Ammu Amma was born in the first decade of the 20th century just before the whole world  went to war. She lived through two World Wars, the birth of independent India, the first elected Communist government in Kerala and the advent of television. She was low on good looks, high on wisdom and enjoyed being able to draw on the courage of her convictions all through life.

As a young girl she was determined about a profession. This was not difficult for the eldest daughter of educated parents. She chose Queen Mary’s College, for her graduate studies and left her sheltered life in Malabar for a cosmopolitan environment at the Presidency Headquarters at Madras. She stayed on in Madras for her post graduate studies, a licentiate in teaching and eventually an assignment at her alma mater.

She was an average student but had a rare flair for languages and glided from one to another with ease. She had the amazing ability to straddle cultures and step down literature into digestible prose and verse. She would narrate the story of the Merchant of Venice to her nephews, put the book down and then recite verses from the play Nalacharitham Randam Divasam in preparation for the evening’s Kathakali performance.

At College, her autograph book was full with messages of colleagues from distant parts of India and the world. She studied and lived with students and teachers from different cultural backgrounds and new confessions. By the end of her student days, she was drawn to the Christian faith and decided to make it her own. Her parents accepted that she was old enough to make her own decisions but the rest of the clan viewed her decision as both a heresy and an irreparable insult.

For years she remained a novitiate in her new faith. She continued to live in the culture she was familiar with and to it gradually added some of the rituals and observances of her new confession.  She was more at home with the stories from the Vishnu Purana and the Shiva Purana than with the work of the evangelists or the names of unfamiliar saints and martyrs from the Christian pantheon.

The world was again at war when she decided once again to make a choice. She had not married and till then there had been few suitors queuing up at the door. In the last quarter of her reproductive life cycle, she decided to have a child. She was certain it would add an essential dimension to her life. All the odds were against her. While in Madras, she had met a man a few years younger than her and the inevitable sparked between them.  He had legally separated from his wife but according to the stringent provisions of his personal law was in no position to ever offer marriage to her, or to any other woman.  Their choices were limited.

The baby was born at a hospital near her college and in due course the news was conveyed to the family.  Her parents waited to see their new granddaughter but others on both sides of the family were less euphoric. The traditional stand-off fell into place and both mother and child remained constantly in the line of social projectiles. She remained unperturbed. Her financial independence stood her in good stead and she faced the stigma and odium of both sides with calm resignation. She spoke little, explained nothing but continued to love every member of her family just as she always had. Ammu Amma had thought it through and was prepared for the long haul. She persevered and balanced her career with the responsibilities of an unwed single mother. Gradually, the stand-off eased into a kind of one-sided non-negotiable tolerance.

Ammu Amma enjoyed her life as a teacher. For some time she worked in a Muslim Girls School in Malabar and while there enjoyed the love and affection of both her students and their parents. When there were signs of communal strife in the area, the parents of the students vowed to keep her safe.  She continued to be with them knowing full well that they would keep the promise. She enjoyed her time at this school just as much as her students enjoyed their Ammu Teacher. This was another dimension and she had the opportunity to understand another culture and another faith.

She loved her profession as a teacher and enjoyed being with her colleagues and her students.  All through her career she was aware of people who had perennial unspoken questions about her marital status. She got her increments and promotions and became the Headmistress of the School but the highest award was always held back year after year. After all, she had a child but could produce no paper-proof of a husband to complement the family picture. It bothered the judges. It never bothered her.

After retirement, she became a student once again. She resumed the study of her new faith, explored the verses from the Psalms, went deep into the Book of Revelation and enjoyed listening to interpretations of theology. She walked through the Christian pantheon reading for the first time about saints like Ulrich and Homobonus.

Between her learning and listening, she taught Sanskrit slokas to her grandchildren, made them understand the various names of Arjuna and told them stories about Ahalya, Draupadi, Sita, Tara and Mandodari.  She revelled in the bonus of cultures and religions and assimilated the riches of each of them.

Those around her finally realised that her choices had made her both strong and determined. And through it all she remained the same – a daughter, sister, mother, grandmother and every other feminine profile possible. Whether she was a feminist or a woman before her time, she still commands applause – a hundred and eleven years after her birth –  Ammu Amma ki jai!

