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Harj Dhillon

Harj Dhillon

Harj Dhillon (published in Prole, Spark, & Glimmer Train honorable mention) was recently a contributor at the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference. His passion for literature came from an unlikely place. During his years in the US Navy, while deployed as a Russian Linguist aboard submarines, he read Chekov, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. He is currently working on a novel based on his childhood in India.

A Simple Recipe for Daal


I lower the ladle of cumin and pepper seeds gently into the lentil mash, drops of hot oil, as painful as tiny pricks with a pin, start speckling my wrists.

"Too fast," my mother says.

"Your fever, mom, is it still there?" I ask.

"Nah, nah. The flame is too hot. Lower. A proper daal has to be simmered. You're burning it. It will not mash right."

I check the flames. Yesterday, she had said it was too low, and now she is saying it is too hot, but it looked the same to me, exactly at the third hash mark on the stove top dial.

"Did you take your Tuesdays? All of them?" I ask.

"Gently, stir, not hard, Sonu. "

"All the pills, mom, even the Oxy, did you take them all?"

"Let me do it, you are doing it too hard." My mother extends her hand, and I can see the thinness of her arms, the sickness, once deep inside her body, is showing itself everywhere. She takes the ladle from me, and in hypnotizing figure eights, she swirls the mixture, her motions extracting the aroma I have known all my life, the simple and aromatic smell of daal in my mother's kitchen.

I am regulated to standing by her side, just as if I was still a little girl. Warm September sunshine pours in through the kitchen window, and I am transported to the ten year old version of myself, tugging at my mother's skirt, thinking she would always be there for me, for us. This kitchen, my mother's, was a special place, this is where I told her about friends who were funny, friends that I loved, friends that betrayed me, my grades, secret things best kept away from my father, acceptance into medical school, about the hard-working man that would be my husband, and about the announcement that she would be a grandmother. In this kitchen, all of this happened.

***


At night, my husband smells of a clean shower gel. I slip under the covers as he turns to his side, checking the time. It is close to midnight.

"Traffic in the tunnel," I answer to his silent question.

"Devi ate, not Akshay," he responds to mine.

"What did you pick-up?"

"Cambodian. Sandwiches."

It was a new place, down the street. Popular for lunches, empty at dinner.

"Did he eat it, what you made?" he asks, although he knows the answer.

"No. He didn't even try. Not one bite."

A siren sounds outside, growing louder as if it was coming for me directly, but then it turns on some side street and begins to fade. There is the general hum of vehicles accelerating and braking, the rhythm of the city, which I normally like, but tonight it all sounds discordant, disruptive.

I had just spent three days in New Jersey at my mother's, and had too easily gotten used to the quiet again. Just the sound of old people, my parents, as they shuffled through the hallways at night, looking for the bathroom light switch. Once in awhile, I had heard their hushed voices. They still talked in the late night.

***


This time, I remember the mustard seeds have to pop, but I forgot to chop the garlic. The small black seeds begin jumping in the pan, and then as if in mutiny, they fling themselves out, spilling onto the stovetop.

"Sonu!" My mother races across the kitchen, her gray hair tightly, neatly wrapped in a bun. She won't let the disease do that too her, make her look sick.

"Mom, why are you standing here, please lie down, the doctor said..."

"They will be bitter!"

"Mom. Sit down!"

But she was right. The seeds would not smoke, and the bottom of the pan began to char. The kitchen smelled as if a piece of toast had been left in the oven too long.

"Sonu....." She looks disappointedly at the mess of the stovetop; burnt mustard seeds and wasted oil.

"Isn't there a shortcut? You do this every night for him?"

My mother locks eyes with me. Despite all she's been through, her pupils sparkle with strength and determination. But now they also pass judgment. I know so little about her life, they say. "My life was so easy, that I only cooked at night? I make things fresh for every meal."

"Doesn't he know how to cook one thing?" I ask.

"If he is in the kitchen, and I am in the kitchen, who is earning money then?"

I do not go there, this difference between their world, their generation and ours. I only want to learn to cook the way she does, and the way he likes, for the day, soon, when she won't be there. A meal, once in a while, that smells like it's from her hand, that tastes like it comes from her pan, so he wouldn't miss her so much.

So long, it has been just her and him. They got married in 1949, just a couple of year's after India's independence. Those were hard but joyful times. Her grandmother secretly arranged a "date" under a banyan tree in a schoolyard. He was the tallest of his brothers, and her mother told her, she couldn't help to admit how handsome he was. Her mother had thought his profession (accounting) was boring, but she made no mention of it, for she knew he would earn well. As newlyweds, they liked to take scooter rides around Chandigarh's newly paved and orderly streets. It was a dream of his to have a pretty girl on the back, the wind flowing through her hair. Their usual destination was the lake, where they found shade to enjoy their mango ice cream. He talked her into coming to the States, but he had taken the flight alone at first, the only rent he could afford, a rough neighborhood in Elizabeth. He took odd jobs, nothing to do with his degree, but he was a great saver, and he bought an AMC Matador. He sent a picture of it to her. The snapshot of the shiny blue car made her mother tear. He was the most accomplished man she knew.

