COOKING, VIRUS, AND IDENTITIES
Chopping onions at a fast and furious speed was the most fascinating activity in the world for me. I would stop watching Chitrahaar on television to see my mother fragmenting an onion into fine and parallel pieces. I would get hooked to the charm of the fast-disappearing pinkish aromatic and to the risk of losing a finger or two. The control over the knife, I recall, tamed her fear. I developed a secret admiration for all those who could slash an onion into thin slices without glancing even once at the dangerous knife.
I hated garlic because our housemaid Jhuma would always refer to onion as the sister of garlic. Onion, for me, was a prestigious substance. Not to be sister-ed by anyone so smelly!
So madly was I in love with the art of chopping onions that once I gave Jhuma a one-rupee coin to teach me the trick behind the art of chopping. She laughed out loudly -- continued laughing immodestly until her coiled bun fell into a thick wave of hairs on her back -- and told my mother about the offer I made. She chuckled too, though not as noisily as Jhuma. I was hurt. I was a ten-year-old restless and insincere child at that time when I fancied becoming a chef. The only person who listened to me and cared for my dream was my six-year-old sister. Influenced by my newly found interest, one day she stole and got me a new blade from my father's shaving bag; using the deadly weapon, we peeled and chopped a fat onion on my geometry box. We happily dipped the shreds in chilli sauce, added a pinch of salt, and had a lavish party. The onion party. The sister ate more than the brother, as usual.
The practice continued. We would lock the gate as soon as our parents leave home for work and wholeheartedly enjoy the only delicacy that we could make out of onions. The onions frequently left us teary-eyed but not under any condition could beat us down. From tiny steps, we started taking giant steps. Our ambitions got much bigger. What started with chopping onions flourished to chopping vegetables, deep-frying them with a bizarre concoction of all the spices available in our kitchen, and sometimes sauteing the already cooked food. The sound of mustard seeds growling on hot oil, the smell of cardamom adding its magic to chicken curry, the yellow smile on a halved boiled egg's face, the touch of a flour dough on the palm, the taste of eggplant bharta sandwiched between chapati pieces. The sixth sense would wake us from the spell of happiness and signal the time of arrival of the villains: the loving parents.
The challenging task was stomaching all the food and cleaning up the mess before the mother would get the faintest hint of our curious R&D. Usually, I would take up the task of chopping vegetables and cooking while my sister would eat all the extra food and do the cleaning.
Nothing could come close to the satisfaction of cooking: an engrossing activity my sister and I would look forward to every day. She loved whatever spicy stuff her brother would cook for her. Like an ardent fan, she would strongly support me to the best of her capacity, although the support mostly meant eating. We were a fantastic team.
Little did I realize the wisdom of job satisfaction at that age!
Over the years, I kept the spirits of cooking alive. Through good and difficult times alike, cooking re-infused my childhood curiosity in me and helped me see people. I saw them at their authentic best while they would gorge on the Sunday-special rajma-chawal made by me: slurping gleefully, burping freely. And sleeping soundly afterwards. Mouth wide open. Leaving the etiquette along with the Versace bag reserved for their alter ego. I saw them shed their pride and share the same table with the helps, though a deeply rooted sense of elitism would show its ugly colours once in a while.
I saw the power of need, how needs become desires, and how swiftly desires become sources of pleasure and erode character.
The 21-day lockdown has dismantled the walls between needs and desires. Survival is the need of the hour. To have the choice of deciding how to kill time is a privilege when the virus is killing the time of the affected ones. I gave the situation a serious thought on the third day of the lockdown. Left with the clarity that going outside would be a rare occasion, I decided to go inside our kitchen rather than going inside the rabbit hole of Netflix. I took up a fresh job at my home. Every morning, I wear my kitchen apron, chop vegetables and onion, don't analyze anything, experiment with cooking, and give funny names to the dishes I invent. The dining table, much to the delight of my family, has a part-time waiter now. One look at the smiling faces of my family members when they savour whatever I cook, and I get paid a hefty bonus. I have rediscovered my identity as a cook and this identity has found me a fresh purpose: actively sharing the family responsibilities. Cooking, like writing, is a therapeutic treat. It takes us outside our mind and stimulates empathy in us.
The identity of a Fitnesswala keeps on reinforcing my keystone habit: exercising. This identity is so strongly etched in my mind that no one can convince me to not exercise regularly, no matter whether it is a lockdown or the usual situation. I find my way and easily get into the flow when I am handstanding or squatting. Switching from one identity to another - Life Designer, Bad Writer, Responsible Son, Obsessed Reader, Caring Brother, Cheap Cook, Fitnesswala - keeps me enthusiastic and happy, and prioritizes my focus. Do I eat the Internet and live in constant fear of the virus or do I invest the lockdown time to sharpen my craft?
The liberty to act according to my identities sets me free to surrender my freedom to the boredom of my habits.
Building a life around few identities helps in finding meaning in the mundane, tiring chores of life; though, we may, at times, find one of our identities leaving us emotionally exhausted. Relationship-based identities, for example, often rupture us. The constant struggle to live up to others' expectations is tiring and leaves us in a perennial state of self-doubt. Without meaningful relationships, as is invariably always the case, finding happiness becomes a war against the self. Relying on multiple identities eases the chicken-egg problem and offers us a view of the world wherein we are not only our relationships but also entities independent of our relationships.
What do we do to keep going? Get in touch with our other identities and experience heightened presence when we find ourselves absent in our present identity.
Or, we may as well define a new identity for ourselves: "I am an entrepreneur." And take steps accordingly.
Application to any of the programs follows a two-step process:
1. Essay: Please e-mail a statement of purpose, as a single-spaced PDF, to email@example.com. Limit your story to 800 words.
Be bold. Be original.
If your essay is shortlisted, you move to the interview round.
2. Interview: The purpose of the interview is to understand you and to assess whether you are a good fit for the intensive mentoring sessions, assignments, and social experiments. Interviews are conducted either in person or online. Interviews are conducted in English and last for 30-90 minutes.
The entire process takes three weeks from the date of application.
Next deadline: July 15 2020.