Besan Cheelas, A charred endeavour
by Saumya Sharma
It’s cold outside but she dressed like a thoty, and now she turns from side to side, never an angle down, in hope and longing of one deep clean breath, but alas– a grave attempt. Oh to be buried with snotty trumpet symphonies wrapped in toilet paper….
A charred endeavour
Here’s what I know so far–
Someone in ancient Egypt woke up one hour, maybe the 27th of that twilight/new moon cycle – and decided to draw a literal line in the sand at 24, citing the loss of his unrequited love in favour of a more charming, albeit pale and cold, young man (Team Edward obviously). If this reads as rubbish, so will the next couple of thoughts but it’s early in the morning, India has a 5.5-hour head start with its ‘Good Morning’ picture messages and I truly believe that every room built in London feels like ‘The cupboard under the stairs’. So forgive my grumpy snot-addled brain for conspiring that a combination of fragile male ego and his minor inconvenience played a brawny role in expectations and hours to be standardised for his restful sleep…
and for us to wake up the next day, many ions later.
I wonder if his son decided to pursue the family business, and tell everyone at the office “My father conducted things his way, but I sit in this seat now and it’s time to double down. What if we replace this vague 24 with an efficient division of 12 and 12?” The suck-ups probably nodded in agreement as one enthusiastic intern squeaked in with a “what if we split those 12 hours into 60 minutes each? I don’t know, just loud thinking!” Right. Who wouldn't want to measure time in tiny increments? And, because why not, they split those 60 minutes into 60 seconds.
So now we can measure time in milliseconds, microseconds, and beyond.
I am done now.
It’s hard not to dive into the (barely) philosophical armpits of origins that can explain my Stockholm syndrome with time. It’s still early, I have just finished my bottle of warm water with lemon (a luxury when your boyfriend brings it to bed, but hard work when you’re single and have to fool yourself by preparing it the night before). I am deleting roses and chrysanthemums layered under terrible fonts, and by the time I step into the kitchen, I am 20 minutes too late and have actively transformed into some version of my mother. It’s war mode. There are to be no interactions, no shuffling around, and no unsure movements. One has to feel annoyed, with sprinklings of self-righteousness based on quasi-formed memories from the night before. The full dishwasher which represented a sign of a full belly and a privileged life in London now looks like a bunch of leftovers that have gone stale, as everyone waits for the next person to show initiative and put them away. I have tightened the knot on my robe. Put my phone aside. I am going to do this. I will charge 15 more minutes to my credit card and put the dishes away. Growing up, I always wondered what my mother was thinking in the morning, as she entered the kitchen and dissociated herself from her surroundings. I assume she was building the best arguments in her head and sparring with her housemates, knit-picking and spiralling into an abyss of chores that were left incomplete, and expectations that were left unfulfilled. I assume, that as she cleaned the dishes left in the sink– making rhythmic scrubbing whirlpools around the pan, she was thinking of the next task at hand, a pile of wet organised chaos sitting next to her, revving her anger by imagining her housemates pile on, not clean out. And by the time she was satisfied with the outcome of the argument where she had won, everyone bowing down to her and acknowledging her efforts, the cleaning was complete and the taunts were lined and cocked in the barrel. Of course, I am still talking about my mother and this clearly isn’t about me.
My 15 minutes are almost up, and as I quickly go over the list of things to be conquered within the next couple of hours before heading to work, I utilise the remaining 40 seconds to get a head start on my next task- Besan Cheela’s. Here is how I make it-
1. Look around the now clean kitchen to admire my handiwork, under the false pretence of checking to see if all ingredients are in place for maximum efficiency.
2. Pull up the recipe, because I have no faith in my memory or my mother’s directions (“Mumma how much ajwain should I put in the mixture? Thoda sa Saumya, I put with andaaza only!”) Start reading the recipe, get distracted by a notification, look up from my screen a couple of seconds later- completely zoned out, and walk between the Utensil and spice cabinet aimlessly, till my brain kicks into high gear and I mourn the loss of my 40-second head start while simultaneously placating and patting myself for giving this cooking time a 10-minute leeway in case of accidental delays.
3. Cut some red onions, tomatoes and green chillies finely. A word I think is loosely used based on the tenacity of your knife, and if you’re in my house, you can expect some chunky choppy bits. In the last few years, I have systematically gone through all the random knives I have found in the house. Most wouldn’t cut through paper, let alone a week-old tomato with excess juices. I saw my techie housemate sharpening a knife once, which I was then banned from using. He cites safety issues, but I just think he wants the little one to survive. I am currently in a love affair with a purple-handled hunk- and for those asking, the “let it soak” rule stands redundant here. Wash it right away.
