by Samia Altaf
Baiji, my grandmother, was the custodian of standards of behavior of young women in the family. How to comport oneself — sit, stand, speak, eat—were strictly prescribed according to her rules of what was “proper” practice for girls. These rules did not apply to young men and boys.
Although I found most of Baiji’s rules onerous, it was especially difficult to adhere to one related to what the girls should eat and how much. First on Baiji’s list was meat –of all kinds. Mutton, beef and fish were strictly forbidden. Organ meat could not be mentioned in the same sentence that had the word girls in it. Neither were eggs, or butter or cream or rich edible oils. Nuts—walnuts, cashews and specially almonds—were also prohibited.
Once in a while, on special occasions such as Eid or at family weddings, girls could eat meat–in moderation. In winter they could have almonds —but no more than five a day. Peanuts were allowed but just a fistful, no more, at a time. Basic dry cereals, bread without butter, vegetables and fruits—these too in moderation—were best for girls. These foods kept them calm and of a clear mind, she said. Meat and such were “hot” and prone to causing agitation in women. Pregnant women and lactating mothers had special privileges. Even then, though calorie rich foods such as butter were fine, as were eggs — meat was still considered too extravagant for them.
These injunctions were only the beginning. Asking for second helpings was considered a sign of impropriety and so discouraged. Vegetables in season, inexpensive and abundant, were occasionally allowed as seconds. Once when Apa Rubina reached over to serve herself another helping of sweet rice garnished with raisins, almonds and walnuts, Baiji froze her halfway with a look reminiscent of Mr. Bumble in the poor house, as he would have looked at Oliver when he raised his bowl to say, “Please Sir, I want some more.”
Baiji never gave any explanation for this discrimination. Interestingly enough everyone felt that these rules were in the young women’s best interest. What other reason could there be? Since Baiji implemented her rules with a loving, gentle kindness, lamenting on the cruelty of fate that had made you a woman, all young women happily complied, outdoing each other in the prescribed austerity.
Except me. I thought it outright cruelty to be denied food that I liked. Even as an eleven year old, I had my suspicions about the real reason for these rules. Familiar with the Biblical legend, I somehow felt that these forbidden things, like the proverbial apple had the power to make women think unthinkable thoughts and do things forbidden.
I was not particularly fond of meat, but I loved fried eggs and buttered toast. I cannot say what is it about that pedestrian combination that endears it to me, but there it is. I could eat eggs at every meal, and did at times, getting into terrible trouble with Baiji. In addition to whatever it does for my taste buds, it is also my soul food, my comfort food. Not only mine, it was my mother’s too and was the last meal she had. On what was to be her final night in this world she woke up in the middle of the night, said she was hungry and asked for fried eggs with crisp, warm buttered toast. Hasan, on a visit from New York to see his ailing grandmother, woke up to make it for her and brought it on a tray. She looked at the eggs and thought them overcooked , the edge of the white had curled to a crisp brown. But the yolk was exactly as she liked, soft and a bit runny, sprinkled with crushed habaneros that Hasan had brought from New York—on her request—and buttered toast was still warm. “Why don’t you have some?” she smiled at him with her characteristic enthusiasm for food, preferably shared. Why not? Hasan made a set for me and one for himself, and sitting around Mom, our plates balancing on our knees, she propped by pillows, we ate fried eggs and warm buttered toast. To fortify ourselves—she for the imminent journey and we to send her off. After finishing she sighed a satisfied sigh, turned on her left side, cheek in palm, went to sleep and never woke up.
Fried eggs and toast have taken me through bad times and good, through pain and sorrow, in sickness and in health when things seem to be careening out of control. When I find myself flailing and failing, fried eggs and buttered toast rescue me, bring me on solid ground. As it did on that fateful, historic morning of March 18, 2003, in Islamabad.
As the first of the bombs were dropped on Baghdad, US Marines –tall trim and clean shaven of cheek and head—stood by to escort us, US foreign service officers and US contractors, to the airport to board a special plane that was to evacuate us from our overseas posts.
