The kitchen counter is icy white. The kitchen is chillingly perfect: gleaming silver sinks and faucets, shiny white and blue counters, confusing knobs and gadgets. Malthi-ben wants to make a meal in this clinical American kitchen, a meal to reconnect her to her now-alien daughter. She remembers Mala, the eager child who came home ravenous, devoured pooris and shaak and keri no russ and rushed upstairs with her satchel of books, shutting the bedroom door firmly behind her. Malthi-ben watch Mala’s closed door, and when her daughter emerged, proffered hoarded nuggets of knowledge, tentative insights born of her long years of patient service. Mala measured and dismissed them: what relevance could they have for her life?
Each exam passed, each independence gained, took Mala further beyond Malthi-ben’s reach. Finally, when Mala moved to America with her new husband, the mental distance between them was sealed with geography. When neighbors congratulated her on her daughter’s achievements, Malthi-ben’s pride was haunted by wistfulness for the intimacy lost as her daughter sprinted out of childhood. When she had guests staying, the maid, Kamla, brought her young newly-married daughter, Anju, to the house to help out, and she listened to them joke and gossip. Kamla’s affectionate insults when Anju was clumsy or slow and Anju’s familiar retorts made Malthi-ben lonely.
Now, two decades later, on another continent, Malthi-ben wants to make pooris—light and puffed and fragile. She imagines Mala returning from work with her two clamoring children, fatigue locked into her body by her smart suit and confining shoes. She dreams of her face lighting up at the prepared meal. “Pooris!” her daughter will say. “Ma, you made pooris!”
First the dough, mixed quickly and skillfully. A pinch of salt, a larger pinch of turmeric. The familiar rhythm of her fingers in the flour makes the sterile kitchen less cold. She is hard pressed to find a karai, but she knows Mala has one; it was her own gift several years ago. “Ma, I have a wok,” said Mala impatiently, irritated by the black handbeaten heaviness of the karai. But Malthi-ben cannot use the wok—its stainless steel coating and awkward wooden handle disconcert her.
She puts the oil on to heat and finds she is humming as she rolls out the pooris. This kitchen counter is, after all, good for something—so smooth and clean she needs no pastry board, she can roll directly on the worktop.
The pooris form under her hands, perfect flat yellow discs. The smell of her special dry masala, permeating the gently roasting shaak, fills the air. She brought a jar of it with her from India, and has been hiding it in her bag, scared of daughter’s amusement, or even worse, indifference. She lays the first poori on the hot oil like a benediction. It floats and swells, a delicate brown balloon; she turns it, slips in another, and falls into the unconscious dance: roll the dough, stir the shaak, smell hot oil, hear hiss of simmering and frying. As she turns the last poori, the front door opens and the children burst in.
“Baa’s cooking!” yells the little boy, Mohan. “What did you make, Baa?”
Today she is not disconcerted by their shrill American voices.
“Poori and shak” she says. “It was your mother’s favorite when she was as big as you.”
Nina, the elder child, grimaces. “Indian food—yuck! It smells funny. Mom, you said hotdogs.”
Mala enters shoulders tense, face tight with tiredness. “Mom, you said hot dogs,” insists Nina.
Mala takes in the scene. “Ma, you shouldn’t have cooked … ” she begins, then stops, sniffs, lunges for the exhaust fan switch. “Ma you must put the fan on when you fry, I can smell the oil all over the house!”
Her eyes fall on the basin full of pooris and the weariness falls away. “Pooris!”
“I don’t want pooris!” shouts Nina. “You promised hot dogs!”
“Hot dogs,” echoes Mohan uncertainly. His anxious gaze shifts back and forth between his sister and the two adults.
Mala says irritably “Wait a minute, just wait,” and halts, staring at the counter. Malthi-ben follows her line of vision and sees with dismay the yellow turmeric blotches from the pooris on the gleaming whiteness.
The meal is a disaster. Mala swallows back comments on the stained counter, forces the children to sit down to pooris and shak. Their whining clashes and melds with the insistent buzz of the exhaust fan, which Mala has forgotten to switch off. Finally, Mala can no longer bear the sulky shoveling of food around the plates. She snaps to her feet, snatches up the children’s still full plates, scrapes them violently into the garbage and slams together messy hot dogs.
The three at the table watch her silently. The children are scared by her rage, yet satisfied at their power; Malthi-ben grieves for her daughter’s frustration and weariness, but also remembers her own advice, given and rejected, on disciplining the children when they were younger. By the time Mala sits down again, her own pooris and shaak are cold, but she ploughs through them doggedly.
A pile of pooris is left, turning cold and greasy, slowly deflating. Mala puts them away in a Tupperware container, but Malthi-ben knows they will not be eaten. Two days from now, she will quietly drop them into the waste bin. She scrubs at the turmeric stains on the counter, but they remain, mutely accusing. She dreams of them that night, luminous in the dark kitchen, and in the morning they seem brighter than ever.
She attacks them daily when Mala is at work, but they only fade slightly. Mala never mentions them. The children, at first, point them out with glee and then lose interest.
A week later, Malthi-ben returns to India. Mala hugs her dutifully at the airport departure gate, the children wave and shout. At home once more, Mala looks at the turmeric stains and starts to cry.
Shailja Patel was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya. Her poems have been selected for the Sacramento Public Library Poetry Prize (1998) and the Coventry Poetry Prize (millennium anthology).