A few months later my mother arrived stateside (with two suitcases: one for saris and one for spices). They bought a small home in West Orange. There was talk of moving, but they never did. The small home became their permanent residence, the one where my sister and I grew up.

My father was tough on grades, but he could make us laugh with silly faces no matter how sour our moods were. No one saw him this way but us.

As teenagers, we had begged to see Duran Duran. Mom and Dad, their hairs showing their first grays, sat in the parking lot drinking masala tea from a thermos. When I got married, they became stately, they threw an elaborate wedding with all the proper customs and drained their savings to put up the related guests in the Hyatt Waterfront. When my children came, their grandchildren, they taught them Hindi and how to gamble with cards (this brought many giggles). The children taught them how to take selfies on their phones (and how to unlock their phones when they forgot their passwords).

A year away from turning forty, my sister is unmarried. This is a near criminal offense in the Indian community and causes great shame to my parents. Earlier today, my mother was upset about her pictures on Facebook, all too revealing and flirtatious. It was Devi, my daughter and our youngest, who taught my mother how to get the app and look everyone up. For awhile, it was a treat, another way to get connected, until my sister's stream of bars, booze, and plastic-looking friends began to gnaw at my mother. This is not the way we raised you. Somehow, I am also implicated.

My mother opens a jar and extracts a bay leaf. For years, she has used the same glass jar, its clear walls colored in the dust of the leaves. She also adds cloves and a cinnamon stick. I swear she has told me this same recipe before, with different ingredients. They are not precise cooking steps, they are moods.

"After the daals soak, then I can chop the veggies?" I blame my lack of confidence to my mother's imprecise techniques (a pinch of fenugreek if you have it, otherwise do without—I mean, does it need it or not?). I can follow directions, reading, memorizing, that was what got me through med school, residency, fellowship. But if there are no rules, then I don't know what to do. I bookmarked a few recipes from the New York Times which I want to try (chicken with plums, shrimp rosetta, salmon with fig) but in the city, it is far to easy to click on a link and have your craving brought to your door. Our kitchen is the cleanest room in the house, hardly used.

"You're so smart, Sonu, but in the kitchen, you are helpless." She is stirring the masala, that blend of tomatoes and spices that form the bases of so many dishes. I like this, standing close to her. She is wearing several layers, a printed blouse, a yellow sweater, and her gray shawl, wrapped tightly around her, yet I see shivers run through her body.

"How is the Actiq? Is it suiting you?" I ask. I am in regular touch with Dr. Lopivsky, I know what she is supposed to be doing.

My mother continues to stir. "Your father was okay with your nose in books, but I knew this would be a problem, look at you — pah, a city girl!"

"Next Thursday, that's when you see the doctor again. Too long, look at your skin. It is bruising. I'll give him a call to bump up the date."

My mother nods at the other burner. "Clean the pan, put the onions in. We'll make Rajma also. You chopped too many onions, enough for three dishes. A waste!"

We are both tense, time is running out.

***


My mother has a fever. I phoned Dr. Lopivsky. He was on vacation scuba-diving somewhere in the Caribbean. He did not sound happy with the call, or my detailed questions, which forced him to boot his laptop. But I am satisfied, I have gone through everything—I have asked about the swelling in her legs, the nausea, the vomiting. We went through the meds, and once more on what the trials had to offer. It was a conversation I had with Dr. L. a hundred times. Maybe more.

Why did I become a doctor? I know too much, the reality of it.

***


The pandit is here, although I mistook him for a common guest. He was not wearing priestly robes but, instead, had on an ill-fitting suit, one an unsuccessful real estate agent might wear: bad material, bad cut.

Tea I can manage, sort of, the taste is right, but the color is off. And every guest made minor adjustments of sugar or milk. No one has moved out of this little West Orange Neighborhood, and their lifelong friends are here—still joking, still talking, like they were fresh immigrants.

They are discussing the best funeral parlor, ones that can handle an Indian cremation ceremony properly, and in this, my mother is opinionated as always, and insists that it doesn't matter, that it is useless to spend extravagantly, but my father wants the most respected and auspicious parlor, and only the greedy pandit is pointing him to Morris Hills, which is three times the price of anything else. No doubt, all he wants is the sizeable kickback from the funeral director for picking their place. Even pandits like some fun money.

