Uma had always loved to cook. Her earliest memories were about watching her mother in the kitchen. She loved the warmth, the smells, the hustle and bustle of getting food ready. She felt safe in the kitchen. By nature shy, introverted and timid, she was transformed into a garrulous busybody in the safe confines of the kitchen. She was the only child in a middle class Brahmin family in the sprawling city of Chennai in Southern India. Slim and dark complexioned, her long black tresses framed a sharply defined face and large limpid black eyes. A small dimple appeared on her right cheek when she smiled.
By ten she was an expert sous-chef to her mother – cutting, grinding and peeling expertly and efficiently. By sixteen, she was winning prizes in local cooking competitions. She badly wanted to go to culinary school and become a chef but her father blanched at the idea.
“You cannot be serious” he said shocked. “I’ve been dreaming of getting a doctor or engineer or scientist for you. Who will want to marry a cook?”
“Not cook appa. Chef”
“Cook, chef it’s all the same. You already cook well. What can a school teach you that your mother can’t? Besides, you need only to worry about cooking for your husband. No daughter of mine is going to be a cook for anybody else” declared her father firmly.
Since the only thing that interested Uma besides cooking was reading, she studied BA in English Literature and sure enough, she did get a good match – a doctor – from America no less.
So at twenty one Uma got married according to her father’s wishes to a man she had seen exactly once and who was nine years older than her. Her husband was a second year fellow at the Bellevue hospital in New York City. By the time she set foot on American soil as Mrs. Shiva Iyer a few months later, she was already pregnant.
From the moment she stepped off the plane and all the way home, Uma was dumbstruck by what she was seeing – the wealth, vitality, sheer raw power that the city of New York exuded. The city practically thrummed with life. Nothing had prepared her for this. There was not a single naked child on the streets! She put her head out of the window of the cab and stared up in awe at the skyscrapers.
“Close your mouth. You are gaping” Shiva leaned over and whispered to her. She turned to him embarrassed and smiled, expecting to see a twinkle in his eyes. But he had already turned away. Confused she looked straight ahead the rest of the way home.
Shiva went back to work a couple of days later. He worked long hours, leaving early in the morning and returning late. On the weekends when he was not on call, Shiva brought home a steady stream of guests.
“Your mother says you can cook a six course meal for fifty in a jiffy. Let’s see some of the culinary magic, shall we?”
So Uma cooked, and cooked – for successful doctors and their wives. These people moved and talked with a confidence that bewildered the timid Uma. Besides, she could hardly understand a word they said. Their accent was so strange. So she cooked and served and smiled. And the guests, sensing her reserve, smiled back at her, complimented her cooking and left her alone for the most part.
“Did you like the food?” she asked her husband one evening. He was “unwinding” in front of the TV after the guests left. Shiva continued to channel flip.
“Was the food good?” she asked a little louder this time, her voice shaking just a little.
He turned to her then and motioned for her to sit next to him. Eagerly, Uma went and sat. Expectantly, she gazed at him. She had cooked for a dozen parties by now. Shiva, the life of every party, said not a word to her once the guests left. It had taken a dozen parties for her to screw up the courage to ask him this question.
He took her chin in his hand and gazed her steadily and said in a soft voice “Look, I don’t expect you to understand what it means to be a neurology fellow at Bellevue. I don’t expect you to understand the prestige, the achievement. I’m going to be a very distinguished doctor. But…I do expect that you not nag and constantly ask for praise – for doing what? Cooking? Do you know what I do? – Brain surgery. I expect you to be appreciative of the jackpot you hit when I agreed to marry you. I expect you to be grateful and humble for all that I’m providing for you. And when I want some downtime, I expect you to give it to me. Okay?”
He turned dismissively and continued his channel flipping. She sat there saying nothing, and then quietly got up and went back into the kitchen.
She gave birth to a healthy baby boy a couple of months later. She named him Arjun, after the great warrior in Mahabharata who was always victorious in battle and never saw defeat. Shiva had arranged for a housekeeper to assist her, but despite the help Uma felt constantly tired and increasingly lonely and dispirited. One day, after the housekeeper had left, Uma sat alone in the kitchen in the enveloping darkness of the winter sky and quietly wept.
She blinked as the lights suddenly came on. Shiva was home. She had not realized how late it was. She scrambled up to her feet and faced Shiva.
“What?” he said. Why doesn’t he ever call me by my name? I have a name. It’s Uma she thought unconnectedly. He never called by her name. It was as if she would become relevant, get an identity, a significance that she did not deserve if he did.
“Nothing” she said in answer to his curt question. “Just feeling lonely and homesick”
“Homesick for what?” he asked derisively “The dirt, mosquitoes, squalor and dark five room house?”
