We had two categories of meals growing up in our Australian home. ‘Dinner’ could be neatly defined. Sausages and mashed potato. Roast lamb and its sequel – a shepherd’s pie prepared with the leftover roast routinely served the night after. Spaghetti bolognese. Meatloaf, a dish I still can’t abide. The odd bakery-bought meat pie drowned in tomato sauce and surrounded by Bird’s Eye frozen peas. But khaana. Khaana was nourishment with meaning. The word itself simply translates as food. It explains nothing of its importance. Khaana had an umbilical significance: it was the feeding cord that kept me attached via taste and ritual to the ancestry of Dad’s Indian family. Khaana was never eaten on plates. My brothers and I were served on slick and round stainless steel thaalis. Daal was spooned into katoris; neat little vessels designed to keep the ginger-rich lentils separate from the one or two sabzis – spiced vegetables dishes – that circled a mound of Basmati rice. Salan was lamb, not the sweeter mutton served by Ammi in India, but we devoured it all the same. And no matter what the dish served – no matter it was Mum who was the convert to both Hinduism and the Kashmiri kitchen – it was Mum who always cooked. ‘Childrrren!’ Dad would call, while Mum finished up with a last stir of her pots, red hair slipping from its top-knot and gold bracelets jangling as she added a half-teaspoon of garam masala to whatever sabzi was on the stove in the minutes before it was served. ‘Khaana’s ready!’ My brothers and I would drag ourselves from the couch, roll two chatais across the living room floor, collect our thaalis from the kitchen and return to the floor to eat: cross-legged and seated three abreast in front of Sale of The Century on TV. If we were lucky, there were homemade paranthas. If not, then Old El Paso fajita breads became makeshift chapattis when browned on a hot tawa smeared with ghee.
Dinner was food. Khaana was an emotional language with its own vocabulary that only we understood. It was the history of my family, made real with the pieces of herself that Mum built into each mouthful.
Because, somehow, in her adoption of the Ganju family’s philosophical and culinary customs, Mum was uniquely able to tell the tale of who we were as people in the dishes she cooked. As if she alone was the medium between me and our clan’s fantastical past. The weight those exotic meals carried. For me to consume this food was to feed the legacy of all the things I was known to be. A Kashmiri Brahmin. A card-carrying member of the priest caste. Dad whispered in my ear from birth that I claimed a spiritual inheritance. One that connected our family intimately to the world of Hindu gods. Thrice born, he would repeat throughout my infancy, at the top of the caste tree and already three turns around life’s cosmic wheel. These tales my Dad told; so rich it seemed the multi-armed deities were as close to me as the daal and rice he and Mum ladled onto my empty plate.
Dad’s family – the Ganju family – has not lived on its Kashmiri mountaintop for centuries. Theirs was an exodus from an ancient homeland laid squarely at the feet of Emperor Aurangzeb. The Mughal prince was the third son of Emperor Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal: the famed royal couple whose love built the beauty of the Taj Mahal. Yet Aurangzeb took on none of their golden qualities. Instead, it was he who imprisoned his father and murdered his two older brothers in order to clear his way for ascent to the Peacock Throne in 1658. From there Aurangzeb ruled until 1707, stripping away a legacy of religious tolerance that had defined Mughal rulers from Akbar the Great right through to the reign of his own father. So, with Hindu temples burned and Kashmir’s Hindu Brahmins captured within the crucible of forced conversion to Islam or death by beheading, the Ganju family scrambled down from its historical birthplace. Houses were left. Possessions that could not be jammed into trunks forgotten. But recipes. Recipes are easily stowed in an exiled person’s heart. These dishes became the ancestral connection to Kashmir handed down the Ganju family line, from mother to daughter, within a community bound tightly by its place high up near the lap of God. Salan wala chawaal, an earthy dish of mutton and rice cooked as one and infused with the black earth and shadow of whole black cardamom. Stiff white florets of cauliflower made smoky with ground coriander and whole cumin, reduced to mouthfuls of molten spice known. Burnished triangles of paneer held in thrall by the sweet intensity of cinnamon, clove and mace. Like the generations of relatives who came before, these were thaalis given to me at each meal since childhood to serve as reminders of who I was. Plates to anchor me. Bites to concrete our status as chosen people, yes, but that also served as quotidian reminders of the ancestral land we had been forced to leave behind.
By the time I was born into a cross-cultural marriage in late ’70s Melbourne the pain of the Ganju exodus had long-since passed. The family had moved on. To the pristine hills of Dehradun, originally. Then the scattered crawl south. New Delhi. Hyderabad. Bangalore. Melbourne. But this idea of landlessness continued to feed in, to mould the people we thought we were. Without a geographical mooring to serve as anchor, our clan evolved to ground its identity in connection with God. It was in this way that Dad – tales told in his distinctly accented English and held together by his steadfast faith – made Hinduism come alive for me. It wasn’t a religion or a philosophy. It became a place. And I grounded myself here. Grounded myself in the idea of a people who found their home curled up on the welcome mat of God. A space impervious to geographical conflict. It didn’t matter, at God’s feet, that I was a Hindu girl who lived between Australia and New Delhi. That I could not lay claim to one landscape. A single nationality. But God’s house was territory I had rights to occupy without threat of expulsion.
