The virus came into my life on a March afternoon. Wrapped in an app alert, it reached the gates of my adjacent society. The RWA (Residents Welfare Association) of mine sprung into action. The first casualties of this pandemic were those delivery boys. The gates of my society were locked. We were told only essentials will be delivered. But for a person whose kitchen has never seen more cooking than bread being toasted, what does that word 'essential' even mean? I found out, with a heavy heart, that it did not involve takeaway food.
Takeaway food, that came riding pillion on a bike and was delivered with the occasional smile, had come to be my sustenance in this big city. Zomato, Uber Eats, Swiggy, Foodpanda. The delivery apps were many. They all had one thing in common: the gift of choice. Cuisines, dishes, so much to choose from.
After my nine-hour workday that often stretched to 10, 11, 12; and even 16 a few times, coming back home to cooked food was a luxury that I'd taken for granted. For people like me who can't bring themselves to put oil to the pan, a hot meal is home. The act of eating was solitary, but the warmth of the meal was reminiscent of my mother's touch. Of course, she is a better cook than all these restaurants put together!
I never quite got around to cooking. The patience it demanded was simply beyond me. (Photo: Author)
I've spent almost half my life away from home. In these 13 years away, I never quite got around to cooking. The patience it demanded was simply beyond me. The problem was not even that. The problem was I had to eat whatever I was cooking. So the logical choice was obviously ordering in. I would start looking for a dish to order on one of the apps on my way back from work every evening. So that by the time I had freshened up and changed, the box of joy was ready at my door. The cuisines were many; the options, neverending. You had something for every night. For extraordinarily wistful winter nights, there was even Nolen Gurer Payesh, a kind of kheer. It was overpriced, really less in quantity, but it was home in a disposable bowl.
This Gurer Payesh was the breaking point for my parents. Over time, they had come to expect the name of some new fancy Italian or Mexican dish on the customary night phone call. So the day I told them I'd discovered Gurer Payesh on a home-delivery app, my father's irritation was audible: Since everything is available for home-delivery there, why don't you order a set of parents too?
It took me a while to calm them that night. But they were happy that all these miles away from home, I was getting some semblance of home-made food here.
As I bite into a stack of semi-raw pancakes, I realise what it must have taken for my mother as she toiled in the kitchen. (Photo: Author)
But all of that ended three months ago.
It was almost as if another life began for me. Learning from scratch. Learning to live from scratch. That cooking is an essential life skill never quite cut through to me before these few months.
In these days, I also went back to something my mother often told me when I would show interest in going to the kitchen instead of studying for my boards: Don't get into the handi-tawa life so soon. You will have enough time to learn how to use these. Spend this time with your books; not in the kitchen.
My mother, who was married when she was 20 and had to choose raising us over working in an office, gave me the example of her own life. And sternly told me that when I had a career and work, learning how to cook was not going to be a big deal.
She was right. She kept us away from the kitchen even while others sniggered at us, made fun of us, 'these grown-up girls don't know how to cook'. But she did not let us enter the kitchen at the cost of our studies. Day after day, she toiled in the kitchen after sitting with us for our homework and managing all work. We never quite realised what effort went into a regular lunch with six or seven different dishes. We complained if the Maacher Jhol (fish curry) was too spicy, or if the dal wasn't enough to coat all the rice. Or if the roti was a little undercooked. Now, as I bite into a stack of semi-raw pancakes and leave ready-to-cook fish over the induction cooker for thrice the amount of time than suggested, I realise what it must have taken.
As kids, we complained if the Maacher Jhol that my mother made was too spicy. (Photo: Author)
The lockdown has been lifted. The food delivery boys are crawling back to normalcy, in this new world order where their body temperatures are SMSed and Aarogya status checked at society gates. They are back on their bikes, risking their health through the heat and rain, to bring home that box of happiness. That box of a hot meal. But it is not the same. The feeling of ecstasy that accompanied the box of food will now be accompanied by a frown of worry. Hygiene, health, masks, gloves, sanitisers, disinfectants... the list is endless. Choices, none.
Panic is a different beast altogether. The anxiety never leaves. The 'what-ifs' are neverending. No one wants to be unwell. No one wants to pass this virus on to someone else. If only this virus worked according to our wishes!
So with food delivery out of my life, I did have to make that long journey to the kitchen one Saturday. Because you need to cook if you need to survive. This virus has taught all of us that.
Back home, Ma sighs a sigh of relief every time I send her a photo of the new dish on a weekend: "I can't believe you made this. The lockdown taught you how to cook!"
Thank heavens you can't taste photos.