#LookoutFor | In kitchens, with Anosmia
It's an odd thing to understand, the notion of the relating to your food through sounds. Sure, there's the private grumble in your tummy before you wolf down a plate of your favourite dish (we assure you, there has been no solid proof that the person sitting next to you can always hear it); and then there's an invariable satisfied burp, later. But an aural comprehension of our food, over, well...the oral intake and taste-bud-comprehension of it, is definitely far out of left field. And that's exactly the sort of narrative that TLJ is always looking to get you, our reader, to #LookoutFor.
This time therefore, we are departing from the usual interview format of this section in order to bring you jottings from the notebook of someone with Anosmia. This is a real condition. Imagine: it's a cold winter day, but your association with the steam coming from the vessel that's boiling your chai isn't through the heady smell of spices that it's wafting towards you. Can you picture it? Sometimes, food welcomes us home after a long day at work or school— open the door to your place, and if you have the luxury of coming home to food already on the stove and halfway to your plate, then that beautiful welcome is through the draft of air from your kitchen.
This is not just an exercise in imagination, not just whimsy. Riddhi Dastidar shared a real-life way of how, despite the absence of smell—the most involuntarily, popular way we relate to what we eat before we can see or taste it— food and kitchens have been constant presences in her life.
Text: Riddhi Dastidar
inability to perceive odour or a lack of functioning olfaction; the loss of the sense of smell.
I don’t remember when I first realized that my world was empty of smell. It doesn’t feel like a loss because it’s always been this way. The few exceptions enter into my life in snatches— the sickly sweet of a garbage cart passed by on my walk; my cat, warm on my stomach engulfing my face in a cloud of gas without warning; the remnants of cigarette smoke on a sleeping lover.
What I know of the world, and memory, mostly comes to me through sound. The opening chords of the Life with Louie theme song are infinite summer afternoons fresh from the pool, drinking cold orange juice and watching cartoons with Bhai. Howling wind is the desolation of an entire monsoon spent alone in an eleventh-floor Bombay apartment, endlessly waiting for a lover to return. The baritone of a voice become unfamiliar is a panic attack, like the world sucked clean of sound. Cawing crows are repetition, furiously walking the grief out of my system, one-two, one-two. Joni Mitchell’s voice is somehow a broken heart and balm all at once.
Anchoring the clamour is a subset: oil furiously spitting out kalo-jeere; the drone of the motor at 5 am, marking that specific state of last-minute toast-in-hand, exam-revision-panic; pepper grinding on eggs, the morning after as a somewhat-stranger with the sweetest smile and crow’s feet makes breakfast. Kitchen songs in their multitudes.
Kitchens have meant refuge, as far back as I can remember.
I am five-eight-ten in the vast kitchen of my mama-bari in Calcutta back when it was still called Calcutta. It is always bustling with people, a cacophony of conversation.
Mamu eats at the big-table. Fish-bones scratch against the glass plate as he picks them clean; now he clears his throat and dabs his moustache before leaving for court.
My grandfather slurps mango-curd-rice off his fingers at his special small-table. I sit beside him, bouncing up and down, the old rexine-covered sofa creaking in protest.
My grandmother is on the floor, at the boti, each vegetable dismembered efficiently with a metallic shnyaa!
This is a three-storey house with a three-tiered terrace garden in which grow guava trees and roses and fish-in-tanks. In the afternoons it is overrun with the cooing of pigeons as I roam between them scattering rice out of a big grey haari. Here it is always morning somehow, even at night.
I am eleven-thirteen-fifteen in our white-tiled Dubai kitchen. I sit, chair rocking dangerously against floor as I mumble to myself, memorizing and filling my head with large swathes of history-geography from my textbook, like incantations, because I don’t know how else to study. My mum is an arm’s length away, directing four dishes bubbling on four burners.
I am twelve-fourteen-something, before I have ever kissed a mouth. My mum is still my best friend, our love-languages still align. She is busy, the big cordless phone cradled between her shoulder and ear, as she vanquishes the monster pressure cooker shrieking its terrifying seetees. I sulk a little while she deftly puts dinner on the table, now agreeing loudly with someone, with a long drawn-out “Haaaan.” I lay out the plates – clatter! bang! I am a hungry child, never satisfied.
But in the kitchen I am mostly happy. In the kitchen I dangle my legs on the counter, thud-thudding on the drawers with my swinging heels as I tell Ma a rambling story about school, and she listens. In the kitchen there are no arguments. It is loud in a way that feels safe.
I am twenty-two in the Boston kitchen of the feminist commune I share with eight queer women and one trans-man; even our three cats are gay. Someone stirs kale they fished out of the Trader Joe’s dumpster, non-stick spatula tapping firmly on saucepan as they put on the lid. Someone strums an ukulele, setting an angry poem to music. There are poems even on our bathroom walls, so you can read as you take a dump. I am sitting, watching Sus demonstrate how to give a blowjob on a monstrous green zucchini. The others are laughing at the horror on my face. Later, they stuff my purse with condoms and lube in pink flowery wrappers before I leave for good, still a virgin. Back in Kolkata, my mum finds them and is very upset.
I am twenty-three, a run away to Delhi. After a long winter of depression in college in small-town Canada, I am clinging to the idea of warm sun like something literal that will save me. I feel real here, but I no longer cook. No more listening for oven-timers baking pink salmon in silver foil, or eating a poached egg smashed with wilted green spinach on crunchy toast, while standing at the kitchen counter, crumbs everywhere. I still gravitate to the kitchen and the boy shoos me out when I steal mushrooms intended for the stew, and pop them in my mouth. In my head I am twelve, feet thud-thudding on the kitchen drawers as my mum listens to me prattle.
I am twenty-three and back in my mama-bari kitchen. Saraswati didi, the one remaining maid from a family of seven sisters, stirs lemon-sharbat the way I like it— very sour. My grandmother is dead. It is silent. Just the spoon sings ‘ting-ting-ting!’ over and over.
I am twenty-four in Bombay, and it’s a ’90s throwback all the time. I am dancing in the kitchen to ‘Steal my Sunshine’ by LEN, volume turned all the way up. My lover is laughing, cheap instant noodles simmering in candlelight because the kitchen lights stopped working months ago. When he serves our dinner, the bread has gone soggy in noodle soup. I don’t mind because our love is new and shiny, and I would eat soggy bread forever just to be near him.
I am twenty-five in my best friend’s tiny Kolkata kitchen. She stomps around shirtless in the humidity, juggling various vegetables and a sieve full of half-boiled spaghetti, cursing the thing that will turn into “aah-le-oh-li-yo.” She wipes the sweat off her face and listens while I deconstruct my heartbreak for the five hundred and fifty-fifth time: the ex-lover has just emailed me and I feel undone. “Fuck OFF,” she groans for me, injecting strength into my feeble self-belief. We sit down to dinner with her boyfriend. I hold a cheese grater wrong and smother spaghetti in cheddar. Pasta is my favourite and the nudity is not weird. Later, the three of us watch a horror movie and I feel included.
I am still twenty-five and I don’t think I will ever cook again. I am fairly confident I will always love kitchens. My kitchen comes alive in dark mornings, when I stumble in groggily at 5:30 am to put on the coffee machine. I clink my spoon against my ceramic mug, round and round, clink-clink, dissolving honey in warm water. Then, I sit down to write for an hour before I dress for work. I do this every day.
Riddhi Dastidar is that person you know who stares slightly too long and is always taking mental notes. By day she handles outreach for a non-profit children's publisher. She used to be a molecular biologist once but she changed her mind. She tries to write as much as she can and often finds herself accumulating cats, tattoos and graphic novels.