It’s still a few hours before any hint of twilight when my mother-in-law pulls herself up off the couch, murmuring with a sense of urgency, “I need to start getting the pakora batter ready for iftar.”
“Relax, Mama,” I tell her. “It won’t be the end of the world if the kids don’t get pakoras for iftar one day. I’m going to be making fruit chaat and lassi; that will be more than enough before dinner. And those two healthful things are better for them than fried pakoras every night, don’t you think?”
She waves away my suggestions as inconsequential. “My bacchas love pakoras; they’re going to get pakoras. As long as their grandmother is around with them during Ramadan, they will get their request for pakoras fulfilled.”
Due to diabetes, my mother-in-law can no longer fast, but she is still sensitive towards those of us who do, worrying about our comfort, checking up on us during the day, urging us to rest, to conserve our energy. She sits and reads chapters of the Quran for hours on end, blowing prayers over me, her son, our children, and her own husband. Her fingers click the prayer beads so rapidly that the wooden misbaha seems to slide through her fingers like a ribbon of silk. Other middle-aged women of my generation may dread the idea of their in-laws coming to stay, but in our house, Ramadan doesn’t feel real unless my husband’s parents have joined us in Northern California, having made the trek all the way from their home in Islamabad, Pakistan. There is a sense of tranquility in the house that makes me want to bottle it up and save it to spray throughout the bedrooms during the rest of the year when they are away from us.
But it’s a different story in the kitchen.
I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s an underlying competitiveness that seems to emerge between my mother-in-law and me once the peaceful days and nights of Ramadan are upon us. It doesn’t have anything to do with who can worship more or who can complain less. This Tension-That-Has-No-Name is confined only to the kitchen…and only to the last few hours of the daily fast. No matter what new recipes I try or what fancy servingware I use, I never feel like I’m doing enough to please my usually easygoing mother-in-law. It’s like I can never quite keep up with her. While it’s true that no one has ever been able to make pakoras as crispy and airy and tasty as she does, there seems to be an unspoken rebuke in the fact that I don’t even try. What mother wouldn’t bother to make pakoras when her sons speak so eagerly about how much they love them, how much they look forward to them after almost 16 hours of fasting?
Her hands deftly whisk up the chickpea flour with water and salt and spices including crushed coriander seeds, cumin seeds, and red chili powder. She efficiently chops onions and tomatoes and cilantro and chilis to throw into the mix. She doesn’t measure anything out; years of experience have taught her eyes exactly how much is needed. Sometimes she cuts pieces of aubergine to add in as well.
I watch her drop dollops of batter into the sizzling hot oil and then cringe behind her as droplets of vegetable oil splatter up onto my dark wooden cabinets, which had been freshly wiped down just this morning. I eye the stove and inwardly sigh, thinking about how much effort it will take to scrape off the dried pakora batter drippings and spray of oil once everyone is done eating.
My mother-in-law tries her utmost to keep the mess to a minimum, even lining my stove with foil so that the range will stay as clean as possible, but I know that additional work has been added to my load for the day. I hover fretfully in the background, trying not to let my unease show. I resist grumbling about cholesterol levels in our family, deciding not to remind her that Ramadan is a time for losing weight and not for gaining additional pounds, conveniently forgetting the fact that I will be stuffing medjool dates with cream cheese and toffee bits as soon as she is out of my way.
She hums as she piles the fritters onto a paper towel-lined platter, steam rising from the piping hot golden-brown mounds of crunchy goodness. The kids crowd into the kitchen, oohing and aahing over their favorite Ramadan treat. I smile gamely, asking who wants to help prep the yogurt drink everyone enjoys at fast-breaking time. The kids reluctantly tear their eyes away from the pakoras in order to take me up on my hint that I could use their assistance in getting ready for iftar.
When the family finally gathers around the dining table at Maghrib time, the boys spoon out ketchup and eagerly reach for the pakoras. My mother-in-law sits back and smiles serenely, laughing as the kids carefully count out the dumplings so that everyone has exactly the same amount, no more, no less. She refuses to take any extras, insisting that she’s not hungry, that they’re not good for her, that she made them for us. When she thinks no one’s looking, I see her surreptitiously pluck up a few crumbs and pop them into her mouth.
It’s then that I have my epiphany. My mother-in-law is not out to make me look bad. She’s not trying to feed my family unhealthy food. She has no expectations of anyone but herself. My mother-in-law feels needed; she has a service, a talent, a gift that she can offer that no one else can. She has been granted an eager audience who recognizes her magic touch and doesn’t hesitate to let her know how much they appreciate her. Feeding her son and grandsons their favorite Ramadan snack is her way of showing them love and letting them know “you are worth it to me”.
Recognizing that another woman loves my men and is actually needed by them makes me feel threatened, makes me wonder if I can be replaced, if someone else can be appreciated more. How much better off would I be if I just allowed myself to embrace the fact that my sons are fortunate to be growing up with the awareness that they have more than one woman who adores them, who is willing to go the extra mile for them? I get a break when my mother-in-law takes it upon herself to feed my boys their favorite foods. And I benefit with yummy treats as well.
I pick up the last pakora and inhale its savory scent. “Mmm, this one is all mine,” I tease her and the kids. “Sorry, folks, I ain’t sharing.”
She giggles like a little girl and promises proudly, “Tomorrow, insha’Allah, I’ll make even more.”