She would recite, in a very soothing low voice, almost inaudible, one of her bhajans whenever she was cooking. Or she would be doing her regular japa as she worked in her simple kitchen in her modest home in the city. Her food tasted heavenly, perhaps because of that. Everyone who ate even once in her home felt that ‘special’ taste in her food. It was not only their physical hunger that felt satisfied. Something else was being fed too. The real thing within, perhaps.
She wasn’t into cooking anything gourmet or grand. There were no special recipes that she used. She didn’t use any special spices or ingredients. On the contrary, the food she cooked was very simple and simply prepared. It was basic, vegetarian, Punjabi food for the most part, and that too without any hot spices.
She never hired any outside help for any task related to cooking, even when her children were small and needed a lot of attention and looking after. She managed everything herself, in addition to her work as a school teacher which she took very seriously. Her husband had some health issues and also needed much care and special attention. She would often need to cook special meals for him. Her lips moving silently in a prayer, she would manage it all by herself.
The house was also frequently filled with extended family members and relatives visiting from other towns. They would often stay for a few days. Or more. She smilingly fed them, made them as comfortable in her home as she could, and even packed lunches or home-cooked snacks for them when they went outside for sight-seeing or some other work.
When her children grew up, they helped her whenever they could and to whatever extent they could. Sometimes her children would get upset and ask her why she had to do all that cooking for the guests. Why they just couldn’t stay in a hotel? And she would simply smile and say — that is not how it is done. You don’t bother, go and study, I will manage.
As she grew older she began to realize she needed some help in the kitchen, especially when her health started giving her problems. Though by this time the children had moved out of the parental home and the frequency of visiting guests had also reduced, she found herself getting tired frequently. She hired someone to help her with some basic food prep tasks, like chopping of vegetables or kneading the dough or some such thing. The actual preparation of dishes was always done by her. In that same prayerful mood.
Until the very last year of her life. Her failing health would simply not permit her to stand for more than five minutes without any support. And she was compelled to hire someone to cook for herself and her husband.
The children had always visited their parental home, as frequently as grown children do in a close-knit family. Those who lived in other towns would come and even stay with the parents for several days. But when her health started to deteriorate further and the diagnosis revealed a terminal illness, the children would take turns and come to live with her and their father for extended periods of time.
The kitchen was again bursting with activity as children and grand-children frequently visited. But she wasn’t in the kitchen. She was however still very concerned with what was being cooked, and would give detailed instructions, in her frail voice, to the cook regarding how to prepare this dish or that dish. In just a couple of months, despite her failing health she had actually trained the cook to prepare almost everything as per her style.
And as the cook would get busy in the kitchen, sitting in the chair in her bedroom she would close her eyes and recite one of her bhajans or do her japa.
The food tasted the same. Almost. And satisfied both the physical and the other real hunger within.
Where was the magic? In her hands? In her love for the family? In her prayers? Or all?
Now that she is gone, the same cook still works in the same kitchen of her home. Cooking for one, her husband. Or for more when the children visit.
But there is nobody reciting the prayers, silently, while the cooking is being done.
Or maybe there is.
Far, far away. Or very near. Right here. Within.
Within the hearts of her children, her husband, all those who will visit her home and partake of something cooked in her kitchen, where she and her prayers are present. Always.