Auntie is Aliya’s landlady. She’s married to Uncle, Aliya’s landlord. I don’t know their real first names. I suppose it doesn’t matter.
Auntie pretends to be stern, but underneath the brusque exterior is a woman who wants to love life. Maybe she’s disappointed by hers, I don’t know. Maybe it hasn’t been all that it could have been. But her faith, I suppose, gets her through–her trust that God is divining a proper path, that everything is part of (and here I use her pronoun) His plan. In a word, her fatalism. It is a trait that I both admire and abhor. Admire, naturally, for its capacity to foster persistence in the face of even the longest odds. Abhor, of course, for its tendency to make apathetic layabouts out of us.
But that’s beside the point.
Auntie’s fatalism is of the admirable cloth. She believes with what seems to be grain of salt. And she doesn’t relinquish her independence or allow her identity to be subsumed by the divine. She’s a hard, strong woman. She’s a trickster and a joker. She’s quick with a punchline and a wink. She’s loving with her reproach. Warm in her critique.
She’s a hip old lady.
And so I asked her to teach me how to make biryani. And she agreed.
Though it almost goes without saying, Aliya and I delayed by several days our date with Auntie’s biryani. Each day we put it off we were met with subtle admonishment from Auntie. We would be walking down the stairs to go out for fish thalis, and Auntie would remind us that we were lazy and that we needed to cook the biryani one of these days. Or we’d be in Old Town looking for halal mutton for the biryani and Auntie would tell us over the phone that it was too late to prepare the meal that night, as she was already preparing curry. And so on. Eventually, though, it had to happen. There are only so many days you can flake out in a row without feeling bad about it.
Especially with Auntie.
So the two of us, Auntie and I, are sitting on the rooftop waiting for Aliya. Aliya is going to be late, we both know, and so after we rag on her for a while–kindheartedly, of course–Auntie and I begin preparing the meal. We chop tomatoes and onions, mint and coriander leaves, garlic and chicken. Marook, Auntie’s granddaughter, sits with us on the rooftop and does her math and English homework. I quiz her on what various computer commands do. I check her long division. I ask her what grade she’s in.
“Mostly A’s and B’s,” she replies.
“Right,” I say. “But, like, what grade are you in? Like, first, second, third, et cetera? Which one of those grades are you in?”
“Well,” Marook begins, “I’d like to be in the first grade, but right now I’m only fourth or fifth. But if I get all A’s this year I will be first grade.”
Marook doesn’t understand. I give up. Auntie slaves away at the stove and I take notes–“Add cloves, cinnamon, turmeric, and cardamon to (2), bring down to simmer”–for my future American rendition of biryani. I know that I’ll never get it quite right. But I’m going to try.
Auntie digs through Aliya’s fridge looking for curd, mildly cursing her for not having it, and I offer to go to the grocery store to pick some up. I need cigarettes anyway. When I get back Aliya is home from school, and Auntie and I make some mild jabs at her for being so late.
“Way to be here at 6:30,” I say, ribbing.
“Fuck you, Tom,” Aliya answers, feigning fluster.
“While you are gone Tom and I do all the cooking, the preparing, the grinding. Now you are just here to eat.” Auntie looks at me, winks, cackles. Her laughter is infectious, especially when it’s at Aliya’s expense. It’s most infectious then because Auntie truly loves Aliya. Like a daughter. Like an errant little birdie who needs to be shown how to live like a grown woman.
Even though the two of them will never agree on what being a grown woman really is.
No matter. Auntie has me sample the biryani base, asks me what it needs.
“More salt?” she offers.
“I don’t know, Auntie. It tastes pretty perfect to me.”
It is pretty perfect.
When it finally comes time to eat, Auntie excuses herself. Aliya and I implore her to stay. To dine with us. To taste the fruit of her labor.
But she declines. The chicken we got from Old Town might not have been halal. So even though she spent two hours chopping, dicing, mincing, testing, tasting, and spicing, for Auntie the final product is off limits. She was just showing me how to make it, she explains. She was just offering a little guidance.
So Auntie goes downstairs.
And Aliya and I eat.
The biryani is delicious.