On toothpaste

You’re brushing your teeth and you’re living the dream. All at the same time. You’re not sure whether to change into clean pants though. Even though this is a fancy television production company’s ground floor toilet, it’s still essentially a public toilet, no a communal toilet, used by 100s of staff and they probably don’t care about pissing on the floor and leaving dirty bog roll everywhere because they pay someone else to clean it up.

You’re looking in the mirror, brushing your teeth, thinking, today your life is going to change. You’re looking in the mirror, brushing your teeth, thinking, today your life is going to change, trying to speed up the minty fresh feeling around your mouth because anyone could walk in. And if anyone did walk in and see you brushing your teeth, obviously wearing yesterday’s clothes, it might be time to wake up, because living the dream comes on a short leash.

You were so excited to get this job you neglected to bring a change of clothes. Or a toothbrush. You were so excited to get this job you come to London the night before. You were so excited to get this job you stayed out with friends till late celebrating it before it had even begun. You were so excited to get this job that you missed the last train back to your dad’s and you stayed with a friend who has an early start, ushering you out of the door at 7am, into the street, hung over with nothing other than a half-charged iPad and yesterday’s clothes. You sat in a café across the road from the television production company and you watched Pacific Rim on your iPad at 8am. You went out and bought toothpaste and an expensive pair of pants, because what option do you have in Camden at 9am on a Monday.

Someone was asleep in the café toilet so you watched your film and went to your first ever television writing job early, asking if you could use the toilet. You did, and here you are, brushing your teeth, knowing that from this point on, everything will be different. You are about to have made it.

Your boss for the day walks into the toilet and looks at you as you’re mid-spit. He says your name quizzically and you smile and nod and spit. He goes into the cubicle and you try to finish your tooth-brushing as quickly and quietly as possible as he does a loud fart followed by an empty of his bowels.

You stare in the mirror. You’re living the dream. You’re a writer now.

You have toothpaste on yesterday’s shirt.

What would you have to eat if you could have anything you wanted?”
“Excellent question. I would have a magnificent buffet. I would start with rice and sambar. There would be black gram dhal rice and curd rice and—”
“I would have—”
“I’m not finished. And with my rice I would have spicy tamarind sambar and small onion sambar and—”
“Anything else?”
“I’m getting there. I’d also have mixed vegetable sagu and vegetable korma and potato masala and cabbage vadai and masala dosai and spicy lentil rasam and—”
“I see.”
“Wait. And stuffed eggplant poriyal and coconut yam kootu and rice idli and curd vadai and vegetable bajji and—”
“It sounds very—”
“Have I mentioned the chutneys yet? Coconut chutney and mint chutney and green chilli pickle and gooseberry pickle, all served with the usual nans, popadoms, parathas and puris, of course.”
“Sounds—”
“The salads! Mango curd salad and okra curd salad and plain fresh cucumber salad. And for dessert, almond payasam and milk payasam and jaggery pancake and peanut toffee and coconut burfi and vanilla ice cream with hot, thick chocolate sauce.”
“Is that it?”
“I’d finish this snack with a ten-litre glass of fresh, clean, cool, chilled water and a coffee.”
“It sounds very good.”
“It does.”
“Tell me, what is coconut yam kootu?”
“Nothing short of heaven, that’s what. To make it you need yams, grated coconut, green plantains, chilli powder, ground black pepper, ground turmeric, cumin seeds, brown mustard seeds and some coconut oil. You saute the coconut until it’s golden brown […] Have you ever had oothappam?”
“No, I haven’t. But tell me about it. What is oothappam?”
“It is so good.”
“Sounds delicious. Tell me more.”
“Oothappam is often made with leftover batter, but rarely has a culinary afterthought been so memorable.
From ‘Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel

Maneck emptied the alayti-palayti from A-1 Restaurant into a bowl and brought it to the table. “It’s out of my pocket money. I can spend it any way I like.”

Chunks of chicken liver and gizzard floated tantalizingly in the thick, spicy sauce. Bending over the bowl, [Dina] sniffed. “Mmm, the same wonderful fragrance that made it a favourite of Rustom’s. Only A-1 makes it in rich gravy—other places cook it too dry.” She dipped a spoon, raised it to her lips, and nodded. “Delicious. We could easily add a little water without harming the taste. Then it will be enough for lunch and dinner.”

From A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

The Soods

The Soods

by Chimene Suleyman

Growing up in Finchley, in the 80s, my neighbours were the Soods. Their adult children lived mostly in America; their grandchildren - older than me in age - completed a close family. They were an old Indian couple, who I called, fondly, Grandpa and Grandma Sood. With their children abroad, and my older relatives in another country, they enjoyed me as another granddaughter, there daily, the love very much mutual.

I was in my 20s before I experienced my first English wedding. Yet, in two decades, the Indian marriages and celebrations we had shared were uncountable. On birthdays and Christmas, Grandpa Sood gave gifts; encyclopaedias, a thesaurus, dictionaries. Once a teacher in his youth in India, he told me I must always love words. As memory faded, the same gifts - naturally - were repeated. As a result I received, multiple times, “The Reader’s Digest: Big Book of How To Be A Strong Beautiful Woman”. I have 12 copies.

With both grandfathers passed before I was born, Grandpa Sood was the closest I have come to having one.  When I was 19, Grandpa Sood passed away. He was 98. Grandma Sood had gone a few years before. Though my parents still live in the home I grew up, the Sood’s house has been demolished. There is a railway track that has stayed, running alongside the space.  

I do not remember the exact dishes that we ate in the tight kitchen; laminate floor that was easy to wipe clean with Grandma Sood’s bracelet-dressed hands. I do not remember the names of the sweets she made, or the meals that she cooked, after school, or on weekends with my parents next door. I do not know how she prepared the food, the ingredients, or length of time it took. I cannot remember which vegetables she preferred, or the spices that dominated. Cooking, I believe, is instinctive, sculpted and natural. I have never learnt to cook. Or wanted to. And whilst, sadly, the best Indian meals I have eaten have left with the Soods, I have 12 copies of “The Reader’s Digest”. They are not half as delicious, but just as wonderful.

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Singing the Cancer Out - short story

The main difference between my mother and me was our choice of newspaper. I took a stance and I read the associated newspaper. She read whatever was put in front of her. She was balanced in her opinions. She was never swayed by the right-wing ones, the sensationalist ones or the lefty leaning ones. She just picked out the facts and made up her own mind. I had to read the papers that posited things in a way I understood, so I knew the right opinion to have.

We were sat in hospital on her last ever birthday, just her and me and a newspaper I had bought. She read the supplements I often discarded. She read the travel, family and money sections, while I devoured arts and culture for mains, current affairs for dessert. We were mostly silent that day. We didn’t know she had cancer, so we didn’t know what we needed to say to each other yet.

I had bought her a cake. I knew she wouldn’t eat anything more than a thumbful. Nor her fellow patients. They were asleep, on a steady supply of oxygen or miserable. I cut up the rest of the cake and took it to the nurse’s station to sweeten them that they might take better care of my mum. I said this and as one nurse took a small bite of the chocolate frosting, she sighed. ‘Everyone gets our best,’ she said, robotically. She looked up when she sensed this wasn’t enough. ‘Your mum’s going to be fine.’

Mum fell asleep while we watched a Bollywood film on my laptop. I’d spent the 30 minutes of excruciating cheese tweeting and replying to emails. She fell asleep on her back with her mouth closed, the oxygen being manually pumped into her, slowly meandering through the relevant nooks and crannies of her lungs. I decided to take a walk.

It was too cold so I spent an hour in the pub, nursing a pint and watching a football match I had no vested interest in. I couldn’t concentrate on the book I’d brought with me. Eventually staring into space wasn’t enough and my phone was running out of battery. I wanted to be done with my weekend visiting obligations so headed back to see if my mum had woken up.

She hadn’t. But the woman in the hospital bed next to her had. She was in her thirties, had a bruised face and bandaged hand. Her feet were pink and inflamed. She whispered to me.

‘Hey, is there any cake left?’

‘No, sorry, I gave the rest to the nurses.’

‘You’re very sweet bringing that in.’

‘It was nothing.’

‘My mouth is so dry. What I would give to have the taste of anything else on my tongue. I’d even take up smoking again.’

‘Probably not the best idea.’

‘Nope. It’s why I’m here.’

She closed her eyes and held out a hand. ‘I’m Lindsey,’ she said and I gently took her hand. ‘Your hands are really hot.’

‘I get hot hands and feet,’ I said.

‘Will you help me up for a walk?’

‘I can’t, sorry. I should stay with my mum.’

‘Oh, she’s fine. She’ll be asleep for another hour. She’s like clockwork.’

I stood up and Lindsey swung her inflamed feet off the bed. I placed her slippers near them for her and she sat up. Steadying her hand on my shoulder she stood up. I helped with a palm on her back. Slippers on, I supported her as she waddled towards the door.

‘The problem with cancer is you have to let all manner of strangers be intimate with your body. I’d never link arms with a strange man on a Saturday.’

‘It’s alright, you know my mum,’ I said.

Lindsey led me out of the room into the quiet corridor. It was the weekend. There was nothing going on here. The nurses were quietly filling out forms. Patients were asleep in the post-lunch lull. Visitors were enjoying their weekends elsewhere.

‘Have you been drinking?’ Lindsey asked.

‘One pint. There’s nothing to do around here.’

‘What’s wrong with tea?’

‘The instant machine here has put me off it for life, I think.’

‘It’ll do that.’

Across the corridor was the recreation room, with a television, some old DVDs, stacks of Reader’s Digest compendiums and well-thumbed Barbara Taylor Bradford paperbacks. The walk had taken it out of Lindsey so she leant against the doorframe and pointed at a coffee table. On it was a pair of glasses and a photography magazine. I picked them up for her and she linked her arm in mine and we walked back to her bed.

‘What happened to your face?’ I asked.

