My eyes sting. I squeeze them shut to ease this stinging sensation. It’s hot around.
I don’t open my eyes for a while.
I am sitting with my grandmother. Her wrinkled hand moves in an out of tandoor. Smoke rises from the tandoor. The smell of charcoal is mixed with the smell of wheat flour and onions.
I open my eyes. I put the knife aside. I’m through with chopping the onions. My eyes aren’t through with tears though. I pick a jar full of red chili flakes and tilt it slightly over my palm.
I hold handful of red chili flakes and drop them into the tray, over the pile of chopped onions. I pick some oregano seeds, as many I can hold between my fingers and add them to the pile. Same with salt.
I dig my fingers into the pile and start mixing the ingredients together. My fingers burn as I massage chilli flakes into the pile of onions. My mind receives a quick message from my nervous system. Spoon! Stirrer!
I ignore that message and carry on with my fingers.
My grandmother pulls the first onion paratha from the hot tandoor and puts it in my plate. Over that she drops a chunk of homemade white butter. I break the hot paratha with my little hands, as little as a nine year old can have.
The first bite that goes into my mouth melts.
I put my hands under the tap, trying to calm that burning caused by the chili flakes. I look sideways. The chopped onions look dotted red and black with chili and oregano seeds. The salt, of course, I cannot see.
I wipe my hands and move to the stove. I put a pan over the flame and then drop a handful of cumin and mustard seeds into the pan.
My grandmother puts a small bowl of yogurt in my plate. Its mixed with some kind of black powder. In a stern voice she tells me, "Eat properly, eh. You’re supposed to dip that in this. Who did I make this for then?"
I obey, dipping the next bite in the yogurt mix. I relish it.
In the pan the cumin and mustard seeds have started popping up and down. I turn the burner off and take the pan off the stove. I transfer the roasted seeds to a plate and let them cool for few seconds.
Then I take them in my left palm and start crushing them with my right thumb. The seeds are still hot enough to make my palm feel the heat.
Once the seeds are crushed to form a coarse black powder I put them in a bowl full of yogurt. I add a pinch of black salt. I rotate a stirrer in bowl, mixing the black powder well with the yogurt.
I keep the bowl in the fridge. And with the tray of onions I move to the tandoor.
The wheat flour dough is ready there. I pick some dough with my fingers and flatten it on the kitchen slab, applying the pressure with my palm. Then on top of the flattened dough I sprinkle the onion-chili-oregano mix.
I press the onions on the dough so that they stick and then I spread the first uncooked paratha carefully over my hand.
I lower my hand into the heated tandoor and slap the uncooked paratha against its wall. It’s the traditional Punjabi tandoor made of mud. My hand feels the heat and I quickly pull it out.
In few seconds I smell something familiar.
Smoke rises from the tandoor. The smell of charcoal is mixed with the smell of wheat flour and onions.
No matter whether I’ve been nine or 19 or 29 and wherever in India I’ve been working, I always rushed back to this smell.
I reach my grandmother’s house in my hometown. She looks at me and asks, "What will you eat? What is it that you don’t get in that big city where you stay? You look skinnier every time you come back. Always eating out, eh?" Her voice wasn’t as stern as it used to be. Her eyesight had a weakened bit and her hands had wrinkled some more.
I reply to her. She always smiles hearing my reply.
She’d smile just for the fact that I, her grandson, had not changed my tastes and preferences in spite of staying away from home. Picking some onions from the basket she heads for kitchen.
I’d sit down next to her, becoming a nine-year-old again.
The first few parathas come out of tandoor, ready to be served.
I put them in a service basket and from the fridge I take out the bowl of yogurt.
From the kitchen I carry the stuff to the dining area of the restaurant. Roma is sitting there at the table. She is the owner of this restaurant, Roma’s Kitchen, in Auroville where for a day I’m working as cook.
Roma looks at me as I walk to the table. From the look of her I know she is thinking about yesterday – the day when we both had a big discussion about the Punjabi cuisine and I had the audacity to tell her that nobody can make as good tandoori onion parathas as my grandmother.
Roma had replied that she’d love to find out.
I put the stuff on the table. Our friends, Revathy and Sudha, are also seated at the table with Roma. They all put a paratha each in their plates and the yogurt in their bowls. Roma breaks the first bite and dips it in curd.
The lunch was quick. After the lunch Roma told me that she’s decided to add tandoori onion paratha to her menu. They’d liked it.
Relieved, I sit down at the table and fill my plate and bowl. I take the first bite.
An important ingredient is absent and only I can tell what.
My grandmother would look at me and ask, "You look so skinny. You don’t eat properly there or what?" I’d look at her and think all grandmothers are the same. All those hours I spend in the gym and she thinks that I’m skinny.
I’d always reply to her that I lost some weight because I’m working out in a gym to keep myself in shape. It’s not because of outside food.
Unconvinced, she’d just make a face.
Now it’s been more than a year since she passed away.
As I take the first bite of my own cooked parathas, her words ring in my ears.
"What makes you so skinny, eh, my little donkey? Exercise?"
Not exercise. It’s the absence of your love from my food, grandma.