Indian Cookery

(a work in progress)
By Ven Begamudré

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Believe it or not, there are people in this world who still prefer the satires of Jonathan Swift. Take Albert Lawlor. His favourite Swiftianvera is taped to the fridge:

So, naturalists observe, a flea
Hath smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite 'em; And so proceed ad infinitum.

Albert would like to sleep but he can't. He is too tired. It's early morning in Vancouver, and he has been working all night. Where other men might run to the Museum of Anthropology to exhaust themselves (and admire a Haida canoe being carved on the beach), Albert cooks.

Just now, he is waiting for a batch of lentils to thaw in the microwave. He is admiring a row of Tupperware bins. Each holds one and one half litres of a different kind of pulse. There are seven such bins, arranged like the colours of a rainbow. The red kidney beans, rajma, are dark red. The aduki beans, ma, look like little kidney beans. Sometimes he switches the order of the kidney and aduki beans. The red split lentils, masoor dal, are more salmon than red, so they pass for orange in his rainbow of pulses. The chana dal comes next since it's similar, though not identical, to yellow split peas. And the whole green lentils are, in fact, a greenish-brown. There's nothing close to blue, indigo, or violet in the arrangement (nor is there beige in a rainbow), so the last two bins throw off his colour scheme. The black-eyed beans, lobhia, are beige ovals marked with a dark dot. The chickpeas are also beige.

It's only natural Albert should be fascinated by lentils and peas and beans. He's a nuclear scientist. He has devoted his life to understanding the forces which keep the nucleus together, and these days he is concentrating on the pion, or pi-meson. He explores the sub-nuclear realm by bombarding deuterons, the nucleii of heavy hydrogen, with pi-ons. Friends who know little about physics consider his work mysterious (even exotic). He doesn't. Not any more.

Albert does his experiments with a particle accelerator called TRIUMF. It's located on the grounds of the University of British Columbia—as is the Museum of Anthropology. Mind you, he has never been inside the museum.

Every three months, he and five companions, all men, spend a week at UBC, They don't live in Vancouver. They live far away, east across the Rocky Mountains. While at TRIUMF, they work around the clock because each eight-hour shift needs at least two men to carry on experiments. In theory, the men take turns cooking dinner in the guest house; in practice, Albert makes dinner every night.

The others help, of course. As soon as they arrive, Albert sends the graduate students, Gary Hansen and Spiro Papaconstantinou, off with a shopping list. Once the rented van returns, four of the six men set to work in the kitchen. The other two are already at TRIUMF checking in, or visiting department heads. The secret of success in modern science, after all, is not experimentation; it's diplomacy.

Seated a ta large, wooden table, Albert measures out the spices for the week and seals them into Ziploc bags: all the turmeric and salt, whole cumin seeds, ground coriander, cayenne pepper, and black pepper. Even the garam masala which Gary and Spiro pick up, ready-mixed, on Main Street.

Albert's colleague, Jeff Matthews, stands at one end of the counter. Here he chops and minces and grates. He chops onions and tomatoes, minces garlic, and grates ginger— enough for a week's worth of dinners. The onions and tomatoes go into Tupperware tubs, the garlic and ginger go into smallerTupperware canisters, and all this goes into the fridge.

At the other end of the counter, near the stove, Gary and Spiro do their part. They measure the lentils, peas, and beans; pick out grit; wash the pulses; and drain them in one of two collanders. The kitchen is not fancy, but it is well equipped. While Gary and Spiro work, they chat about the coming week. More often, though, they dream. Without knowing it, they dream about the same thing: each, in his own mind, is composing his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. But the Nobel Prize must wait; back to the everyday grind. They cook the pulses in separate pots, always in batches of two hundred grams in one and one-half litres of water. The red split lentils, which must be simmered for an hour and a quarter, are the messiest. A scum collects on the top and has to be spooned off. As for the chickpeas, Garth measures three hundred and fifty grams into one and three-quarter litres of water. The chickpeas must soak for up to twenty hours before they can be cooked.

Each batch of lentils or peas or beans serves six, so there is always just enough. Though Albert is vegetarian, he will make a meat dish and cook either rice or pasta. If his fellow boffins had their way, they wouldn't have pulses every night for a week, but none of them likes to cook, and a man can't do his best work on weiners and beans. Thus, Albert is the king of the kitchen; the others are his minions. This is what they call themselves, too: Lawlor's Culinary Minions.

Fortunately, today is their last full day at TRIUMF for another three months. Albert will be glad to go home. Travel excited him once. Not any more. Like Gary and Spiro, there was even a time Albert dreamt of winning a Nobel Prize. Now he wants nothing more than to build his own boat. A seagoing boat. He will sail it to the South Pacific and wander among islands. He will follow in the wakes of Paul Gaugin; of Robert Louis Stevenson. Wouldn't that be the life? But Albert's daydream ends when he shudders from lack of sleep. He sighs, opens his notebook, and switches it on. AH his recipes are computerized.

Moving to the stove, he starts on today's pulse dish. It's red split lentils with cabbage, or masoor dal aur band gobi. When Gary and Spiro were cooking the lentils on the first day, Albert added half a teaspoon of turmeric to the pot. Now he measures five tablespoons of vegetable oil into a frying pan and turns the stove to medium. While the oil heats, he measures out the last of the garlic and onion. His calculations were so precise, he has exactly what he needs in the Tupperware: three cloves of garlic, minced, and seventy-five grams of onion. The onion should be in thin slices for this recipe, but he makes do with chopped. He knows enough about cooking to break the rules, just as he knows enough about science to realize it will no longer save the world.

