Friday, December 20, 2013

The Meal of a Lifetime

This post is in honor of my cousin, Pramodan Marathe who was born the same year as me and has the same smiling eyes as his father, my uncle Padmakar.

Brothers & Cousins

L to R, back row: Sudhakar (my father) with my brother, Sameer; Shrikant with Mukund; Padmakar with Sudarshan
Middle row: Pramodan
L to R, front row: Ashwini, me, Madhuri, Niranjan

I cooked the most meaningful meal of my career as a chef on November 21, 2013. Sometimes it takes time and distance to have a realization of this magnitude, to look back on an event and swallow and digest its significance. But this time, there was instant gratification. Since 2007 I have cooked for clients who are mostly people like me, foodies who want to explore interesting and delicious food. My catering business has led to all kinds of adventures. 

I’ve cooked in kitchens that have been featured in architectural magazines and I’ve cooked under unusual or tough circumstances, even building an impromptu kitchen where none existed. Living in Los Angeles, I’ve cooked for my fair share of celebrities too: Tim Olyphant, Judge Alex Kuzinski, Martha de Laurentiis. This spring, even Steven Page, lead singer of The Bare Naked Ladies came to dinner at my house, documenting an Un-Curry pop up for his new show, The Illegal Eater

Toni moved me like no other has. 

The Saturday before the job, I had received email from a man asking about Un-Curry’s catering services. Gary wrote that his girlfriend, Toni was turning 61 on Wednesday and had requested Indian food for a small dinner party. Toni has ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) or what is known in the USA as Lou Gehrig’s Disease after the legendary baseball player who suffered from it. In the rest of the world the disorder is known as MND (Motor Neuron Disorder). 

Toni had just had surgery to put in a feeding tube and she would not be able to eat solid food for much longer. Gary wanted to make her birthday dinner a meal she would always remember. I responded right away, saying I would love to cook for her. I was moved by the request and it hit closer to home than I would have liked. “Let’s talk tomorrow,” I suggested to Gary. 

Sure enough he called on Sunday and had the speaker on so Toni could hear me. I heard her trying to call out hello. “Hi Toni,” I replied, “I’m happy to meet you.” Gary gave me a list of dishes she wanted at her birthday dinner. He also asked if I could come in a little early that day and teach him how to cook some of them so he could make them again on his own. “I looked up several Indian caterers but I liked your story best,” he said. “I didn’t even bother calling anyone else after that. Just you.”

Gary and Toni’s menu was full of Indian restaurant favorites, read North Indian dishes like tandoori chicken and paneer (farmers’ cheese); saag paneer (braised, spiced spinach with farmer’s cheese), choley (stewed chickpeas), naan (tandoor-baked bread), pulao (spiced rice), sautéed potatoes, dal (spiced lentils) and cucumber raita, the very dishes I don’t usually cook because Indian restaurants make them well enough and because my goal at Un-Curry is to introduce Southern Californians to the regional richness that is India: food from places that are usually not represented in Indian restaurants anywhere. 

In initial conversations with prospective clients, I usually suggest some of my specialties. They are likely not to have heard about them before: tomato-coconut soup; carrot slaw with mustard seed and curry leaves; pomegranate lamb; coconut-jaggery custard, but my clients have never been disappointed. I also create menus tailored to their tastes and the occasion. If they are of Indian extraction or traveling to India, I offer menu suggestions based on their region of origin or travel destination. This time, however, I was silent, simply noting down what Gary requested. “Sure, I can make everything you want,” I said. This was not a time for debate, this was not a party to be fretted over by client and caterer. I just needed to make what Toni was familiar with and what she was craving. “I want to give you a meal you will enjoy and remember,” I told Gary. “And may I bake Toni a cake?” 

