Divya Alamuri

Building Kitchens

My grandmother builds kitchens on the dining table, and I watch. She tells me of a brass pot of rice balanced on two boulders that as a child, she watched her mother tend to. She watched her place the firewood below the pot and light it. By the firewood, in close proximity, her mother would set up another pot filled with water as the food cooked, the lentils and pulses softening over the flame. Everything must do two things, she tells me, quoting her mother.

Two small containers of betel nut powder become the boulders, a red pen and its cap as two logs of firewood and a steel glass becomes the pot.

My grandmother builds kitchens on the wooden dining table, and I watch. She speaks of the two-inch stone wall that was built around a corner in a kitchen where her mother would place an earthen pot of milk. The pot was surrounded by dried cakes of cow dung and the low wall enclosed this all. Her mother would throw in a small piece of burning charcoal into the dung, and the milk in the pot would slowly boil, bubbling quietly, rising, and settling for hours. Throughout the day, little cups of milk were ladled out of the large boiling pot for the children at home. In the evening, the milk that remained was curdled. The next morning the cream was churned to make butter.

My grandmother has a blue, plastic box of medicines. It has a tiny hole on its lid from melted candle wax— an unfortunate outcome of a power outage. The blue box becomes a pot of boiling water, and a folded grocery list is now a solid wall behind which milk boils for children.

Everything must do two things, she quotes her mother.

When she got married, my grandmother was gifted a Rukmani Cooker by her mother. It was a travelling kitchen: a brass unit that held another large brass vessel of a similar size within it and five steel vessels that could be stacked and arranged in different combinations. The stack of vessels filled with rice, dal, and vegetables could be lowered into the main brass container. Jacketed layers of steam and hot water cooked food slowly and fully all at once, each dish’s scent blending in the steam, laden with hints of asafoetida and turmeric, waiting to permeate a new, dutiful home.

With the red pen, my grandmother outlines the shape of the cooker on paper. She looks mildly surprised by how much her hands shake. The different tiers of the cooker look like rugged rocks that balance precariously atop each other. The shapes will remain on paper, hiding behind tomorrow’s list of groceries. The shapes will slide under a table, or into a dusty corner. The shapes will fade, as the paper turns gray.

I remember a ritual. I recall the smell of hot boiled milk, allowed to overflow over a new stove, in a new home, melding with the pungent scent of fresh, white, paint. An Indian ritual of abundance. New beginnings in new homes.

I watch her at the wooden table, wrinkled palms and all, an architect, a cook, a daughter, a wife.

Everything must do two things, she tells me, quoting her mother.

Divya Alamuri has a Master’s in English with a specialization in Creative Writing from Texas Tech University. She writes both poetry and creative nonfiction.