He finds it incredible to think there was a time he believed such a thing. This was back in the sixties, when he kept a poster of another Albert (Einstein) taped to his fridge. Just before leaving to come here, our Albert found the poster in a mailing tube. He wanted to put the poster up to inspire his daughters, but it was dog-eared and faded. Back it went into storage—with his first microscope, still in its original wooden box. He once thought if he kept the poster and microscope long enough they might become antiques. Now he shakes his head. He's the antique, and age hasn't increased his value.

Albert guesses the oil is hot and adds a teaspoon of cumin seeds. He lets them sizzle for exactly five seconds, then adds the minced garlic. He moves the pieces about with a spatula so they'll brown but not burn.

He knows what his problem is—it's more than just a midlife crisis—but there's no one he can ask for advice. It shocks him: how few close friends he has. It's not that he wants to abandon science. It's just that he wants to start over. He wants to leave his comfortable house, leave his wife and daughters, and vanish. He wants to start somewhere else, with a new identity, a new name. Oh, Albert, he tells himself. You've got everything you ever wanted—a family, respect—and you've got nothing left to prove. But he can't just disappear (he loves his family too much) and building a boat might be too ambitious. The next best thing would be to see India. Not the Taj Mahal, and he has no illusions about the romance of poverty. No, he wants to find himself, and what better place for a man to find himself than in India? This is called doing Head India. Yet he knows the pitfalls awaiting a man: finding everything but himself. Besides, while Albert's not so conceited as to think he's the only man who has ever faced a crisis of faith, it galls him to think that, by doing Head India, he would follow in the footsteps of countless westerners.

Tens of thousands: X times ten to the fourth.

With the garlic browned, he adds the onion and the cabbage—two hundred and twenty-five grams of cabbage—which Jeff Matthews cored, shredded, and also stored on that first night. While steam rises from the leaves, Albert chops a green chilli and adds this as well. He stir-fries the cabbage mixture for ten minutes. He tries to find solace by thinking of those who love him, but he's too tired now to think of even love. He switches on the radio and tunes it to CJVB. It's a multicultural station, and, yes, it's playing Indian music. The cabbage has browned and turned slightly crisp. He adds a quarter teaspoon of salt, stirs it in, and turns off the heat. Now for the lentils. After taking them out of the microwave, he spoons them into a heavy pot and adds the remaining ingredients: another teaspoon of salt, half a teaspoon of grated ginger, and one hundred and ten grams of chopped tomatoes. He covers the pot and, after bringing the lentil mixture to a boil, lets it simmer for ten minutes. With the strains of an Indian raga soothing his scattered brainwaves, time passes. Quickly. He uncovers the pot, adds the cabbage mixture and the oil from the frying pan, and stirs. After the whole thing has simmered (uncovered) for three minutes, he turns off the heat. The pot, once it cools, will go into the fridge. Albert will finally go to bed. Another night, another dollar, another pion-deuteron reaction.

He knows enough about cooking to break the rules, just as he knows enough about science to realize it will no longer save the world… It's not that he wants to abandon science. It's just that he wants to start over.

He sinks onto a chair and waits for the raga to end. On the fridge is a spool of magnetic tape he brought back with him atthe end of his shift. There are often arguments at airport security over these tapes, but someone else will handle it. Jeff Matthews, most likely. He's the team leader: the one in charge of setting up apparatus, supervising Gary and Spiro while they calibrate the electronics and, best of all, filling out grant applications. Albert is just the cook. Chief cook and bottle washer. Well, not quite. That's what grad students are for. Ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you, Albert Lawlor is a valued member of our team. What he lacks in enthusiasm in the lab, he more than makes up for in the kitchen. Home, oh, home. Once they all fly back, he will take the rest of Monday off. Maybe even Tuesday. He will teach for two days straight, then start analyzing the data on the tapes. First things first, though. Sleep. Now.

At four this evening, he will get up and make the rest of dinner: lemony chicken with fresh coriander, which he won't eat, and spiced basmati rice, which he will eat. He will follow this with a bowl of yoghurt and so get his complete proteins—from a pulse, a grain, and a dairy product. The men finishing their day shift will have beer with their meal. The men on the six o'clock to midnight shift will have coffee. After dinner, Albert will go to a nearby theatre for the second showing of a foreign film. Tonight's film is Ganeshatru, adapted by Satyajit Ray from Ibsen's An Enemy of the People. Albert will not have popcorn. He would feel guilty stuffing himself while watching an Indian film. Then he will start his midnight shift. Tomorrow morning the six men will pack, drop the van at the airport, and catch their flight home. Albert will sleep the whole way. And while their plane wings east, over the Rockies, Albert will dream. He will dream of a rainbow made of lentils and peas and beans, all the colours pulsing with energy, all the tiny particles colliding into a dazzling mass of beige. Sleep well, Albert. Sweet dreams.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Ven Begamudré
Ven Begamudré is the author of three works of fiction - Sacrifices, A Planet of Eccentrics and Van der Graaf Days.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Britannia Art Gallery
Britannia Art Gallery
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Bookhug Press
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Plantation Memories
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