The Spice BoxIf the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, why on earth is my Aditi still single?
Aayi had asked the question a million times in the last 10 years and at least a dozen times this morning.. Not once did she see Aditi wince, which she did each time.
Aayi almost made her regret the deft magic she could spin in the kitchen. The kind that left people scraping the bottoms of serving dishes and licking their fingers at the end of each meal.
Aditi tuned off and turned to scrubbing away the small but thick and gooey mess left behind by the pakora batter that she had just finished putting together for this evening’s visitors. The drops of besan, prettily specked with red chili powder and green methi, clung stubbornly to the black soapstone kitchen platform.
Another Sunday about to go down the drain, she thought silently, pulling the loose end of her sari around her waist to tuck it in and out of the way. Another day of cooking one dish after another to lure some stranger and his family.
They would praise the food, smile politely, ask her a couple of questions, and then take off never to be seen again. Weeks later they would send word through Nadkarni, the matchmaker, that the girl was okay but it wouldn’t work…she was too dark.
Or too short. Or too tall.
Someone had even turned her down because, they said, she looked too intelligent.
“You should never have gotten that master’s degree,” Aayi would say after each missive rejecting the daughter she adored. “Who’s going to marry you if you’re more educated than the groom is? You even make more money than most of these men do! They have their pride, you know.”
Aditi could think of a million things to say to that, but she swallowed them all. Arguing with Aayi usually ended with the older woman crying a bucket, and that was too much for Aditi to deal with right now. She still had to put together the rest of the meal.
These matchmaking events, usually so momentous for a young woman, had turned for Aditi into routines that arrived with certain and unwelcome regularity. They had started 10 years ago, right after she turned 21. Each episode began with Nadkarni bustling unctuously through the door, smiling ear to ear. Panting visibly like a dog with even her tongue hanging out a little, except there was nothing cute about the square, eager face. Oil would have seeped out from her hair and onto her forehead, and over it the heat would have formed perfectly round beads of perspiration
“This is the boy– he’s the one.” That was usually the first sentence out Nadkarni’s mouth. The words would send Aayi into a frenzy of unjustified hope, but the other woman would wait until Aayi had placed in her hands a big cup of milky-thick Nescafe and a plate of sweet Glucose biscuits before giving out any other nuggets.
Soon, horoscopes would be whipped out, photographs traded, and information about castes, family deities, workplaces, salaries and relatives exchanged in a breathless rush.
“The boy isn’t non-veg, is he? You know Aditi would never touch meat…?”
Once Oil Drum (as Aditi thought of Nadkarni) had rolled away, on a mission to bring more hearts together and break others, Aayi would pick off right where the other woman had left.. “I have a gut feeling that this is it,” she would exult, never deterred by the fact that her gut had been wrong every single time in the past.
“He’s educated, good-looking, and he comes from a wonderful family. I think I met his aunt once back in Goa. She was really nice.” She’d thrust under Aditi’s nose the photograph Oil Drum had left behind, then show it to every friend, neighbor and relative who walked in the door.
Once the rejection had landed, she would backtrack without missing a beat. “He was rather ugly, really, I mean how could God put that big a nose on a man’s face? And his mother?” This was accompanied by an expressive, full-bodied shudder. “Now she would have made your life miserable. Thank goodness it didn’t work out!”
In the beginning Aditi had seized those moments to beg Aayi to stop looking for a match. I am so happy here with you, Aayi, she’d say. Aayi’s expression would transform instantly, reminding Aditi that she spent a good part of each day — after Aditi had taken off for work– watching melodramatic television serials.
“And let everyone say I kept my grown daughter at home so I could live off her? If only your father were alive now, we would have found a groom for you long ago– how well-respected he was! Besides, who will be here to look after you when I’m gone?”
Eventually, Aditi learned to avoid every step she knew would be a pitfall. Instead, she just went along. She knew it was what Aayi wanted more than anything in the world. Besides, there was one aspect of these events that she did enjoy: the food.
Food was her friend. And with just her and Aayi at home, and Aayi’s long-suffering health, it was not too often that she could indulge in her love for cooking.
Her hands knew the exact measure of the spices, and the herbs, that could send people into raptures after biting into a simple, lacy dosa dunked into a green, coconutty chutney. Her fingers wallowed in the sensuous touch of the sticky, hard, golden lumps of jaggery as she chopped them into tiny pieces and added them to milky grated coconut to make a filling for her karanjis. Even the oil, sputtering and bubbling and spilling over the rim of the rounded, blackened kadhai, sang to her.
In lonely moments, all she had to do was open up the round spice box and breathe.
Earthy cumin. Sweet cardamom. Sassy cinnamon.
They offered steady, silent comfort as they looked up at her from round, open steel containers ringed inside the box.
It was past three in the afternoon now, and Aayi sprang to attention, grabbing the spice box from Aditi’s reluctant hands and putting it away in the kitchen cabinet, right between the tea leaves and the salt.
“Leave this to me, Aditi, you go and get ready. They will be here soon!” Aayi had already put out a sari for her. Aditi saw, without surprise, that it was the purple one with the wide gold border. The one Aayi said made her look fairer. The damn thing had practically turned into a uniform for these occasions.
