Monsoon of Memories : The Whoosh of the Pressure Cooker Whistle
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It takes a lot to be an Indian immigrant. You learn to live on nostalgia. Goosebumps, tears, sighs, and smiles come easily as you breathe in the past. The sounds, sights, and aromas from the distant shores continue to be a part of you, even if unknowingly. Extra salt and nimbu (lemon) on the bhutta (roasted corn on the cob). A floating paper boat in the middle of a sudden rain shower. A fallen kite that doesn’t belong to you, but that doesn’t stop you from getting your hands on it triumphantly. A pineapple pastry from a local bakery shop. Spotting a mochi (cobbler) just when you need one. An opportunistic auto-rickshaw wallah who wants to fleece you. A puddle you easily jump over. A window seat in the bus. A surprise place to sit in the Metro. Finding a matching dupatta for the salwar-kameez. A vendor at the railway station who sells hot, boiled eggs. A feather that serves as the bookmark. A grandmother who narrates bedtime tales. A grandfather who comes home with a bag of jalebis. Join me, as I take you down the memory lane of an India that you left behind—because, let’s face it, you may be living afar, but India still lives in your heart.
This quotidian utensil is not only the workhorse of Indian households; but also an alarm clock, a tattletale that gossips about what’s cooking at your neighbor’s home, and much more.
I can hear the tap running. Soon, dad would call out to me, and ask me to hurry up and take a shower before the water in the bucket gets cold, I in turn, would complain about how I need more of the hot water as it’s my “head wash” day. I am about ten years old. Yet, the sounds from that morning and many other mornings of my growing up years in New Delhi, India, form a chorus in my head.
Just before my dad’s wake-up call, I would hear the doorbell ring, announcing the arrival of our house help. Yet in the middle of all the beautiful and chaotic morning sounds, I’d continue to lay in bed, rubbing my eyes. I’d stretch my legs and occasionally play a peek-a-boo from behind the sheets, to see if my elder sister was up and about. Still, I’d laze in bed, until the alarm clock would ring. No, my alarm clock was not a silver metal clock which made a jarring sound—but one that made an inimitable sound all the way from the neighbor’s kitchen. Neighbor’s kitchen, you wonder? Yes, I am coming to that, let the ‘pressure’ build up for it to ring.
A few minutes later, I hear it loud and clear, as the piercing sound makes way inside the walls of our home from that of our neighbor’s. It’s the whoosh of the pressure cooker whistle. And that’s when I jump out of bed.
I think it’s remarkable how the lunch for the day gets made in our neighbor’s home precisely five minutes prior to ours. I find the whole scene getting repeated for years, each morning—it is truly magical!
At the time I was young, and it was easy to believe in magic. Today I am an adult, and the feeling of magic that the pressure cooker whistle evoked has been replaced by nostalgia. The resonance of that humble cooking utensil, the pressure cooker, continues to live with me as years of my expat life go by. One may wonder what was so magical about the rising steam from a pressure cooker, which soon turned to whistles loud enough to wake up the entire neighborhood. I can run you down the memory lane infused with the aroma of yellow lentils, ghee (clarified butter), cumin seeds, and red chilli powder; but also the look on the face of someone waiting for the ‘right’ number of whistles before opening the lid—joyful, expectant, and tough to describe.
Back then, and from what I know—even until date—every Indian home has one, or even two, pressure cookers to dish out beans, pulses, rice, and other curries irrespective of the region the owners of the vessels may live in.
As a child, it didn’t mean much more to me than an endearing game. I recall mum’s instructions on when to turn off the stove depending on what was bubbling in the vessel. One whistle for plain rice, four-five when it came to kidney beans and chickpeas, and two-three more than that for black lentils. I’d use my fingers to count the number of whistles, and just like that I grew up and it was time to own a pressure cooker! It didn’t feel like a big deal to own one and to cook curries by myself until the whistle sounded and brought with it all the memories of a neighborhood where I learnt how to count them, and where we could knock on each other’s doors and simply ask for our share of pulses, meats, and soups if we didn’t like what had been cooked at our homes.
Of course, life was simpler, sharing was the norm, and socializing was done more over bowls and plates; not over hashtags on Instagram.
As for the whistle, here’s the best description I can offer: think of it as a symphony; a mix of a piston engine fired, an adult shooing the teens away to stop them from creating a ruckus, and a balloon that just burst. Listen closely, it could be your clue to knowing what’s cooking next door.
Meet the columnist
Purva Grover is an author, journalist, poetess, playwright, and stage director. A postgraduate in mass communication and literature, she is the founder-editor of The Indian Trumpet, a digital magazine for Indian expats in the UAE. Meet her at www.purvagrover.com or say hello to her on Instagram @purvagr. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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