There are two types of kitchens mainly- family kitchens and bachelors kitchens. Most of the middle class family kitchens are well arranged like a properly run private museum. Bachelors’ kitchens look like government run museums, terribly misplaced in their positions. I am not talking about exceptions but norms. Exceptions, whether they are bachelors or married, are cleanliness-maniacs and control freaks. They don’t want anyone else to touch their kitchen wares. Often you feel that it is better that they remain bachelors. They remain bachelors because they don’t want their orderliness to be shattered by another person. They are like strict curators in a museum never visited by anyone other than the officials. Protocol is what matters to them. There are many different types of kitchens than the above mentioned two; there are sad kitchens, happy kitchens, bruised kitchens, screaming ones, yelling ones and kitchens where tears boil in a pot along with the reflection of a waning moon.
At a married friend’s family kitchen where his wife cooks so many times a day for his never ending stream of visitors, I sit asking him whether I need to help them in doing something as they are cooking for me and my family visiting them. We sip from the half filled glasses of deliberate oblivion. The last piece of ice cube from the crammed freezer of the refrigerator floats like a thin slice of polar memory in my friend’s glass, which he pushes with the tip of his tongue for testing its patience to stay for the next round of filling.
I insist on doing something for him. He gives me seven big onions and asks me to cut them into very thin slices so that he can fry them for lacing the Biriyani which is already in the cooking pot and is on its way to the gas stove. Like many in this world, who have hated cooking or being kitchen helps, I too like cutting vegetables and onions for it saves you from many other kitchen related works like washing the meat, rice, preparing the dough and so on. Cutting vegetables need minimum skills provided if you have a good cutting board and a sharp knife. There are also you find some problem only if your host is two particular about the sizes of the pieces that you cut out of a potato besides being strict on the shape of it. There are some friends who would show off their recent purchase from a mega mart- a machine that could cut anything into size, except your ego. It has several blades in different shapes. And it is too handy to be used till it finds its permanent place in the cupboard as a museum piece for the coming generations to gaze and wonder upon.
He gives me a cutting board and a sharp knife, and throws a couple of instructions. Then suddenly the kitchen is abuzz with the discussion on why and how everyone else in there hates cutting onions. Onion makes most of the people cry. It is one vegetable that takes revenge straight on people the moment violence is inflicted on them. The other vegetables do it slowly once they are ingested and digested. Salad seekers are revenged by bad taste in the name of sophistication. Anyway, the discussion keeps moving around onion and I set out on my own track of thinking on path flanked by trees that have sleeping eyes for leaves, melting watches for flowers and alphabets for branches and an abstract defiance for the main trunk. I walk along the shadow-less path along the tree and wonder why there are no shadows of the trees all along. From nowhere I listen my photographer friend’s voice, who has been struggling with his drinks, phone calls, cooking efforts, children’s screaming and a lot of unnamed ghosts in his head for quite some time, and it says, ‘where the light falls parallel and almost close to earth how there could be shadows? It gives only a hue of light that fills in the places like a film set, like a dream.’
(Potato Eaters by Vincent Vangogh)
The smell of onion comes along with me in my journey. Cutting onion is different from peeling onion. Peeling onion is a journey to nothingness. It is like knowing the essence of Hinduism in the right sense. Each layer tells you ‘neti neti’ (na iti- not this). And you keep peeling until you reach nothing else to peel than your own fingers approaching each other like two swans in the pool of time trying to grace each other with their beaks. In kitchen you get philosophical and you feel like leaving everything and going into nothingness. But like the true Hindu philosophy, the tear jerking element of it holds you back to the earth, to the stool on which you are sitting and cutting the onion, into your own world of woes. I ask, what is the greatest solace of someone who holds a onion at one hand, a sharp knife on the other and his or her nose running? The outside of right palm, the right shoulder. Someone cutting onion alone in a kitchen and immersed in a chemical driven crying that turns into the memory of something really poignant and capable enough to force real tears is the most touching scene, a blend of comedy and tragedy, that one could imagine. You should see it in a more Guru Dutt-esque light.
Bachelors cut onion and vegetables well. Living in semi-penury also makes people cut vegetables well. That’s why people during their college days, when they stay in hostels or in rented accommodations cut vegetables very well. There could be many reasons; shortage of resources is one reason while occupation of meaning is another. In hostel days, apart from the dreaming of love making or being in love, what one does fruitfully is cutting vegetables and cooking frugal meals and sharing them with friends. Studying is an excuse for crossing the turbulent river called youth. Hostel rooms and rented apartments are pools of fire where bodies and souls of young people get baked for future life.
(Frugal Meal by Picasso)
However rich you have become in your later life, however expensive your life has become, do you think that you have ever tasted something like a dal-chawal that your friend had served before you when you came out of a long slumber induced by drugs and cheap liquor. Has the chicken ever tasted so well, many times better than the star dishes served in silver plates by turbaned butlers with a hopeless band singing sad songs for happy hours as an acoustic backdrop, than the one curry that all of you made together after pooling in money from for almost a week’s parsimonious living? Have you ever eaten an omelette as tasty as the one that your friend made one evening when hope was setting along with the sun in the western ghats and the stars of your madness were trying to peep through the sky above the neem tree?
Kitchens are places where philosophy originates and finds its flights of fancy. Life is like a wash basin filled with the dirty plates of previous night’s dinner. You need to clean it up. Wash all complaints aside, pack them well into black polythene bags and keep outside the door. Time is the closest stream of river Ganges. Immerse till you choke, rise, pick up an onion and start cutting.