This story was first published in UnBound Issue 2.

A woman is like a tea bag: you cannot tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.

– Eleanor Roosevelt.

Yuck.

To think that some people actually like eating out. Give me homemade stuff any day. Something that’s not too oily, not too bland, not at all tinted with artificial colors and cooked long enough for human consumption.

This morsel, for instance, I’ve been chewing like a cow for ages. After thrashing it left and right inside my mouth, I decide to force it down my throat. One of these days, my insides might decide to throw it back up.

Mom… I miss you in more ways than one.

The landline phone in my bedroom rings. It has to be mom. Talk about coincidence. She’s the only one I know who still does landline to landline calls. I dig out the phone from beneath a pile of laundry.

“The girl is from Kapurthala, very pretty, well-to-do family, very decent people…”

Like me, Mom’s straight-forward, never one to waste words on preambles. These days she sounds almost as cryptic as a secret agent on the lookout for matching targets. And that’s because she’s on a mission to end my bachelorhood. She got a major boost recently when I was promoted as project manager. God knows it was well-earned. I had the right qualifications but it took me six months to sell myself with the right buzzwords, the right networking, and the right attitude.

“Um!” I munch on another much-munched but still rubbery morsel. “Does she cook well?”

“We are trying to find a bride for you. Not a maid, okay?”

I sigh. She relents. “I didn’t ask. She is from Kapurthala after all. We Punjabi girls know cooking before we hit our teens. Unlike Delhi girls, who never step into a kitchen until…” I listen affably till she finishes.

Mom is terrific for my ego. She believes the bad girls of the capital are all out to trap me. This despite the fact that the gentleman she brought me up as doesn’t as much as look at women with anything other than respect. As if I would be distracted from my career plans. Besides I take our corporate sexual harassment policies pretty seriously. No sir, no office flirtations on my list of action items.

*******

The Kapurthala project turned out to be fruitful and so my mom’s mission ended with my wedding. I am at Kapurthala attending feasts mandatory for induction into my new extended family. My wife, Kiran, and I make quite a handsome team.

Between rushing from one hospitable relative to another, we manage to sneak out to the famous places in Kapurthala. As we take a long walk at Shalimar Gardens, I boast to Kiran about how the winter chill cannot tickle my skin. Suddenly I stiffen as ice water slips down my spine. I see Kiran giggling with a leaf of water from the fountain nearby. I chase her round the trees. Wow. I feel like we’re in a Bollywood movie.  Erstwhile kings and queens frown at us from paintings at the palace museum as our photos mimic their regal bearing. She knows a lot of interesting history behind Kapurthala and can point out French influence in the city’s architecture.

Other than occasional fun moments like these, she’s mostly silent, which is really nice. A peaceful life lies ahead for sure. Mom, though, believes that her silence won’t last long.

“That’s typical of every new bride. She’s watching you. Soon she’ll know you’re more a mouse than a tiger. And then she’ll be the one to turn into a tigress. If you want to set anything right, do it now. Before she knows the real you.”

Seriously, something happens to moms when they become mom-in-laws. A sweet docile girl like Kiran–a tigress? Her soft face is as tranquil as a tabby cat. Clear skin, clear eyes, and a body like a branch of jasmine flowers. She’s a walking poem. And she doesn’t know it. All I need to do is look at a girl. Any girl. And her face falls. I love it.

This evening we had a feast at my new sis-in-law’s house. The paranthas tasted a bit too bland. The time to share some innermost thoughts and desires with my wife has come.

She combs her hair in the balcony. I join her there. Together we look at the full-moon lighting the Kapurthala sky. “Reminds you of the paranthas we ate today, right?” I laugh and sit down on a patio chair.

“You know, Kiran, I like my paranthas a little tangier. Aamchoor does that, I believe. Cilantro shouldn’t stand out in paranthas like it did at your sister’s place, just fine specks of green here and there.” She stops her comb at the middle of a lock of hair. I bet she didn’t know how closely I look at stuff that goes into my mouth. I smile.

“Coming to tomatoes.” I cross my legs and cup my hands behind my head. “My mom boils tomatoes first and then peels off the skin before chopping and sautéing them. I mean, tomato peels in a curry are so unsightly…

I like all Punjabi dishes. So you can cook whatever you like. I’m not picky at all, ha ha.” I rest my face on a thoughtful finger, “For a change, you could try south-Indian dishes, something simple like idlies and sambar but no coconut chutneys, please.” I wave away, nodding sideways.

Phew! I got that out of my system pretty easy. Good start. After all how many husbands are clear about their priorities this early in the marriage? The trick is to treat your personal life like your career. I have more to say but I wait to see her response thus far.