The discussion has escalated into an argument; how is it, that with so few days left, my father can still argue with her, and my sister, wearing a red carpet short cocktail dress, sits uselessly checking her phone. I escort my mother out of the family room and into the kitchen. I ask her to guide me through cleaning the stained tea pot. Her kitchen has a dishwasher from 1972 which has never been used. I switch it on, and it trembles like a plane about to take off. I quickly shut if off, and it takes a solid minute for its secret internal gears to grind to a halt. With the fever, she is delirous, moving slowly, unsure of where the pot is, where the soap is. She is mumbling. I take her upstairs, guiding her to the bed.

"Sonu..." she says, as she pulls the covers over her head.

"Yes, mom?"

"Whenever a guest comes to your house, put water on for tea, and then sneak out the back, and go buy samosas. From Sabzhi-Mandi, they have them ready-made there. Never serve tea without samosas."

"Yes, mom."

***


My mother has bounced back. The fever is gone, and she looks vibrant in the dim light of the kitchen. My husband and kids are over this time, and she had insisted on cooking the entire meal. In the chickpea curry, she has fried the onions so soft and without a hint a charring, just a little brown in their corners. She has made lamb koftas. I could not keep the meatballs together, but she has rolled them into perfect little spheres of meat, ginger and garlic. And the daal, my father's favorite, how wonderful it has turned out—she used two varieties, masoor and moong, boiling them, mashing them until they were as creamy and buttery as mashed potatoes. And in the tarka, that final step of oil and onions, she used red chillies this time, giving it an extra kick. Once that was added to the daal, the aromas of herbs and spices erupted in the kitchen, signaling that dinner would be ready soon.

Kana taiyara ha. Dinner is ready my mother says. It was like a chime, a signal to all of us to come, if our noses and stomachs weren't already encouraging us. The phrase though made it official, and we could enter the kitchen now without reprimand.

Conversations stopped, the swirl of human bodies began gravitating to the table. This is what my mom does with her food, she brings us all together. And Devi and Akshay, my little ones, they ate too, even taking seconds.

***


I am nowhere. I am not home, I am not at my mother's house. I am in between. My mother had not gotten out of bed in two days, and the pandit is keeping a round-the-clock vigil, this time, wearing his saffron robes. My father has not eaten and has fallen down the stairs. No bones were broken (this time), but his face is swollen on the right side, and he refuses to let me care for it.

I am parked at a CVS, with a trunk of full of purchased items no one needs. Shampoos in bottles so large it would last my father a year. Deodorant of a kind and variety he would never use. A tray of tiny water bottles as heavy as a cinder block, although he drinks from the tap only, standing above the sink, until the glass if finished. And batteries, lots of batteries—Don't old men like batteries?

I do not know how to take care of him.

***


My children hold my hand during the cremation ceremony. My husband stands beside me, his hand around my waist, something he hasn't done in a long time, or ever done maybe. They were expecting me to fall apart, to be in shambles. My husband even packed tissues and carried make-up wipes in his suit jacket. But I am too angry for the sadness to erupt. My sister was putting on a show, not allowing anyone else to grieve. She had, I'm sure, faked feinting once the pandit had started chanting. As a crowd of relatives brought her back to her feet, and as the pandit sermonized on an unrelated topic of eating almonds for health, my father doted on my sibling.

I felt the sadness pressurizing in me, but I could not let it out, it was suppressed by the rage I had for my sister. This was what she does, takes the moment and makes it about her. How could my father move on if he can't stand here and let his face swell with the tears for the death of the woman he has loved all his life. He was a quiet man, who worked under the lone light of a lamp, in front of stacked ledgers and file cabinets that grew thicker and never emptied. When he retired, there was no party, just a humble dinner with a few friends—-his life, it was always around my mom.

She was at the center of things, as my relationship with my sister grew more strained, she held us together, held the whole family together.

It went back to when we were teenagers, to a boy named Rahul, whom I loved and my sister stole, and then later whose heart she also broke. Later, it wasn't about boys. There was the money, both big and small. If my father treated, she would pick the most extravagant places. If we treated, she would claim bankruptcy, due to classes. She was always taking classes. The latest, acting. Just a month ago, she asked them to help fund head shots.

But my children adored her. She had the same talent my father does for extracting laughs out of serious faces. My children don't like to talk on the phone with me, but they do with her. They have some bond that can only happen between an aunt and her niece and nephew. Despite the chasm between us, on Sunday nights, over chicken curry at my mother's, we were talkative sisters, asking about each other's lives, absent of resentment built on a lifetime of transgressions that, looking back on it, were minor.

Finally, my father signals to the pandit to get on with things, and after the chanting, and the stillness of breath right before the pandit signals for the casket to be lowered into the flames, I felt I could hear my mother's voice, that I felt her presence, that I could sense her spirit inside me. I had to forget all that has happened, it is up to me now, to keep the family together.

I glance at my sister, while all heads are bowed. I am surprised. She is honestly crying.

