“Germany you checking oil for pakora,” Shashi hands me an apron. I try to explain that I’ve lived almost half my life in Australia. Shashi doesn’t have time for such trivial detail. “You look like other Germany girl. Easier for me to remember,” she says, turning away to bark more orders. “Ireland, you cutting garlic, England, wash hands, now rolling chapatti.” England, a sweet-faced girl from Yorkshire blushes in surprise at being spoken to in the command form. For Shashi, it’s the only way she can communicate.
Shashi is my new hero. “Three years ago,” explains this diminuitive iron chef, “no speaking English.” Today she can say cumin in a handful of different languages. “Kurkuma in Germany language,” she says holding a jar of bright orange powder under my nose.
Shashi teaches me something I didn’t expect to learn in a cooking class. It’s the first anniversary of my husband’s death and I am in India in search of clues on how to move forward. I’ve listened to the Dalai Lama for two weeks, I know the nuts and bolts of letting go and moving on. And suddenly there is Shashi, to kick my butt. We are the same age, our husband’s death are linked by an auspicious symmetry of numbers. But that’s where the similarities end, because she has done the impossible. She doesn’t own a computer, she wouldn’t know how to do a google search, yet she has her own website, her business is ranked number one on Tripadvisor and she probably earns more in a month than I currently do.
Shashi’s story puts me to shame. Like her students, she came to Udaipur, the city on the lake in India’s Western Rajasthan, as a foreigner, fluent only in the local dialect of her village. She got married to a man she had never met and whose language she didn’t speak, and bore him two sons. His portrait hangs above the couch that doubles as the family bed. Her younger son sits on it, using the coffee table, the only table in the house, as a chopping board, working his way through kilos of vegetables.
Under her quick-fire instructions we make mango and coriander chutney, potato pakora, rice pulau, a basic masala curry that can be turned into half a dozen other curries, chapati, naan, parathas, a garlic cheese spread that goes with the naan. We learn how to make paneer from scratch. “Greek style yoghurt is best,” says Shashi with authority, though chances are she has no idea where Greece is.
Shashi is my hero because she has turned her tiny kitchen, equipped only with a two-burner stove into a thriving business. And she has done so against impossible odds. “After husband die, every day only eat chapati,” she says guiding my hand to flip the disc of bread on the cast-iron pan. His last meal had been dhal laced with sleeping powder by his best friend. Her children small, she became ostracised by his family. The only work available, washing clothes for travellers in the nearby guesthouses, had to be done in secret because tradition forbids a Brahmin to do so.
She hands out cups of masala chai we have made mixing cardamom, black pepper, and a fingernail of ginger with milk and black tea leaves. My mouth tingles in a delirium of flavours. Masala meaning spices mixed together, Shashi explains.
It was Ireland boy, picking up his freshly laundered clothes, who tasted the potential in the cup of chai Shashi offered him. Like a masala recipe, her business grew from a blend of ingredients. An Australian typed up the recipes, a traveller from Portugal built a website, a girl translated the recipies into French, another into German. One day a guy from Lonley Planet showed up. “I don’t know then what that is,” says Shashi with a proud smile, “Now I know, it means me very busy.”
She’s got another group coming that evening to prepare another seven course meal. We are utterly exhausted after five and a half hours of cooking and plonk down on the family bed-cum-couch. Using our fingers, we devour the best meal of our lives. Shashi sits with us, her face glowing with pride and a hint of disbelief.
Cooking is an essential skill for any Indian wife, she explains in her survival English, it comes as natural to her as breathing. Brahmin tradition prevents her from ever being a wife again.
But Shashi doesn’t have to be anybody’s wife again, she’s her own boss now. When it is time to leave, we ask if we can help wash the dishes. The shadows of exhaustion under her eyes dissolve into a triumphant smile. “I not wash dishes, I now pay someone to wash dishes.”
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