When I changed jobs this June, little did I know that it would be more than just a career move. For the last three years while slogging away at my old job, I had been living asa paying guest with a kind lady living alone. She provided good healthy and delicious home made meals three times a day. When I had moved in, I was fresh out of college, determined to make a mark with not much time for anything other than work, least of all cooking my own meals. It was an arrangement from heaven.
And then I decided to move on. After the recession, the market was beginning to boom again and I soon discovered that there were employers ready to pay me the double of my then current salary. So I packed my bags, kissed my dear landlady (more of a surrogate mother) goodbye and moved. Into my new job, my new life.
This me was the new independent me. I decided that it was time I took responsibility for myself. So I rented out a real house with a few friends. I was all fired up. I dreamed of doing grown up things like paying my rent, the electricity bills, locking the door on my way out every morning, doing my own grocery shopping, making lists for the weekly household shopping ANDcooking. It was like playing house but this time around, for real.
Three monthsdown the line, I can’t say I am disillusioned but my expectations have sure come down to more realistic levels. I now know taking time out to go to the electricity board office to pay the bill is not as easy as it looks especially when you try to do it during your lunch break and when there a queue miles long and when there is only one counter with a clerk and when you have already violated the deadline by a week and when you have to explain to your housemates why you had to pay a hefty percentage of the bill as penalty. I now know that plumbers did not drop miraculously from the sky everytime the kitchen sink pipe broke like you expected them to. They have to be tracked down and you have to be there on a working day when they come. Shopping too can become inconvenient when you try to balance kilos of goods and at the same time open the supermarketdoor to exit while fishing for the bill receipt in the said bags of goods so that the security will let you leave.
The real eye opener was however cooking. I had always believed that cooking was all about instinct. All you had to do was stand before the stove and things would automatically happen resulting in a meal…somehow.
How wrong I was. The first time I tried meditating before the stove waiting for inspiration to hit, I almost fried the frying pan. I did not try that again. I always got by by hiding in the shadows of my more culinarily adept housemates. I always cut, chopped, ground and cleaned for them and somehow managed to stay away from the holy altar, the real center of action, the spotlight, the stove.
And then things changed one evening when the friend who donned the cap of the regular head cook called me at office to tell me that she would be held up at work and could I please take care of dinner. I agreed. To refuse would have been uncharitable and I could not have confessed my ignorance. I am too proud to do that.
So that evening I did what any well brought up, smart, grown up, independent woman would do…called up Mom to bail me out. After a few snide, humorous (to her), humiliating (to me), told-you-so remarks she started to tellycook. Or tried to.
“OK, is the oil hot?”
“How do I know, shall I touch it?”
“$%^^ Is it smoking?”
“Yes it has been for some time, I am waiting for it to boil..”
“Good once it boils, drown in it and fry yourself. Lower the flame, you idiot”
“You need not get so hypercritical, everyone cannot do everything. I am sure you cannot write a program to save your life.”
“I am disconnecting right now.”
“YOU CANNOT. I NEED YOU. I am sorry, let us start over. OK the flame is down, the oil is hot, note – not boiling. Yet. And then?”
“Put in the onions, garlic, ginger, tomatoes, salt and the powders .”
“You did not chop them?”
“You did not tell me to.”
“I am sorry I assumed you knew that you cannot fry whole and unpeeled onions and garlic.”
“I thought you were trying out a new dish with stuff that was whole. OK shall I chop them now.”
I can hear her counting to ten and then “Yes do that please and turn off the stove before the skillet explodes.”
Cutting chopping done, flame back on, stuff in the oil, “Mom you said powders, what exactly did you mean?”
“Turmeric, chilli, coriander and garam masala.”
“How much of each?”
“Just pinches of each.”
“And how much is a pinch and exactly how many pinches?”
“Do you have scales nearby? There must be a pinch weight. For God’s sake girl three pinches of each. Pinch thrice from the jars and each time empty your fingers into the skillet.”
“Sarcasm…I see. And salt?”
This time I heard her count till fifty. “Five. Pinches.”
“Can you only only cook in pinches? Isn’t the metric system good enough for you?”
“I will pretend for both our sakes that I did not hear that. Now pour in a cup of water and once it boils, put in the boiled beans. Turn down the flame and let it simmer till the gravy is reduced to half.”
I heard from my father that after the call she had to take her blood pressure pills. However the bean curry turned out fine (edible).
I was running late. The only consolation was that she would be shocked if I wasn’t . She was the one who dragged me from my bed in our apartment to the classroom all those years ago. She was the one who’d make me gobble my breakfast at the cafeteria before we rushed into class at the last minute, a split second before the lecturer entered. I used to joke that she had become my surrogate mother during those four years of college. She had just rolled her eyes.
The only argument we had ever had was over a bad relationship decision. She’d stormed out when I had refused to see it for the mistake that it was. We later made our peace. She never approved and though I was defiant enough to continue in the relationship through all the emotional and mental turbulence, I secretly acknowledged to myself that she had been right from the start. But by that point in time, I was neck deep and truly believed that I could never find a way out. She stood by me, telling me at every juncture that whenever I broke free, she would be there to guide me through the hell that would inevitably break loose.
Then I grew up. We both found jobs at the same places but decided for different reasons to take two different ones. Jobs became careers and family life claimed us both. We still kept in touch but the intensity was long gone and what remained was warm casual acquaintance.
The years in college, the threshold years, in retrospect feel like a dream; the kind of dream that you have just before you wake up. You never know for sure if the bird song you heard was real or if the voice that woke you up was heard by your ears or your mind. I know I went to college because I have a degree to show for it, photographs and lists of people in my Facebook friends list. But my memories of what happened, how I felt, what I saw, how I reacted, what I thought, have nothing to prove their accuracy. Engineering was what I learnt the least in those four years.
If she was everything I remembered her to be to me and to all the others, how did I let the strength of our friendship get diluted so?
When fate got me a chance to work in her city, I promised myself to not waste this second chance away. I was going to build our friendship all over again.
I called her the evening I received the final contract.
She was overjoyed. The clock turned back and we planned our life as neighbors.
We forgot for an hour our husbands, her child, our jobs, we were just us, roommates, friends who had lost and found each other.
The day before I boarded my flight, she called me. I had asked her to look around for a suitable apartment for us and answered the call fully expecting to hear her tell me that she had found me the perfect home at a perfect distance from hers.
I was partially right. She had found me the perfect home. Only it was hers. She was relocating on short notice due to an emergency at her parents’.
She said there was nobody else she would trust her precious house with. We were to use it till we found a place of our own and then to put it on the market on her behalf.
A suggestion of rent for the months we were to stay in the house, was dismissed with a scoff and a rebuke.
I am now at her threshold, waiting for her to answer the door.
The door opens and she stands before me.
I will never need to doubt my memories again as at this moment in time I am living them all again.