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A ring for each finger

Most antique shops in the Muttrah souk in Oman have an open container with odds and ends thrown in – key chains, hair ornaments, pendants and an entire selection of silver rings of different shapes and sizes. Customers who are blue blood collectors sit and patiently sift through the semi-precious rubble to find what they are looking for. “I am leaving the country in a few days and I want to complete my collection of Omani silver,” says a French collector bending over the silver bric-a-brac.  In her hand she carries the photocopy of a dog-eared page from the book, “Omani Silver” by Ruth Hawley. “I am taking back a sample of each item of Omani jewellery and now need to find only the finger rings,” she says putting her head back to work to find the missing objects, oblivious of the retail chatter round her.

Countries of the Arabian Peninsula are well known for their unique finger rings. H.R.P.Dickinson in his book “The Arab of the Desert” says that in some Middle East countries up to four rings are worn on one hand at one time. Women in Oman have done better. They used to wear a ring on each finger. Five rings on a hand – ten on both hands! In Oman, until not so long ago, rings were made in pairs. It was the practice to give the bride a gift of ten rings – with one design for each finger. Each ring had a special name and some of them also had a purpose in addition to ultimate adornment. There was no special wedding ring – every finger was already adorned. There was a deep belief that silver possessed qualities to shield the wearer from the evil eye and also had the ability to ward off disease. Both men and women have worn talisman rings for centuries.

Ruth Hawley says that it is very difficult to be precise about the name of the various pieces of silver in Oman as the name varies from place to place. The name for a ring in the Muttrah souk may be entirely different from what it is called in the Nizwa souk.

The origins of designs found on Omani rings date back thousands of years. Some designs are difficult to trace with accuracy.  It is presumed that geometric designs originated from Yemen.  The Nizwa design of flowers date back to the T’ang or Liao dynasty of the 10th century, a period when Oman had trade links with China. The dome shaped cage ring was possibly of a Jewish wedding ring design. The techniques used in the crafting of rings included chasing, engraving, piercing, filigree work and granulation.  Each part of the ring had a name. The hoop of a finger ring is called the khawatim.  The decorated upper part, the bezel and the encompassing band usually holding the design or stone is the collet. In addition, the rings for each finger had a different name.

Silver was melted in a crucible over a charcoal hearth.  It was then rolled into sheets or rods that were then cut and shaped in a brazier.  All the rings of yore were made in silver and some were treated to a gold wash.

The most important ring is the one worn on the index finger or fore finger known in Arabic as the al shahid. The khawatim shahadah is shaped like a large drop, sometimes stylized, but always with a pointed tip. Every Muslim points his finger when saying the shahadah, the affirmation of faith. In wearing the ring, the person re-endorses faith in the one God day after day. It is important to note that this ring is known by just one name.

The ring worn on the thumb is a wide silver band called the jabiyrah.  This ring is also referred to as batham, maramiy or ha’is masbuwqah. The ring for the second finger is rounded or rhomoid and has several names – it is called mahar and also referred to endearingly as Abu Fawz or khatim abu fawz.  The third finger is always adorned with a square called kanabir or khatim abu sath murabba.  The ring for the little finger, khanafir, was the only one that was embellished with a stone.  This ring was usually made from a common umla (coin) and in size was smaller than the rings that adorned the other fingers. Rings worn on the toes were simple with bosses – a round knob or stud or other protuberance. Rings for men were usually set with the fairuz – a turquoise stone.

Gold has usurped the place of silver and it is the yellow metal that is now preferred for rings and other ornaments. But there are collectors like the French aficionado at the souk who are looking only for the silver with history. She planned to display her Omani silver collection. What better peg for an after dinner story than one about men who gifted their women with a ring for each finger?

 

incense-burner                                

 

During the 2006 Smithsonian Folklife Festival program on Oman, the Sunday Shopper feature in the Washington Post profiled a product familiar to everyone in Oman – the incense burner. Thousands of visitors to this Festival in Washington picked up an incense burner and a little bokhur (incense) as a keepsake of their visit to the festival and perhaps as their first introduction to Oman. Most of the tourists who come to Oman do the same – the incense burner or mijmar as it is commonly called is about the most popular souvenir to carry back from the country. What people take back with the mijmar is a slice of Arabian civilization – the mijmar has been around in Oman from the years of the first millennium B.C.

In Oman, the mijmar is taken for granted and every household owns a couple of them. The incense burner in this role is just a household item of daily use and shares the same status as the ladles and spoons in the kitchen. Walk into a mall or the Souk Muttrah and the mijmar is a tool for marketing. The slow curling smoke arising from the mijmar can lead one blindfolded to a shop selling fragrances and bokhur. In government offices, the fragrance arising from the mijmar vies with the smell of freshly brewed khawa (coffee).  The mijmar is a part of office equipment in both government and private establishments.

