“Luthra… Ahh, your family belonged to Sargodha, right?” the priest inquired as he finally found the surname after endlessly flipping the pages of his antique diary. My father nodded with relief after a tireless hunt for the right priest. We had been up since 6 am, the three of us – or four if you consider my grandmother’s spirit in her ashes, as my father described it.
I had always been dubious about the idea of spirits and God. Hence, none of my father’s attempts to convince me about my grandmother’s presence with us that morning could change my mind. Usually, we would agree on the futility of religious practices, but it was different this time. The constant tossing in bed last night and his glassy eyes the next day were evidence of terrible sadness. He did not wish to look at things from a rational perspective those few days, and I did not force the idea upon him too.
The priest arrived after three hours of us waiting in his living room. I dozed off on the uncomfortable floor mattress while father remained restive, tightly holding onto the urn. The priest took pride as he unwrapped the records kept by his ancestors to give us details of my grandfather’s family whenever they had visited for Ganga snaans. I found that we were goldsmiths based in Sargodha, a tiny district in Punjab province in today’s Pakistan.
I don’t remember the sequence of events after grandfather’s mentions surfaced during the weary conversation as the idea of him consumed my thoughts. Although I never met him, the impression of Grandad seems comforting. I couldn’t stop thinking about my grandmother’s mentions of their regular visits to Rawalpindi after their marriage, a little more than 200 kilometres away from their home in Sargodha. No one ever knew, but she confided in me about her secret craving for Pindi chole to be the primary reason for those visits. Although it seems silly in hindsight, it was delightful to see her light up with joy while talking about her favourite dish.
Pindi chole would be her cooking choice whenever we visited her. She had learned the Rawalpindi style of preparing the chickpea dish from one of her relatives who lived in the city. Although it seemed like a lot of effort for grandparents to travel all this way for street food, I envy them sometimes. Especially on the days when I sit alone devouring my favourite cupcakes, wishing for a companion to be by my side.
The qafilas during the unprecedented Partition carried so much more than just people. Although she may have never thought about her cherished recipe in those uncertain times, seemingly inconsequential things like recipes were perhaps the very little she could carry with her into her new life. Out of the countless dishes she may have cooked throughout her life, her stories always came back and connected to Pindi chole somehow.
I remember the year she passed away, frail and paranoid after multiple surgeries, surviving off Delhi’s privileged medical facilities. Karnal was our usual mid-way stop during our drive back to our hometown. We stopped by Pizza Hut and a new Indian fusion pizza range had dropped. My father did not ask her before ordering the Pindi chole fusion pizza. Her dentures came in handy as she ate only a slice, not because she did not wish to, but because she could not eat more. A content smile peeped through as she removed her dentures after she finished. She did not say anything, maybe because she was too weak. She seemed happy after a long time. Perhaps it was the last time, as she passed away a week later.
We still visit our ancestral home in Shimla. Grandma is not here anymore. Dad does not talk about his feelings. Apart from the secret bathroom karaoke sessions on Mother’s Day every year, he skips the songs that remind him of her during our car rides. He never says anything explicitly, which is very much like him, but I know.
I did not cry when she died four years ago. I sat in her room when the flowers and visitors began to disappear after a few weeks. Some people wept on the day of her funeral, some people stayed for a few days, and some left within a few hours to turn the unfortunate visitation into a family vacation. I don’t blame them, however. Shimla is a good vacation spot.
I cook several exotic dishes like Shakshouka that have nothing to do with my heritage. But I never learned her way of preparing her cherished dish. Chickpea as an ingredient remains common in our kitchen, but it is never cooked the way grandmother cooked it. The realisation that her recipe for cooking chole died with her is unsettling. I wish to visit the cities like Sargodha and Rawalpindi someday, the cities that existed for me only through the anecdotes of people who are now gone.
I never thought I would write about her because thoughts about her do not bring me peace. But here I am, trying to write everything I felt years ago, and I feel guilty. A part of me feels guilty because I am unsure if I had been very nice to her in her last days. While another part of me justifies the unkind feeling towards her when I recall all the times she made my mother cry or how she created an irreversible rift between my parents.
Whenever we stop for pizza now, my Dad always asks me if I remember when we all tried the fusion pizza flavour for the first time. I don’t think he realises how repetitive the question gets, but it still makes me smile whenever he asks the question. Looking for Pizza Hut’s Pindi chole flavour became an unspoken norm until last year when we shared an uneasy silence upon finding out that Pizza Hut had discontinued the flavour.
Mallika Luthra is an undergrad student at Ashoka University.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons