LESSONS IN COOKING AND LIFE
By Jo Rittey
Shashi is an excellent cook. She is also a Brahmin widow. For the Brahmin of Rajhastan, especially in the rural areas, this has ramifications.
Shashi was born in a small village in the north of India. Like most girls in that part of the world, Shashi was trained from an early age to cook and run a house. In other words, to be a wife. When she was in her early twenties, she entered into an arranged marriage with a man from Udaipur and had two sons with him. When Shashi was 31 and her sons were young, her husband was murdered by his business partner.
“As a widow,” Shashi says, “you are already suffering. As a Brahmin widow, you are made to suffer more. It’s almost as though it’s your fault.” For 45 days, she had to remain at home with her head covered, wailing during the day. Other women from the village joined a wailing roster to wail with her. Once the sun set, she was allowed to eat but couldn’t eat or drink during the day. Once the 45 days had ended, Shashi could stop wailing but had to remain at home, her head covered, for a year.
Life was tough for Shashi and her young sons. Brahmin widows can never remarry. They are not supposed to do menial labour. She started taking in washing from hotels, but had to do it secretly. She started cooking in a local restaurant.
An Irish tourist complimented Shashi on her food and asked if she could teach him to cook the dishes he had enjoyed there. Shashi spoke no English and couldn’t write Hindi. She taught her first lesson with shaking hands and says with a laugh that she ended up spilling a lot of hot food, her hands were shaking so much.
From that first lesson, came more. Five years on, Shashi has quite a following, with glowing reviews on Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet and a full diary. “I had never heard of Lonely Planet. But now I know that Lonely Planet means busy,” she laughs. She can speak English fluently enough to deliver a six-hour class of masala chai, pakora, ‘magic sauce’ curry base with variants, biryani rice and a range of breads, with jokes in between. She can also translate the ingredients and methods orally into French, Swedish and German.
Entering Shashi’s house, you learn a lot about spice. You also learn to feel the food you’re making and how to work the chapatti or parantha dough. You also learn about triumph in adversity and about seeking opportunity. Perhaps you learn that where there’s light, there’s hope and to be thankful for the situation you were born into and to be grateful for people like Shashi who are willing to share their experience and craft with you.
Jo has an exotic (kiwi) accent, loves good food and wine and has just a touch of the required culinary cynicism when it comes to the misuse of apostrophes and the hype over kale.