Mijmars may have evolved in design and become more decorative or progressive. HowThe Spice with a Taleever, their basic design has undergone little change from the days when it was first conceived and put into use thousands of years ago. Every excavation that has taken place around Dhofar has thrown up ancient samples of incense burners. The Khor Rori Report I (part of the  collection Arabia Antica) has a chapter written by Alessandra Lombardi devoted to Small Finds From the Gate Complex at Sumhuram in the Dhofar region. The report says that the Khor Rori was a port of Hadramawt which was constructed near one of the most important incense producing areas of the time. The author adds: “Among the stone finds, we have been able to identify some objects which may be interpreted as incense or aroma burners, definable because of morphology and marked traces of burning in the used area.”

What did these early incense burners look like? At Sumhurum archaeologists have found simple round limestone incense burners with three or four legs and the classical small cubic or rectangular basins. Some of the earliest incense burners even had incised decorations on the outside walls. Tub-shaped, stone incense burners with truncated pyramidal shaped bases supported a parallel piped tub with various religious motifs and symbols on the outside. Illustrations of these early burners show them to be of rough manufacture. Some of them have a functional stub as a handle and all have extreme structural compactness. Excavations in the Dhofar region have brought out limestone incense burners and a few made of basalt as well. Historians conclude that the limestone mijmars were fashioned from stone found in the Dhofar region while basalt mijmars were probably brought into the area on one or other of the myriad ships that plied the incense trade. Each of these finds also showed traces of burnt incense in the low hollow cavity of the burner. These early incense burners are from the pre-Islamic era and from the days when Sumhuram and Khor Rori flourished as centres of trade.

To this day, the design of the incense burner remains robust. One has never heard of a traditional Omani pottery incense burner toppling over or falling apart because of an unstable base or weak sides. A traditional burner sits firm on the surface, has sides that protect the coal and also has an open space between the base and the burning area.  A few design changes in the mijmar have been introduced to make them look more appealing and decorative. Shopkeepers are quite aware of the fact that visitors to Oman who buy the mijmars do so to add to their collection of travel memorabilia. There are models that are tall and slim and others that are fine glazed and many that are lined with a stainless steel sheet inside to collect the ashes. Most mijmars are decorated with bright colours all around the sides. The most progressive design complement to the incense burner is the addition of an electrical fitting that enables the user to plug it in and do away with the bother of live coals or the special start-up lighter bricks.

In parts of the Middle East, the incense burner is also known by the name mabkhara . Modern versions of the mabkhara are made of shiny plated sheet metal and decorated with mirrors and coloured metal. While the Omani mijmar is squat and sits firm on the base, the mabkhara is tall and slim in design. Both mijmar and  mabkhara come in different sizes – some small enough to fit into carry on baggage and others large enough to serve as a container for a festival gift of dates or chocolates.

There are other designs of incense burners too. Well to-do families in Oman have for ages used silver incense burners. The most common design among these come with a cup-shaped silver bowl fixed to a silver tray and topped with a perforated hinged silver lid that allows the fragrant smoke to permeate the area. A small length of silver chain on the side holds the bowl and the lid together. A scaled up model of this can be seen standing out like a hydrographic marker at the Riyam Park in Muttrah.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has some fine samples of incense burners that go beyond the traditional. One bronze piece from the first millennium B.C. from Southern Arabia features two intertwined snakes and an ibex. The head of the ibex serves as a handle for the metal burner. Another is a lion-shaped burner in which the head can be lifted out to place incense in the cavity. The metal body and neck of the animal are perforated to enable the fragrances to float.

Incense burners have been used from ancient times to provide pleasing scents and to cleanse the environment. A visitor to Oman in the 18th century mentions that visitors are greeted with perfume sprinklers, dates and coffee. However, he adds that after a meal the incense burner is taken around the room and it is a signal for those present to say their farewells and leave.

The time-tested design of the mijmar has been used extensively for civic aesthetics. Planters shaped like the traditional Omani incense burner may be found all over the country and in all sizes. The incense burner in the centre of the Wadi Kabir roundabout is a landmark that few can forget. At night, the coals in the burner glow at the base and give passers by a quick picture of ancient traditions that Oman is keen to preserve at all cost. The rose water sprinklers all around the incense burner complement each other as two of the symbols of Omani hospitality.

