(by Chandini Prakash)
My mother is an alchemist, if I can say that about someone who knows how to create amazingly flavorful food, with her own ways of mixing things up. Her hands were like magic wands, and I was lucky enough to eat her food until I went off to a boarding school.
I was born and brought up in Bombay, India, with summers spent at my grandparents’ house in Bihar, in the eastern part of the country, where life was like a musical. My mother would be busy getting pampered—nothing to take care of, with ladies who arrived in the afternoon to give massages and apply ubtan, a traditional Indian beauty paste made of turmeric and besan (chickpea flour). There was always such a playful atmosphere in that house, with my aunts teasing me, telling me stories, even teaching me math, and cooking. I was intrigued by the people fixing meals in the kitchen. I often sat with my mother, grandmother, aunts, and cousins, to see how they did it. Women ruled that house, now that I think of it. They would even sing songs in the night while cooking. It was all very romantic.
My mother was an actress, quite a glamorous figure while I was growing up, creative in everything she did—filling the rooms of our home with warmth, dressing up like a goddess with her long painted fingernails and natural curls. (Even now, on a day when I am down, I know makeup will cheer me up.) I won fancy dress competitions, whether in the colorful fashions of a Kashmiri girl or as a street sweeper, thanks to her makeup and costuming skills.
I used to see her in endless preparation for her roles, at home or on film sets. She was full of joy and excitement, no matter how many hours were required, and her example taught me to be passionate about my work. After the birth of my brother, she chose to be at home with us, and slowly settled into the role of a stay-at-home mom. Since becoming a mother myself, I am forever grateful for the choice she made. She discouraged me from pursuing a career in the film industry without getting a proper education first, with a stable career as a “back-up,” and I was inspired by my paternal grandfather who was a lawyer.
My maternal grandfather was a freedom fighter in the Indian independence movement, who later joined the Air Force, and my mother traveled all over the country while she was growing up. Perhaps it was that military background that created her high standards, which, when it came to my education, could only be met with boarding school. She appreciated the discipline of rising in the early morning, having physical training, and meals at fixed times in the mess; I came to find the experience enriching as well. It filled me with confidence and prepared me for making the world my own.
After I returned from boarding school, my mother returned to her career, and we had a cook, Pratibha, who worked for four families that lived near each other in vertical villages, quite like the apartment buildings in Manhattan where I live now. It’s a very common practice in the upper-middle class of India. She always wanted to provide big tastes, not the routine. I remember her saying that it would be boring to make the same thing she’d just made last week. Her mother did our cleaning, and my mother got along well with both of them. The four of us often talked over tea, our own circle of support, always there to listen, share, joke, and sometimes cry.
After college (in a palace left behind by the British) and law school, I lived with my parents. It is typical in Indian culture for a daughter to remain with her parents until she is married, and taking care of our parents is our duty, even after going to work or marrying. I was not interested in pursuing matters of the heart as I was very focused on my career dreams. Actually, I always knew I would meet the right guy because I could count on my mother to find a suitable man for me. And she did play a major role in my meeting Mr. Right by submitting my profile to Jeewansathi, which is like Indian eharmony.
On weekends, I liked to experiment in the kitchen. One such weekend I decided to try a carrot-based sweet pudding called gajar ka halwa that my mother had perfected. The whole apartment smelled wonderful as it was cooking, and my brother came running to ask for a taste as soon as it was ready. I was proud when he called our mom and told her that my dessert was even better than hers.
When he started complaining of a stomachache, I didn’t understand what had gone wrong until I went to throw out the carrot peels. I had used half the amount of carrots and double the amount of ghee, which is clarified butter. I think we both knew that no one was beating Ma in our house.
Chandini Prakash is a lawyer, creator of a clothing company called Threads That Unite, and author of a book of poetry, Caveat Emptor, under the pen name Yuthika Words.
Gajar ka Halwa (Sweet Carrot Pudding)
2 1/4 lb. carrots
3 pt. milk
8 green cardamom pods
5 - 7 T. ghee or clarified butter
5 - 7 T. sugar
2 T. raisins
2 T. dates, chopped
1 T. almonds, chopped
Peel and grate the carrots.
Simmer carrots in milk with the cardamom until liquid evaporates.
Heat ghee in a heavy pot, and add the carrot mixture.
Cook over a gentle flame for 10 - 15 minutes.
Stir in sugar and continue cooking until the mixture turns a deep reddish color.
Stir in raisins, dates, and almonds.