Years ago, I read in a lady’s magazine, on the front cover of which was splashed a beautiful woman with lacquered nail varnish on her hands, showing off a freshly-baked cake, ‘Clever ladies take stock at forty.’ Inside, it was explained by a gentleman who described himself as an expert in femininity, that a woman should upon reaching the age of 40, take stock of her life. She should sit down, preferably with a non-alcoholic beverage, and think about her life.
I was 14 when I read that, but it stayed with me. So, upon reaching 40, I too decided to sit down and think about all the important things I had done or hadn’t done. Thinking, of course, is a rabbit hole, you never really know where you are going to end up. I started thinking about marriage. I have now been married for just over a decade and hand on heart, marriage is possibly one of the hardest things that I have undertaken so far, harder than studying medicine and having a child put together.
The trouble with marriage or most marriages is that when it works, it has the power to make everything that is good in your life look exponentially better, and everything that is bad in your life, tolerable. But when it stops working (temporarily or permanently), the good obviously goes out of the window, the bad becomes insufferable, intolerable, and unendurable. A discomfort invades your existence.
This feeling of discomfort paid me a visit last Eid, a few months after I had finished taking stock of my life after my 40th birthday. We were having a few family members and close friends over for lunch. Though I had tried to push the queasy feeling down and ignore it, it kept rising until, on Eid, it felt like it had burned through the mucosa of my oesophagus. It could no longer be ignored.
The reasons for this instance of marital upset were unclear to me. We hadn’t quarrelled. Nothing major had gone down. But something, somewhere was off. If you had been one of the family members or friends at our home that day, you wouldn’t have noticed much, unless you had let your eyes linger a little longer than is permitted on such occasions, at our interactions. But it was there, hiding and mingling with the weave of the silk, of our Eid clothes, like yesterday’s perfume. That is always the way with these things isn’t it, you sit there trying to figure out what is wrong and then it suddenly hits you.
What hit me was that I realised we had stopped looking at each other, or specifically making eye contact. I would ask him to pass me something, but instead of looking at his face, my eyes would travel past him to rest on some random object. What really brought everything into perspective was when in the process of making my yakhni for the Eid lunch, instead of becoming a smooth velvety sauce, it curdled, like a baby’s spit up. Every Eid I would make yakhni. Meat is cooked in a delicious yoghurt and mint sauce and it is typically served at the end of the meal with hot rice. The hardest thing about making a yakhni is that you must constantly stir after adding the yoghurt to the hot oil, which is what I thought I had done. Since there was no time to experiment further, I called Phuphee. Before she had a chance to say anything, I said ‘My yakhni curdled. What do I do now?’
‘Did you tell your yakhni not to curdle?’ she asked.
‘You mean, did I speak to my yakhni?’ I replied, a little annoyed.
‘Yes, that’s exactly, what I mean.
‘No, I didn’t,’ I said, a little impatiently. ‘Are you going to tell me how your yakhni is always perfect or not? Do you add egg to it? Some people say add egg.’
‘Egg? Egg?’ She screeched down the phone. ‘I don’t add egg to stop it from curdling! I would never commit such a blunder.’ She seemed so offended. I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I heard her moving around the room followed by the sound of a match being lit. She was lighting up cigarettes. I heard her take a couple of deep drags and whisper something to herself.
‘Right! Here is the only thing you need to know about making yakhni. When you add the yoghurt to hot oil, you must keep stirring it continuously right up to the point you are ready to add the meat,’ she said.
‘You mean for 20 to 30 minutes; I am supposed to stand in one place and constantly stir?’ I asked.
‘I don’t have time!’ I wailed at her.
‘Then don’t make yakhni,’ she snapped back at me.
‘But what? This is what you must do to make a good yakhni. You could compromise on the quality of the ingredients, and you could still turn out a good yakhni but you cannot compromise on the stirring. Adding eggs or a butterfly’s wing just gives you a false sense of security. Shortcuts dull your senses, remember that.’
I suddenly felt tired listening to her.
‘I know it’s hard,’ she said gently, ‘but all good things are. You know marriages are a lot like making yakhni, with communication being the equivalent of stirring. You can compromise on a lot of the ingredients in a marriage, but not communication, not stirring.’
‘How did you know?’ I asked.
‘Do you really have to ask?’ I could see her smiling.
‘Alright,’ I said, ‘let me go and try again.’
‘Be gentle with the stirring,’ she said as she hung up.
I made the yakhni and it turned out good. There were compliments floating in the air along with a couple of questions on how I had got it right. Had I added egg to keep it from curdling? I couldn’t help but smile.
Later that day, when everyone was lying half comatose on the living room floor, my husband came in with two cups of tea and handed me one. We sat side by side for a while, sipping the hot tea, quietly.
‘Are you alright?’ he asked, looking at me.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I am.’
A Kashmiri living in England, the columnist spends her scant free time contemplating life’s vagaries.