In this delicious excerpt from her upcoming novel – a work about mother-daughter relationships, storytelling, women and murder – Faiqa Mansab has her heroine, feminist scholar Layla, discuss the role of food in myths and rituals whilst eating freshly cooked biryani with friends and family.
A story is a conduit. A Sufi story is secret knowledge.
Layla is a scholar of women’s histories and stories. Her life is a neat magic square of predictable answers until one day she finds a dead woman in the library.
Mira is a renowned storyteller and keeper of stories. When a dead body turns up in a red cloak with a note for her from the murderer, she must join hands with Layla and enter the realm of Story for answers in a bid to save herself and her daughter.
Layla and Khayyam spent almost the entire week-long vacation in the kitchen with Hasina, who had been delighted to see Khayyam again. They’d chatted long into the night when they’d arrived. It was soon obvious to Layla that despite the opportunity, Khayyam was in no hurry to rekindle their romance. And Layla wasn’t sure what she wanted from one minute to the next. She oscillated between utter yearning to absolute terror at being rejected. She had had enough of that to last a lifetime.
Khayyam and all of Layla’s adopted aunties were in the kitchen and Hasina was conducting her cooking class with her signature panache.
‘Those who understand this language’ said Hasina, ‘who speak it, know that their table is their pride, their grace, their raison d’etre. It is a reflection of their creativity. Food is a universal language like music or math, if you want to be prosaic about it. There’s a Persian saying, pehle tuaam, baad uz kalaam. Food, before conversation because food is a way of communication and one that is universally understood. In olden times, important decisions were discussed over dinner by rajahs and noblemen. We celebrate with food. We mourn by bringing food to the aggrieved. Food is language.’
Khayyam was cutting cucumbers into paper-thin slices with a big grin on his face. He was enjoying himself and it showed. Sultan lurked around him and he fed him stolen bits of minced meat.
‘It’s the intimacy of food,’ Munia said with a faraway look. ‘I like what you said Hasina. Food is expression, an intimate exchange so subtle we miss the esoteric pattern of sharing a whole history, culture, racial identity on the one hand, and the personal, individual connection on the other. We’ve lost the understanding of food as an art.’
‘True.’ Aunty Coco munched a cucumber slice. ‘I have heard you say it often enough. Food is an integral part of any culture.’
‘Yes,’ Hasina moved the chopped green coriander to the side and rinsed the knife. ‘It reflects the bounty of God, Allah, the Universe. Food is a blessing, a miracle that has to be appreciated spiritually.’ Hasina opened her box of spices and put a teaspoon each of cumin and red chilli powder on a small plate.
Layla added, ‘Exactly. It’s about nurturing, respect, gratitude, love for the bounty of Nature.’
Khayyam put the cucumbers away and began slicing a carrot. ‘On that note, food should also not be wasted. It’s criminal. It’s the worst kind of ingratitude.’
Layla knew he was thinking of the street children in Lahore and Rio.
Aunty Helen nodded and glanced around the room, ‘Or lead to gluttony. Food is a source of physical strength and should not turn into a weakness. As it does if we give in to gluttony.’
Munia rolled her eyes and Diba suppressed a snicker.
Layla said, ‘I was surprised to discover how important food is in most stories, even if it is just three pomegranate seeds. I guess it’s because food is the one thing in culture that embodies the best of it, and translates into its language, its art, its history. Every recipe has a story if we listen carefully.’
Khayyam had finished chopping the salad and Layla helped him plate it artistically. Their fingers touched, retreated, touched again. They smiled. Layla had the insane desire to run to a lingerie shop and buy something sexy. She bit her lip. That wasn’t who she was and yet the thought had flashed across her mind, increasing her heart-rate just a whit.
‘My mother-in-law was a doctor and there I was, scouring the city for just the right cuts of meat, the right variety of mustard leaves,’ Aunty Sheila said, ‘You see, for me, planning the menu was part of a ritual of looking after my family. It had to be the best food—according to the season, and of course their health demands. She used to get microwavable food and be done. Then I met Hasina. What is it…twenty-five years ago now? She said I should accept the differences between us, my mother-in-law and I, like I accept the amalgamation of spices, some are sour, some sweet, some sharp, some mellow and together they make a good meal. People are like that. A family is made up of different combinations. Learn to enjoy it. That bit of advice really cooled down a lot of unnecessary drama in my life.’
Everyone had a story of Hasina and how she’d counselled them. Her mother was more than a brilliant chef. She was a friend, a therapist, a guide. Clucking the compliments away she brought the conversation back to food.
