She would recite, in a very soothing low voice, almost inaudible to others but her, 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 big 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. She didn’t use any special recipes. She didn’t use any specially prepared 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 modest 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 couldn’t they just 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.
The last year…
This went on…until the very last year of her life. Now 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?
And then she was gone…
For years after she was gone, the same cook still worked in the same kitchen of her home. Cooking for one, her husband. Or for more when the children would visit.
But there was nobody reciting the prayers, silently, while the cooking is being done.
Or maybe there was.
Far, far away. Or very near. Right there, right here. Within.
Within the hearts of her children, her husband, all those who would visit her home and partake of something cooked in her kitchen, where she and her prayers are present. Always.
In all her acts a strange divinity shone:
Into a simplest movement she could bring
A oneness with earth’s glowing robe of light,
A lifting up of common acts by love.
(Sri Aurobindo, Savitri, Book VII, Canto I)
And then things change…
Her home and kitchen are now no longer hers. The house was sold off last year. A new kitchen has replaced her old kitchen, with newer gadgets and fancier stuff. Different cooks are cooking there.
Wonder whether there are any remains in that new kitchen of the countless moments my Annapurna spent there, doing her japa as she cooked for her children and her large extended family.
Wonder whether the family which partakes of the food prepared in the fully redesigned kitchen would ever feel what remains of her presence that filled that space until a few years back.
Nothing ever dies, they say. Only the form changes.
She lives…in many ways. Sometimes in the way one of her children cooks in their kitchens, sometimes when they use some of the utensils from her kitchen which have found new homes in their kitchens. And always in the way they remember her food. Annapurna she was, for them all.
This is an expanded version of a blog I wrote several years ago, which was also later published on The Living Wise Project.