My cook, Neela, is a feisty woman. She comes from a relatively underprivileged background. Born one among ten other children to her parents, she never had anything easy. She grew up in a tiny room near Delhi’s university area. Though her parents randomly put some of the children in school, most of them dropped out over a period of a few entailing years. Neela went to school for around three years and can just about manage to write her name now.
When I met Neela first, she was young and a little tentative around everything. She wasn’t sure how to go about dreams that she had and make a little place for herself in the world. I had a little leg injury and was not able to cook standing up for long periods of time. When somebody in my colony recommended a young newly married cook, I thought okay why now. So I called Neela.
Initially she seemed a little shy (though later she turned out to be fairly assertive, often to my irritation) and knew well about food and cooking. She also seemed hygienic which was one of my top requirements. So I thought of letting her cook for my family for a month and then taking it as it comes after that. She joined the next day.
The first day started with her signature “Poori-alloo”, a thick tomato and coriander based potato curry with fluffed up deep-fired what pooris. And she was a hit right away. All of us loved it, and personally I realized that cooking for the last forty odd years I had forgotten what it was to have delicious food cooked and served for you at first and not after everyone had finished eating.
But enough about the food, coming back to Neela. Over the next few weeks I came to know her better. I realized she is a strong willed woman who is positive and just the right level of sanity in her. I really liked those qualities in her. She told me about the limited means of her paternal and now married family. While they were not exactly monstrous, they did not really care about her dreams or hopes. They expected her to quietly fit into the roles they laid out for her at various stages of her life.
Neela was not highly qualified or skilled to be able to dream big, but she wanted to lead a satisfying life, so she started cooking. When I met her, she just wanted to cook for two or three families and use the money towards her home expenses because her husband did not earn much as a carpenter. Any bias or stereotype about a poor woman not having the vision to look ahead into the future and be able to dream an ideal life for herself – nothing like that ever came in the way of Neela’s goals.
But now the situation is very different. Neela cooks for around eight families in my area and earns a great amount because of her wonderful culinary skills. Her two children, a son and a daughter are studying at good schools and she is trying to learn more about the world through them. While she does not cook for me any more, she comes often to my house and tells me that if there is one thing she has learned in her life, it is the fact that when things get the toughest, that is when we need to keep reminding ourselves that our dreams, and we ourselves, deserve self-love, patience and perseverance.
Beautiful words were never spoken more aptly 🙂