I had no idea when I contacted Reetha’s husband from Spice Paradise in Jodhpur, that a cooking class would turn into one of the most memorable experiences of my life! Reetha was such an inspiration. Let me tell you a bit more about this wonderful lady:
Reetha is a Brahmin woman who runs, together with her husband, a very successful spice shop and cooking class business in the old quarter of Jodhpur – the blue city. Everything started with her husband selling some spices – like many others in town. And then they tried to entice some tourists to come and try home-made lassis. Reetha says “it was very difficult in the beginning. It takes a long time for people to trust you. But then bit by bit, we would invite people to participate in cooking classes and the business started growing”.
In the middle of the conversation, the phone starts ringing. Reetha hurries to the phone and when she hangs up, she has the biggest smile on her face. She throws her hands up in the air, looking up to the ceiling, and says joyfully “this was my husband”. One of my daughters has been selected from over 2000 participants in the national skating competition and has made it into the next round! They are in the South at the moment. Now we have to wait for the results of my second daughter” – she pulls out a photograph from the spice cabinet and shows us her two girls proudly. “Excuse me if I’m a bit overwhelmed. We need to pray for the second one to make it. She will be very sad if she does not make it – like her sister”.
She continues to explain how to make Masala Chai, stirs the concoction, when all of a sudden her face freezes, her lip starts to tremble and she looks like she is in pain. She hurries away to wash her hands and her face in the kitchen – we cannot see what she is doing, but only assume that she needed to gather herself. She returns with a damp face. She had mentioned that she has been ill and is only now slowly recovering – she even had to cancel the cooking class (which is held daily) for the whole of last week – a big inconvenience for them considering she is the main breadwinner.
The petite Canadian girl says “We would totally understand if you did not feel well enough to continue”. As Reetha hurries back to the room, she says “No no. I’m just so proud. This is a big thing for me. I’m just hoping that my second daughter will make it”. At this point, my eyes fill up with tears- as I glance over to the Canadian girl, I notice how she, herself, is touched by Reetha’s emotions.
These were tears of joy mixed with a bit of anxiety – as a mother, she wants the best for both her children. Reetha explains that she is very lucky to have a husband like hers, who is very open-minded. “You see, everyone in Jodhpur wishes they had a daughter-in-law like me! It is not common for women to work. And now he is with the girls in the South – which is not what a husband around here usually does. I’m very blessed”.
She says this with an infectious smile and taps on her heart, pushing back her shoulders standing tall to give emphasise her pride. Even though, Brahmins are the highest caste and supposedly the most open-minded, women are generally not allowed to work – at least this is the reality for many women in Rajahstan. Many are not even allowed to be shown in public. Yes, many remain hidden in the house- to look after their kids. In public, they must cover themselves as to not draw too much attention – if the husband permits it.
Devi, the Indian girl who is sat next to me says while she nods “and you only have girls – which is very unusual for Indian families”. Infanticide is still very common – regrettably – in many parts of India. Meaning, baby foetuses or new-borns are killed. Girls are a burden to the families. After all, men are the ones to run the household, to run businesses (generally and especially in these rural parts of India) and bring money home.
Girls are ‘just’ there to raise kids. They will have to be married off – they will leave the home to live with another family. The return of investment – of years of having to care for a female – is simply not lucrative enough. A female’s mouth needs to be fed and a female body needs to be ‘parked’ with another family. What good does it bring a household in the long run? I feel sick thinking about it. How incredibly lucky am I?
The crime of infanticide is sadly still so prevalent, that there are not enough women for male bachelors. Many men need to save up a considerable amount of money to ‘buy’ their future wives from their prospective in-laws. He essentially competes with other eligible bachelors. He hopes to get married before he turns 25. After that, it will be even more difficult to find a woman. No one above 30 is un-married. If you are, you are either ‘retarded’ or a ‘beggar’ – whatever label is put on you, the message is clear: you better do well for yourself before you turn 30, as if you don’t, you’ll end up alone.
This is not a cooking class the way I expected it. It’ s turning into what people famously term ‘the school of life’. I’m learning so much and becoming so aware of not only Indian culture but also about the immense privileges I enjoyed throughout my life. You know…the stuff you take for granted.
After drinking our delicious Masala Chai, we proceed to cooking a tasty Byriani – there are so many ingredients in it which makes a seemingly simple dish, rather complicated. But the effort of peeling all the vegetables and fruits is worth it. All of us peel, chop, stir, mix and prepare the ingredients needed for the final show-down: letting the veggies and rice cook in the pan for 20 minutes. Afterwards we pile the Byriani onto a plate and decorate it mindfully, each one of us, with the fruits: apples, banana, pomegranate seeds, raisins and to make it even more pretty: fine edible silver.
Reetha explains the effects spices have on our bodies. She points to a picture of her father-in-law on the wall who passed away – he was an Ayurvedic Doctor and passed on his knowledge of everything he knew about spices.
