The state of my gut is almost always directly linked to the state of my heart.
There are my scientific reasons for this – one being that a lot of the body’s serotonin is produced by gut bacteria. When there is an imbalance in the stomach, there is an imbalance in how the human mind works, how your heart feels. When the fight between the good and the bad fails in your gut, the rest of your body suffers.
(There may be a bigger story here about life, but I will leave that for another day).
Almost half a year ago, I was officially diagnosed with having Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). I had had my suspicions for the longest time, but I hated hospitals and had gotten so tired of dealing with disease in my life that I had taken the coward’s way out and delayed it for as long as I possibly could, till the symptoms of nausea and gastritis and dry retching and pain had gotten so bad that I had to get help.
My gastroenterologist was very matter-of-fact in his diagnosis. You’re the only person who can cure yourself, he said. The medication I can give you are to treat your symptoms, but your biggest problem is that your stress is wearing away at your insides.
Fix yourself, my doctor was saying. Fix yourself, my gut was saying.
I always ate with my heart.
The first time I fell in love, I had just begun to learn how to cook for myself.
I was away from home and on my own. I did not come from a home where we cooked often – my mother had always worked a full-time job and between raising me and keeping her house, she never had the time or interest to learn how to cook. My father, for all of his wonderful virtues, grew up in a family where boys did not need to learn how to make food at home.
So there I was, alone, away and figuring my way around the kitchen for a first time. That was when I met my first love, someone who loved food and all that came with it.
I will always be thankful to him for the little lessons he gave me, the best memories of our time together caught in a myriad of scents and colours and sounds – the mixing of cumin and paprika, the combination of ingredients I never had heard of before like scotch bonnet chillies for tongue-numbing heat and jaggery for sweet-coating jammy onions, for the sizzle of pork in baking soda of a traditional North Eastern dish whose name I still struggle to form in my mouth.
When I think of my first love, I think of discovering food across traditions and spaces, and how my relationship with food was so ripe, so resplendent, just like my relationship with him, filled with the excitement and trepidation that came with the joy of being seen and seeing someone else in ways I had never been before.
It was a multi-hued sunrise in my life: food, cooking, loving, being loved.
And so naturally, when the love fell apart, so did my joy for food. I stopped cooking, and worse, I stopped eating.
My heart had lost its meaning in its young and foolish ways, and my body followed suit.
I felt myself slowly fading away with each uneaten meal.
An oft-narrated complaint my mother had of me was about how fussy an eater I was as a child.
I had a poor constitution and was very particular about what I wanted to eat. My mother swears that in my early developmental years, I grew up on a diet of koduva meen (a type of fish), potatoes and tomatoes in sambhar, the occasional egg, and milk. I would also demand to be fed by my grandmother, the icon of my childhood, a woman who could make any dish tasty just by feeding it to me by hand.
One of my own most treasured memories of my grandmother is her feeding me lunch at home. I would sit by her feet quietly, while she would carefully mix the sambhar and rice together, mashing the potatoes with the tomatoes just so. She would carefully pick out the tender morsels of fish, pan-fried just the way I liked it. She would roll the rice into the smallest most delicate balls, just the right size for my tiny mouth.
I ate best when my grandmother fed me, not leaving a single grain of rice on the plate, my little belly full, my heart even fuller. Then, sometime later, because my grandmother never let me sleep right after I ate, claiming it was bad for my digestion (she was always right, that angel), she would let me nap, patting me gently with her beautiful hands.
Now, even after all these years, with a little family of my own, on the days when I crave comfort, my heart leads me to sambhar saadham and fish fry. I sit at my dining table, and with each mouthful of my childhood meal, I feel a little bit better.
In this way, my gut leads me out of the darkness that my heart finds itself in.
I have been thinking a lot about the things I want to share with my daughter.
(The fact that I am neither a mother at the point of my writing this essay, nor certain that I will even have a daughter, are mere details.)
So no matter what, my daughter, whenever she arrives, however she arrives, will have the stories of my family, and her father’s family, ready for her picking and dissecting, if she ever so wishes.
But this seems incomplete.
I want to have something that she can use to create, something that will evolve with her, to give her joy and comfort on the days that she yearns for a slice of home.
I want to leave her recipes from my family, recipes of food that I grew up eating, made the way that my family makes them. I want to leave her with the same from my husband’s family, who have a much more exciting, robust, and flourishing relationship with food and cooking that makes me envious on most days.
I want to leave her with the traditions that come with the foods that we eat and make, traditions that have been passed on from our families and traditions that my husband and I have created together with our union.
Simple, small things, like how her father and I enjoy Korean fried chicken with rice and tofu jiggae on days when we want hearty, wholesome food; that I love to have dosa (and preferably with an egg cracked onto it) for lunch or dinner, with a side of vegetables and some thokku, while my husband, of North Indian descent and strangely purist, only likes having dosa (that too crispy with the slightest hint of ghee) for breakfast with sambhar and chutneys. Or how my mother-in-law’s biryani recipe is trotted out only when we have guests and want to impress them with our culinary skills. Or even how steamed fish with lots of ginger, garlic and coriander, soaked in light soy sauce, accompanied by jasmine rice and stir-fried bok choy has become a staple in our house for lunches.
Every meal made is laced with love and a memory, and I want to write all of this down, so that one day, if my daughter too is making her way through this strange, devastating world and finds herself lost and lonely, that she may have this little map, lovingly made, for her gut and her heart to find their way back.
I have been away from home for almost a week now.
I am dreaming of the first meal that I will have at my dining table, something with a little sambhar, a little fried fish on the side, and the echo of my grandmother’s love all around me.
I cannot wait.