And so I ate up Dad’s stories just as I did Mum’s Indian thaalis. As a girl I sat on the banks of the Yamuna River and swayed in time as Krishna seduced the gopis of Vrindavan with play on his exquisite flute. Stood with a lighted candle in the streets of Ayodhya and welcomed Lord Ram as he exited the forest triumphant after fourteen years of exile, loyal brother Lakshman and wife Sita by his side. Peered from behind a cupboard door as Shivji absorbed the Goddess Ganga into his matted locks, hiding his lover at the sound of wife Parvati’s early return. My homeland this collection of fantastical topographies that seeped into my skin like the aroma of spice.
For the dreamy, book-obsessed child I was, that sense of exoticism was an intoxicant. And like all intoxicants it blinded me to an essential germ of truth. I cherished the notion that I existed between worlds.
Being Hindu in a foreign landscape created a sense of untethered connection that held me for much of the year in a cultural limbo: I spent ten months in every twelve living in our towered hilltop house on farmland in the coastal hamlet of Torquay, another two roaming New Delhi streets between Ammie’s Defence Colony bungalow and my cousins’ neighbouring C Block home. At the time it seemed that God was my anchor. The power of Hindu mythology that connected me to an intersection where all the pieces of my life could meet. And God was. And those myths were. But only because I tasted it all from within the warm and safe shelter of her: Mum, who was my original font.
The spices have been put away and the close of the pantry door brings my attention back to the present with a click. I rummage around the kitchen looking for a place to tuck away my restless mood but can’t seem to settle: I wipe down the kitchen bench; half-heartedly make myself a cup of tea; toy with the idea of sitting at my desk in the front room to work on a health feature for Vogue due next week. I don’t even consider cooking. Today – despite my earlier professed intentions – I’m too agitated by Mum’s reappearance in my story. By this twist in plot that I didn’t write. Instead I grab the car keys off the bench and head for the door. I’m driven to shake off my nervous static. Short of a mid-afternoon martini, I know just what it will take.
‘Mummy!’ Cailean spies me in the childcare playground, leaps off the climbing frame and straight into my arms. ‘We haven’t had fruit time yet, are you early?’
‘Yes Monkey,’ I grin. Hold him close. My every cell aware of his tight little boy-grip. Focus zeroed on his reassuring weight. ‘I am. Let’s go find your brother.’
Cailean jumps out of my arms and I grab onto his hand. It is a beautiful afternoon. Sun past its zenith but still warm. We scour the playground. Check the wooden cubby in the corner that overlooks the car park. The sandpit that holds Ashy’s favourite digger. Even his room, windows blacked out by curtains where a few smaller babies are just waking from afternoon naps. Eventually we find him waddling in the fenced-off area reserved for construction play, shirtfront a crust of dribble and lunch and sand. Flush-cheeked smile in place.
‘Mashy!’ I let go of Cailean’s hand to hoist Ashok’s buttery body into my chest. Relish the press of his padded bottom against my arm. ‘Okay Monkeys,’ I say, holding Ash high on my body I pull Cailean close with my free arm. ‘Let’s go home.’ We exit the centre, waving goodbye to their favourite carers as we make our way through the lobby towards the car. I feel better for their company. But it turns out the thoughts I had hoped to shake off via their presence aren’t so easy to forget. Thoughts of motherhood and loss and food and what this all might mean for me. I think of this as I coax them into their car seats, bodies wriggly and sticky from a day of high energy, sweat and play. I click my own seatbelt into place, reverse carefully and make toward home.
I think of how I have come to realise the beauty of motherhood in the boys’ presumption of my presence. Adult presumption in relationships threatens inattention. But a child. A child presumes your focus and returns it every minute with a fresh ferocity. It’s what makes care of them so compelling. Cailean and Ash demand I see what makes life joyous and painful. Tie me to precise moments with the newness of their world view: door shut to the future and bridge cut to the past. But sometimes, on days like today, sometimes even with the fresh hope of Cailean and Ashok’s forms anchored against me, the knot still comes undone. Is that what happened between Mum and me? Was that all it was? As simple as a tether pulled to fray by the weight of Parkinson’s? A tie come permanently loose? Maybe it takes less than we imagine to be torn from the children to whom we have given our hearts. An argument. A misunderstanding. An unexpected diagnosis. Their giggles drag my eyes from the road to the rear view mirror. To see them laughing. The feeling that breaks through the skin of my chest. As their mother I owe them attachment to a past. A tribe. A heritage. But more than that. I owe them a relationship with the ‘me’ I once was: Mum’s daughter of spice. Of course to owe is not the same as to give. To give I must find it in myself, first. I must find her – that girl who once lived upon the step of heaven’s door. One raised on the flavour of love and faith. It is a recipe I am desperate to remember.
Excerpted with permission from Spirits in a Spice Jar, Sarina Kamini, Westland Books.