Ghee and Flowers

Last weekend, we performed a small pooja at home. There has been a spate of illnesses and other sudden and unexplained, seemingly unjustified challenges at home the past couple of months. Work kept us sane, but there was anxiety and, often, hopelessness lurking beneath a functional exterior. None of my positive thinking, none of my candle burning, flower arranging, chanting—nothing would work. I decided, finally, that something was beyond my control and perhaps we should invoke the powers that be to channelize positivity back into our home.

A little over ten years ago, M and I got married in a Hindu ceremony that was conducted by a woman priest who belonged to a modern school of Hindu thought—one that did not believe in sacrifices and stars but perceived Hinduism as a simpler faith. Where there was a rational explanation to every action in the ceremony, a Marathi/Hindi/English translation for every hymn, every couplet. We knew, and still remember the vows we took (we were asked to compose them on our own and say them out loud to each other) and what each of those seven steps together meant. The ceremony was special to us and our guests because everyone got to participate. Everyone understood what was going on. It was, therefore, natural that we chose the same school of thought for this pooja at home. There could be no better way to bring back energy and hope into these four walls than in the company of our closest family and caregivers.

And yet, two days before the pooja, I was restless and irritable. M and I were going to perform the pooja together. As equals. I would be talking to a god directly—and I would have the opportunity to ask and to thank. As I thought about what I wanted to ask for, my eyes would well up and there would be a lump in my throat. Am I being shameless in asking? Am I bribing god? Am I accepting defeat? I also wanted to offer thanks for what we had been given all these years—but how? Does a mere shloka convey what I feel? Was the sholka mine to give as thanks, to begin with? I didn’t compose it!

I realized then, that I have only two things to offer—my cooking and my writing. I have always found solace in these two. When I am sick, I write (in my head or on my laptop) and cook. While writing calms me and reassures me, I find that cooking heals me faster than medicine because it distracts me and draws me back into the realm of that which matters—nourishment and art—for isn’t that what food is?

There is a certain reassurance, an unexplained strength in cooking, especially when one is cooking a ritualistic, prescribed meal. As the homemade, cultured butter melted into my trusty iron kadhai (one of the first purchases I made as a married woman) and turned slowly into a nutty, golden, sublime ghee, I felt rested. As I poured warm milk into a large ceramic bowl and stirred the yogurt culture in to set for the next day, I felt a humility creeping in. On the morning of the pooja, I realized that my illness had reached its peak and I was barely able to stand or even breathe in pain and discomfort. There were freshly bought flowers and fruit to offer, and the particular method of worship we had adopted did not demand anything—a teaspoon of sugar would also have been sufficient. But I am the adamant kind. I had much to thank for, much to pray for—and the only way I could do it was through my cooking. I outsourced the smallest of tasks to my mother and mother-in-law and took on the majority of the cooking. As I wrapped my freshly washed hair in a towel and stood stirring multiple pots in the kitchen, judging the development of flavor merely by smell, I knew my offering was on its way.

During the short, barely hour-long ritual, I barely managed to sit straight or concentrate on the goings-on. At one point, I joined my hands in prayer, closed my eyes, and just said what I had to say, oblivious to the din in the background. Everything else was said by that platter of food.