no one other than my parents and grandparents perhaps loved me the way she did when i was two and three and four… traces of that love, that favouring, lingered well into my twenties and more. the last time i saw her i was around 38, and her eyes still rested on me gently.
tubu mashi of no e-88, duliajan, our next door neighbour. who’d babysit me anytime, who would cry with me if i cried for my parents, who was my idol… “hum tubu mashi ka mafik banega, tumhara mafik nahin,” i’d told my mother… i’ll be like tubu mashi, not you. shallow as i am, i’d meant looks wise, for she was too cute to look at not to want to be exactly like that. petite, prettily turned out, heart shaped delicate face, dark eyes glimmering with humour and something hard to define, tip tilted, retrousse—yes, that word fits here just right, i’m sure—nose, gorgeous smile. her hair was black and wavy, and cut short often, it had a permed look minus one. her two-inch wedge heels, or stilletos, were so her, as were the light happy chiffons and silks, the pants when she played golf.
she was talented and fun, one of my mother’s best friends, in that tiny remote company township in upper assam where the women were not willing to settle for less just because they were far from cities and markets and fashion, art, restaurants. almost everyone tried something new and even difficult… like for example, making chomchom.
tubu mashi possibly always had a desire to cook wonderful things, she may have grown up surrounded by aunts and mothers and grandmothers who were fine makers of traditional sylheti food, but perhaps it was duliajan that turned her into the almost fabled cook she became. necessity was the mother of fearlessness and creativity likely.
being invited to tubu mashi’s place for a meal was the highlight of all my visits later after i’d left duliajan. her shñootki maach had to be on the menu. and her mishtis. the sweets. i am pretty sure she fine-tuned them herself, for they tasted better than most shops’ even. my mother had that typical half smile of hers on her face when she spoke of “tubu’s chomchom,” the diamond shaped chhana or paneer based bengali dessert.
a friend reminded me on our duliajan whatsapp thread, she has seen me “waiting for the next batch of chomchom at tubu mashi’s, eagerly,” when I was about sixteen years old.
i am not surprised. i am in fact searching in my memory to find that day, stand in her kitchen and peer at the boiling beauties again. i think i have almost found the moment, it was a bright afternoon, i am almost sure she wanted me out of the kitchen but i wouldn’t budge. or maybe i am just imagining it.
the same friend posted this wondrous picture on the thread: a page from the ladies’ club bulletin of 24 february, 1978.
at the bottom of it was a recipe by shukla banerjee, tubu mashi.
a recipe for chomchom.
a world came walking into my life, and leapt about on springy, syrup soaked, diamond shaped deliciousness.
there were smiles and innocence and a reach for beauty there.and a love that will outlast even dementia maybe.
i knew i had to try the recipe, which by the way was sketchy like a home cook’s. i gave it a shot anyway, did a couple of things differently as i didn’t have old whey to make the chhana, nor felt the need to “purify” the syrup with milk since the sugar nowadays is clean.
the most scary moment was letting the chomchoms slide into the boiling syrup. it was plain chhana, no flour or sooji or baking powder in it to shore it up. how could she, i kept thinking, go for such a simple bare recipe, no deck up? would the chhana disintegrate? would it not grow in size absorbing the syrup as it is meant to? would it be a tough piece of cottage cheese bobbing about in the syrup, “eet shokto,” brick hard, as my mother used to say?
for a few minutes, it felt like that would indeed be the case. then the chomchoms started swelling.
staring at them in wonder, i took note of the fact i’d trusted her completely as i went about making the chomchoms, i knew she wouldn’t lie, no holding back of cook’s tricks, and she’d want you to succeed. tubu mashi passed away a few years ago. think her chomchoms were a little lighter in colour, so next time less caramelised sugar. and yes, chhana made with whey as she made it.
making something the way she did, a tiny smidgen of humble chhana dripping with memories and feelings and laughter and conversations echoing far away yet always near, capturing and returning to life what most certainly is not on this planet anymore…
the rabbit hole, thirteen rivers and seven seas, hogwarts, star trek, byangoma byangomi—mythical creatures in my grandmother’s stories—that element of fantasy was so definitely lurking in my kitchen last evening.