Like a shooting star, Gauri’s dreams arced across the sky and landed with a soft thud in the bread she was trying to make. Puffs of flour billowed out of the bowl, sailed upward through the cold, still air into her nostrils and made her sneeze back to the present moment, back to her orderly yet ordinary, this world kitchen. Wake up! she told herself.
She padded silently across the cold stone floor in her worn slippers to turn up the heat. The clanking of the gas heat would not wake Shyam, not after all that drinking last night. She added warm water to the yeast–it had to be between 105 and 110 degrees fahreinheit, any less and the yeast would not activate, any more and it would die, then stood watching it bubble and froth and release its distinctive perfume. Sugary and pungent, it smelled of both life and death, like the smell of an old person, endearing and repulsive at the same time. As that yeasty perfume–most people thought of it as a smell–wafted out and lingered in the air, it opened doors Gauri seemed to have shut behind her a long time ago.
She added the yeast mixture to the flour and began combining. After getting her hands all sticky in the warm gooey mixture, she braced herself, feet planted firmly on the ground, shoulders and neck relaxed, and threw the mess on the counter like a potter throwing her pot. With palms facing upward, she brought her fingers under the dough to scoop it up-like using hand salad servers-twisted her wrists to flip it and threw it back down again. And again, and, again. Her heart beat faster and her hands swelled and warmed with the rhythmic work. It was a trance, a highly alert state where body and mind were one. The warmth of the living dough soothed her hands, the energy from her hands and body traveled back to it, making it pliable–tacky but not sticky–ready to be molded and awaiting its birthing in the already pre-heated oven.
“That’s how little Lord Ganesh came to be…” her grandmother’s voice turned on a tape stored in her mind. The story of how Parvati wanted to take a bath, and in the absence of any guards to prevent potential trespassers, she molded a boy out of the turmeric she was going to use to cleanse herself, breathed life into him and left him at the entrance to her bath. Shiva came along, tried to enter, and stopped by Ganesh, flew into a rage, and beheaded him with his trishula. When she came out to see what the ruckus was all about, Parvati found her son lying lifeless on the ground, got into a mad rage herself, and ordered her husband to replace her son’s head. The first head Shiv found was that of an elephant breathing his last. He took it and planted it on Ganesh’s neck. et voilà!
Gauri wasn’t going to breathe life into the bread she was making, not like Parvati, but she was going to help it along. She covered the ball of dough with a dry dishcloth and put the kettle on for tea…
Gauri’s grandmother, Tulsi, had woken up at four every morning ever since she knew her, taken a bath with cold water, pouring lotas of water over each shoulder alternately and chanting a loud OM with each one. She then proceeded to busy herself with her daily duties starting with the preparation of tea, of course. Pau d’arco tea with crushed ginger, cardamom and cloves. And a little milk and honey… As Gauri watched the kettle with a vacant gaze, she felt the warmth from the stove radiate toward her and listened to the occasional rumble of water as it got ready to whistle. Heat and sound, she thought.
The main physical energies that make this world turn are heat and sound. That’s why Hindus perform those yagyas at every ceremonial occasion. As wood burns and through combustion turns matter into energy, it sends up waves of heat and sound that purify, cleanse and soothe our psyche. Gauri did not need to be convinced about the physical, health, spiritual and psychological benefits of a yagya–that combination of heat, sound–and smell, the smell was important–had been written into her genetic code. A yagya has to have specific elements come together at the right time and temperature and within a specific sound space. The wood is either sandal or mango, but also deodar or pipal. Musk, sandal, saffron, agar, cardamom, nutmeg, mace, and camphor infuse the wood, flames, and smoke. Pure ingredients such as ghee, milk, wheat, rice, barley, sesame seeds, munga, and sweet elements like honey, golden raisins, and dry dates are thrown in. Herbs like somlata, brahmi, shankpushpi, nagkesar, mulhati, rakta chandan, sonth, and harad further the healing and purifying aspects of the environment thus created. And the sound–the chanting of the mantras, the echoes of the trailing notes of those chiming in, the vibration of sounds erupting from the marriage of the yagya fire with the samagri, together form a shape that is a sight to behold.
The screeching whistle interrupted her dreams and made her jump up and turn off the burner under the kettle. How long had it been whistling? She took the kettle off the burner, the lid off the kettle, and waited respectfully for the steam to escape. She peered in. Well, there was still enough to fix one cup of tea, and so she did. She put up her feet on the chair, back arched, knees leaning into the kitchen table, cupped her beverage close to her, felt the warm steam on her face, and as the aroma of elaichi and adrak invaded her mind, she began to refocus. She contemplated her cup, gently blew on the lip, and took her first sip.
The dough ball was, by now, puffed up like the belly of an expecting mother. She released it gently from the sides of the bowl, and, very gently, turned it on itself, folding it so as to retain all the goodness held inside the warm interior. Sesame seeds and golden raisins were going to feed that ball along with some chopped walnuts. She sprinkled these lightly onto the surface of the dough and then turned it again. Her fingers and palms help shape and support it. She picked it up one last time and placed it in the center of her stone, painted it with eggwash, and into the oven it went.
She could hardly wait for the smell of the yeasty goodness to make its way toward her, to break off a piece and marvel at all the small and big holes–like black holes–the yeast and her kneading had created. As the bread grew and rose further in its sanctuary, Gauri fell into one of its black holes and followed it into space and time she had traveled through before. She recognized previous lives, the tandavas she had danced with the gods and goddesses she had worshipped–and who had worshipped her–the souls she was destined to meet, the children she had borne, her prayers for strangers she had met or was going to, all the while resuscitating longings that are so deep-seeded that they take multiple lives to acknowledge, realize, or relenquish.
From one wormhole into another, and on and on, the vibrations of these past and future lives stirred Gauri’s subconscious, and she released a breath in the form of a deep sigh as she opened her eyes to this here world.
She was now at peace and ready, like Tulsi, to begin another day.