Friday, May 31, 2013

Lessons in Tharu Housework

It was 6AM. I had just woken up. Sabita had been up since 5AM. She corralled me as I came out of my room. “Uh…bahini [little sister]” she began. “Sahil [her eleven-year-old] has a fever again. I need to take him to Gorahi [the district center]. Can you cook food?”

I hoped my face didn’t register shock. Most of the women in the village were convinced that I didn’t know how to cook, but here was Sabita up and leaving the morning responsibility to me. Not just to cook for myself, but for her five-year-old son Anuj, Grandpa, and Kuntul the aunt with Down syndrome—the remaining members of the household since her husband, Khopi, had taken Grandma to Nepalgunj for hip surgery.

“You can make the daal [lentils] first.”

I told her I didn’t know how to use a pressure cooker. “Ok, well then, don’t make daal. What kind of vegetables do you want to make? Aloo gobi?”

I said that sounded fine.

“Well, we don’t have cauliflower. How about aloo sinki instead?”

I said that would be fine too.

“And you know how to make rice?”

I answered affirmative.

She took me downstairs and showed me where the potatoes were kept, grabbed a hasya [sickle] for me to cut the potatoes with, and brought down the sinki [fermented and dried radish leaves] from its storage place upstairs. The milk would be coming soon; I could boil it in this—she handed me a dekchi [a round pot without a handle]—then give it to Anuj and Kuntul to drink. Unfortunately, there was no sugar, so I couldn’t make tea. She told me to make the rice on the gobar gas stove [where gas is extracted from cow dung] and the vegetables on the regular gas stove (since it had rained all day before and the outside firewood stove was wet…gee, I was so thankful for the rain at that moment). She hustled out the door with Sahil, leaving with her younger brother on his motorbike. I sat down to cut the potatoes with the sickle.

Anuj brought the milk from his mama ghar [mother’s brothers’ house]. I boiled the milk to sterilize it, and then realized that the strainer was nowhere to be seen. I described the strainer to Anuj—it looked like a large spoon with holes it in; it was usually used to separate tealeaves from brewed tea—and he helped me look for it. Neither of us found it. The milk, while sanitized, had dirt, straw, and leaves in it, so it needed to be strained. I went into the room adjoining the kitchen where the household deities were kept. This room had recently been used more as a storeroom then worship room, as Tharu deities do not seem to require daily devotions. I saw the fishing net lying in a basket, and figured that would do. I doubled it over, put it on top of the dekchi, and strained the milk through the fishing net into another pot. I then washed out the fishing net by the well and hung it out to dry. I knew Sabita wouldn’t mind—she had unconventionally used all kinds of household items, making it fit whatever need she had for the present, no matter what it was originally intended for.

I gave a glass of milk to Anuj, and another to Kuntul. Anuj dumped some of the newly cooked—and very mushy—rice into his milk. After finishing his milk, he served himself some of the leftover rice and vegetables from the previous night instead of waiting for the meal I was to cook. I wasn’t offended; I wasn’t sure if I’d trust myself if I was in his position.

I had never made aloo sinki before. I knew that the recipe had oil, chili peppers, turmeric, and salt in it, along with the potatoes and sinki. I had seen how much salt and chili peppers Sabita had ladled into the vegetables before. So first, I fried up the potatoes in the oil, stirring them in the wok so they wouldn’t stick, then added the turmeric. I mashed the salt and dried chili peppers together in the mortar and pestle, then added that to the potatoes. When I figured that had cooked enough, I added water and the sinki. I kept adding water so that a broth would form—since I wasn’t making daal, the broth would serve to dampen the rice when eaten. I let it cook for about forty minutes, keeping the flame low waiting for the sinki to double in size. When I figured it was cooked enough, I turned the flame off and covered the dish.

I told Kuntul that the food was ready; she could eat when she pleased. She commented that I needed to serve Grandpa first. So I asked him if he wanted to eat now—it was not quite 8AM—and he said no, he was eating jaar [alcohol]; he would eat bhat [rice] later.

Shortly thereafter, Sabita arrived back home. They had seen the doctor. Had I made khana [food]? Yes, I said. She hospitably invited her brother to eat with us. I breathed a sigh of relief when he said he needed to go home and get to the school, where he worked as a teacher. Sabita packed Anuj off with her brother—he attended the same school his uncle taught at—and then asked me if I had eaten. I said no; I would eat a little later. She promptly went downstairs to eat, declaring she was hungry. No wonder—she had spent the entire previous day at the hospital with Sahil, leaving the house without eating in the morning only to return around 5:30PM that night. Having not eaten all day, she wasn’t hungry at all when she got home, so hadn’t eaten dinner, though she cooked for the rest of us. Now, she was ladling the rice and aloo sinki I had made onto a plate, and began eating. “Oh, meeto lagyo [its really good!]” she said. However, she grabbed the salt, and added a little more onto her aloo sinki.

Later, when she saw me eating—she was preparing to take the water buffaloes into the field to graze—she asked me what I thought of my food. “Its good,” I said. “I thought it was really good!” she exclaimed as she left.