Memoir / Essays: Do you cook at midnight?


It took exactly thirteen minutes by the 9:19am NJ Transit train from Princeton Junction to New Brunswick, which I used to avail every weekday in the morning to attend my graduate classes at Rutgers’ College Ave campus. It used to be a bit crowded, though the NY peak hours rush used to be over by then. It was on one such ride that I met another Bengali woman like me. After some exchanges of pleasantries, we discovered a bit more about each other - she had married a person settled here and found herself adjusted to this new land, not new to her anymore. I however, had arrived a few months earlier and hoped to return to India after my studies were over, I said. How do you find here? she asked me. I smiled and said that a lot of things were so startling and new. She immediately said that I should write them down, since after a while they will not seem that startling and new anymore. Now, that I look back, I couldn’t agree more with her. With passing days and years in the US, the newness and startling factors definitely started withering off, ever more so with increasing pressure of comprehensive examinations and field examinations, integral parts of the doctoral studies there. Yet there were some apparently trivial incidences that have etched themselves in memory, and have always wanted themselves written. Here’s one such.

My husband happened to be a graduate student at Princeton and for the first year of my graduate study, we used to stay at the graduate family housing of Princeton, 207 Lawrence Apartments, to be precise. When pressure in the graduate school was a bit light for both of us, it used to be a ritual to drive over to Edison, that was lovingly known as a little India, packed with Indian (often actually Pakistani and Bangladeshi) grocery stores, apparel and garment stores, restaurants, beauty parlours, and so on. In fact one of the restaurant boards listing the menu said “Kolkata-style Chinese food”. Our main interest though was in frozen fish (Rohu mostly) that we got in some of the shops selling fish and meat. Such trips however, were not often, given there used to be work to be done during the weekends or we just felt too lazy to make the trip. So when we did make it, it meant that culinary misgivings of missing sumptuous and mouth-watering Bengali delicacies were quite at a peak.

On this particular occasion, we had planned on preparing doi maachh with our Edison catch. Returning from Edison, we had probably fallen asleep, and then after our evening studies, it usually was quite late by the time we got up to cook our dinner. This time too it was quite late when the fish has finally defrosted and I had started cooking the fish. Needless to say, that mustard oil, bay leaves, garam masala, onions, chilly, curd, turmeric powder and of course, fish, created that unforgettable odour that would have aroused hunger pangs even in the uninitiated, and we were absolute loyalists of Bengali cuisine.  Thereafter we had relished our rice and doi maachh, reliving our Bengali sentiments, pampering our very Bengali taste buds and all the time missing our homes. 

The next day was a Monday and after a usual workday, we were probably studying in the evening, when the bell rang. Just to emphasise here, socialising among the residents of our apartment was extremely rare. For example, we lived in one of the apartments in a floor that housed about seven others, but other than closed identical seven other doors, we hardly knew anything more about them. In case of any other delivery or arrival, it would be wholly expected or conveyed to us via the intercom from the main gate below the building. In other words, a calling bell meant someone with access to the building had wanted to come over, which was completely unexpected and unlikely, given our total lack of acquaintance with others in the building. 

We opened the door and found a Chinese man trying to explain something in his extremely unintelligible English. Like all graduate schools, Princeton too was extremely cosmopolitan with students from all over the globe flocking together with their varied cultures, languages, and tastes. Students from China were not known for their proficiency in English, so we really had a hard time trying to figure out what he said. All we could decipher really from the Chinese was, “Do you cook at midnight?” We looked at each other, surprised! Yes, we did! But how on earth does this man know about it? And how is it his business whether we did or not? A whole lot of questions troubled us. What kind of a question which sounded more like an allegation, was this?

Our most sincere efforts at understanding him continued for a while and what we were able to gather at the end of it all was this - he stays in the apartment right above us, his wife is pregnant and is unable to stand strong odours. It seemed there must be some leakage in the chimney ducts so that the smell of our cooking (doi maachh of course!) reached them yesterday around midnight, causing the wife to feel nauseated. He has complained about it to the maintenance staff but still wishes to request us to refrain from cooking stuff that had very strong odours. Of course, we would! I apologised to the husband for the unintentional trouble caused to his wife and really felt sorry for her.

In the days to come, the incident has remained with me, not only as a funny instance of how seemingly innocuous things like cooking in your own house at your own convenience, can actually cause inconvenience to others, but also as a remembrance of several other things. That how even the most advanced technology in the most advanced nation can sometimes go wrong, causing suffering. And of course, the famous saying that one man’s nectar can be another man’s poison - the Chinese woman couldn’t stand our yummy doi maach (and Chinese are fish-eating)!

Looking back now, it was an episode like a beautiful pattern in an attire that is held in place by several other strings attached to it - days of hectic studies interspersed by little pleasures of cooking and having Bengali food, an incessant attempt of numbing a continuous pain of missing near ones, of an exposure to myriad people and their ways and more importantly an invisible bonding with their cultures and lives, of an unparalleled academic ambience that forced us to put studies on the top of our priority lists, of youthful aspirations and longings that  seemed so immature then but so invaluable now. We have returned to our country now and have settled in Kolkata. Needless to say, we often have doi maachh here, but it seldom tastes that good.

Bio: Soumyanetra is an associate professor of Economics at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. Though she is trained in Economics, she is an ardent lover of English and is very passionate about writing. She regularly contributes to The Statesman and has recently published her debut collection of poems titled “You’re the Mecca I Never Want to Visit”.

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