CULTURAL ROOTS • by Rosie Claverton

The pepper divides neatly under her knife but she pushes it to one side. Onions first.

If she chops the vegetables, it isn’t really a crime. It’s not like she bought some frozen thing and put it in the microwave. She hasn’t sunk that low.

The rhythm of knife on board should be enough to distract her, but today the scents won’t fade. With a pop, the kettle boils and she pours a thin layer of water over the rice and lights the hob. It’s the quick-cook stuff, no washing required–and she sees those hands, worrying the rice under the water, cracked and worn and gentle.

Her sister called earlier. There’s a winter wedding in Mumbai but she’s chronically unavailable and she says as much. Sai clicks her tongue, just like Uma, and she closes her eyes against the memory, ghee melting on her tongue.

There is jasmine in the kitchen, and a hint of lime. Behind her eyelids, there are chillies growing in a little window box and voices chanting a lullaby in a language she doesn’t recall. Roughly chopped beans fly into the pan, sizzling in the oil; she prods them once, twice, and then walks away.

It is with a heavy shame that she takes the jar from the fridge, unscrewing the top with a morbid apprehension. It was on offer, she tells herself, but she knows it is far from the truth. They all claim authenticity and yet the pungent smell clashes horribly with the stench of her memories. The garlic is stale and the milk sour; she cannot quite hold the smell of Uma’s dhaal in her mind, and it has slipped again.

She pours the sauce in, stirs. It hisses like a taunted cat and she throws the jar straight into the bin; she cannot look at it.

Her father does not call. She knows what he thinks of her, this desi in Marks and Spencer’s clothing. The last time she’d worn her sari was Uma’s funeral, the smoke making her eyes water and turning her mourning white ash grey.

She tried to cook for him once, but he sneered at her and told her to leave. Sai made her call him, to apologize for some perceived slight, but he did not try to speak. Mami had visited twice, talking about a distant cousin with a very modern outlook; she had politely declined the introduction and called her best friend in Tokyo, hoping his prattle would soothe her violin-string nerves.

The rice is damp. She has never perfected even this small thing, and she pours yoghurt on this ‘medium’ curry, the chillies in her veins shriveled and hardened through disuse. Uma ate five raw chillies a day; she had always shuddered at the sight.

She watches a documentary on vaccination programs in India, her pretend curry on her knee, and knows she honors her roots in her own, small way. She hopes Uma might be proud, if she could see her, though she pretends she doesn’t care. She’s an engineer, after all; doesn’t that count for something?

Her shadow tribute over, she pulls the ice cream from the freezer and returns to being ordinary. Yet the scent of cumin lingers and, when she closes her eyes, she sees chillies and garlic and home.

Rosie Claverton is an aspiring novelist with an addiction to words. You can find more of her creations and ramblings at The World of Rosie Claverton.

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