 

 

 

Little things in every day life in Oman tend to go back hundreds of years. They open up stories that are fascinating and contribute both to culture and history. The reference here is to cloves – a spice that is found in every Omani kitchen. Stop at any of the hundreds of shawarma outlets in the country and the aroma of cloves floats up and fills the senses together with the aroma of the meat being grilled on the vertical spit. The smell is a high note, distinct and full of flavour. How did a dry and arid country with little else than dates and sardines introduce cloves into their diet? And where did it come from?

Like many of the other introductions to life in Oman, it was the spirit of adventure of the Omani sailor that brought the clove to the country. It is difficult to give an exact timeline to it but it was certainly hundreds of years before the western powers ventured into the Indian Ocean and beyond. The Omani mariner could have come upon the clove when the nakhooda anchored for fresh water and food among the legendary Spice Islands now forming part of Indonesia. Or, he could have come across it at the court of one of the Chinese emperors. Cloves were in use in China from around the 3rd century BC and they were also known to the Romans. The Chinese kept a single clove in the mouth to sweeten the breath. It took hundreds of years from there for the western world to understand the economic worth of the spice trade. By the time the European countries woke up to cloves, cardamom, nutmeg and pepper they were already a part of the Omani diet. The foreign powers waged spice wars that were fought ruthlessly on both land and at sea.

At the end of a voyage, many an Omani sailor would have put a few cloves in his pocket and taken it home to his wife and instructed her to add a little of it to the family cooking. She must have experimented with it and tried it in turn on rice, lentils, fish and meat. There is no way one can put a date to when it started but it was decidedly hundreds of years before the rest of the world stumbled on the flavour. Cloves gradually became ubiquitous in Omani cooking. The spice is referred to as coronfil (or qaranful) on the grocery shelves in Oman. The name bears a close resemblance to the name for cloves used on the West Coast of India – karambu. Both names again take their source from the botanical name for the tree Syzgium Aromaticum or Eugenia caryophyllata).

For a brief period in history, clove cultivation was confined to just two islands in Indonesia. The Portuguese and then the Dutch held the global clove trade  monopoly. To control the world market, they eliminated the trees from all but one or two islands like Amboina and Ternate.  In the second half of the 18th century, the French smuggled cloves from the East Indies to the Indian Ocean islands and to the New World breaking the Dutch monopoly. Thanks to this, clove trees began to thrive in several parts of the world. As a trading nation Oman watched these developments with keen interest.

In the late 17th century, Zanzibar came under the control of the Sultanate of Oman.  Sayyid Said Bin Sultain bin Al Imam Ahmad bin Said Al Bu Saidi or Said Sayyid as he was popularly known was born in 1791 and came to the throne in 1806.  Said Sayyid made Zanzibar his capital city in 1832. A few years into his reign cloves found their way into Zanzibar and the cultivation of this spice tree started on the east coast of Africa. The temperature, rainfall and humidity were ideal for the crop and the trees took root without problems. In 1828, Said Sayyid visited Zanzibar and Pemba and acquired two properties on which cloves were cultivated. During his lifetime these two places became the largest clove producers in the world.

“At the beginning of the 19th century, clove trees were introduced to Zanzibar and Said had the good business sense to grow them as a plantation crop for export …..” writes Patricia Rosso in her book Oman and Muscat. The ruler’s efforts must have been so successful that he made Zanzibar his primary residence after 1841. American ships from Salem Massachusetts had been trading with Zanzibar for several years. During the reign of Said Sayyid, the US government took the initiative to make trade relations easier by removing the customs duties payable on its exports. President Andrew Jackson sent Edmund Roberts to Muscat to begin trade talks with Said Sayyid. It was not difficult for the Omani merchant to trade in cloves or carry cloves to different markets. But the fortunes of the clove trade were mired in both politics and the vagaries of economics.

In 1861 after the death of Said Sayyid, Zanzibar was separated from Oman and became an independent sultanate.  Cloves continued to dominate the fortunes of Zanzibar and contributed in great measure to the economy of the island. A hundred years later, the short lived Sultanate of Zanzibar and Pemba created a flag that had two cloves in a circle of green on a full red base.

While political and economic fortunes changed with the passage of time, the properties of cloves remained constant. The clove still continues to play a dominant role in the kitchens of Oman. Today, cloves lend flavour to everything from Bizar Al Omani  (Omani Spice Mix) to Bizar Shuwa (Shuwa Spice Mix). The list of Omani recipes that need a few cloves to round off the flavours is by no means limited. They are found in recipes originating in every one of the regions of the country. Traditional preparations like Foaq Al Aish (Over the Rice) and Tahat Al Aish (Under the Rice) use whole cloves to lend the distinct flavour.  Its whole cloves that go into the Ouzi or Baryani and the Ka’ata Bil Laham as well. In some of the preparations the cloves are left whole. In others they are crushed in a mortar to release the flavours before adding to the food or as in the Spice Mix mechanically pulverised at a commercial food factory to come up with the right blend. Cloves are added to rice and lentil dishes as well but are not very popular for the catch of the day.

