Somewhere near the Bay of Bengal in southern India, a drive of about 15-minutes full of lowing cattle and shepherds tapping goats with longs sticks and bleating horns from tuktuk drivers and mystical stone carvings, there is a children’s home surrounded by a concrete wall. In this compound you will discover many things and many purposes but please find Priscilla’s kitchen. If you spend one hour in Priscilla’s kitchen, a square of mildewed concrete about ten feet by twelve, you might learn about authentic Indian cooking, but you might not remember much about that because you might also experience any, or all, of the following things:
Priscilla sits on her wooden chair, pushed right against the back cabinets to make room for the cooks. She has a cutting board on her lap and is peeling cloves of garlic with her fingers.
Two women, chopping vegetables together at the countertop, maybe three feet in length. Their voices are low and soft, but their laughter rings through the barred window and spills right out into the open air where the turkey is picking through kitchen scraps.
A tiny lizard dashes out of sight as the quarter inch plywood is shoved to the other side of the cupboard on aluminum sliders. From inside, a cloud of scents explode into the kitchen: cumin, coriander, peppercorns, masala, turmeric.
A half army of tiny red ants converge on a diced tomato before Vasinda returns from Jenny’s kitchen with an extra cup of rice. The ants are washed away under the tap, into the concrete sink, down the drain, out the side of the building, splashing down into the concrete tunnels and out back towards where? Perhaps the rice field?
A sick puppy has wedged its way into the shade and protection of the lower open cupboard, cooling itself on the concrete floor. “Oh, Johnny-Boy, are you tired? Come here, Johnny-Boy!” Priscilla bends from her seat to rub its ears.
Ruth stretches to the floor, knees barely flexed, to shove a gunny sack of something out of her way, moves several plastic barrels and reaches far back under the countertop to grab a bag of onions. She removes three and then goes down again to rearrange everything exactly right so it all fits just out of her toes’ reach.
A child is heard crying. The two women exchange quick looks, kindness oozing from their eyes, and Sindhu nods, dries her hands on her day dress and exits through the screen door. Childrens’ distressed voices can be heard for only a moment before the power goes out and Muny is called to come switch the breakers back on again before the cold of the icebox melts clean away.
Two burners, connected to a propane tank, are lit. Two bent and heat-stained pots are set atop: one full of water and lentils for dal, and one sputtering with oil, garlic and peppercorns doing jumping jacks.
Vasinda, round as a sack of happy beans, dressed in brilliant reds and purples, laughs and the sound transforms you into a grinning monkey with no comprehension of her words or her humour. She throws the water off her hands onto the walls before pulling you into her belly and, rocking back and forth, creating a new home for you there.
Sangeetha stands in the doorway, the coolest breeze to be found is harvested but cannot make a dent in the humidity and heat of the kitchen. Watery beads rest for a moment on her forehead before tumbling down her fine nose. She wipes the wet with the back of her hand and smiles, eyes flitting up from the floor, before quickly turning away to hide in her task.
Ruth sits on the floor to open a cardboard box that has arrived in the mail, delivered by tuktuk to the door. It is wrapped in string and is from her mother in the north. You wrinkle your nose at the smell but your distaste is forgotten when you see the bright look on her face. A newspaper package is removed and out fall a dozen slim dried fish. She holds her face in her hands and cries at this sweet thoughtfulness.
Two men, cotton shirts soaked in T formations, both front and back, drive a path from the patio door into the dining room where the only fans to be found stir the hot air into currents that are savoured on their skin. They talk loudly about how to keep the new sod watered until the roots take hold in the clay soil. Their wives’ hands, chopping chopping chopping, never falter or hesitate when they ask, “Would you like your meal now or later?”
Just three feet off the floor a small face with pools of brown for eyes stands before you, hands extended holding a glass bowl of steaming chickpeas. Prasanna smiles and nods at you; you try one – salty and chewy, the texture of moist, roasted nuts. You smile back and the face bursts into giggles, puts the bowl down at your feet and runs madly for the door.
Wet newsprint is peeled away from the countertop and Sindhu scrubs the revealed concrete slab with a stiff plastic brush. The deep sink is filled with bleach and boiled water. Her hands, strong and reddened, move back and forth, back and forth, in a rhythm until the job is done. She is not smiling. She is intent on finishing the necessary. You move out of her way and when you see her next she is outside, in the shade, one hand clasped by a young girl in a frilly pink dress. They are laughing together, Sindhu’s other strong hand softly lifting strands of the girl’s hair off her own lips.
Muny is summoned by Priscilla and his name is carried from one voice to the next until he hears at the far end of the compound. His smiling and willing face appears in the doorway. Words in languages too swift to catch are exchanged and he nods. He isn’t seen again, but somehow the women have the beans they requested and the fire between the two kitchens is started. A boy has been assigned to draw the flames out of the dried palm leaves and the matter is not mentioned again.
Ruth and Sindhu are seated at the table in the dining room eating for the first time well into the afternoon. Each has one hand full of rice and sambar while the other hand holds up their heads. They speak of tasks and errands when one notices Priscilla has stood up with her plate. One or the other jumps to take the plate away, urging the older woman to “Sit! Sit!” The clock ticks once more and they are gone, dishes hastily washed and stacked to dry before dashing off to teach sewing class to the widows and wives of “useless men” who do not provide rice, lentils, beans or eggs for their families.
Tea is served in mismatched china on a plastic tray. Lemon seeds drift at the bottom when you stir to melt the honey. Its steam adds yet more humidity to your face and its heat, sipped with closed eyes, mysteriously cools your head. Butter cookies or coconut dumplings are presented on a chipped plate. You sigh and sit beside Priscilla. If you spend one hour in Priscilla’s kitchen you will learn about authentic Indian cooking. Yes. But you will learn more about love, served up in a claustrophobic concrete space, shared with men and insects, lizards and puppies, children and neighbours, aromatic spices in a wet heat that settles on you like a sticky garlic skin. You will experience the love that is served up in Priscilla’s kitchen. Please, if you ever go to this tiny piece of India, find Priscilla’s kitchen and love the people there.