Aayi then clasped on gold necklace after necklace around her neck, until Aditi thought it would snap under the weight. “I’m not getting married today, you know,” she grumbled softly. “Aayi shook her head. “Yes, but let them see what you will bring with you– we have to impress them, you know.”
As Aditi handed over cups of masala tea to the guests, who were an hour late, she could feel their curious, scrutinizing eyes on her. She felt supremely detached, yet made her own observations.
Eager, curious, lips pursed in eternal disapproval. The Mother.
All nostrils and pride. The Father.
A face not unhandsome, but not one anyone would remember in a day’s time. The Boy.
Would they be the 49th family to say No?
Odds were, they would. But for now Aditi answered their questions, her eyes fixed on the upside-down magazine in front of the Father. Aayi had warned her, again and again, not to look into people’s eyes when she replied.
“You don’t want them to think you’re too forward,” she’d say.
Where do you work? What are your hobbies? Do you like to cook?
How tall are you?
And then, as if she was not even in the room, the Mother remarked: “Her eyes are too small, aren’t they? You need to wear some kaajal, my dear, to make them look bigger.”
The Boy was unusually quiet, never raising his eyes to look at her or anyone else. He is either really shy or really hostile, Aditi thought with some amusement. Aayi picked up the cup of tea in front of the Boy and offered it again. “Drink it before it gets cold,” she said with far too much concern for someone she had just met.
Everyone watched in silence as he raised it to his lips and took a sip. Then, completely out of the blue, he made a face and exclaimed, the first words out of his mouth: “It’s too sweet!”
Aditi’s head snapped up, and Aayi quickly looked at her, a slight raising of the eyebrows warning her to remain quiet. She knew her daughter well. Aditi rarely spoke, rarely complained, but she did not take criticism about her cooking well. Especially from strangers.
“Aditi, go, get the pakoras. And make some more tea– this time with less sugar,” Aayi was smiling ingratiatingly at the Mother. “Aditi makes the best pakoras in the whole world, you know. Wait till you try them.”
Aditi was glad to escape into the sanctuary of her kitchen. Her ears were tipped with red, still smarting from the sweet tea remark. Who did this guy think he was? No one, NO ONE, had ever criticized anything she’d ever cooked.
She put water on the stove for more tea, then pulled out the pakora batter from the refrigerator. A devil danced in her eyes. Aditi had never been indecisive in the kitchen, but she had never felt as resolute as she did right now.
She tucked the pallu of her heavy silk sari into her waist and turned to the cabinet where Aayi had put away her prized spice box. The round, transparent lid rimmed with steel clattered onto the platform. She picked up the little container right in the middle. She had refilled it this morning and it brimmed with scarlet spice.
Angry, assertive chilli.
She was smiling a little as she upturned the container into the pakora batter, then smoothly mixed it in. The smile widened as she watched the Boy pick up a beautifully golden pakora, and bite into it.
Aayi would never forgive her. Oil Drum would spread the story far and wide. And maybe no Boy and his family would ever step through her door again to “see” her.
She didn’t care. This was her life. And she was taking it back.
Arranged marriages are part of India’s mystique for the rest of the world, not unlike elephants walking on the streets and snakes dancing in baskets. But just like the elephants and snakes, the stories behind the amusing facades can be — at least sometimes — of heartbreak and cruelty.
Before I go on, let me make this clear: I am not against arranged marriages, as my story might have led you to believe. I think they do work exceptionally well in many cases. And they have evolved today to where they really aren’t very different, at least logistically, from a blind date set up by friends or relatives or online dating services here in the West.
But arranged marriages in India can have a pernicious side. In the past especially, and perhaps to a large extent even today, they force the woman into accepting the lower hand. It is not at all uncommon, for instance, for a dowry to exchange hands. Dowry, for anyone who doesn’t know, is the horrible custom of giving large amounts of cash or gifts to the groom’s family. And women are often forced into rushed unions because parents fear they might not be able to make a good match if they wait too long.
My own marriage was not arranged, but I’ve seen dozens of such matches happen both within my family and in my circle of friends. I’ve known a few Aditis, although I’ve never seen anyone with her sense of humor. I wish I did.
- 1 bunch methi leaves, washed and finely chopped
- 1 medium red onion, chopped into small pieces
- ½ cup chickpea or garbanzo bean flour
- ¼ cup rice flour
- 1 tsp red chilli powder
- 1 tsp cumin seeds, slightly crushed
- 1 tsp aamchoor (mango powder), optional
- Salt to taste
- Water to make a batter
- Oil for deep frying
- Place all the ingredients in a bowl, mix well, and then add enough water to make a thick batter that clumps together.
- Heat the oil in a cast-iron pan or kadhai or other frying pan. You want it to get to a point where the batter bubbles and rises immediately when dropped in the oil. If you have a frying thermometer, this should be around 350 degrees. Food fried at this temperature absorbs almost no oil.
- Drop small lumps of the batter into the oil and fry each side until golden-brown and really crispy.