In December 2013, my mother wrote an editorial on the recipe book given to her by her father. Her words made me think of my connection to the book and to her father. It was at the time that I was applying to colleges and I wrote an essay on the subject as part of my personal statement. Two months ago, I received and accepted an early decision admission to my preferred school, so I decided to reshape the essay to suit the pages of this magazine.
The cover of the green, plastic-sheathed diary proclaims in white lettering “Be Indian Buy Indian.” Inside, the pages of notebook paper lined with almost illegible writing flutter together. A few pages fly out, littering the kitchen floor. Looking down at the pages, I am filled with memories.
The recipe book lies in my kitchen cutlery drawer, its existence outdating the knives and forks.
The book is tattered; hands stained with cumin and curry have turned its pages, leaving faint streaks of orange and yellow on the worn sheets.
This book is part of my history. It speaks of a time when my grandfather had the use of one arm and one leg; of a time when my mother was given the advice that she gives me now; of a time when my grandfather wrote out the recipes of his childhood to give to my mother when she left to start her life as a bride.
The recipe book is my connection to another place, another country. The words—kichadi, kulfi, kesari—are as alien to me as my grandfather’s country is. As a second generation Indian American, I hold the recipe book as a key to one quarter of myself.
My memories of India are intertwined with the memories of my grandfather, Thatha. I recall him reading books to me; making clucking sounds with his tongue to amuse me; I remember ambling along the dusty unpaved road, slowing my steps to keep pace with his limp.
And I remember how, one day, when my sister and I had brought a stray kitten home, (we called him Tabby) Thatha was the one who made the case for us to keep it. I saw a glimpse of “Thatha the Lawyer” in his milky brown eyes and fervent tone that day.
I was brought up on stories of Thatha, his daredevil personality, his restless vibrancy, his escapades as a lawyer in India, and I yearned to see my grandfather as the man my mother described.
She had explained to me that after several strokes, his body had become irrevocably limited in the physical world while his mind had remained sharp.
Thatha is part of my background, a piece of my identity. My mother once told me that he was a reader, a lover of George Bernard Shaw and Aldous Huxley and Bertrand Russell. As I recollect that, I pick up my grandfather’s copy ofThe Complete Plays of Bernard Shaw and turn to his favorite play—Androcles and the Lion—to find parts of him in the lines that he once read.
His presence is everywhere around me: in my mother’s anecdotes, in the novels that have survived and been handed down to my mother after fifty years in his possession, and in his recipe book. I long to know the grandfather, who, against all odds, walked after being told he would never do so again.
The recipe notebook is a symbol of my belonging. I belong to a family of writers, lawyers, and engineers.
It speaks of my past; the hot summer days in Bangalore where I sat in the same room as Thatha and watched him surreptitiously while reading Anna Karenina. It speaks of my present as I eat the Palak Paneer that Thatha wrote out in the book. And it speaks of my future: I hope to follow in Thatha’s footsteps by preparing the food he so meticulously recorded; by treasuring the love of books he has passed on to me; and by one day practicing law as a human rights attorney.
He will always live inside the pages of that notebook, and inside me.
Halfway into the recipe book, Thatha’s writing merges into my mother’s small, dainty cursive.
There are still sheets of empty space left, lined pages enticing me to enter my own memories.
And although they may not be as traditional as Mulakuttal, I look forward to adding blended recipes of my own Indian American life.
Kavya Padmanabhan is a senior at Henry M. Gunn High School. This fall she will continue on her academic path at Wesleyan University.