Clove production in Zanzibar has diminished and Indonesia has regained its former status producing nearly 20% of the world crop. Other countries like Brazil, Sri Lanka and India have also got into the business. Clove prices shoot up every time there is a shortfall in one of the major producing areas. For those living in Oman who will always continue to use the spice, the comfort is that it takes just one or two of these spice buds to flavour an entire meal.

It was a scheduled flight from Bombay to Rome, Paris and somewhere beyond. In the aisle seat in front of me was a petite woman in the familiar white and blue garb of the missionary order. In preparation for the weather in Europe, she wore a cream woolen coat over the loosely draped sari. A young man was travelling with her – possibly taking her to a donor’s meeting or a forum that she was due to address.

Before the mid-night flight took off, almost all of the flight crew came to her seat. Some bent low with folded hands; others knelt down. All of them asked for her blessings. On the first leg of the journey the flight touched down at New Delhi.  As the aircraft took off from the capital, there was a ‘bird hit’ and the jumbo returned to the airport. All the passengers filed out with their hand baggage. She did the same, but instead of staying in the hotel near the airport possibly went to join her sisters at work somewhere in the city.

Several hours later and after the usual manoeuvres of dismounting the bird-hit engine, waiting for another and remounting the new one, the aircraft was ready for take off. A fresh crew came on board and the passengers piled back anxious now to get to their various destinations. She was in the same seat in front of me.

Once again the crew came to seek her blessings. They belonged to different faiths but perhaps had the inner grace that enabled them to recognise basic goodliness in another.

I sat still in my seat behind her unable to do what the crew was doing. Visions of all the nuns who had supervised my very breathing in the early years of life flashed before me. Was this frail nun of the same tribe or was she different?

As the captain apologised for the delay and prepared for take off, I felt an urge to touch her. I leaned forward and through the gap between the seats touched her right hand. It was warm. Very warm. She felt my hand and turned slightly to acknowledge the touch. She pressed my fingers and then said: “Today, I have learnt another lesson. I feel amazed that this small bird that hit the plane has made such a difference to our lives. We all had to get down, we have all been delayed; it only shows that the most insignificant of God’s creatures can also make a difference to the world.”

That was Mother Teresa. And that was thirty years ago. I often wonder whether I should have also knelt down to get her blessing.  There are no regrets. The memory of her warm touch still lingers and the few words she spoke continue to inspire – “The most insignificant of God’s creatures can also make a difference to the world.” Those simple words now take on a whole new dimension!

A morning in Goa begins with reports of the road accidents of the previous day. A mother and child run over, an elderly gentleman the victim of a ‘hit-and-run’ and a variety of accidents that causes both loss of life and property. There have been several studies to check the state of the roads, the behaviour of drivers and other statistics that would help initiate remedial action. Every day a new speed breaker or pedestrian crossing is added somewhere in the State. These measures have done little for the safety of people on the road.

The rules of the road in Goa broadly reflect what is prevalent in other states in India. Roads in Goa are at different elevations and drivers have to content with both uphill and downhill driving. It is a universal rule that traffic going downhill must always give right of way to uphill traffic. This elementary principle has not been part of the driver training or testing. Both two and four-wheeler vehicles speed down a slope making it difficult for an uphill driver to stay on the road.

Another global rule is that vehicles joining a main road from a feeder or service road or lane must come to a stop at the point of entry into the main road. They need to look right and left and then proceed to join the traffic. This rule has been wrongly communicated to the drivers. People excel in speeding on to the main road from every lane – it is a frightening experience to watch two wheelers and bullish car drivers join the main stream as a birthright! Those on the main road are traumatised! There are no STOP signs at the head of any main road in Goa!

Every two-wheeler driver dreads having to put his foot down on the ground. It breaks the speed and momentum and upsets the fine balance. Putting the foot down on a slope is a manoeuvre that is more dangerous. It impacts everything, and disturbs the equanimity of both the driver and the team of four on the pillion. It is even more perilous when he may be carrying a ladder, a full-grown pig, a gas cylinder or a 50- kilo bag of rice. Two wheelers are today both salon cars and goods vehicles rolled into one and that calls for special road rules. Can two wheelers overtake from both right and left?