We emailed back and forth a few times over the next two days to discuss time, locations, address, etc. We agreed that I should prepare most of the food at my kitchen and bring the ingredients for potatoes, pulao and raita to Gary and Toni’s home for a brief lesson. In one email, I wrote that I was honored to cook for Toni and that the job was particularly poignant because I was grappling with the latest news I had received about one of my cousins. Pramodan is just a few months older than me and was diagnosed with MND exactly one year ago. In the space of 12 months he has lost all mobility in his arms and legs and he can no longer speak. No one seems to know how long he will live like this. All that I know for sure is that there is no cure for this disease. My parents visited Pramodan recently and though his physical state was extremely painful for them to witness, they were staggered by his cheerful outlook on life and the constant and loving care his uncomplaining wife gave him. 

As I cooked all day Wednesday making sure the food was not too highly spiced, that all the ingredients would be as easy to chew, swallow, and digest as I could make them, and that there was flavor and love in every mouthful, I kept Toni and Pramodan in my heart. Palak paneer, check, choley, check. As I cooked, I wondered if my cousin’s father, my uncle Padmakar had also had undiagnosed ALS/MND and what prior knowledge of this could have done to help him and later, his son. Taking the soft, light, vanilla cake out of the oven, whipping fresh cream with rose essence for the frosting, I despaired over a disease that left your brain healthy while stopping your muscles from moving, trapping you in your own body. 

ALS patients go from being able to walk and run to having no movement whatsoever. There comes a time they cannot lift their arms or legs, scratch an itch, pick up a pen and write, feed themselves, touch their toes or touch a loved one. Finally they cannot swallow or breathe or have a heartbeat. ALS allows them to be spectators as it slowly destroys them. 

Cooking Toni’s birthday dinner moved me because it reinforced many notions I have held for a long time: that life is short and precious, that every moment is meant to be lived to its fullest. Toni taught me that you could do everything right, as she did, eat vegetarian and healthy; be fit, run marathons, even work as a personal trainer at a gym, and still end up with a debilitating disease which imprisoned an active mind, generous heart, and loving spirit inside a body that refused to do its brain’s bidding. 

It was an honor to meet her and see her enjoy my food. When we were leaving, I told her how much it had meant to me to cook for her. “I’m going to give you a kiss now,” I said, bending down to her cheek. She had tears in her eyes.

The day after the dinner party, Gary wrote: 


First Toni was happy last night and happy again tonight tasting the wonderful flavors of the food you prepared. My fav and a great addition to our diet is your Raita…so good. Please reinforce to me that recipe. Our neighbors Marlene and Dr. Bruce were also delighted from what I could tell... Your food and discourse on regional Indian cooking was fascinating.”

Even more wonderful was a note that came from Toni the next day. She typed it on her Tobi:

“Thank you so much again. Gary echoed all thoughts and words i could say. Eating food is getting harder so eating delicious food keeps me motivated to keep eating. Please let your cousin know to reach out to me. Not many people can relate to what we go through having ALS. I want to help any way i can. 
With love and gratitude, toni” 

Two weeks later, Keya’s class started a unit on genetics in science class. Keya came home excited about her next assigned project. “We have to make a medical brochure about a genetic disease. ALS was not on the list the teacher handed out but I asked her if I could choose it because of Toni and your cousin and Stephan (her math tutor who is only 25), and she said yes. Could you please tell Toni about me so I can interview her?”

I connected her with Toni and although they have not yet had a chance to meet, she emailed her the questions she wanted to ask. “Keya, this will be a project for Toni,” I told her, “ a lot of hard work.” And indeed, Toni spent a day using her Tobi computer to write Keya an email about how she had been diagnosed with ALS and how it had made her feel. She sent my daughter a long email typed using her eyes to click on letters and words on her computer screen. It was a labor of love. 

Here is an excerpt from her letter as she wrote it (I have not changed capitalization or punctuation):


In looking back before my actual diagnosis, i had symptoms that i didn't realize were symptoms. It is said by experts that the disease begins before there are symptoms.

Yes the disease affects me mentaly and psychologicaly. I am often in dispair and feel numb. I am very sad that i have this disease. 

