I was twelve years old when I first heard the words ‘coup d’etat.’
One Sunday, my mother came into my bedroom at three in the morning and woke me up saying I should move to her room. In her bed, behind a locked door, we could hear noises coming from outside that sounded like loud fireworks, bangs and shots. The telephone lines were dead and there was no power. My mother did not know what was happening and we had no way of contacting anyone.
That weekend my father was away in Kisumu attending the wedding of a family friend. This was unusual, he hardly ever went anywhere without my mother. My younger sister was at my cousin’s place for a sleepover. This too was rare, because she and I always visited our cousins together. My mother, a peacefully sleeping two year old baby sister and I lay huddled in bed together.
We stayed in this locked bedroom, my mother only venturing downstairs to get us some breakfast, until noon, when the radio crackled to life.
An excited, male voice made an announcement.
As the national anthem began playing, my mother lowered the volume. ‘We’re at the mercy of those in power,’ she said. ‘God help us.’ She put her hands together and shut her eyes.
Shortly after, Amos, our gardener, knocked on the door saying our neighbour wanted to speak to us. In whispered tones through the garden hedge, our neighbours suggested that we move in with them and kindly offered us one of their bedrooms. My mother locked up our house, Amos cut a hole in the bushes, and we crawled through it into the neighbour’s compound.
What I remember most from those coup days was our meals and what was discussed at the table.
Mrs Shah prepared the same simple dish for lunch and dinner; khichdi. This is a dish made from equal quantities of dried, split moong beans boiled together with basmati rice, and is flavoured with salt. After the mixture is properly cooked and the lentils are soft and rice grains no longer separate, a spoon of ghee or butter is added. This greenish grey coloured preparation is given a vigorous stir with a wooden spoon until it is almost close to a mash.
All through the day we listened to updates on the radio, against the backdrop of gunshots. There was news of looting, and chaos in the city, as the President tried to regain control.
‘The President has launched Operation Maji Machafu,’ Mrs Shah said, serving me a helping of khichdi.
‘Dirty Water?’ my mother said.
‘Yes, Operation Dirty Water,’ Mrs Shah said. ‘He says he’s going to flush away all the filth from our country.’
‘Did he say when the curfew will be over?’ my mother said.
‘No he didn’t,’ Mrs Shah said, ‘but I’ve been told that when it is, we’ll need to hold our ID cards above our heads. If we don’t, the police will detain us indefinitely at Nyayo House, and you know what that means.’
‘We’ll never walk the streets of Nairobi freely again,’ my mother said.
I remember thinking, what did it mean to walk ‘freely’ and how had I been walking ‘freely’ without knowing? How would I walk now, and how would it be different?
Khichdi is grainy in texture, because the lentils retain some of their firmness, and the rice is never completely smooth. It smells very plain and exactly as you would expect, of boiled rice and lentils. Sometimes, a few cardamom pods or a cinnamon stick are added to it which gives it a more enticing aroma. Khichdi tastes like it sounds, hearty. Often in our house, my mother prepared a runny sauce, or kadhi, made from yoghurt, gram flour, and water with a few spices including turmeric, salt, coriander, cumin, and chillies. On other occasions we ate it with firmly set homemade yoghurt. Khichdi is often accompanied with urad dal poppadums, lassi, a salad made with onion rings and green chillies and potato curry.
‘We all belong to the President now,’ Mr Shah said, reaching for a poppadum.
‘I don’t understand,’ my mother said.
‘He’ll control where we go, and what we do. The newspapers will report only what he approves. People are saying we will need licenses for meetings and moving around. Everything has to be government authorized.’
‘No more liberty,’ my mother said.
This was my first encounter with the notion of restricted freedoms, and what it meant to be controlled. I was also learning that what the government decided was important in our lives. Until then, it had always been just what my mother and father decided. Now I realized, there were other impinging outside forces.
I also became conscious about other things I had taken for granted; certainty about my family, and a sense of security. I understood what it meant to worry. Previously, I had never wondered about the whereabouts of my father, or if he was safe. And what about my sister? How was she feeling being away from us at such a terrifying time?
Growing up, khichdi was a staple food in our house, we ate it every Monday, and more often, especially when we were sick and convalescing. My mother reminded us, whenever we complained about the taste, that khichdi was a complete, nutritious meal.
‘It’s good for you,’ she said, ‘It’ll make you stronger.’
My mother had started serving it more regularly in the year after my baby sister had been born because it was the first food that babies are offered.
The days passed in a blur, sitting in a locked house, listening to the radio. At night I slept on a mattress on the floor and my little sister and mother shared a bed. The telephone lines were still down and the curfew on-going.
One evening at suppertime I sat looking at the serving of khichdi on my plate.
‘The looters attacked the Hilton today,’ Mr Shah said. ‘A man with a gun broke down the door, entered a room and raped a white woman. When he was finished with her, he tried to escape, but he was shot by the police.’
I made a small dip in the middle with my spoon and waited for Mrs Shah to fill it with kadhi.
‘I don’t know what’s going to happen to us,’ my mother said.
I asked my mother what ‘rape’ meant, and she said, ‘I’ll explain when you’re older.’
In the coming days I gathered from snippets it was something awful that happened to girls, which adults were ashamed to speak about.
As the adults kept talking, I observed the khichdi congealing on my plate. The grey mound of lentils and rice thickened and solidified. The khichdi had absorbed the yellow puddle of kadhi.
‘Eat up,’ Mrs Shah said. ‘Don’t you like khichdi?’
Soggy and cold, the lump on my plate was insurmountable.
Vancouver, April 1990
Some years later, I was an undergraduate student in Canada.
This was my first experience of living away from home. I’d spent most of my school years in an Irish Catholic girls’ convent in Nairobi where there were less than thirty students in a class. Now at the University of British Columbia, the boys in my year were tall and strapping, and the class size was nearly three hundred. From a situation where I knew everyone, here I ended up never sitting beside the same person twice. In this new culture I felt completely displaced.
Needless to say, I was initially very homesick. Those were the days of aerogramme letters, snail mail and monthly, metered international phone calls with my parents shouting down the static long-distance line.
I lived on the campus, but on weekends I would go and stay with my aunt Emmie. I remember my first visit to her. After an overwhelming freshers’ week, and meals in the impersonal university cafeteria on my own, I’d been looking forward to comforting ‘home’ foods which aunt Emmie said she would prepare for me.
‘Surprise,’ she said. ‘I know kadhi and khichdi is everyone’s comfort food.’
Holding back my tears, I swallowed my disappointment and complimented her on the delicious meal she’d prepared.
I picked up my spoon and tried to eat, keeping my eyes on the television which my aunt always kept on. It was the year of the Gulf War and a CBC newscaster was reporting on aerial bombings, and invasions. On campus, in the newspapers and on the radio, the words I kept hearing were Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Sandstorm. The only thing on peoples’ minds was the war.
Thousands of miles away from home, and feeling unmoored, I had fearful thoughts about the outbreak of a world war, and not being able to see my family again. I used to lie awake in my narrow university bed on campus, listening to the party in the room next door, and try to understand how foreign state powers, who had nothing to do with me, could impact and control my destiny.
I dreaded Friday evenings when I would stay with aunt Emmie.
‘I know you’ve been studying hard,’ she’d say. ