The last two days have hung heavy on me. I finally let my students know that I am leaving the school and that next Tuesday would be my last day teaching them. Even as I answer their whys I tell myself it will be okay. That I will be okay. Because while a part of me says that I could never be anything but a teacher, the other part reminds me that I am, after all, a writer.
Between wrapping things up and prepping for my last day, I had almost forgotten that I had two tiny containers my
colleagues friends had sent food for me in, and it is an unwritten code of conduct that you never return empty containers. So despite feeling wrung out like a sponge, both physically and emotionally, I decided I would make for them the one thing I know that spells unconditional love: gajar ka halwa.
I still remember the first time I made gajar ka halwa. Courtesy her crafty colleagues, Mamma had chanced upon a “healthier” version of gajar ka halwa, which called for boiling the grated carrots with milk in the pressure cooker first, and then adding ghee and sugar and stirring until that liquid goodness turns into melt-in-the-mouth thick. That recipe was one of the first recipes Mamma handed down to me. So yes, coming back to the first time I made it: it was for my sister’s boyfriend, who is now my brother-in-law. A little back story, if I may?
My sister met her husband in engineering college, and those days when she would come back home, the only person she could talk about was him. I hated his very guts. Who did he think he was, to charm his way into my sister’s heart and shove me aside and make room for himself? I took it upon myself to pick out his flaws, and vehemently made up my mind to detest him forever. But then, over time, when I realised that he was there to stay, and was not a hopeless infatuation of my sister’s like I had predicted he would be, I made gajar ka halwa for him. The tightly sealed steel container that I sent with my sister back to her hostel was my peace offering. ‘There’, it said, ‘I am grudgingly willing to admit to myself that maybe over time I might start to like you.’ Heaven knows that that container paved way for many more to come, and that over time I would not just like him, but attain the ability to love him blindly.
That was not the only time I made gajar ka halwa to show my love and affection. I remember this one time when I was in college, and I had invited my best buddies home for Bihu. The previous day we’d had our family picnic, and towards the end Mamma and I’d had a tiff, and were on gruff speaking terms (if you know what I mean) Back from the picnic, slightly irritated and not so slightly tired, I suddenly remembered that I had promised to make gajar ka halwa for my friends. A promise is a promise, and so, I started grating my way through the huge pile of carrots, arms screaming, eyes drooping. And then of course, came the arduous task of stirring, and stirring and stirring some more. Towards the end, Ma hastily pounded some cardamom and tossed the powder in the pan. That was as close to a reconciliation as I could have hoped for. Fail-proof that Mamma’s recipe was, it turned out perfect. And testimony was the phone call I received the following day from my best friend’s mother asking me for the recipe because apparently he had said that mine was better than hers!
Without consciously thinking about it, I started equating this humble dessert to love. It came to me, incidentally in the same steel container, that Mamma lovingly packed and sent all the way from Tezpur when I was in a hostel in Guwahati. Sitting on my hostel bed, feeling lonely and homesick, Mamma’s gajar ka halwa felt like a warm hug that melted me from the inside. Much later, when I was studying in Tezpur University, I would make some to bring to my brother who was living in the hostel, and that would become the one thing he would always remember me by. In fact, the day after my sister got married, I entered her mother-in-law’s kitchen, and made gajar ka halwa for my brand new brother-in-law.
Thirty weeks pregnant, of all the things that I could have desired, it was gajar ka halwa I’d had a craving for. And so I made it, standing in front of the stove, shifting my weight from one hip to the other, heaving and sighing because hey, what the heart wants, the heart wants. In my mind, if itty bitty baby in my tummy wanted that, I’d do anything to make sure she had that.
So today, looking at the mellow orange mix of carrots and milk, stirring in the ghee and sugar and cardamom, I thought of all the times I made gajar ka halwa for the people I loved. These two people I made it for tonight? Very special ones. Made me think of the reason I had those containers in the first place, and how it might seem to be about food on the surface, but was so much more. It was about that time when a person thought about me and told herself, ‘Well she loved the chicken I cooked so much I should pack her some.’ Or that time when she brought me lunch because she knew Jenny wasn’t around to pack mine. Or about all the extra portions a friend thoughtfully packed with just me in my mind.
Jenny looked at me, all sweaty, hair sticking to my forehead, furiously stirring the halwa, and asked me why I chose to make this when I could have made anything else.
‘Because this is love, Jenny. Why would I choose to endure this if not for someone I love?’
It felt almost ritualistic, the stirring, and as I stirred, I felt… maybe not so melancholy anymore. I am not looking forward to saying goodbye to my students. I definitely do not look forward to saying goodbye to colleagues turned friends who have become such a major part of my daily life. But I tell myself I am lucky to have found in them people I absolutely adore; people I would be willing to make gajar ka halwa for.
To aching arms and breaking hearts, then. And food, of course. Always.