‘If only speech, like oil was tempered first,’ said Hasina. They all sniggered. Hasina was a maestro at work. She chopped and stirred, cooked and talked.
‘No cooking is refined if the oil used is not tempered properly. And no communication either if thought and speech are raw. Every recipe is different but for most savory dishes oil is tempered with dry spices like cardamom, bay leaves, nutmeg and my favourite, garlic. Then it is strained and used for cooking. I’m surprised at people who buy bottled oil and use it as is. They don’t temper it before cooking.’
They were making biryani. Layla measured the rice in a bowl. It was easily one of the most popular dishes and sounded simple enough to make but really was one of the most difficult rice dishes to pull off. Cooked with meat, nuts, potatoes and lots of spices, most South Asian and Central Asian people loved this dish and so of course there were countless variations of it. Just like fairytales. Food, a Sufi Sheikh had said, was a well-told story, for just as food did, a story satiated a hungry man.
‘Cooking on ‘dum’ or slow cooking brings out the taste of ingredients at different temperatures.’ Hasina put a large smooth oval shaped stone on a pristine white cloth, wrapped the stone in it and put it onto the flat lid of the cooking pot. The small black knob that should have been in the middle of the lid was missing, so the stone sat plump on the lid. ‘Meat, as you all know, tastes best cooked slow, that way all the flavors blend and fuse with each other to enrich the taste and aroma.’
‘Thank you for that. I’ve never really done slow cooking yet,’ said Khayyam.
Surprised that he cooked at all, Hasina turned twinkling eyes at him. ‘Yet?’
‘I cook a lot,’ admitted Khayyam. ‘Quite complicated recipes too. Tomorrow, I’ll make you a few Brazilian recipes I love.’
Hasina said, ‘That will be truly wonderful. I’d love to take a break from cooking. And don’t worry about slow cooking, you will learn. You watch and listen and taste. And when you start slow cooking, you’ll see the difference. For now, get a feel of the things we use and the temperatures we cook at. Have you ever ground garlic, ginger or dry spices in a mortar and pestle?’
Hasina gestured to these important kitchen tools.
‘Er…no. We have machines now,’ offered Khayyam.
Hasina clucked with contempt. ‘Convenience in cooking has stripped it of all flavour. Machines are not the same as a stone. The minerals in the stone add to the taste you see. I use clay pots to cook meat but I use the convenience of non-stick pots for rice. Convenience should be chosen carefully to avoid compromising the quality of the experience.’
Khayyam nodded and grinned, ‘Do you mind if I take notes?’
Hasina chuckled. ‘No, I don’t mind but I’d rather you listened and observed. When we listen, and see and smell, that’s longer lasting than notes on paper. Tell me why?’
Khayyam looked at the pots and pans, the vegetables and spices. ‘Taking notes would engage one sense only: aural.’ He smiled at Hasina. ‘But with a live demo I get to engage all the other senses as well. But if I’m not concentrating on taking notes I will hear, and see, and smell. Cooking really is an art.’
Hasina beamed and spread her hands. ‘There you have it. And now, it’s time to check the biriyani.’ She lifted the stone wrapped in now damp cloth and put it aside on a large ancient, polished-to-a-shine copper tray she had brought with her from India all those years ago. She lifted the lid with a brightly-colored cloth. The aroma was piquant and intense.
Layla’s mouth watered. ‘Oh, my God the fragrance is absolutely divine! It’s the spices. Fiery, potent…but there’s something else, like perfume. Mmm.’
‘Take a look, Layla.’
Hasina’s beamed with a faint air of pride.
Layla peeped into the fragrant pot with its medley of color. White rice grains jostled yellow and red ones—the long delicate grains tumescent with flavour, and golden-brown pieces of chicken, glistening round red-chillies, slivers of lemon rind and small sultanas added to the riot of color, and added even more flavour and texture.
‘It’s so beautiful,’ whispered Layla in awe. ‘It’s like The Arabian Nights…this is what it must smell like, look like. This is what Scheherazade and Prince Shehryar ate, surely.’
Hasina scooped up a spoonful and offered it to Layla.
Layla accepted the offering almost reverently. ‘Mmm…wow…there’s something…mmm…unfamiliar,’ she swallowed. ‘Delicious, but unfamiliar.’
‘Yes, probably the touch of khoya, the concentrated milk granules I usually add to biryani. It enriches the flavour of meat. You’ve forgotten everything.’
‘I really feel I should be writing the ingredients down,’ Khayyam dipped into the rice with a spoon. ‘At least those, if not all these wonderful aphorisms you keep dropping like pearls of wisdom. God, this is beautiful as well as delicious.’