She blinks back at me. I almost ask – any doubts? Her mouth looks smaller than usual. Her eyes shift. This silence is bothersome. She could at least say “I’ll try my best” or something.

*******

We are at my flat in Delhi. The honeymoon is over. It is for me as I taste my dinner – Maggi noodles without tastemaker.

It’s been a month of revelation to me. I always thought that girls were born with some basic cooking skills – like differentiating between turmeric and coriander powder, between jeera and saunf. Let alone methidaana or aamchoor, I wonder if she’s heard of garam masala (the spice, not the movie).

Twice a week, I eat charcoal; it’s too burnt to be anything else. The last good dinner I had was boiled eggs. The shell had almost browned but at least it cracked right. Lunch I have from office. Thank god for canteens. I now love eating out. Breakfast is usually bread, butter, and jam.

I haven’t yet escalated the issue to my mom. What if this is all she needs to turn into a monster mother-in-law. I did talk to my colleagues instead. Surprising that I’m not alone. Not everyone got great cooks as wives.

Venky is of the opinion:

“It’s their sheltered upbringing. Their parents pamper them all their life and leave the rest to marriage. It’s up to us to teach them the basics of life.”

George says, “Right, right. My mother doesn’t allow me or my sister to enter into her kitchen. Kitchen is some sort of a holy haven for mom.”

Mr. Kapadia pats me on my back, “Don’t worry. She’ll learn to cook soon. They all do.”

“I’m not so hopeful about Kiran. She lacks the aptitude. Why, I know more about food than her,” I reply.

“That’s because you live away in the city from your mom. You value good homemade food. These girls live with their parents before their marriage. They take food for granted until it becomes a question of survival.”

The question is – will I survive until then?

Maggi is the last straw. How can anyone go wrong with just that one other ingredient there is in the pack? Enough is enough. Time to take out my tiger skin.

“How do you manage this?” I raise my voice. “Every day and every meal of the day, you excel in doing just this.” I slam my plate down. I know I sound like a hero in one of those old 60’s movies, lecturing sense into the heroine, bringing her to mend her ways, and discover the domestic duties that will bring her everlasting happiness in the temple called home.

But desperate situations call for desperate actions. I finish my talk with a flourish, drinking water straight from the bottle in one big gulp.

She finally replies, her voice soft but heavy with tremors, “I don’t think I can do this. Your expectation about food is too high for me. Please call my folks at Kapurthala and ask them to take me back.”

Something gurgles in my stomach. No, not hunger pangs. Laughter. More dangerous considering the situation.

The days of malnourishment have gone to my head for sure because here’s my wife asking for separation and all I want to do is laugh. I clutch my mobile and hide my grin behind the device.

The laughter threatens to double me up in folds. I hear mom say, “What! She wants a divorce. A girl from Kapurthala?” I run out of the room, out of the house and laugh out loud – at the possibility of a divorce over “culinary differences”. I lean on a tree for support, breathe in some somberness, and review my performance.

Less than two months in the role of a husband, and my team member is ready to resign. Poor show. I know she means it. Did I really push her to the brink? Food is important, but is it worth breaking a home?

I shake my head. No, it’s not about food. I used pressure tactics instead of finding a solution together, like a team.

But why can’t a girl who can tell Gothic architecture style from English Renaissance not read the instructions on a Maggi packet?

Pressure again I suppose. Ever since I tasted food made by her, I’ve been making faces, complaining, leaving food half-eaten. Ignoring the simple fact that she just cannot make great food at this point of life. The girl is right out of college, has never stepped into kitchen like George’s sis. Lack of appreciation has eroded her confidence, making her run in circles, missing the obvious.

And cooking is not the only challenge she’s facing. She left her cozy hometown, her big secure home (and her mom’s excellent cooking) to live with a stranger. She never said let’s eat out or order something. She gave this untidy pad some semblance of a home.

She does put something on my plate even if it’s inedible half the time. I know she peels tomatoes for hours (with a potato peeler) before putting them in. It’s another matter that the curry comes out like a pureed salad any way.

She lets me be. I never heard her disagree, complain, or correct me so far. But I’m glad she spoke up this time. I finally know what a self-centered ass I have been. I tried to put myself as the boss at the first chance. Yet there’s hope for me. Love will be the food for our partnership.

I make my way back soon enough. She sits stiff, flush-face and red-eyed, furiously trying to hold tears back.

I place a hand over her shoulder and say, “Kiran, I’ll eat whatever you make. I’ll never complain again. Promise me, you won’t think of leaving ever.”

As we hug, I make a mental note to talk about cooking classes, but that can wait.

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