“It’s more than just all that. It’s also home. You’re from India too” the words slipped out of her mouth before she could stop them.
He looked at her with a smile curving the corner of one side of his mouth, his head cocked slightly. Then slowly, lazily his right hand came up and slapped her.
“Never take that tone with me, ever again. Okay?” he said softly, almost kindly.
She never did.
A couple of years later, they moved to the small, prosperous town of Kentwood, just west of Valhalla NY. Shiva had taken up an offer to partner with the leading neurologist in the town, Chris Anderson. Uma found the stunning beauty of upstate New York both stimulating and tranquil.
Soon after their move, Shiva invited Chris and his wife Amy to dinner. It was a beautiful early fall evening. Uma had finished almost all the cooking. The only item left to prepare was the vegetable biryani. She prepped the vegetables – carrots, French cut green beans, small diced white potatoes, cauliflower and shelled peas. She washed and dried the basmati rice. Then she added ghee to a wide nonstick pan and gently fried the rice till it was fragrant and translucent.
She transferred the rice to a plate and kept the pan back on the stove, added another dollop of ghee and fried the diced red onions till they were a nice dark brown. The kitchen filled with the aroma of onions frying in ghee. She added the cut vegetables to the onions, added a pinch of saffron, salt and reached for her special biryani mixture. Uma made all the spices herself. She always gave her own personal touch to standard recipes, by adding an ingredient there or replacing another there.
She stirred the vegetables and spice mix for a few minutes, added the fried rice and water, reduced the heat to low and closed the pan with a lid. She went upstairs to change while the rice cooked. She would garnish it with fried cashews and cilantro just before serving.
Unlike the folks in New York City (at least the ones she had met), Chris and Amy turned out to be laid back, soft spoken and friendly. They were older, about a dozen years separating Chris and Shiva. Chris and Amy lavished praise on Uma, continuously complimenting her and gently drawing her into the conversation.
She really liked them, Uma decided. There’s such closeness between them, she thought, such friendliness.
They were both self-described “semi-practicing” Buddhists. She listened fascinated as Chris expounded on the greatness of Buddhism.
“So, now I’m in the process of exploring Theravada Buddhism” Chris said “There’s this amazing concept called Arahant”
“An Ara what?” laughed Shiva, whose sole religious affiliation was to money, fame and success.
“Arahant” replied Chris seriously “It’s what a person can become once he has conquered and vanquished his enemies. Then he is reborn and lives as an Arahant, in complete control of his senses and is able to fulfill his real purpose in life and reach his full potential.”
“Mind you, enemies here mean…” they were interrupted by the loud wail of Arjun. Uma excused herself and ran upstairs to comfort her son.
Later that evening, as she was washing up, Amy walked in and said “Let me help Uma”. Startled, Uma turned and stared. It had been so long since she had been called by her name in her own house. She smiled. It was to be the beginning of a lifelong friendship between the two women.
Over the years, they grew closer and bonded as sisters, these two women from such different cultures and upbringing. They met frequently, exchanged recipes and gossiped over samosas and tea. The childless couple became Godparents to Arjun and he spent almost as much time at their house as at his own. Uma rediscovered a long buried passion – her love of reading. She spent many happy hours with Amy scouring the book shops and libraries. She read voraciously. On Buddhism, cooking, gardening, dime store novels….
In all their time together, neither woman made any mention of Shiva.
Arjun was the other great joy of Uma’s life. The boy was brilliant and grew up confident and extroverted, a straight A student and winner of numerous awards and medals. “I’ll become an even bigger doctor than appa one day” he would often say to Uma, with the preternatural instincts of the very young “and I’ll take you away and you never have to see him again”. Uma would admonish him not talk disrespectfully of his father even as her heart swelled with pride and perhaps a little hope.
In the meantime, Shiva’s reputation as a doctor and prominence in the community grew. He became famous in the small town for his largesse, bonhomie and larger than life personality. It seemed like the bigger he became in the world, the more Uma and Arjun shrank, becoming practically invisible whenever he was home for fear of offending him.
At last, it was time for Arjun to go to college. He had admissions from five Ivy Leagues and chose to go to Harvard to do his pre-med and then medicine.
Soon after Arjun left, Chris announced his retirement from the practice. They had decided to move to sunnier Florida. Uma was devastated. First my son and now my sister, she thought despondently.
“I’m always going to be with you Uma” Amy consoled her “In fact, with Arjun safely in college you should pack up your bags too and come with us. You don’t need to put up with that marital terrorist any longer”
Uma almost spilled her coffee. This was the first time in all these years that Amy had made such a remark. Uma stared at her stunned.
“Marital terrorist?” she repeated bemusedly and both women dissolved into helpless giggles like two school girls relieved at the secret being out in the open finally. Amy knew. Now Uma knew that Amy knew.
One evening in September, Uma finished her washing up and got ready to go up to her room. Shiva was in the family room reading a magazine. She started up the stairs to the bedroom. She paused for a minute at the foot of the stairs. As if compelled by some unseen energy, she turned and stood at the entrance of the family room.
“Why did you marry me?” she asked Shiva softly. Shiva looked up from under his glasses and Uma’s hands turned cold even as her face felt hot. The nerves in her body bunched up and knotted in various places – groin, chest and throat – and lay heavy as coiled snakes. But she stood her ground and returned his gaze with her own.
After a silence that seemed to stretch forever, Shiva tossed the magazine aside, removed his glasses, leaned back on the recliner and hooked his hands around his head. He looked at her as one would if a mute suddenly started talking.
Finally he said “hmm…good question. I really don’t know. Amma liked you, she said you were a good cook and would make a good wife – look after my needs, be obedient” he shrugged and glanced up at the ceiling.
“For the most part, she was right- at least about the cooking. It’s not half bad” he said laughing, looking at her now.
“But the bigger question is – why am I continuing to keep you? I’ve been thinking about that you know. After all, Arjun is gone. So why have you around? Lapping about my legs like an eternally hungry puppy? I thought about it and then it hit me – I’m compassionate to a fault. My mother always said – she said ‘Shiva, your compassion is going to kill you one day’. So” he shrugged “I guess I just can’t throw you out now, even if I wanted to. I’m just way too compassionate for do that.”
He yawned, as if bored with the conversation and said “Well, I’m going to bed. I have to be out of here by six – big surgery. The afternoon is free though. I will be home for lunch”. And he went back to his magazine. He had dismissed her. She stood still for a minute, then nodded her head as if confirming something to herself and quietly turned around and left.
The next day, she was up before him and had his coffee (black, one and half teaspoons of sugar) and a single slice of toast (lightly buttered) ready for him when he came down. She worked in the garden, spending almost an hour with her beautiful oleanders – pink and white, in full bloom. When she came in to start cooking, she had a small bunch of oleander roots in her hands. By the time Shiva returned, she had a piping hot lunch ready for him. She had prepared an almond payasam (his favorite dessert) and the kitchen smelled of sweet almonds.
She served him his food and then went out to the family room. He hated to have her “hovering” around when he was eating. After about forty five minutes, she came back to the dining room. Shiva was lying face down, slumped over the table, unmoving.
She called the hospital and paged Dr. Chris Anderson. He came within minutes. She led him to the dining room. Chris stood looking at Shiva for a long time, not touching him. Uma was clearing away the dishes, dumping all the food down the sink disposer. Hindu custom dictated that food not be eaten when there is a death and until the body had been removed and cremated.
Finally, Chris flipped open his cell phone, called the hospital and told them that Shiva had died of a cardiac arrest.
“He was a heart attack waiting to happen. I kept telling him to take it easy but he wouldn’t listen…no, he doesn’t need to be taken to the hospital. I’ve checked…I’m calling the time of death as 2:32 PM…would you prepare the certificate….thanks man….I’ll stay and help Uma…you know how religious she is…she wants the body cremated within four hours as per her religion”
The local paper covered the news of Shiva’s death on its front page. Chris gave a statement on behalf of Uma “Shiva was a dedicated family man – an exemplary husband and father. He loved his wife’s cooking and she is grateful that the last thing he did on earth was to eat the food that she so lovingly prepared”
A few months later, the Andersons left. Amy and Uma kept in touch by phone and email.
It was a little over two years before Uma wrote this letter to her friend.
My Dearest Amy,
I’m going to share something with you that I’ve been keeping a secret all this time. I know what you’re thinking so I beg you – please don’t be angry with me. I’m sure you will be pleasantly surprised when you read the letter through. As you know, Shiva did not leave a will, and I’ve been so busy trying to take control and manage the money. But here’s the secret I’ve kept from you – I used some of the money to start a business! My auditor put me in touch with this excellent marketing firm. They loved my masalas and pickles! They swore that there was a good market for it and they were right. I never thought that my homemade masalas would be so popular. Sales have been brisk from day one.
I have sent a sample box to you Amy. Watch for it in the mail. Won’t you tell me what you think? I can’t wait for you to taste them!
Oh, I almost forgot! I think you will like the name I have chosen for my company – I’ve named it ARAHANT.
With all my love,
Vani Srinivasan is a US citizen, originally from India. She has been a corporate IT person for over twenty years. In all that time, reading was her passion, writing her dream. She has been privileged for the past four years in pursuing her dream of writing full time. She lives in Pittsburgh PA with her husband and son.