***


In the village preparing daal is an all day affair—-picking out stones in the sun, an open fire, plates on knees, water from the well, rinsing them, spices, chopping chillies, crushing garlic—-this my mother had told me, not as information, not as a memory, not as a story, but something like a song. She had let the scenes of the rustic kitchen glide from her lips, the warmth of the tandoor heated her voice, this was her fondest memories, this was her guiding light in all those struggles of our lives, this was my mother. And she was gone.

***


It is not cold, but I feel cold in the kitchen. I warm my hands above the flames of the stove. My father is in a CNN trance. He does not sleep in the bedroom. I have to bring down his clothes to him, force him to wash-up in the bathroom sink. He is spending his waking and sleeping hours in the armchair, watching tragic world events unfold in hyped-up caffeinated soundbytes from too good-looking news anchors. He is a stastistic waiting to happen: when the wife dies, so does the husband soon after. He is letting it happen.

It's been three weeks since the cremation, and the frozen food that my mom cooked in her last days is all gone. When and how she managed the strength and energy to cook all the dishes, freeze and label them, I do not know, but my father told me, they were there, neatly organized and stacked in the kitchen, labeled in Hindi (channa masala, chicken tikka, aloo saag). Only the rice I had to make, and that I had managed, done the way my mother taught me, half a finger depth for the rice, full finger on the water. Perfect every time.

The lentils are done soaking. I had set an alarm on my phone. My mother would be appalled at this: it was so procedural, so doctorlike of me. Her time in the kitchen was an act of poetry and grace, each movement purposeful and effortless, as graceful and powerful as a yoga flow. I am clumsy and indecisive.

To the heated pan, I add the cumin seeds, and when they ignite, there is the faintest hint of my mother's spirit. I can sense her there, with me, rooting for me. I don't know if I've sliced the onions and garlic to her specifications, they seem small enough to me. Her directions were never exact, just a nod or shake, eyeing up my knifework, judging my fit as a mother, daughter, and wife by the way I held the blade.

How does one tell a soul that has departed that they were right? I should have listened to her, watched her more closely, taken this more seriously, What worth am I if I cannot feed my father?

It was time for the tomatoes. I have doubts about whether it is smelling right, this frying mixture in the bowl. The concoction looks like individual components, separate ingredients, and not a foundational whole. The simplest things are the most difficult things.

The spices seem happenstance, randomly selected from the cabinet. But I know there is a mysterious alchemy to it, this blend of garam masala, turmeric, asafetida, a molecular binding of flavors that was known to my mother, and her mother, and her mother, a searing together of warmth, texture, and nutrition in such a perfect blend that it nourishes and makes the family eat together. Why did I not see this earlier? Tragedy forces wisdom.

The final step, tadka, is tricky. There are burn marks on my wrist, from the careless handling of the frying oil and cumin seeds. Today, I add a red hot chili—I had asked her when to use the peppers and when not too—-her reply was simple, when you feel like it. Today was a day for risks.

The daal is ready.

***


He is waiting at the table. This routine he has not broken: it is eight p.m. on the nose, and he has his scotch poured in a glass, which he takes with lots of water. His glasses are in its case, and his eyes scan the cover of an INDIA TODAY magazine. He looks disapprovingly at it, as if he could read the words through the pages, already disagreeing with the opinions on whether the current political party was fulfilling its election promises. Just briefly, underlying the sadness in him, I see the handsome face of the man my mother fell in love with. He is still in there, somewhere.

Khana taiyara hai, I say.

I ladle the rice, daal and yogurt in place, but he does not break his gaze from the magazine. Steam rises to his face, and I have served it too hot, so worried, that I would not serve it at the right time. I do not want him to miss her so much, that a simple thing as the lateness of dinner will draw his attention to the abyss that she has left behind.

He begins eating in a mechanical way, bringing the food to his mouth in the steady beats as a mother would feed a child. There is no pleasure. He has to do it, so he does.

We eat in silence. I can nearly hear our heartbeats between the scraping of plates and spoons and sips of water. But at least we are together. I imagine dinner at home: it was more an obstacle, something in the way of everyone's evening plans, so it was a race, eat and leave—screens beckoned.

When he finished, he pushed the plate aside. He put on his glasses and opened the magazine. There is no joy, no thanks there.

I muster the courage to ask. "How was it, dad?"

There is a groan from somewhere deep in his throat. Not pleasureable. "Too salty."

I have failed utterly. I see instantly the desperation in my mother, the fear she had of his death following soon after hers. The tears that did not come at her cremation, arrive now—in torrents. I start sobbing like a schoolgirl who has lost her first love, her heart broken for the first time, wailing uncontrollably, crying with my entire body. The wetness comes from my heart and my chest and pours through my eyes down along my face.

"I'm sorry Dad....I'm so sorry."

My father folds his magazine. He reaches his hand across the table, presses on my arm. "Too salty," he says, smiling, "Just like hers."

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