In the spate and aftermath of recent stresses, I made a startling discovery, in the curtained fitting room of a dress shop, far away from home. I was not prepared for it, a cold, unsecured fitting room is hardly a place to make a personal discovery.
To the shock of the fitting room attendant, I would emerge sullen, nearly in tears upon trying on every new dress I had picked. It was not about the color, the style, or even the price.
I was down by three dress sizes.
Not one, or two, but three.
I was the same size as I had been before I came to the US.
That was more than two decades ago.
I was the same size as my teenager.
No-no-no! This was not right.
Our family doctors words rung in my ears, from 1995, Kamat Doctor had cautioned me I would die in America if I stayed that size, twenty two years ago. No, no no.. A fitting room was no place to cry.
Each time, I walked out into the florescent lit space, my disbelief echoed louder in my head. Unconsciously, those inside voices began to spill out in slow murmers. My disbelief bounced off the white walls, the mirrors, my multiple reflections that only magnified my fears and my reflection- I felt I was in a funny house.
By now, the attendant had tired, not of bringing me new sizes but trying to understand the look on my face. She assumed everyone wanted to be a size 4. She assumed I would be happy. She assumed, but only briefly. Her frame suggested she was a mature woman. The look in her eyes changed from annoyance to a sadness I never want to see again. It was as though she telepathically wanted to tell me: it is not my place, but I hope you are OK.
That is more than I had expected that fitting room attendant to say to me, even unspoken. It was more concern than I had heard from anyone, even if silently, in the past few months from people I knew. The same people, who had known of my existence on this planet. Who had assumed that I would be OK. Eventually. The same people who did not really understand what all can trigger an emotional trauma or affect a person.
Everyone is different. As always, I did not fit in to their idea of the appropriate response, to my circumstance. Or be willing to face their own inadequacies of 'I didn't know what to say'. I dont know either.
Eventually, I chose two dresses in styles that would be more forgiving of my shrunken frame and would hide my shoulder bones and the corresponding mental state, and left.
When I returned to my still scarred home, I braved up to peek into the family altar untouched since March. I was still angry that sanctity of any sort was dead. Greed knows no God. My eyes wandered to my fathers’ Rudraksha rosary – he used to meditate everyday. It is still difficult for me to hold the rosary. There must be a better way to meditate I thought. There is, and I knew how to do it – I just needed to return to it.
Meditation is, at its very core, ones' mental immersion in a repetitive activity. It can transform ones' physical and emotional energies, is centering and can be calming. Meditation is possible when an individual engages with an activity without distraction, focused on the singular goal of completion – not of the activity but of a personal goal, and becomes one with the activity itself.
Chanting, prayers, yoga, many forms of solitary exercise, where the primary tool is one’s body such as walking, Tai Chi - are all versions of meditation. Some practitioners let them take these on a spiritual path, others find it easier to disconnect when the timer rings.
It is no secret that I like to cook. And I have met tonnes of people who don't. People who don't cook often don't believe that cooking, in any form, can be therapeutic. Many find it a chore. But cooking can be one of the most meditative activities one can take on.
I had discovered long ago that despite its flaws, cooking was a forgiving and non-judgmental activity, filled with inspiration, with spontaneity, with color and stimulation. It engaged both body and mind. It fed both. It would be something that I could return to.
Let me share an excerpt from ‘Not For You: Book Two’, when Ana taught her first cooking lesson to a group of seven unsuspecting couples. You might just understand what I mean. Enjoy.
An excerpt from 'Not For You: Family Narratives of Denial & Comfort Foods' Book Two (2018)
"Making rotis was a multi-step process: making the dough, rolling it, and cooking it. They (students) would use the same dough to make all three kinds of Indian breads, and they would make a stuffing and figure out how to cook it all as well. They struggled to take in the avalanche of information Ana had armed herself with, of how to make a good dough, how to roll a good roti and more. They did not understand the concepts, of how to season to taste, or how to control the spices of their paratha stuffing. She adjusted her recipes as she went along, hoping to calm their impatience.
She remembered the many hours that Mummy had worked with her to perfect the circular Indian roti. Perhaps sharing her failures with her students would loosen the tension. They all laughed at her casual approach in the kitchen, and their stresses slowly evaporated. Only Ana knew what she had endured to overcome her own failures, in the kitchen and outside it.
At the end of the evening, Ana’s students admitted they were expecting an easy class that just followed recipes, one that did not make them think. Ana had made them think, and surprisingly, they wanted more. When everyone parted company, hugs and emails were exchanged, requests for new classes and dishes made, it was a success.
Ana had taught her students far more than their money’s worth. She had shown seven couples how to make rotis not by looking at the recipes, but by using all their senses, touching and kneading the dough until it felt right, seeing how the dough looked as they rolled it. She trained them to listen to the sounds of a ball of dough transform, as it changed shape from a ball to a nearly paper-thin disk, sliding along effortlessly on the rolling surface with just the right amount of flour: swish, swish, swish, as their fingers and palms worked a simple tool. She showed them how to cook the roti on the griddle, and then directly on the flame. She disclosed how to recognize the aroma of a roti cooking, as the dough warmed and sweetened, and became tender and luscious. She taught them to sense when the roti was done, when the balance of color, aroma and texture came together.
And as she taught them, Ana realized that Mummy had unknowingly transferred her own talent of cooking without using written recipes, to her. She had taught Ana how to cook the way her own father had, by “andaaj” (approximation), teaching her how to recognize the aromas of ingredients as they transformed from raw to cooked form, and the nuances of understanding if something was well done just by looking at it, learning to use all her senses. And although it was frustrating at first, overcoming the fear of approximation had allowed her the freedom and confidence to become one with the food she was cooking, converting the menial and mundane task to a meditative and transcendent experience. Ana experienced the revelation that she had indeed inherited a valuable gift from her mother and grandfather.
That evening, Ana had shared with her students the poetry of making a simple staple. She had encouraged them to explore the silent romance between the cook and their creation. It was a simple dialog, almost silent, and yet laden with warmth and comfort. She had taught them to enjoy the moment, to have a personal connection to the food they were making, because they would treasure the experience, and delight and find reassurance in its memories. She hoped they would find the same reassurance in cooking a comforting and hearty staple. Food and cooking had once saved her from the invisible demons that used to hound her. Perhaps, it would save someone too."
My roti classes are my most requested classes after a class on spices, based on Crack the Code. If you feel the urge to make rotis, my Roti ebook is available on various digital platforms. An updated Roti 2 can be preordered via Kickstarter: https://kck.st/2Ml3wT0