When a friend loses a loved one, I usually express my condolences by saying something like, “They don’t really, not really leave us. They are just not there like they used to be. However, if someone told me this, I don’t know how well I would receive it. He didn’t know the woman I became. I never saw him defeated, but I knew he had given up. He never saw me struggle with the catastrophic guilt of absence, nor did he know my depression. Did he think I was staying away because I had thrown him away? Did he think I didn’t love him anymore and so I left him to die alone?
I was in Dadu taste tester. Small pieces of chicken, lamb, goat or fish, arranged in a small steel bowl with a little broth and a delicate spoon, landed in my lap as I sat reading or drawing or scribble in several notebooks that I kept crammed into a cloth bag. No one else has been given this task. Dadu watched, beaming, as I tasted what he was cooking up. Every day, I wish I ever had more than simple compliments, because the contents of the bowl were always phenomenal. “It’s really good!” I chirped as I replaced the wiped-up bowl and spoon. He smiled, nodded and walked back to the kitchen. I would have liked to stop and examine the salt levels, acidity, prevalence of spices, the ratio of onions to garlic and ginger. But I hadn’t been the person I am now. The little steel bowl was just a preview of the big plate I would eat later, this brief, happy exchange, a prologue to the many conversations we would have about spices, stews, and grains when I grew up.
Perhaps his most indelible contribution to my life was quite literal. Every weekend Dadu made me sit down with a cursive notebook. With great care, I recreated each letter of the alphabet, upper and lower case, in pencil and pen, over and over and over and over again. Much like my responses to his cooking, Dadu was always satisfied with my efforts. When I expressed my frustration with my lowercase gs and uppercase Ns, he patiently showed me how to correct both. He told me in Bengali almost all of O. Henry’s news, having read and liked them when I was a child.
Telemachus, friend was his favorite, and every time he told me the story, perhaps slipping me in for the night, I would remind him asleep that in Greek mythology, Telemachus was the son of Odysseus and Penelope; he left the house to find his father, only to find that Odysseus had come home before him. Dadu would praise my memory and continue the story. I was in college before I noticed how strange it was for Dadu to translate into Bengali the stories of one of America’s best-known short story writers, who, like me, lived in New York and Texas. , long before my grandfather knew about it. I would reside in both places. When I lived in Manhattan on Irving Place – where O. Henry himself lived, worked and drank for many years – I bought a drink at Pete’s Tavern and cried happily, thinking of the day I could tell Dadu about my one-block pilgrimage.
In all the years that I spent away from him, I hadn’t noticed all the ways in which I was becoming like him. Following my grandfather’s instructions, I write first in pencil, by hand, then I write a second draft (a “true copy”, in his words) with a fountain pen. He appreciated the – simple – fountain pens, recognizing that they were relics of a time when people had to trust and care for their instruments, instead of taking them for granted. I treat my writing as an art form, like Dadu did, and mail letters to friends all over the country. If I watch some kind of culinary television, everyone around me has to be quiet so that I can listen and learn. The very nature of food helps me feel closer to people, that they can come together to toast each other’s company over a meal I have prepared. Dadu taught me that cooking for others might sound benevolent, but what the Eater has to give you is far greater than any meal you could cook. You gave them a few plates of really good food, but they gave you their time, their energy, their love, their patience, their openness, their comments, their gratitude. You were able to witness their happiness. What greater gift could there be?