As our names and IDs were being checked and the line moved forward, I broke away from the assembled group, and before the security officer could see me, ran to the Embassy cafeteria in search of fried eggs and buttered toast. One can imagine the hullaballoo. The transporting vehicles lined by the Embassy gate were revving their engines; the plane was ready to take off for Washington, but no one could leave for one officer was missing. The marines were everywhere looking for her. Her name was announced on the PA system and so alerted everyone started to look for her, to the right and to the left. The gardeners fussing about in the immaculate Embassy gardens, stopped in the middle of pruning the gloriously green hedges- open shears held still. Security guards scratched their beards, searched the blue cloud-less sky and checked their walkie-talkies to await further orders.
Where was she? In the cafeteria seated at the corner table waiting for my fried eggs even amidst the visible chaos, for half of the kitchen staff was being sent home as well. “No butter today, madam,” said the distracted waiter with his eyes glued to the TV screen and CNN on the wall above my head. Soon one of the marines—so tall, so trim and so innocent—found me. He turned his head, his cap low on his forehead, to speak in the walkie -talkie attached to his right shoulder. “Item located”—as the item dug calmly, in spite of wild palpitations, into a plate of fried eggs placed before her by another harried waiter in a crumpled shirt. The eggs exactly as I liked—the yolk runny and warm generously sprinkled with crushed black pepper.
I got hell from the Ambassador and more from the security officer, and dirty looks from my fellow compatriots—what if the plane had gone without us? But I tell you it was all worth it. The fried eggs had settled the roiling and the churning inside my head and heart like nothing else could. I felt I could at least face the world, and start to deal with my own contribution to the mess we were going to make of it.
In spite of Baiji’s rules and perpetual vigilance I managed to consumed fried eggs with unabashed glee, being indulged in this extravagance by my dear father who was fond of eggs in any form, his favorite were spicy omelets. At the breakfast table I’d contrive to sit on his other side, where he’d add bits from his omelets to my fried eggs, shielded from Baiji’s eagle eye and reprimands. That did not stop Baiji from hemming and hawing and making other disapproving noises and looking injured. For some weeks my strategy worked but little did I know the ways of wily grandmothers!
One morning after breakfast, mellow after my special feast, I lingered at the table with mother, Baiji and other women as they gossiped and cleared the table. Baiji smiled at me, put a loving hand on my head, complimented me on my report card from school—I had done well. As I innocently basked in this warmth Baiji inserted the knife. She gave a piece of information that will turn off any girl from eggs forever.
Her head covered in her immaculate starched and ironed dupatta, fresh jasmine flowers in her hair and prayer beads in her hand, she lovingly invited me to sit with her and complimented me again on my academic achievements, and endorsed my dream to become a doctor. She had no doubt these will come true—she will pray for me. Then she told me the story of the unfortunate Nasim, mother’s cousin thrice removed. You have met her haven’t you? Yes I had met the doctor who had studied medicine at King Edward Medical College,with boys, when most girls in the family barely went to grade school. Nasim was also a good student, and though she became a doctor, that did her no good, said Baiji shaking her head. The poor unfortunate soul could never find a husband and has to live a life of deprivations and sorrows too numerous to count. She did not find a husband for though being good in studies, tall, and with long beautiful hair and “fair” of skin—a special cachet in any young women’s repertoire—she unfortunately had grown an unsightly beard. I had seen that, hadn’t I? She confirmed. Do you know how that came about? Nasim, in spite of being a brilliant student was unfortunately overly fond of fried eggs, which did her in. “And you know eggs do that, don’t you?” she said gently. “Eggs are the best food for hair. Haven’t you seen your brother’s moustache? Your father’s beard?” Baiji, coughed delicately as she looked pityingly at me.
Which eleven-year-old girl will dare to eat fried eggs after such information? Even if at some level you knew it was Baiji being…Baiji? For many years after that I could not even bear to look at fried eggs, much to my father’s puzzlement. “Why not?” He’d ask gently, running his hand on his immaculately trimmed, dark luxuriant beard.
Even to this day every time I eat fried eggs I feel a peculiar tingling in my chin—and have to stop myself from running to the bathroom mirror to check.