My Indian Mother-in-Law’s Gift

Biji cooking

Biji always got up in the dark before dawn, quickly wrapping a simple cotton sari round her–the front hiked up to cover her ample belly. She’d tuck in the loose end at the waist, out of her way. In the kitchen she’d light the single gas burner to boil the water for bed tea. Everyone in her family took their bath before breakfast. And before they took their bath, they liked a cup of hot tea with milk and sugar.

By seven or eight, everyone ate breakfast. Husband, sons and daughters still living at home, visiting sons and daughters-in-law, grandchildren. Omelet, toast, parathas (homemade fried whole wheat flat breads), more tea. Biji would prepare it all in her simple kitchen, sitting on a stool only inches high, close to the concrete floor. She had only two burners, one gas, one charcoal. She didn’t own a western style stove or cupboards. She stored all her ingredients, pans, and tools near her on low shelves or in containers on the floor. She kept her few spices in a masala dabba–an old wooden box divided into compartments, one for each spice. She didn’t have a refrigerator: every day someone would shop for fresh vegetables, fruit and meat from the bazaar.

By ten, Biji was cutting up fresh fruit. Her husband was fond of declaring to all, “Fruit in the morning is golden; fruit in the afternoon is silver; fruit in the evening is brass.”

By about one p.m., everyone was ready for a big midday meal. Lentils or beans, yogurt, vegetable dishes, maybe rice, maybe meat, always chapatis (another homemade whole wheat flat bread). Everything was made fresh and took a long time to cook. Biji–with help from other women in the house–cooked everything.

She worked almost all day long in the kitchen, except for a little rest in the heat of the afternoon. When her daughters or daughters-in-law or friends joined her in that tiny room, they would talk and laugh. She had a deep, hearty laugh that rocked her short, plump body.

If she sat outside the kitchen with the family, she would keep busy, perhaps making homemade pasta with her fingers, piece by piece, or setting wedges of salted lemon in the sun to become pickles. Always, it seemed, she was cooking.

By four everyone would be ready for afternoon tea with snacks and sweets. Sometimes friends would stop by, ready to be entertained–and fed.

By eight, it would be time for dinner, another big meal not so different from lunch. Perhaps she would add a dish or two. She stayed in the kitchen preparing fresh hot chapatis while the men and children ate.

Hospitality apparently demanded many complicated dishes that required long cooking times and much attention. Her husband believed that home cooking was best and she vigorously, passionately agreed with him–even though she was the one doing the cooking.

Before bed, at ten or so, everyone drank sweet hot milk. Biji cooked and served it.

Biji was my mother-in-law. I first met her when I was twenty-one. My new husband Inderjit and I went to India soon after our marriage. He was eager to go home for a visit after years of graduate school. Would I be welcome? His family (and mine) had only reluctantly accepted the idea of our marriage.

And what would be expected of me? My father-in-law had suggested that I emulate Biji, a “perfectly submissive wife.” All this made me perfectly nervous. Submissive was not on my self-improvement list.

Still, even if the trip turned out to be difficult, at the end of it, I would go home to Canada, and I was excited about travel to an exotic, faraway land.

How much harder it must have been for my mother-in-law!  Her beloved son went to graduate school in the West and, like so many others, decided not to come home after graduation. Then he had married a Canadian girl. Her grandchildren would grow up far away, speaking a language she didn’t know.

Maybe she believed the 1960s Indian stereotypes about Western women, stereotypes based on Western movies. (In those days, relatively few Indians had traveled to or settled in the West.) We were brassy females who drank too much, smoked too much, and were–promiscuous.

I could only smile and hope for the best.

At my first dinner in Chandigarh, bowls of food were put on the table for everyone to share. But one was placed in front of me and meant for me alone. Biji had heard that Canadians like simple food, not spicy. And we had a particular fancy for potatoes.

On my plate was one large potato. Peeled and boiled. Plain. Unseasoned. Cold.

I was touched–and depressed. I wanted the spicy, interesting dishes the rest of the family was eating, but I knew the potato was the gift of a generous heart. Biji had wanted to give me something for dinner that I could enjoy. I ate that potato and other food besides. When she saw me eat with gusto the spicy family dishes she served that evening, she must have relaxed: she never served me another plain potato.

Too soon, the few weeks of our visit were almost over. In a day or two, we would leave for New Delhi and our flight home.

On my last full day in India, Shashi, one of my sisters-in-law, came to talk to me. Shyly she told me that Biji had a request. Shashi told me that when a new bride comes to live with her husband’s family, she isn’t asked to do any  chores for thirty days. Those days are meant to give her time to relax and get to know her new family. At the end of those thirty days, she is asked to make a sweet dish. After that, she takes her place as a full-fledged member of the family.

Biji wanted me to make dessert. Would I come now to the kitchen?  I went.

I knew nothing about cooking Indian desserts. Nothing at all. I wasn’t sure how I’d get through this one.

In the kitchen, Biji was making halva, a delicious concoction of Cream of Wheat, sugar, butter, and nuts. Biji gave me a spoon and I stirred the pan. Once around. That was enough. She took the spoon from me, smiling broadly and chattering in Punjabi. I didn’t understand anything of what she said. She hugged me. Then she ran into her bedroom. She came back with a gift for me: a lovely rose pink sari. I understood.

In the rituals of food and cooking, family ties are created. And a loving, cooking woman can bridge a sea of cultural differences.