I notice the suspicions that arises in me when she talks about rubbing olive oil on my belly button to relieve chapped lips. Or that Black Pepper supposedly stops the greying of hair. However, Ayurvedic recipes do not come from nowhere. They have been passed down from generation to generation and as long as I haven’t tried it myself, I cannot judge the sacred and ancient knowledge of a holy Brahmin woman. Who am I to judge her?
The phone has not rung yet and Reetha does not mention anything further. I suppose her other daughter did not make it. I have images in my head of Reetha consoling the girl who can’t stop crying. Why else would he wait so long to call his wife? If she had made it to the next round – by now we would have heard something.
My suspicions are confirmed, when after two hours, the phone does ring. She did not pass. But Reetha is not emotional. “It is ok. Next time. She should not be discouraged. They are already on their way back to Jodhpur”. It will take them another night to arrive back to the Rajahstani state – where one girl will be treated like a star and the other one pitied. That’s an awful situation to be in – for both sisters.
The one cannot fully enjoy her success as guilt over her sister’s defeat lingers over her pride. The other tries not to envy the other. Worse: she tries not to hate her. She is her sister after all. But she is better at skating than she is. Will they argue on the train back? Perhaps, they are wiser beyond their years and they manage to encourage each other. Maybe the one congratulates and keeps her head held up high – now it wasn’t her turn – it might just be enough next time. While the other encourages her sister not to give up. I can only guess.
After eating a big plate of Biryani and drinking the heavy Makhania Lassi made out of a lot of sugar, a lot of cream and butter (in other words: a heart-attack in a drink…but oh so tasty!), we proceed to cooking two different curries. A Rajahstani Rabodi, a dish made entirely out of yoghurt and a Palak Paneer, a very popular Northern Indian dish made with cubes of cheese inside. Reetha has substituted one of the main dishes for a Rabodi, after Ben asked whether she knows how to cook it.
That’s what she does – she accommodates special requests and adapts her class to each new audience. Some, like Ben, are curious about a certain dish – and then she goes with the flow (making this class even more awesome). She also does not take offence when Ben says that the Rabodi could do with some more spices. I glance at him and am shocked about his directness – he would have never said something like this in the past. His British politeness has dwindled since he is travelling through India. He too is changing…
The best part of the class, is when we prepare the dough for our Chapatis and learn how to puff them on the flame of the gas stove. Some of us are better than others – and we all laugh and clap our hands when someone manages the skilful art of puffing the dough in a nice round ball, making it look like a blowfish. It is indeed quite tricky to make them nice and round – and then to puff them. Reetha makes it look so easy.
Devi is proud of herself. An Indian woman who was adopted by a Dutch couple, annd who grown up in Holland, claims she has never managed to make such perfect Chapatis, as she learns more about Indian culture with every year that she lives in India (Mumbai) and with every cooking class she partakes in – bringing her closer to her roots. Roots.
A peculiar feeling not to have them. I admire people who do. What would it be like to have something I can call my home? What if I had something I could call a family? How wonderful would it be to have a father to drive me down to the South of the country to take me to a skating competition. Or prepare delicious meals with my mother. Devi says she is an Orphan. And yet, peculiarly, I feel I never escaped my orphanage. I don’t belong anywhere. Only somehow. But not really. My father died. My mother is no more. I don’t have any brothers and sisters. I’m the last of us. The question remains: where will I create roots? And what next?
After a good five hours of cooking and eating – we can eat no more. All of us look shattered. Eating so much food makes you tired. But we all have wrinkles on the corner of our eyes. The type that suggest that one is content. The ‘smiling wrinkles’, as I call them. Reetha thanks us, like probably no one of us has ever been thanked before. We all feel like royalty.
“In the name of all women in India, I would like to thank you” she says as she bows her head slightly, “supporting me means you also support women. You encourage other women to do the same. To find their own roles in a household. And maybe things will change. Things are different for my daughters but it is not the reality for many other daughters”. As she says this, I feel a flush of emotions wash through me and I need to look away. I try to contain myself. I’m ready to burst into tears.
While she talks, I feel honoured to have contributed to a higher cause and I was not even aware that I did.It’ll be a serendipity moment that I will cherish forever. And it is true: she sets an example for other women in and around her. As a matter of fact, she sets an example for women out there when she says “You know when I first saw my name appear on Trip Advisor I could not believe it. Thank you thank you I said. This is amazing. My name is out there in the world for everyone to see”.
Little did I realise how powerful Trip Advisor can be. Especially in India. Every business hopes to make it on there and it encourages owners and their staff to do well. And for Reetha, a Brahmin woman in the blue city, it was a transformative tool to give her a voice. “Thanks to you, all of this is possible”. And thanks to you Reetha, I not only know how to puff Chapatis, but I also feel inspired and proud to be a woman.
What was your favourite ‘local encounter’? Have you done a local cooking class before? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.