“Where Do You Go To, My Lovely?” by Yusra Amjad
My grandmother is afraid of forks. We believe it started recently. The fear of sleeping without a dupatta is at least easily understood, but the forkphobia baffles us all. My cousin speculates that they look like a devil’s trident, but my nano was not raised on cartoon images of Lucifer carrying a giant three-pronged trident. That was us. My sister and I don’t particularly care, we just want to be able to eat noodles when we want without having to hunt for the right cutlery which my grandmother has hidden away in unlikely places.
My grandmother doesn’t eat either. She survives on half pieces of toast and tea and plain rice my mother forces on her. She refuses meat saying her teeth cannot chew it. She says an old woman’s digestive system isn’t up to much, after all, but she does show, reluctantly, a weakness for spice, with small secret splotches of chutney or chilli sauce in one corner of her plate. She never finishes anything served to her. Except once. When I cooked for her.
It wasn’t for her, really. It was a new recipe and it was for all of us, my mother and sister and me. It was fragrant beef stir fry with ginger and sugar snaps and dark soy, served on rice noodles. The only thing I put into it was my general excitement of trying a new dish and my vaguely happy mood, but it seemed to take her to a place of bliss. She ate three servings, none of which were even offered to her, and she had a dreamy look in her eyes from the first bite. She sat before me with her third plate, smacking her lips and complimenting me, while I stood and watched her, stunned. I was afraid she’d misinterpret my silence and think I was angry that she left so little for anyone else, so I hastened to thank her for her praise. But that one time, she didn’t apologise for eating.
Her arms deep in the sink as she scrubbed the empty wok, my mother said I should cook for my nano more. But I never did. I don’t know what to show her, or what to say to her in words let alone in food. I never asked her where she went when she had the beef. I don’t think she could explain it. I don’t think I want to know. Sometimes, eating that which is not meant for you can work out, but on the whole it’s just risky.
Once, I made for a boy soft strawberry jam and banana cream filled cupcakes. He said they took him to a beach, and the sky was pink and that was the only time he ever enjoyed sunlight, this boy who liked cold showers in December. He said the sun felt cool on his skin, and the sand was the texture of silky mousse and he could go to sleep in it. Maybe he was exaggerating for my sake. It all happens so fast after all.
But he left out the last cupcake on the dining room table. And his mother tried one. I always wonder if she did it on purpose. She didn’t like me and she would have loved to finally have a reason not to. She got one. She said the moment she tasted the first bite, she was in a nightmare. She said she was on the street on which her mother was shot dead. She said the blood was sticking to the asphalt like strawberry jam. I believe her. When we walked in on her she was on her knees, the rest of the cupcake still rolling away from her. It was all very unpleasant. I tried to explain that it wasn’t meant for her, that you should never eat that which isn’t made for you, that was made so deliberately for someone else – but that was just me reminding her that I loved her son. I should have known right then, I suppose.
But sometimes even eating that which is meant for you is dangerous. One of the many cautionary tales I’ve read is about a girl who was in love with her sister’s fiancé, but she wanted them to be happy and as a gesture of goodwill she made their three-tiered marzipan-covered wedding cake, decked with candied rose petals and golden gossamer clouds of spun sugar. Upon tasting it, the groom imagined himself in the honeymoon suite of a huge, lonely hotel, standing on the balcony, with his bride’s sister in his arms. The girl swore she didn’t mean to do it, that she never put anything into the cake, but you can imagine what everyone thought. I believe that she didn’t do it on purpose, but she must have been insufferably stupid. Cooking for someone you aren’t meant to love is always disastrous. Those feelings will always work themselves into the batter, no matter how hard you try.
I suppose my mother is right to say it’s a dangerous gift. She never lets me cook when I am angry. The thing is, no one can tell when I’m angry. They only realise it when they take the first bite and they are in the place of their earliest, darkest nightmare.
I only did it once. I was young. I woke up hearing my mother screaming, sobbing. I heard him say insults I didn’t register in my haze of fear. I heard the thud of her being thrown to the floor. I didn’t do anything then. I think that was the real poison in the raita that night, my own guilt at doing nothing. Everyone said, everyone thought, including my father, that it wasn’t intentional. But it was. I could feel the anger flowing from my hands when I crushed up the mint and chilli. I knew what I was doing when I stirred the yogurt pale, poisonous green.
He never said where it took him, either. I just know that I thought, I really thought for that one moment, that I had killed him. And the next moment, when he collapsed against the table, his face shining with sweat and tears, I hated myself. Because you see, I knew even then that there are few people who have more strange and terrifying places in the corners of their minds than my father does. Now, when I think about it, I see the difference in us; he hurts people in moments of passion, but my crimes are always premeditated.
This morning, my brother’s four-year-old son is sitting on the kitchen island and swinging his feet. He is gazing curiously at the egg whites which I am beating into stiff peaks.
“Why can’t everyone do it?” he asks, without a trace of petulance.
“Maybe…” I pause. I’ve never met anyone else with this ability, only heard of them, and everyone I hear about is a girl. But what if that’s just because no one encourages boys to cook, let alone cook magically. “Maybe you will be able to do it. When you’re a little older.”
Bilal’s little face lights up with excitement, and I immediately regret my words. “Or maybe you’ll do something else,” I add. “Probably be a famous rock star. Wouldn’t you like that more?” He has been headbanging since he could hold up his head.
He ponders this.
“Maybe.” He is still fascinated by the egg whites, and probably the memory of the last dish I made him, which was just jelly with cream and chopped fruit, but he said he went to “Jellyland” and something about marshmallows. He didn’t have much vocabulary then, so I’m not sure.
Today, I’m making him a simple banana walnut bread with crumbly brown sugar topping.
“Where will it take me?”
“I don’t know, remember? I mean I can’t be sure. But I know it’ll be fun. You’ll love it.” I am sure of this. I can feel my love whisking itself into the egg whites. The last time I felt this way, I was making strawberry and banana cream cupcakes.
“You never know?”
“Well. I kind of know whether it’ll be good or bad.”
“You can make it bad if you want?”
I pause and look at him. Has he picked up some family gossip? I suppose someone will tell him someday, but then someone will also tell him fairies don’t exist; it doesn’t have to be today and it doesn’t have to be me. “Sometimes, Billi. It’s not easy to tell what it’s going to be. It’s different all the time, see?” He looks back at me and blinks with his absurdly long eyelashes. “Billi, you know I’d never give you anything bad, don’t you?” NodNodNod. I pinch his chubby little cheek. “Are you done mashing the bananas?”
He pushes the bowl of creamy yellowy pulp towards me.
“You can make it for lots of people at once too, right? Abu said you did. At our barbeque.”
“Sort of. But only for people I know. It’s harder with more people. And everyone goes somewhere different.”
“But you can cook normal too.” This isn’t a question directed at me, more of an observation.
“Well, normally I do cook ‘normal’,” I say, laughing. “The eggs I made you for breakfast once, they didn’t take you anywhere, did they?”
“No.” Then he adds hastily, “But they were yummy.” I want to kiss him.
Just as I’m putting the cake into the oven, he asks it.
“It happens to you too, right? Where does the food take you?”
I close the oven door and straighten up. I hang the dishcloth back on its hook. I turn and I smile into his eyes.
“No, Bilal. It doesn’t work on me.”
About the Author
Yusra Amjad is currently pursuing her bachelors degree in literature in Lahore, Pakistan. Her poetry has been published at The Missing Slate and Cities+.