Hasina didn’t respond till she’d put the lid back on the cooking pot. ‘Time, I feel, is the ingredient most precious in all recipes. Slow cooking works on food just as the passage of time balances a relationship. Ingredients or circumstance, heat or struggle, pressure or stress, they all work together in harmony or opposition to create something new, to make it the best it can be.’
Munia and Hasina had made a long makeshift table on the other end of the room so that they could all sit together. Even with the wall down, it was cozy with twelve of them, including the ladies of the cooking class. But the windows let in plenty of light, making the room lively.
‘Tell me about your new job, Layla?’ said Aunty Coco, once they were seated.
‘It’s good. Quiet. Just the way I like it,’ she said quickly, the perfumes of rich food made her mouth water. Sultan slunk by her chair and sat down, expectantly.
‘Writing a new book?’ asked Khayyam.
‘Yes, I am. I’m trying something different. It’s fiction but it involves a lot of research.’ She gave Sultan a piece of meat.
‘Oh, sounds intriguing, Layla, tell us more,’ said Aunty Coco.
‘I don’t like to discuss my books till I’m done, Aunty Coco. I feel the energy is sort of vanquished if I do. It’s just a feeling I have. And this one, this book’s particularly close to my heart. I’ve never done fiction before. Didn’t think it would be this fun. Or this hard.’
She was grateful no one said they’d always wanted to write a book too but never had the time.
‘Fiction?’ Khayyam, who’d been chatting with Munia hadn’t heard the first part of her answer. ‘That’s new. You’d resisted long enough. I’ve always said you were a born storyteller.’
Layla’s heart contracted with the anxiety attached to vague memories of her birth mother. ‘Thank you.’ Then she turned to Hasina and said, ‘This is delicious, Ma.’
‘Of course, it is,’ said Munia. ‘What else is it going to be when your Ma cooks?’
‘Talking of food and stories,’ Layla lifted the platter of rice and helped herself. ‘Guess what my next course is going to be, Ma? Food and the Abrahamic Scriptures. It came out of my latest book that I finished about women in the three monotheistic religions. You wouldn’t believe how many stories start or end with food as miracle or strategy.’
‘That sounds amazing. Tell us more about it?’ said Khayyam. The plate before him was piled high with food and he was dipping into the gravy and rice with his fingers. She watched him enjoy a bite. Food was sensuous too.
Looking away quickly, Layla said brightly, ‘Why not? I might as well practice part of my first lecture notes.’ They all made enthusiastic noises. She said, ‘There are so many stories in the Old and New Testaments that revolve around celebrations and executions simultaneously. Food and women are central to many Biblical stories. Women are shown to use food to seduce, kill and conquer. Jael, Judith, Esther killed their enemies―all men, by the way―during or after a feast. Food was used for seduction, for parley and for friendship. It was used to either swing favor of kings, generals and prophets or lull the enemy before murdering them.’ Layla glanced at the ladies around the table briefly allowing her eyes to settle on her mother with a grin. ‘I don’t know where I got the idea from, Ma, but I wanted to explore the cultural connections between food and sexuality, friendship and betrayals linked with food, as in the stories of Salome and Delilah.’
‘Yes, I wonder where,’ Coco laughed. Others joined in on the obvious joke.
Layla was in her element but feared she had talked too much. Did she sound like the professor she was? A glance round the table assured her that they were all interested. She didn’t want to appear a bore in front of her mother’s friends. She dipped her head low on her plate and ate slowly. This feeling of being awkward and different, of always looking in from the periphery, that constant sense of otherness never left, and she wasn’t used to talking so much outside of the classroom.
It was Khayyam. His presence and Ma’s together had become a heady mix. She realized she was comfortable because of the two of them. ‘Yes, exactly, but because Salome and Delilah were on the ‘other’ side of the historian’s perspectives they’re written as villains and viragos,’ Munia said, helping herself to some red and green chilli chutney sitting in tiny silver bowls side by side. ‘They were rad. History just isn’t fair to us women.’
‘This sounds absolutely fascinating,’ said Aunty Coco.
‘You’re bringing history into perspective with stories.’ Hasina looked so proud of her daughter. ‘Even in the Arabian Nights there is a lot about food. There are many examples of food in the Quran as metaphors or analogies. Food is a central concept in religion, not least as sacrifice. Another hit on your hands, I’d say.’
Layla smiled at the compliments. Ma picked up the mountains of thinly cut cucumbers, radishes, onions, tomatoes for a green salad. The medley of green, purple and red looked so pretty. Layla wanted to take a picture with her phone but resisted the urge.