What makes it more difficult for a two wheeler to stop and proceed is the state of the road after a hot mix treatment. Each hot mix treatment raises the elevation of the road by a few centimetres and creates a sheer drop at the edge of a road – no one is bothered about the effects the hot mix treatment has on the safety of drivers and the difference in height between the main road and the shoulder. Differences in road and shoulder level of roads are fraught with serious danger.

Drivers have no respect for a pedestrian crossing – it’s time to brainstorm and see how this can be inculcated specially in front of schools, colleges and hospitals when pedestrians are on the crossing.

Drivers also experience confusion at some junctions and at roundabouts. A simple white circle in the middle of the road will make all the difference to a confused driver. The rules of the roundabout are not clear to many drivers. Roads in Goa could also do with more ‘Keep Left’ signs.

It is perhaps time to re-train the trainers and also get to know what they are communicating to students of driving. Training of new drivers needs to be more safety-oriented and testing more stringent.

There’s a lot more – texting or phoning and driving, speeding, driving under the influence of alcohol, stopping without signaling and the unbearable high beam at night!

One hopes that the country has a book of standards for both national and state roads. It is time to make these standards public so that citizens can understand what they have and monitor where standards have been compromised.

A planned approach and Goa can be a safe state even before being a smart one!

 

Conversations about Mother’s Cooking surface anywhere and all the time. It’s always trending when after hours of toil in the kitchen, hosts place food on the table for their guests. A summary survey of the fare and guests take off one by one on how their mothers used to make the very same dishes – the lamb rogan josh, the pork vin d’alho and the what-ever-else that is on the table.

The evening then becomes an extempore elocution competition. Guests go into overdrive about how their mothers used to make the classics – hand-pound the rice for the appams, place the biriyani on a charcoal stove under the tamarind tree, or bake seven layers of bibinca while attending to five children and nursing the sixth on the side.

These are priceless conversations. They unveil undocumented details for making the dish and touch on the high notes of taste that ensured that the offspring recalls the preparation even decades after mother put it on the table. The devotees at the shrine of mother’s cooking would linger over the quality and quantity of ingredients like ghee, almonds and saffron that went into the dish. In those days, these were rare items and within reach of just the high-net-worth families.

At some conversations you can be only a listener. My mother never cooked, was never taught or coaxed to cook, never enjoyed cooking and never felt it was necessary for a woman to perfect a cheese soufflé or make feijoada. She had no complexes about her lack of skills and no hesitation in sitting down to a meal that had been prepared with no cutting or grinding contributions from her side. As a consequence, she never grumbled when the food was burnt or when the okras were gooey and unpalatable. She understood weights and measures; she knew that ginger was a rhizome, that cloves were aromatic flower buds and that nutmeg was the seed of a tree. But her skills decidedly lay in realms beyond chick-peas and mung. She focused on preparing young women to stand on their own feet both inside and outside the kitchen and devoted her entire life to the mission.

And so it was that she came to live with us and at Christmas filled my stocking with the cookery world’s best seller of the year.  She enjoyed the gift too and flipped through the pages that showed everything from a complete wedding breakfast to illustrations on how to truss a turkey. She spent hours with the book but her contributions in our kitchen remained limited to boiling drinking water for the family. There was no blanching and stir-frying involved, but it did keep all of us free of typhoid and all other water-borne diseases.

As age slowed her pace, she was keen to contribute more to her life with us especially in the kitchen. She cared for her two granddaughters but she was keen to make a mark that would one day empower me to talk of “mother’s cooking.” She sure tried!

One night while we were out at a party, she put our children to bed and came into the kitchen to boil water. She turned on the gas, placed the vessel with water on the fire and went back to complete the last few words in the daily crossword. Sometime later, when we entered the house and passed the kitchen door there was a bright glowing object on the gas burner – the water had boiled, evaporated and the steel vessel stood out like an object from out of space!

There were no damages and we never spoke about the object from out of space ever again. Life continued as before. As our girls grew up, she took them to school, read to them from the Panchatantra, taught them Sanskrit slokas and did everything grandmothers love to do. Every now and then between stories or homework she paused to ask if they could see what in her mind was the bigger picture.  Did they know what they wanted to be when they grew up?

That was my mother’s cooking – She believed that women can dream of a life beyond cinnamon and cassia, outsource cooking when necessary and focus on standing on their own two legs. She knew her granddaughters were still too young to take a call but that was reason enough to work hard to prepare the ground and opt for early sowing.