Shashi is an excellent cook. She is also a Brahman widow. And for the Brahman of Rajhastan, especially in the rural areas, this has ramifications.
Shashi was born in a small village in Rajhastan, in the north of India. Like most girls in that part of the world, Shashi was trained from an early age to cook and run a house. In other words, to be a wife. When she was in her early twenties, she entered into an arranged marriage with a man from Udaipur and had two sons with him. When Shashi was 31 and her sons were only young, her husband was murdered by his business partner.
“As a widow,” Shashi says, you are already suffering. “As a Brahman widow, you are made to suffer more. It is almost as though it’s your fault.” For 45 days, she had to remain at home with her head covered, wailing during the day. Other women from the village joined a roster to join in the wailing. Once the sun set, she was allowed to eat but could not eat or drink during the day. Once the 45 days had ended, Shashi was able to stop wailing but had to remain at home, still with her head covered for a year.
Brahman widows can never remarry. They are not supposed to do menial labour. Life was tough for Shashi and her young sons. She started taking in washing from hotels, but had to do it secretly. Then she started cooking in a local restaurant.
An Irish tourist complimented Shashi on her food and way with flavour and asked if she could teach him how to cook the dishes he had enjoyed there. Shashi spoke no English and couldn’t write Hindi. She taught her first lesson with shaking hands and says with a laugh that she ended up spilling a lot of hot food, her hands were shaking so much.
I had never heard of Lonely Planet. But now I know that Lonely Planet means busy.
From that first lesson, came more. Five years on, Shashi has quite a following, with glowing reviews on Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet and a full diary. “I had never heard of Lonely Planet. But now I know that Lonely Planet means busy,” she laughs. She can speak English fluently enough to deliver a six-hour class of masala chai, pakora, the magic sauce curry base with variants, biryani rice and a range of breads, with jokes in between. She can also translate the ingredients and methods orally into French for the Francophones, not to mention Swedish and a smattering of German.
Her son, now grown up, helps out and is joined by his new wife, deftly cutting herbs without a board, just a sharp knife and great technique.
Entering Shashi’s house, you learn a lot about spice. You also learn a lot about feeling the food you’re making and working the chapatti or parantha dough until it’s ready. And then there’s the other stuff. You learn about triumph in adversity and about seeking opportunity. Perhaps you learn that where there’s light, there’s hope. But also, you learn to be thankful for the situation you are born into and grateful for people like Shashi who are willing to share their experience and also their craft with you.
Click here for Shashi’s website