Aloo Gobi for Two
My mother-in-law is counting the forks when I step into the kitchen.
There are only four, she says. This should be a set of six.
Ma, why don’t you go and sit down? I push my dupatta over my shoulder. I’ve got those almond biscuits you like.
She ignores me and places the forks, one by one, in a row on the counter. The shiny silver prongs point to the sink, the handles point to the stove where the aloo gobi is simmering. Left alone—Waseem at work, me upstairs praying—she would not have been able to resist investigating the meal I had prepared for us to share. She would have lifted the pot lid and checked the colour of the wagar, the balance of oil and water, the firmness of the cauliflower, the thickness of the onions. She would have dropped a still steaming spoonful into the middle of her palm and tasted it with the tip of her tongue. She would have found it all perfect, made exactly as she taught me. The result of three determined hours of shopping and cooking to make sure there was no room for improvements.
Dissatisfied, she will have arrived at the cutlery drawer.
You don’t need to be in the kitchen, I say to her. I’m cooking for you today. Can’t you just relax?
She swats my words away and draws my attention back to the forks.
Resigned, I look at the counter, and then back to her, trying not to laugh at her serious expression.
Two are missing.
There are others. I point to the remaining forks bundled in the drawer. The open drawer smells like sawdust.
Those others aren’t part of the set. She brings them out to show me, making a new pile, separate from the first.
Look at the shape. Look at the handle. These don’t match the knives and spoons. She brings those out too and lays them next to the forks. My cutlery drawer is now as empty as the day Waseem and I moved in. She shows me the beveled design on the handles of the first set of forks, the knives and the spoons, and then compares it to the extra forks she has partitioned from the rest.
You’re right, Ma. Good detective work, I say. I see the gold tooth at the side of her mouth as she smiles and ten years fall from her face. Hers is a generation that cannot simply say ‘I love you,’ who would be too terrified to admit ‘I’m scared you no longer need me.’ She starts to put the forks back, still smiling. Her voice bounces over the clinking of cutlery as she details the story of her discovery, relaxing into her own brilliance. She always loved teaching, whether it was showing me the best pan to use to fry poori or, to pick butter from the back of the supermarket shelf for the longest use by date.
I knew there were some missing, she says. I noticed right away. Too few in the drawer and the different shapes don’t stack properly. Then I started counting and that’s when I noticed the pattern.
Genius, I say, but I’m smiling too. Let’s eat now, while the food is still hot.
In the big house, cooking was a complex operation and family mealtime was granted the significance of a political summit. The evening dishes with condiments, crockery, cutlery, and drinks, had to be on the table by seven o’clock—no delays, no excuses. I often told Waseem that in another life his mum would have been a millionaire CEO or a high-ranked general in the army.
As I ladle fresh curry into her plate and pass her a roti, hot from the stove, she is quiet. I wonder if she’s thinking about a table set only for two people. The simple act of giving and receiving food. Or the generosity of serving compared to the luxury of sitting and being served. She breaks off a piece of the roti and uses it to catch a morsel of cauliflower. She chews. Swallows. My own food sits untouched, sending up smoke signals as I wait to hear her verdict. She opens her mouth and I lean forward, hungry for her praise.
The forks, she says. Check they haven’t fallen behind the drawer. You can’t lose them already.
Ma—I sigh and draw my own plate closer, reaching for a roti. I’ll take a look, I promise her. She doesn’t say you’ve done well or even it tastes good, but when she finishes her portion, she asks for seconds.
Why don’t you stay longer? I ask at the door as she pulls on her coat. Waseem will be back from work soon.
I need to get home. She looks at her watch. I have to start with dinner. I’ll come back again. To help you search for the forks.
Okay. Well. Thanks.
You’re the one that cooked. I should be thanking you.
For coming to eat. For noticing the missing forks. Thank you. I say it half in jest, so the way her face scrunches up in embarrassed delight catches me off guard. There are so many things I want to hear from my mother-in-law. What else has she been waiting to hear from me?
And thank you for teaching me how to cook that dish. I’m proud of it.
You should be, everyone says my recipe for aloo gobi is the best. She hoists her faux-leather handbag on her shoulder. You made it well. Don’t worry about the forks. I’ll come another day and help you search. I insist she takes the biscuits I bought for her. She says no, no, and then okay. As she puts the box into her handbag there is a noise. It could be her wedding bangles knocking together, or it could be something else. I hold the sound in my mind and when she is gone, I return to the kitchen alone. I roll open the cutlery drawer and take out two forks.
I tap them together. Once and then again. I listen to the sound they make.
It grows, hangs for a moment, then fades away. I am left in my new kitchen, with a fork in each hand, as the silence of the house closes around me. Has my mother-in-law reached home yet? When she enters the house, will the quiet make her pause? Nothing to teach, no one waiting to learn. Just a house that’s emptier than she’s used to and a handbag that jingles when it shakes.
I wonder if she will think of me as she prepares her own dinner for two.
November / December 2022
Sarah M Jasat grew up believing her family was very strange but later discovered she was Indian. She lives in Leicester, UK, and writes short fiction about the strangeness of family. She dreams about writing a novel for older children if only she could get her own children to go to sleep.
Art: Living Room with Cats. Oil on canvas. T. Aguilera.