By Vyasar Ganesan
I am twenty four years old, working in the kitchen. I am sweating over the dough I am kneading, bending my back too far even though I know there is a stool not two feet away from me. There are dishes on the stove that need reheating, leftovers and fresh produce that needs prepping for a family dinner. My two hands are my only immediate helpers. But the panic in my mind is not spent on time, assistance or prep. I am repeating a mantra to myself: I must make my rotis round. I must make my rotis round.
Let me be clear: I have a great diversity of talents. I have great talent. I have taught writing, science, theatre and defensive driving to a variety of age groups. I have peeled a mango with my toes. I have climbed mountains, published poems and built twenty-foot papier-mache puppets. I have worked in construction and childcare. I can cook Indian food or Italian food with more than a passing proficiency. And yet in the face of it all, one of the fundamentals of the Indian kitchen continues to evade me: the flawlessly-rounded disc of dough that makes a magical transformation from wheat and water to cooked, crispy roti.
This bothers me.
Again, let me be clear. Regardless of whatever satisfaction my ego might glean from this mediocre, some might say meaningless, achievement, there is a real virtue in accomplishing the perfect circle. Rotis of spectacular circularity are treasures to Indians, miracles of the hand and the rolling pin. Grocery empires can rise and fall on the whims of roti alone. Buffets can get away with parathas and kulchas for a while, flatbreads that don’t require one shape or another, but sooner or later, someone will ask for a roti, and it had better be a round one.
There are hundreds of different kinds of roti, too. Dal puri, a dish famous in Bihar and known around the world, is vegetables, protein and dessert all wrapped up in a doughy sheet. Romali roti is as bilious as a skirt and as stretchy as rubber, but melts on the tongue like a pat of warm butter. The traditional puri is fried in ghee or oil till it becomes translucent and shiny, crunchy and firm enough to scoop up food instead of wrapping around it like it’s softer cousins. Pita, too, is a kind of roti. So is naan, lavash, and certain northern Chinese flatbreads. But the desire for perfect, uninterrupted, roundness is what pushes roti to the extremes, what makes it simultaneously a comfort food and an industrial staple.
The simplest roti is the roti your mother makes. A thin, mouthwatering disc to wrap around savory bits of potatoes and peas in gravy, or scoop up spicy red lentils in a soup, or just slather in ghee and cram down your gullet. This simple little thing, nothing more than flour and water, is something I can’t even get right, because no matter how perfect my dough is, no matter how hot my gas range is or how clean my griddle is, I can’t get these damn things to resemble even a rough police sketch of a circle. And because of that, I’m going to be shot down at tonight’s dinner, where I’ll host the women in my family who can cook better than any Indian restaurant this side of the Rio Grande. No one cares if the roti tastes good or if it is burnt to the point where even the birds won’t eat it. It’s the rule of the jungle. Only the round survive.
I may be a person of great talent, as stated before, but I am not a delicate person. I thrash bulls in china shops. I eat cheese by the wedge. I like to uproot trees with pickaxes, and chop them into smaller, easier-to-haul-away bits. On the stage, I play drunken fools, heavy-footed villains, characters who clomp and stomp. I drive my grandparents to Wal-Mart the same way I drive my friends to the bar. I am a creature of extreme habits.
You can see it my rotis. It starts from the dough, a precise mixture of chapati flour and water. Try as I may, I always go overboard on the water – adding a little, stirring, adding, stirring, adding until the ratio goes from sticky to slushy. But suppose for a rare moment that I get the kneading and churning just right and the dough turns out to be passable for rotis. When it comes to the rolling, I fall apart. I make oblong napkins or obtuse triangles out of beautiful, unblemished dough. Some rotis of mine have enough holes in them to qualify as swiss cheese. They look so bad that by the time they hit the griddle I wonder if anyone other than myself will want to eat them. Of course, then it gets burned badly on one side and only lightly cooked on the other, and I know even I won’t want to eat it. If I’m lucky, someone will dress it up with enough butter to avoid my glaring mistakes, but such things are never certain.
And of course, aunties know. There’s nothing that a gang middle-aged Indian women don’t already know, aside from a few things about Facebook or how to play Quidditch (just wait). But the kitchen? Stepping into an auntie’s kitchen is like landing at the beaches of Normandy. You think you know how it’s going to go down, and then wham! Here comes the machine-gun fire of death stares, the mortar bomb questions about what the hell you think you’re doing, my son, my God, be thankful your mother knows how to cook. If you’re lucky, they’ll hip-check you out the door and that’ll be the end of it. If you’re singularly unlucky (as I have been, many a time), they’ll mistake your earnestness for a teachable moment and start giving you advice in their own special way.
Once you get caught in this litany of shouting, gesturing, stomping and tossing spices with less abandon than a tornado in the kitchen, there’s no way out. This woman is practically your mother already. By the end of it, good or bad, she’ll put her feet up, wipe a hand across her brow and let out a long-suffering sigh. “Be a good child and make me some chai, OK?”
Of course, once you get started, so does she.
“No sugar. No ginger. Add some black pepper. Use the lowfat milk. Don’t use the white mugs, look for the black one.”
“Oh god, watching you reminds me of those chai-wallah boys in Chennai, with their knobby knees, their buck teeth. Don’t hunch so, beta, when you serve.”
“No cookies? No namkeen? No crackers? Tsk.”
I must make my rotis round, I think, stirring the chai. I must make my rotis round.