short fiction | immigrant fiction
Mrs. Kalra came home every Tuesday and Thursday evening to cook for us. The first time I met her, she offered to give me a sampling of dishes she could cook. I wasn't sure whether to be flattered because I looked like a good Punjabi wife who could whip up aloo parathas in a jiffy, or whether to be dubious of her cooking skills. It didn't matter though, because I needed help, desperately: plus, I was sure that anyone -- anyone -- could do a better job with dal-roti, rajma-chawal and saag than me. She quoted an hourly fee of $15, which I readily agreed to. I knew the good Punjabi "Aunties" in Santa Clara charged $18 at the very least, and was delighted at my luck. The husband cautioned me, though. "Let's see how she cooks. Maybe we'll be better off with take-out."
And so, she appeared twice a week, between six o'clock and a quarter past in the evenings, rushing in past me when I opened the door and acknowledging my presence only once she washed her hands in the kitchen sink, as though it was only then that she was ready to be Mrs. Kalra The Cook, asking, "So what should I make today?"
I'd keep the vegetables and spices out on the counter for her the first few times, but she knew their exact locations soon enough. She would even let me know what pantry items needed replenishing. Apart from asking me how spicy I wanted my paav-bhaji, or whether I preferred ghee over oil for dal, she hardly ever spoke unless I initiated the conversation. I would exchange notes with her about the different brands of pickles in the Indian grocery market two blocks away, and how the traffic was getting worse around the mall, and oh, did she see that new Bollywood movie? Even then, her responses would get clipped after a while, as though she suddenly became conscious that I was her employer. Or that I was thirty years her junior, I couldn't tell. I would then leave her to her boiling lentils and sizzling pans and retreat to the living room, from where I could still steal a glance at her if I wanted to. I will admit to inspecting her work ever so discreetly the first two weeks, when I used excuses of thirst and hunger to enter the kitchen to see how well she washed the vegetables, how much oil she added to the vegetables, whether she washed her hands after throwing away kitchen scraps into the garbage.
She'd always end her shift with," I hope you enjoy your food," leaving the same way she came: rushed, diffident, somehow deferential, even though she was old enough to be my mother. Despite the limited communication, there was something warm about her presence, one that I noticed only once she'd left for the evening -- a warmth that seeped into the dishes she made, even though they weren't exactly restaurant-quality. I could see the reason behind her discounted rate. But the food she made was authentic, not to the cuisine, but to her efforts. I ate it with the same obedience with which I'd consume my mother's home-made meals as a child.
As the weeks passed, I found myself wondering why she chose this job. I learnt, from our limited conversations, that she was here with her son's family on a green card. She worked as a nanny during the day, and cooked during the evenings. In fact, she did Mondays and Wednesdays at Preeti's house a few blocks away: that is how I came to avail of her services. Surely Mrs. Kalra had her own family to cook for, to care for? Or perhaps she was neglected -- this I quickly dispelled when he son called twice to check on her when she was running late. Perhaps she needed the money: this was the only plausible explanation, one that could account for the simple clothes she wore, the minimal jewelry, the fraying handbag.
One Thursday as she was leaving, Mrs. Kalra announced that she had to leave for India immediately, and would return only after six months. Her daughter in Punjab was struggling through her second trimester and needed her. My knees felt weak as she said this, my chest heavy. I had gotten used to our weekly routine, one that had become as effortless as family routines often become. She gave me the numbers of two acquaintances whom I could contact for cooking services, which of course I wasn't going to do. We could manage the cooking ourselves. The truth is that I could have managed for the past two months as I settled well into the routine of my new job, but something had kept me from letting Mrs. Kalra go. I'd first told myself she needed the money, then told myself I could use the extra time for my blog. Plus, I had gotten used to her cooking and wasn't ready to step down to mine.
I walked her out to the visitor parking area of my apartment, telling her how sorry I was to see her go, but that I understood. I wondered how long it had been since she last saw her daughter, but didn't venture to ask. She gave me a hug with her final goodbye -- it caught me by surprise and I didn’t reciprocate as sincerely as I would have liked. She turned around and I stood on the sidewalk, watching her make her way down to her car. She drove a Cadillac 6-seater, not the old Camry that I thought I'd once seen her in. As she drove down the gravelly driveway, I realized that I needed her more than she needed me, and I think she knew.