‘Absolutely, Ma. So glad you brought that up. Cain and Abel offered food as sacrifice. In that way, the very first murder in the world was linked indirectly to food. And food, sexuality and death have been portrayed as an Oriental fantasy in many stories over the years but food itself is treated as a strong ritualistic object in the Bible as well. It is a very old and important symbol, and as in Eid-ul-Adha, it is used as celebration and for comfort.’
Her excitement and enthusiasm for the project were evident in her voice.
‘The Last Supper,’ Khayyam said thoughtfully. ‘I never thought about it like that. But Maybe Leonardo da Vinci did. Wish I knew if he thought of it that way. I’ll have to look at it again. Fancy going to Rome with me?’
He looked at Layla with a smile. She laughed. There it was then. Good. She felt she might be giving off a sparkle.
‘Remember also the relationship between eating and nurturing.’ Hasina passed the platter of rice to Coco. ‘And nurturing is identified with women.’
‘As is sexuality and sensuality,’ Munia put in.
‘Exactly. Food is the trope of sensuality, nurturing but also of death in the Abrahamic Scriptures. However, it is perceived also as a gift by God. In the Quran, Zachariah asks Mary where she gets her food from every day. That is the first sign of her extreme piety. Allah sent her heavenly food according to the Quran. Food is a sacred gift. Wouldn’t you agree? Like manna was for the Jewish people,’ said Layla.
‘That makes me feel so much better,’ said Aunty Sheila. ‘I’m not the only one who loves food, then.’
They all laughed and Layla had another point for her project: Shared laughter over shared food. ‘No, Aunty Sheila, it isn’t just you,’ she said. ‘It is often centripetal even to faith stories.’
‘Faith stories are stories about religion, right?’ Alifya toyed with her fork and addressed Layla.
‘Yes,’ Layla dabbed her mouth with Ma’s hand embroidered napkin. ‘Stories that help us strengthen our spirituality and inform us about religious histories and mythologies.’
‘Mythologies?’ Alifya was confused.
‘It’s an academic term used for all religious narrative because academia is scientific and not about any one faith or belief.’ Layla watched Hasina surreptitiously. ‘It is a way of ensuring impartial discourse and research.’
Layla caught Khayyam’s eye, who raised an eyebrow and winked. That was his way of showing support. Funny how she still remembered his body language. Other things too, whispered a voice. Her heart was awakening again to a spring she’d long forgotten existed.
Hasina pushed the salad towards Mrs. Tolbert to avoid looking at Layla.
‘You sound so grown-up and so professional,’ said Munia.
‘After two PhDs I should hope so,’ quipped Khayyam. His gaze was warm on her. She realized she was happy. In this moment, she was happy without the clouds of lost mothers.
As always, the thoughts of her birth mother were never far from her mind. She told the story, but she thought of her birth mother, and what little she remembered of her life every time she said the word ‘mother.’
‘This is the story. Once upon a time, when miracles and prophets were found aplenty, Salome’s mother, Herodias married Herod but it was an unlawful marriage because Herod was her brother-in-law, and John the Baptist rebuked them for it publicly. Salome was Herod’s stepdaughter and her mother asked Salome to entertain them so well that Herod, as was the way back then, would give her a boon. They were celebrating his birthday and there was plenty of food and wine, as you can imagine. Salome refused half of Herod’s kingdom and demanded John’s head instead, as instructed by her mother, when the boon was offered.’
Mothers were important to everyone. Even villains and prophets. The mothers of Moses, the Queen and the Jewish wet nurse, who birthed him, nurtured and saved him. Mary the Virgin mother. Herodias the villain mother. For Layla, her birth mother was all of the above.
That huge sense of having been wronged by that one person who was supposed to love her always, was a constant companion. There must have been something in her to have caused that rejection by her own mother. She found solace only in words. She had even found seven languages in which to find such sanctuaries. Stories.
Aunty Coco clucked as she peeled a lychee and popped it into her mouth whole.
‘But to cast women in those roles because they were fighting for themselves is just stupid, isn’t it? Salome was merely doing what her mother asked of her, and the mother was interested in securing her own future.’
Layla nodded. ‘Exactly. She would have been stoned to death, according to Mosaic Law. When people are trying to survive, they will do anything to stay alive, including committing sin and doing evil because they feel they have no choice. As is survival.’
Layla’s beliefs, which simply could not be boxed into any one category, made her a misfit in most places. She loved deconstructing all stories, especially those that had devotional value. That was why she’d pursued the hidden and secret tradition of Sufi storytelling. It had been hard work but worth every sacrifice she’d made. She thought in particular of her long ago visit to Lahore, where she’d left her heart.
