A Meditation on Bitterness

by | Aug 11, 2020 | CNF, Issue Sixteen

I am five and I go to a co-ed school. It is the summer after I’ve passed 1st standard, first in my class. I am seated in between two nuns who are about to start interviewing me, and my parents are made to sit across from us on a separate sofa. We are here seeking to be admitted into a convent school. An all-girl environment is better and safer and more sophisticated for me, my mother believes. She’s prayed all year for this transfer. One of the nuns brings out two baskets of plastic fruits and vegetables and asks me to name as much of the produce as I can. In my sing-song voice, I rattle out the names of all the vegetables stacked in one basket: onion, brinjal, capsicum, potato, radish. Then pointing to the fruit basket, I say, pear, banana, mango, papaya. I can see my parents’ expectantly looking at me to finish naming all the fruits. But I stop, confused. And pick out the green scaly-skinned gourd from the fruit basket and hold it to my cheek. This, I say, is karela, sister, bitter gourd. It’s not a fruit, it is a vegetable. And plop the karela into the vegetable basket. It tastes kadwa, I say, not knowing the English word for bitter just yet. A week later the school sends a rejection letter. My mother thinks I snubbed the nuns the wrong way by being over smart and pushing the karela into the vegetable pile. Or maybe they were disappointed that I didn’t know the English for bitterness. My dad thinks they didn’t admit us because we didn’t offer them the unofficial school ‘donation’ to get in. Surely enough, the following summer he pays them Rs.17,000 and I start third standard in a convent school. I continue to come first in class. 

*

Karela, rough-skinned and hard textured, my mother told me, was one of the first vegetables I’d started eating without a fuss when she started me up on solids. And to date, I love this bitter-as-grief vegetable with all my heart and taste buds. Many people cringe their noses and pretend to barf at the mere mention of karela, but to me, it is the stuff of magical meals. I love eating it chopped up and cooked in an onion-tomato base, or shallow fried with besan or in stews. My favorite way to devour this bitter beast is to eat it whole and stuffed and spiced. Off the cuff, I couldn’t walk you through the exact recipe for stuffed karela. The thing is I’ve always loved eating but hated cooking. As I went through the motions of my convent-educated, business-school-bound, corporate aspiration filled life, I relegated the kitchen to be a space for those who were forced to be there. It seemed like a punishment corner. Some kind of room where unrealized dreams blew off with pressure-cooker steam. My mother for instance, who studied Home Science in college, was set up in an arranged marriage and wedded away a semester before she could graduate. Off with four bags to another house to become a housewife. How I cringed at that word. For the longest time, to me, it sounded like a woman breathing stale, confined air. We will allow you to study and work until you are 25, max 26, that’s more freedom than I got, but after that…, my mother used to warn me. And after that, what, I’d yell, Is this why I study so hard, to rot my life like you in the kitchen?

*

My mother was the patron saint of reuse and repurpose. An expert at using produce for everything it had to offer. Juiced fruit pulp went into cakes, banana skins became face exfoliators. She’d learnt how to peel away the green outer scales of karelas from my dad’s mother — dry them in the sun, store it in a jam jar, and fry them up with spices to make a crunchy side dish which made so many boring dinners pop. 

*

To make stuffed karelas, you can start by grating the thick outer peel. Then salt the peeled karela for a few hours. The salt absorbs some of its natural bitterness. Wring the karela out, squeezing all off the excess water, letting some of the bitterness drain into the sink.

*

When my mother put me to bed at night, I’d force her to pat my head until I was knee-deep in the throes of sleep. Often, I’d feel the rough lines on the pad of her thumb between my eyebrows. So many lines, like a crosshatch of memories accumulating on her finger from the tiny chhuri she used to chop vegetables with. We never owned a cutting board. That’s not our way, she’d say, raising both her hands, these are enough.  How I loved the feel of her rough thumb against my forehead. Just like my palette, I felt, my skin too, gravitating towards harshness. 

*

Once the karela is brined and wrung, cut a slit through the length of its body, but never cut it all the way through. In doing so you should have created a small green cradle. The seeds inside are bitter too. You could choose to deseed it. But then you’d lose the minor explosions of crunchy bitterness that catch you unguarded in every other morsel. Fill the cradle with spicy-savory paste made by grinding together onions, green chilies, mint leaves, coriander, lime juice, cumin, salt and garam masala. But don’t over-fill it, my mum used to say. Leave a little room for it to breathe on the flame. 

*

The night I graduated from business school; my mother breathed her last. An hour after the ceremonious scroll must have been handed over to me, my father says, my mother asked, if her program (graduation walk) must be over by now. It was as if she was waiting for you to finish, my father says. She must have regained a flow of coherence in that minute, he supposes because she’d lost most of her cognition to the wrath of chemotherapy long before. The last time I saw her alive was in the middle of my last business school semester. She fleetingly looked at me as if she was meeting me for the very first time. Her eyes, blank and unfocussed, flitted around the small shared room of the tiny health clinic. She wouldn’t maintain steady eye contact, no matter how many times I snapped or clapped to draw her attention to me. It’s me, I whispered. It’s me, I raised my voice. I felt betrayed that I was invisible to her, although she was the one disappearing. I tried forcing my hand into hers, but she nudged it away like a baby. She called me by her sister’s name. Then my father’s name. Then no name. Her lips, dry and colorless. I half-heartedly offered to come back home before graduation, visualizing all the fun and parties I’d miss out on. But my father insisted that was not what mum would have wanted. She’d want you to finish. And I felt oddly relieved. The ordeal of seeing my mother day after day not as my mother, but a shrunken and memoryless version of the woman who put me to bed, seemed in my twenty-one year old head, bigger and harder to me than my mother’s own suffering. 

*

The final step, to make sure that none of that glorious stuffing falls out of the karela, is to tie a thread around it before setting it on an oiled pan. Each time I attempt to make stuffed karela, I always fumble when I have to clip and tuck the end of the thread into something. Where and how should I hide its frayed end? What kind of a neat, little knot can I fashion under the pressure of an overheating pan such that what’s within doesn’t come spilling out?

*

Today, in my motherless world, especially when sleep eludes me, I take myself to the kitchen. And silently wait in the company of pots and pans and observe the workings of heat and time as I cook — how simply they seem to transform the nature of everything that was once living, once of this earth. If you weren’t a housewife, what would you have wanted to be, had they let you finish college, is a question I never gathered the sense or the courage to ever ask my mother. Regret is a leftover I cannot repurpose. No matter how much sun.

*

When the stuffed karela has cooked for about eight minutes or however long it takes to recount irreconcilable guilt, or to remember once again what a jackass you’ve been to your mother, consider it done. I uncoil the thread and bite into it straight up. But you could also wrap the karela in a roti, have it karela-frankie style as my mum called it, or eclipse a bit of the bitterness with a bowl of yogurt, plain and cold. 

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