With this disease you need to prepare for the future because as you go through the stages you can do less for your self. 

I would also add to keep busy. I worked for 2 years after my diagnosis. Support groups work for some people but i did not do that. Read up on the latest research and try to get in to a clinical trial. Try to fundraise for the ALS support association's. They have fundraising walks. 

When Keya wrote to thank her, Toni replied: 

Hi keya, it was my pleasure. I am so happy that you chose me and ALS as your Assignment. Many people don't know about the disease so  any way we can raise awareness is wonderful! 
Have a wonderful holiday and i look forward to seeing you :-) love toni 

Last night, Keya finished her assignment. As she was putting it together, we talked about how the disease in its advanced stages affects the lungs and heart. “I hope that does not happen to Toni,” Keya said. “Or Stephan. Or your cousin.”

This morning as I drove Keya to school, my brother called to tell me that Pramodan has been admitted to the hospital. His lungs have collapsed and he has chest pain. Luckily his mother and brothers are with him, as are his wonderful and loving wife and son. 

Things always happen for a reason. 

Although I don’t know if we will meet again on this earth, Pampu, I am glad that we reconnected this month and that I have a better understanding of what you are going through, 10,000 miles away. I am in awe of your strength and courage and I see your dancing eyes and smiling face as they were the last time we met over a decade ago. 

I hope sharing yours and Toni’s story here brings more people an understanding of your fight and your victory over an incomprehensible and powerful foe.


ALS Association:
Augie’s Quest: 
Tobi Computer Information:

Sunday, May 12, 2013


As Mother's Day loomed, I pondered what to give my mother, Meera who is 10, 000 miles away and has just sold her 3-bedroom apartment to downsize and move with my father to his hometown of Poona, after 40-odd years of traveling the world.

For the foreseeable future, my parents will now be living in a one bedroom apartment which is too tiny to hold their possessions. They certainly don't need more books, furniture, computers, cameras, and the like. I am too far away to whisk her off to brunch, take her to the spa as my daughter took me today, or pick her a bouquet of wildflowers. So what could I give Mom that I had not already given her? 

And then suddenly last night, it struck me. I wondered why it had not occurred to me before. What should a writer give her mother? I have written about my friends, my grandparents, my daughter, my work, my food. But never have I sat down to write about the woman who gave me life, who has sustained me ever since, and at whose shared table I learned to love and cook and grow and give. Why? 

Being a mother myself now, I understand that it is because she is so embedded in my soul, my every pore, that she is inextricable from my self. I would have to dig out bits of me to write about her. And yet it seems like the worst negligence that, while I have dedicated a book to her, I have never really sat down and delved into my relationship with her at any length on paper. "OK," I thought. "I will write a blog post about her and post it on Mother's Day." 

A day later, I admitted this was easier said than done. Mom has always been my biggest admirer, my most ardent fan, my most vociferous supporter. In her eyes, Bunny can do no wrong. Do you know how empowering such love is? The more I live, the more deeply I understand the preciousness of her gift of unconditional love and the strength it has given me to glide through life's turbulent waters. The more I see broken or twisted relationships, the more I am filled with gratitude that she always treated me like a rational creature, worthy of respect and gave me the freedom to be independent, simultaneously shielding me gently from life's sorrows and harshnesses. Her cocoon gave me the time and space I needed to gain the maturity, courage and self-confidence required to handle the pressures of adult life. 

I don't believe in writer's block. But stalled I certainly was. For, the more I wracked my brain to recollect my first memories of my mother, the more distant and entangled they became. How could I write about her until I had done what I love to do as a journalist, get to the root of my subject?

The mother is the first remembrance any child must have, a sense of warmth in the womb, the sweetness of nursing at her breast, the sound of her voice cooing. I have to look at a photo like this one to "remember" all that.