Her eyes went to Khayyam.
He was listening to the exchange in silence. What was he thinking? Was he waiting for her to make a move? Did she want to? She wasn’t sure. In the last ten years, life had become smaller. The vast possibilities of her twenties had diminished into strict borders of do’s and don’ts, and manageable goals. Life had divided itself into two broad spectrums of success and failure. The joy of possibility which Ma had induced in her had lasted a few years and then started to just fade away into the broad strokes of anxiety and half-formed memories. She had wanted answers for so long she’d forgotten to give any.
Khayyam caught her watching him and winked. She couldn’t help smiling. He had asked her to marry him and stay back with him. They would travel and forget their lousy parents. If she had listened, where would they have been now?
‘I agree with Layla,’ Munia glanced at Layla with a brief nod. ‘Women who live their lives trying to propitiate others, who try to be nice and quiet because they think they won’t be harmed, end up losing their own identities and their own true selves. They end up as malevolent and malignant beings, and not just for others but themselves too.’
Layla pressed Munia’s hand. From a traditional Indian background to come here alone and make a life for herself had been hard for Munia. She’d had little support from her family in any way. Just like Ma and so many other women from all over the world. Immigrants. It had become a dirty word. An insult. When it was the bravest possible thing, a person could be.
‘But he was a prophet. He couldn’t be wrong.’ Hasina sounded worried.
Layla, however, who never forgot that she’d been saved by stories and that she owed a debt of gratitude to them, not organized religion or its narratives, was only concerned with unearthing true stories.
‘He probably did what he believed was right. I wonder though, if he imagined at all that Salome and her mother would be homeless or that they’d be killed, if he persisted.’ Layla’s forehead creased. ‘On their path to glory and righteousness, do men think at all about women? And my academic work, my pen if you will, is devoted solely to women’s stories because those are the stories that were disrupted and hidden.’ Her lips thinned and her eyes became flinty. ‘Men have always found a reason to kill women and cull their stories. In olden times, it was usually because, believe it or not, they said God decreed it. In some places this myth still continues as so called ‘honor killings’, but men who kill women for whatever reason are cold-blooded murderers.’
Khayyam hooted, ‘Hear, hear!’
Layla felt her face heat. Was she being pompous?
’What do you mean?’ asked Hasina.
Quickly, Layla placated Ma, ‘I am talking about women and their history which is bloody, all thanks to men. But God did not tell men to treat women this way. Herodias wasn’t a righteous woman according to those times and when faced with death threats, she chose to save herself and her daughter. But I can’t blame her for that. And why should every woman be righteous? Why does the world have so many expectations from women?’
Did she blame her birth mother for not being a good mother? For abandoning her? She unclenched her hands. Khayyam cleared his throat. She glanced at him and he looked deep into her eyes and smiled. She nodded, signaling that she was okay.
‘God isn’t necessarily male,’ said Munia.
‘He has been for centuries.’
It was a quiet sentence. It should have been, but the moment it ended, the air around them pulsed with hidden energy. It was like a thousand hornets had appeared around them, filling the air, hovering around them, buzzing, waiting, suspended.
Hasina got up; her body slower than Layla remembered. She walked towards the door in a stately gait.
She paused and looked back, ‘See you all tomorrow. We’ll have tea at four.’
The hornets buzzed one final time and then disappeared.
About Faiqa Mansab
Faiqa Mansab is the author of This House of Clay and Water, published by Penguin India in 2017. It has since been translated into Turkish and optioned for screen adaptation. The novel was longlisted for the Getz-Pharma Literary Prize and the German Consulate Peace Prize in 2018. It was Amazon Editor’s Picks 2018, Amazon Best International Women’s Fiction 2018 and appeared in several Best of lists. Faiqa has an MFA in Fiction from Kingston University London with a high distinction and she received the Best MFA Thesis Award for what became her published novel. Faiqa received the prestigious British Chevening Award in 2019. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies or are forthcoming, in online magazines and literary reviews like The Missing Slate, The Aleph Review and In the New Century: An Anthology of Pakistani Literature 1998-2017. Faiqa works at the International Center for Pakistani Writing in English (ICPWE). She is also the Writer in Residence at The Writing Institute and the Alumni Ambassador for Kingston University London. Her second novel is currently in submission. You can follow Faiqa via these links: on Twitter @FaiqaMansab and via Instagram @faiqamansab
Feature image: detail from Vardges Surenyants’ Salome (1904), The National Gallery of Armenia, via Wikipedia Commons, in the public domain.