‘Nothing. What happened to yours?’ Lindsey smiled and stopped me. She forced a deep breath. ‘Car crash. I couldn’t breath. I crashed my car into a postbox.’

‘How fast were you going?’

‘Not that fast. I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. Lesson learnt.’

I helped Lindsey back on to her bed. She put her glasses on her side table and rested the photography magazine on her chest.

‘I feel heavy,’ she said. ‘Thanks for the workout.’

I shrugged. I heard my mum call my name. She was awake and panting. She asked me for water. I poured it out and lifted the cup of lukewarm plastic tap water to her lips and she sipped.

‘You don’t have cancer do you?’ Lindsey asked my mum. She shook her head. ‘Keep it that way. It’s really shit.’ Lindsey laughed to herself. I looked at my mum and saw her internally rolling her eyes. ‘You know,’ Lindsey said. ‘They say singing’s good for lung cancer. It gives your lungs a good workout. Will you both sing with me?’

Mum nodded at me. I helped her sit up straighter as she and Lindsey discussed songs they both knew the words to. They started with a lacklustre ‘If You’re Happy and You Know It’ but both burst into giggles on acknowledging that they were both far from happy.

Mum hummed to herself. The tune morphed into words. It was a song I knew well. She used to sing it in the kitchen. It was a Bollywood song from the 60s.

‘…aaj mausam badaa beiimaan hai…’

I looked at her and I knew. Today, the weather’s very fickle. It’s very fickle today, the weather… some storm is on its way.

We had till then to say the things we needed to say the most.

10,000 hours of genius

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You’re duty-bound in grief to remember only the good things. So before I tell you what a good cook my mum was, let me tell you what a bad cook she was.

She used to make this pasta bake that had potatoes and peas and baked beans and tuna… and pasta in it. Covered in mild cheddar. Left to harden in the oven before being served up in a dollop on a plate. She used to cook this aubergine shaak that would involve decimating the poor aubergine with heat till it was like viscous that slimed about in your mouth. She used to make sandwiches, Indian-style, she called them, that were fried potatoes and chillis, sandwiched in thin white sliced bread and scrunched up into a toaster for fifteen minutes. Serve with ketchup mixed with tamarind… tommy k - Indian-style.

My mum was the best cook in the world when it came to Indian food. Maybe it was the abundance of cumin seeds in everything she made. Maybe it was the reams of garlic, broken off from a larger frozen slate of the stuff in the fridge. Maybe it was the fact that she had cooked these dishes time and time again and had no interest in developing or evolving the recipes that made her the best. She attained Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of genius.

I grew up in a sexist household where my mother, the matriarch, after a full day’s work, would be left to cook for the family while I pretended to do my homework and wrote rap lyrics, my sister pretended to do her homework and watched television quietly in mum’s room and while my dad sat in  a corner of the room, drinking and thinking about business. When our own mealtimes came, we would go downstairs and eat, sat in an empty kitchen or sat while she washed up, silently, usually with a book or the notebook that had all my rap lyrics. I tried to time my meals with her not being in the kitchen because she would ask questions about school I didn’t want to answer.

The kitchen was always a warm mess. She took sole responsibility for keeping it tidy and she couldn’t be bothered. She had two jobs and she had to cook for us. So there were dustings of flour on each surface. The bench was wobbly. There were turmeric stains on the walls. And the sink had a constant stream of things needed to be washed up.

It was the most important room in the house. I just didn’t know it at the time. I was a moody teenager who wanted to be like my favourite rappers.

Now my mum’s not around, the kitchen feels like a shrine to former glories. I call it the museum of how things were now no one uses it to cook anymore, just heat things up, or make sandwiches. The hob is shop-fresh in its metallic glow. The oven is used as storage for trays that have no place in the cupboards. And the fridge, my dad’s fridge, is that of a student’s - cheese, chillis, milk and fruit yoghurts. The Tupperware of donated dishes are stacked high, the bottom one hideously out of date.

And it makes me miss my mum. Because this was what she was best at. Regardless of whether she felt duty-bound to cook for us, when I finally took an interest in learning, she admitted she loved it. She loved being in the kitchen. She said, there was something about the sound of things frying bubbling, the sound of a knife chopping. I reminded her that she never used the chopping board shaped like a pig. She cut things into the palm of her hand, stood with a foot up on a bench. The chopping board was for when I was home.

Growing up above the kitchen, I lived on the sound of the pressure cooker, the rising heat and warmth the room imbued, the smell of onions and garlic.

She had these two phrases to express annoyance. If you were pecking at her, hectoring and going on and on, she’d say, ‘maro mathoo nay ka’. Don’t eat my head. If you were being wilful, she’d say ‘thel piva ja’. Go and drink some oil.

No wonder I’m obsessed with food.

My mother would have been 62 today. Donate 25p to Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation by buying my novella ‘The Time Machine’. It’s £1. It’s about my mum. It has three of her recipes in it.

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Author Nikesh Shukla eats Indian food. Nikesh blogs about Indian food.

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