The kitchen cabinet of Dr Caligari

It isn't all black and white, this business of domestic(ated) bliss. But Zeinab Masud Agha has got it down pat

The kitchen cabinet of Dr Caligari
Playing ghar, ghar is fun for about three days. Then things start to veer out of control. When I was about to get married, I told hubby-to-be that I was not domesticated, to which he very smartly replied: “I’m looking for a mate, not a maid.” So thrilled was I by this play on words (not to mention the near-alliteration) that I stumbled enthusiastically through “Qabool hai”, answering the first time around rather than blushing my way to Round Three. An uncle delicately tried to point out that I should have waited to be asked the third time. But what could I say? That, having made it to the altar with trembling limbs, I needed to get it right rather than resort to flight? Or that I just wanted the nikaah to be over peacefully before eccentric but adorable hubby-to-be figured out that I had invited about forty more than the ten stipulated.

The fact is, my partner has been compassion incarnate when it comes to assurances of not wanting a domesticated diva and that’s why it was important to say “Qabool hai” when I did – before he found someone even less kitchen-friendly than me.

I told him I wasn't domesticated. He smartly replied: "I'm looking for a mate, not a maid"

Sartaj (hubby) needs consistent inspiration. I like to think I’m numero uno when it comes to providing that. A close second appears to be his love of port cities. Our married life started in New Orleans, went on to Karachi, then to the pure blue waters of Mozambique, and now here we are, skimming the waves of the Northwest, in Seattle.

And my kitchen endeavours have continued in all ports. I burnt pateelis in New Orleans and put milk in green tea, magar saath, saath (side by side). I must admit I cooked a mean karahi chicken and a meaner aloo qeema. My marriage remained intact. The pateelis were not salvageable, so new ones were purchased. And we don’t drink as much green tea any more.

After Katrina (not the Kaif, but the hurricane) struck, we decided that the Big Easy wasn’t quite so easy. And so, one moonlit N’Orlins night, as we walked by the Mississippi – the soft warmth of Southern waters flowing around my (sadly) chubby ankles – we decided, Sartaj and I, to head home to Karachi’s polluted but poignant shores. (How I have managed to find poetry in this line, I do not know.)

But people, the fact is that Karachi for me is always poignant. There is passion, there is pain and, sadly, there has been too much blood and heartache. But my people are still there: my family and friends, with poetic genius raging through their veins [it’s late here in Seattle and I’m getting carried away now]. Suffice to say, with this kind of recourse to hyperbole, we ended up back in Karachi.

"He has that faraway look in his eyes again..."

The kitchen became alien territory for me once again. The nice cook did my bidding, occasionally trying to kill us with Ajinomoto and a cheerful lack of hygiene. But my domestic shenanigans were few and far between. I felt rather smart and competent in Karachi, especially when I strolled up and down the aisles at Agha’s, nodding at acquaintances, air-kissing friends and stopping by the magazine section to ask for Filmfare and Stardust.

Then Sartaj struck again. This time, he wanted to go to Africa.

“No, no, no!” said I. I had visions of us swinging from trees and bathing behind branches. Hubby raved about it: “It’s elemental.”

Woh kya hota hai?” I screeched. But Sartaj had that inspired glint in his eyes.

So off we went, in the words of Bob Dylan, where “the sunny sky is aqua blue.” Indeed, the sky was a gorgeous turquoise and the Indian Ocean shimmered in almost brazen beauty beneath this canopy of pure blue.

Back to my shenanigans. I hired two maids to clean, but I did all the cooking. I will explain. Maid No. 1, Paola, was hired to clean but did a terrible job. When we tried to fire her, she wept buckets and let out a torrent of Portuguese that sounded quite sinister. Torn between pity and terror, we decided not to fire her for doing such a rotten job. Instead, we hired an “assistant maid” (it’s true: we are that mad, hubby and I.)

The assistant maid, Fausta, proved a worthy employee, i.e., she could clean. And so we had two maids who cleaned, but did not cook. I was queen of my kitchen and this was pretty cool. By now, I had learned to make more dishes. My South African friend, Wilna, taught me how to roast chicken (right after she showed me how to put the oven on and off). Wilna also helped us buy a dining table, which was a great help because we’d spent the first six months eating off the coffee table where the khaana would be falling off the side with us hunched over it, our backs protesting in vain.

Since I had housekeeping help in Mozambique, I fared quite well. In fact, by the end of the year, after some repeated roasting of chickens, I began to feel rather accomplished and Zubeida Apa-esque.

And then, one evening over dinner (on a dining table), as Sartaj and I looked deep into each other’s eyes, I noticed something. He had that faraway (creative-type) look in his eyes again. I could almost hear a drumroll. And so, our adventures continued and we were homeward bound.

Come autumn, however, hubby’s inspired intensity convinced me to cross continents once again – this time with a sinking feeling as the Pacific Northwest is so very far away from the place I call home. The city of Seattle arches gracefully between the mountains and a lake. I’m by the water’s edge once again, placid at present. My domestic shenanigans have a new venue. I’m trying to get the hang of it after my sabbatical.

It’s going something like this:

Seattle, Week 1

Day 3

Broken: three glasses and two plates. Set off smoke alarm: once, because had left chicken nuggets on flame while in the ladies’ room.

My sweet S. is scraping pateelis once again, reminding me that I made a killer achar gosht today. In every new port city, I break new ground and I make some mistakes.

You win some, you lose some… as long as you’re inspired and as long as, for the one you love, you remain the reason for inspiration.

I’ve broken three plates and one glass and made some killer achar gosht. Hubby says it’s amazing. I’m in the kitchen after a hiatus of three years and I’m creating havoc.

But I’m creative (and modest), and so my concoctions are delectable, even when things are slipping out of my hands.