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INDIA

My 80-Year-Old Grandma Taught Me the Secret to a Perfect Diwali Feast

I spent the run-up to the Hindu festival of light with my grandmother in Jaipur, where she shared her recipe for kidney bean curry.

by Ruchira Sharma
16 October 2017, 2:42pm

The author's grandmother at home in Jaipur. 

We have barely opened the door to my mum's childhood home in Jaipur when my grandmother reaches out to embrace us both.

"You're here!" she says, gathering us into her arms.

We haven't visited this house for over five years, back when my grandad was alive, so I know that it must be an unsettling experience for my mum. We're here to celebrate Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, with my grandmother and other relatives from my mum's side of the family. I notice jalebi (fried sugar sweets) and other Indian confectionary peaking out from brightly coloured boxes on the table in anticipation.

"Are you hungry?" my grandmother asks. "Shall we eat?"

Growing up, I learned the Diwali story from my mum. She told me of how the Hindu deity Lord Rama and his wife Sita were exiled from his home by his malicious stepmother. During this exile, the evil demon Ravana kidnapped Sita. Rama managed to track Ravana down, destroy him, and rescue his wife.

To celebrate the return of Rama and Sita—and the victory of light over darkness—the couple's neighbours lit many candles. This began the yearly celebration of Diwali, or its original Sanskrit name dīpāvali, which means "series of lights."

As part of the Indian diaspora in Britain, my experience celebrating Diwali is very different to that of my parents, who grew up in India. Here, Diwali is the largest holiday of the year and inspires the same kind of present-buying and frantic cooking as Christmas. In the UK, our Diwali was more of a laid back affair. We'd mark the festival with a small puja (prayer service) at home with tea lights and visits to family friends at the weekend.

At my grandma's house, Diwali is anything but laid back. Despite being too old to cook at 80, as the matriarch of the family, she is overseeing every element of the celebrations this year. Since cooking is a huge part of this, I ask her to teach me how to make rajma, a kidney bean curry.

The author and her grandmother prepare rajma, a kidney bean curry. All photos by the author.

We walk through to the kitchen and are faced with endless steel pans in varying sizes and shapes. This is a kitchen of business, not pleasure, with implements designed to cook for a vast amount of people.

The key to every Indian curry is its base, so my grandmother first instructs me to start chopping onions and tomatoes. After throwing them into a pan, she points to a box of spices and says "Mirch, haldi, daaniya" (chili, turmeric, coriander powder). She talks me through each step—the slicing, the measuring of the spices, the temperature of the hob.

On the side is a container filled with hundreds of kidney beans, soaking in a cool water. In this overbearing 35 degree Celsius heat, I'm slightly jealous of them.

As we fry the vegetables and spices, my aunt asks my grandma why people pray to Goddess Lakshmi, the god of fortune and wealth, during Diwali.

"I don't know," she says.

We all laugh. My grandma is the most religious of us and if she doesn't have a clue, none of us do. When I research Lakshmi later, I find that since Diwali is a day of enlightenment and the victory of good, families clean and decorate their houses with tea lights and ornaments, which attract the Goddess Lakshmi.

When I was younger, I would be blessed after the Lakshmi prayer service with a few pounds from my dad. This year, my aunt jokes that she is feeling the benefits already as my uncle recently got a promotion.

We turn our attention back to the pan, its aromatic spices now infusing with one another.

My grandmother gives us a stir and says: "Now we wait."

We're expecting some of my cousins to arrive today. My mum and I might have made the longest journey to my grandma's house, as we flew from England, but much of my Indian family is also dispersed. Some of my cousins are finishing university and others have settled in New Delhi. This year's Diwali brings us all together for the first time in years.

Rajma with rice.

We're supposed to wait for everyone to arrive to eat together, but as we add the kidney beans to the rajma, I can't resist sneaking a spoonful into my mouth. The tomato base and spices perfectly balance one another.

As I savour the taste, I think back to 15-year-old me complaining about Indian food to my mum. All I ever wanted was to be like my friends and have a Sunday roast—"normal food." I felt so odd eating curry. It was a reminder of where I came from and the shame of being different.

But cooking in my grandmother's kitchen here in Jaipur, I feel part of a unit—part of my geographically fragmented family again. I realise that the root of my mum's knowledge of Indian food and my own can be traced back to here. And it tastes amazing.