SIDE NOTE- Take the excessive juices of the tomato from the cutting board and store it in another container for facial purposes, Unless its a big wooden cutting block which hasn’t been cleaned in days because it just sort of lies there, heavy and brooding, reeking of onions and avocados, and maybe some dried ginger remnants too.
4. As I take out a big mixing bowl because that’s all we have, I also put a flat non-stick pan on the stove on a low simmer, assuming I will have completed the next few tasks within the time it takes for the pan and the oil to heat up. With great efficacy of course. Unfortunately, I rip the packet a little wider than expected and get to cleaning the excessive chickpea flour I have spilt on the counter. It has taken another bite out of my leeway time but we manage to get back on track.
5. I add half a cup of Gram flour, turmeric, ajwain, and salt (swaad anusaar in Sanjeev Kapoor’s voice) with half a cup of water, add my droopy veggies and give it a good stir. If it looks like shit and progressively thickens, don’t get fazed like I do, instead mix more water till it is within the acceptable realm of a batter consistency.
Anti-climatic interlude- As I am mixing the batter, I am reminded by my housemate that I have a gym induction that we signed up for, and it starts in 15 minutes. This gives me 2 minutes to chuck the oil, cover my batter (remember the thirteen-minute trek up north?), and 0 to eat after a hard day of work at the sink counter. So, in a huff, I do what I have to, and leave the house on an empty stomach.
It’s 7:30 in the evening. On my walk home, I decide to pull another one of my mother’s antics by changing the story a little and bragging about having prepped for a quick, healthy and tasty meal despite my heavy work schedule. I am back from work and I have a plan in place for perfect time optimisation to cook, eat, and work a little before I sleep. I quickly put my things away, while the stove is on and the oil is heating up. Again.
6. I pour the mixture onto the pan and spread it as thin as I can. And if you’re in our kitchen, using our equipment, it’s more pancake than a crepe. As the batter cooks, I try to be more resourceful by washing the bowl I made the batter in. The problem is, it’s the sink- the counter of homegrown arguments and bottomless mental spirals. The alarm goes off (she’s sensitive, and our kitchen fan is only good at sucking the TV sounds) and in haste, I almost trip over a terrorist tile as I run towards the button. Nobody tells you this, but it’s all fun and games till you are 160 cm tall, jumping after a gruelling workout, trying to hit the button on the smoke detector with a wooden spatula.
7. I take the same spatula to flip my slightly toasted cheela, and keep a hawk’s eye on the pan as I put some chutney and yoghurt on the plate.
Finally, our Besan Cheela is ready for consumption.
I have to say, when I started my rant this morning, I kept thinking about who my enemy was. Time? After all, I am always running against it… I don’t think I can blame time anymore though. I was reading an essay some time ago, and we were asked to be “entrepreneurs of the self.” If I tell myself I can be anything, I just want to be everything. I push and push myself, constantly whipping and churning myself like clarified butter into the most competent and capable version of myself, and like in spin class- I am incapable of slowing down fearing I might end up hurting my knee, but also incapable of keeping pace with consistency. I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody made a drinking bingo for the number of times I use synonyms of the word ‘Multi-tasking’ in this text. My mother does it, she has been doing it for the last so many years of her life, and she prides herself on the same. On days I achieve the goals I set out to complete, I feel accomplished and I want to do it again. But on days I have failed, I internalise my failure and go to bed feeling burnout…
The funniest bit from the process of this day is- My food always runs cold. I have forgotten to roll a little spliff I promised myself for a job well done, and the time it takes me to roll it and smoke it (Always before food to avoid the extra munchies), the cheela lies there, chilly as the plate it lies on. I don’t mind it. That’s the time of the day I draw my line in the sand. And for all the productivity scheduled for the ‘after’- well, in Huxley’s words, “Slowly, very slowly, like two unhurried compass needles, the feet turned towards the right; north, north-east, east, south-east, south, south-south-west; then paused, and, after a few seconds, turned as unhurriedly back towards the left. South-south-west, south, south-east, east..”
P.S.- My recipe skills evidently suck. You can learn how to make a Protein packed Chickpea flour pancake or what I call a Besan Cheela here- https://www.vegrecipesofindia.com/besan-cheela-recipe-besan-chilla/
Saumya (she/her) is a freelance editor and writer currently working on commissioning and developing manuscripts for YA fiction and children’s non-fiction. When handed a plate full spicy potatoes x asafoetida–two things so beautifully Desi, she (almost) forgets to sporadically rant about all things third-culture, framing and reframing her breathless monologues into theatrical/ comedic narratives.