Kaumudi with Meera, Poona, 1969
Perhaps this is because I am older and there are many years separating me from those memories now. Or is it because there are so many warm memories, they bounce around my head, saying, "Me, me, me first!"? Like the memory of Mom and a five year old me walking down to the end of Prabhat Road toward the bakery where she bought bread in those days. She would buy me my favorite treat, a cream horn, that I nibbled delicately all the way home. And, at a time and place where there was a limited selection of children's books in book shops, she still managed to bring home a new Enid Blyton story for me every so often, a special delight for  me.

Then there's the memory of her giving me some breast milk as she nursed my baby brother. I was jealous he was getting the good stuff so I got a squirt too. The thin, comforting sweetness stayed on my tongue till the moment I first nursed my daughter 30 years later.

Is it the sound of her saying my name, Bunny, a certain way that is my first consciousness of her? Is it the generosity with which she fed me, the patience with which she answered my questions? Or the way she wriggled and giggled when the toddler me slowly ran my fingers down her forearm in a rhythmic gesture that soothed me but tickled and tormented her.

My parents were only 23 when they had me. There were no parenting websites, no "What to Expect When You're Expecting" to guide them on their path. And yet they clearly had a vision of what they wanted to achieve as parents and how they wanted to do it. They must have made mistakes but we never knew about them. To us they were, and still remain, the most enlightened, broad minded, pro-active parents we have ever come across. They took the time to explain things to my brother and me, did the hard work of engaging us with conversations and books and soccer balls and funny songs and poems instead of plunking us down in front of TV sets or leaving us in the hands of ayahs.

We rode bicycles together to Gibbons Park, we swam at the University pool, we enjoyed Saturday Night at the Movies as a family, we baked apple pies, and we played Scrabble and Canasta in the living room, decades before the idea of Family Game Night gained popularity. 

Childhood is so fleeting, my mother believed in making it as delightful and memorable for us as she could. She played with us, laughed with us, entertained us. "Don't be in a hurry to grow up," she would say. "Enjoy being a child, you'll be grown up soon enough." If I craved sabudanyachi khichadi for breakfast, I only had to breathe the words and it appeared on the table, as if by magic. If I had a nightmare, I knew I could run from my room and leap into my parents' bed to be cuddled into comfortable slumber. And while Dad may not have been physically demonstrative, thanks to that Brahmanical upbringing, Mom was the most huggable mother. Her lap was always available for sitting on. I still sit on it when we are together, and she laughs indulgently and cuddles me. 

She sang us to sleep every night, everything from Trini Lopez' Lemon Tree and Bobby Darrin's Multiplication to Guru Dutt's Jaane Who Kaise, a song I now often find myself singing to Keya. 

Mom & Keya make cupcakes, Glendale, 2012

After the muddle of warm first memories, there are years and years  more of clear, wonderful ones. Our mother-daughter nights out in London, window shopping on a Thursday night, ending with hot chocolate and crisp chocolate wafers at the Woolworth's counter. Lying in bed, wriggling with laughter and excitement as Mom told us stories of her own precocious childhood. We stored up history and family lore through her, legends of cousins and second cousins and odd uncles and crazy aunts, for whom she came up with funny nicknames by which they are known to this day. We were rolling stones but she helped us grow roots that we learned to put down as and where needed. And we knew that wherever my brother, Sameer sailed, and whatever part of the world I lived in, we could, contrary to the old adage, always go home. 

Hard as it may be to believe, there was never a cross word, not once a sour look, no exclamation of exhaustion or impatience or condescension from Mom. Even if she disciplined us, it was always calmly. And if we had had a disagreement and I refused to back down or apologize, my mother would come forward and do so, showing me the meaning of generosity and forgiveness. She was always smiling. And she let us be children,  secure in our world, carefree, ignorant of the work and the pain and the stresses of an adulthood to come.

There is no card, no gift, not even this love letter, which can begin to thank Mom for everything she has given Sameer, Aditya and me. There can only be an acknowledgement of the riches we have received and a promise to be there for her when it is her turn to need us. 

Happy Mother's Day, Mom, and thank you, thank you, thank you. 

I will always be here when you need me.