aparna” and “kitchen” but I could make out the whole sentence for myself. My mother’s long years of illness has not only eaten up her health but also her voice and if one is not in the radius of five feet to her, one can’t at all hear her. In fact, as far as I remember, I have seen my mother like this only, her frail body oozing out a mix of medicines’ smell and her voice louder only when the pain in one of her body parts becomes unbearable for her. After two more ‘Aparnas’ I went to her room to inquire if she needed something. She was standing outside of her room in desperation to call me which makes perfect sense of her voice traveling all through the hallway to me, covering the maximum distance that it could. 

“What are you preparing for lunch for Sanya’s visit?” asked my mother with her hand on her waist, evidently to smother the pain growing there. Pain seems to shift in her body all through the day and does a full rotation from morning to evening.

“Why? Chole it is! She won’t settle for anything else, don’t you remember?” I replied with a hint of irritation and at the same time felt amused at the fact whether her illness has now started snacking up on her brain. In any case, her illness has started devouring my patience bit by bit. And on the top of that, we don’t even know how to phrase her illness in fancy diseases’ names other than pain, weakness and sometimes low pressure.

“Oh yes! I do now. But what about the dishes to go with it?”

Her interest in anything else than her pain and medicines came rather as a surprise to me. Is her health getting any better, well I hope not! There already have enough changes taken place this year with my father’s early retirement leading to a change of routine at home. However, retirement is a wrong word in this case; the factory where he worked had closed down and he chose to idle away his time at home in his early 50s with the compensation amount that he got against the still 10-year valid contract. Actually, the compensation he managed to get only after Sanya’s father’s intervention in the whole matter and his approach to the big bosses in my father’s factory. My family and Sanya’s family remained on good terms even after they shifted from here to another part of the town some 5-6 years ago, in a bigger house, claiming they needed a bigger place since the family will grow after Sanya’s wedding, however making less sense to me, since the family will shrink after Sanya’s shift to her in-law’s place as is customary after marriage in our society.

“Ma, I am planning to make cauliflower fry, rice and salad.” I complied her with a satisfactory menu for the regular guests.

“Make pooris (deep fried bread) too as Sanya and her mother will be accompanied by children and children make a mess of rice, whereas they can play all around eating pooris, preferably with some sweet chutney. Yes, you should make some tomato chutney too. I have also asked your father to bring some sweets for them.” My mother spoke all these lines with some pauses and long breaths in between but her excitement was apparent and her planning perfect.

Before I could open my mouth in the admiration, she spoke again- “Get me coriander, cucumber and onion so that I can help you with peeling and chopping.”

“Hmmm. Right away.” Without any appreciation for her planning skills, I went into kitchen to get the veggies she asked for, the ones she is good at helping with her weak hands. These little tasks become a nuisance especially with an extensive menu and I am glad, she volunteered to share the load. And I also have to take bath after cooking and cleaning and get into something fresh. With my father being out at this time, I could use my previous freedom of taking bath at ease in mid afternoon and coming out with only a towel under my kurta and wear the salwar only after I had moisturised my legs and feet in my room. I don’t miss these small freedoms that much, but my dry skin definitely does.

Compromise is in my blood, Sanya had pointed out years ago, after I had said no to asking for extra money for buying fancy ribbons and hair clutches for our school function. I don’t agree with her on this, but we certainly have different temperaments and our friendship owed more to the proximity of our flats and the friendship of our fathers than us being on the same frequency of dreams and desires. Again, for going to Delhi for college education, she fought with her parents and her brother supported her too but I without any complains or demands enrolled in a local college. Her list for a perfect husband was also never ending and annoying but I again happily settled for an uneventful life as a caretaker for my mother at my parents’ place. The thoughts came to a halt with the last whistles of cooker in progress. I hurried my tempo.

Sanya was unusually quiet and withdrawn. Lunch was also a quiet affair with her little daughter sleeping peacefully the whole time in her lap and her son watching the only cartoon channel available on our local cable with the pooris and chutney. In my heart I was thanking my mother for the wonderful idea. Sanya’s mother had her lunch with my mother in her room accompanied by hushed tones of chatting. It is slightly unusual as she never much liked the medicines’ smell in Ma’s room and had always confined herself in the living area. In fact, my mother used to make hard compromise of sitting uncomfortably on dining table chair for the entire session of aunt’s chatting about Sanya’s great married life.

“Did I not make chole spicy enough for you? You don’t seem to enjoy it.”  I interrupted Sanya’s lunch of slow morsels and her preoccupied state. She has reduced some weight and lost her radiance. Two children are definitely not an easy job. Thank god, she had separated from her dominating in-laws after the birth of her first child making the married life less stressful for her. I have heard many horrible stories in her regular visits in the first year of her wedding and rest details were covered by her mother in her occasional visits to their previous home to meet the renters, ultimately ending in lunches and intimate chats at our house. Sanya’s husband was however never a villain in these stories and after Sanya’s regular presence in our town reduced to zero from minimal after her separation from her in-laws, I got all the information about her perfect life from aunty only which also got a full stop after the doubling of the blessings in Sanya’s life, the birth of her second child.

My feet froze at the split doors of my mother’s room when I heard aunt whispering in my mother’s ears that the future now appears only dark for Sanya and her two children. And then little hesitatingly, ‘Sahil wouldn’t budge from his claim to separation from Sanya, citing Sanya’s nagging nature’ and then sobbing, ‘May god show no mercy to the other woman. Even the coming of second child didn’t help’ her voice broke down. 

I was so taken aback by this unexpected conversation that the sweet syrup dripping from the tilted sweets’ bowl on my Kurta reminded me to leave the two women to contemplate about Sanya’s future. Considering it no occasion to offer sweets, I returned to Sanya who was collecting the bites of pooris left by her son on the floor. The remaining evening was as quiet as the lunch; Sanya kept herself busy with children with occasional exchange of words with me and aunty spent the record time in my mother’s room more than she or for that matter anybody had ever spent there.  

Everybody was leaving now and before I could touch aunt’s feet, she took my hands in hers, and gave me her blessings for being such an obliging daughter and then she asked ‘I could never understand your recipe for such perfectly textured chole. For how many whistles you said you keep the chole on the pressure?’

‘10 on high flame’ I lied.

 Himadri K. Sanyal is a PhD candidate in film studies with a keen interest in reading literature and writing fiction. 

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