He sat in a perfect squat, with a distinct arch in his back. He bent over the variety of vegetables spread in front of him as he gently sliced them all with his heavily wrinkled fingers. Chop, chop, chop he went on stupendously, even with the teary onions. As his misty eyes spilled onion tears not once did he look up or wait to take a deep breath unless to wipe off the watery eyes at his sleeves occasionally.
I was fervently attracted to observe the way he moved frenzied, his frowned forehead under his half bald head and the ease with which he managed cooking for a family of eleven.
This old man all of seventy five whom we fondly called Dada, cooked our meals day in and day out and he more than fascinated me over playing a game of marbles with the other boys of the neighborhood. He was accompanied by his grandson who would do nothing but wait near the kitchen entrance. No signs of restlessness that was expected of a four year old. His head slightly slumped to his right; his face carried a blank expression which made him (look) almost non-existent.
Each morning Dada rode all his way to our bungalow on a rusty, dingy bicycle, managing to balance himself on that mean machine with his grandson tucked behind.
The next three hours then filled the kitchen with the noisy cutting, chopping and grinding, as he would put heavy vessels on the stove for various seasonings. Roaring fumes and smoke from the vessels would almost make him invisible for some time. Then with all his strength he churned and tossed the vegetables with large spatulas, spoons and ladles that created the kind of sounds that would make anyone go deaf for a few seconds.
One of the ladies of the house would then offer him a cup of tea, the only time when he spoke a few words. After my mother once asked him why he worked so hard at this age, he calmly replied that he would die if he stopped working. All his life he had worked very hard and didn’t know any other meaning out of life and that he would want to die working, the last words echoed in my mind like the temple bells did long after they had been swung.
Once in a while he started inviting me inside the kitchen to taste various dishes and I had by now become his little sample taster. He then narrated stories about his childhood, his family, in between the gasps that interrupted his words. By now I had managed to pull his grandson inside near the shelf but his expressionless face still refused to emote.
After I had befriended Dada, I often offered him a glass of water as he tried several failed attempts to whiz out the cough straight from his lungs.
One May afternoon for the first time after the seasoning ritual and after the fumes and smoke disappeared slowly, I saw Dada not so frenzied. After the initial chores he seemed weak, his pace was not the usual and his gasps more frequent and intense. By mid morning he had slumped in a corner as his grandson had moved a little closer.
But by the time I had returned with my mother and father in the kitchen he laid still on the floor where he once did the rounds like a 25 year old. My mother quickly put off the stoves as I was instructed to leave the kitchen immediately.
That was the last time I saw Dada, he had indeed died working. No one ever heard of his grandson or his family after that. Many a cooks replaced him, but the kitchen never roared like it did when Dada ruled it and never once did I feel like giving up a game of marbles again to become a spectator of an ordinary routine chore of a cook.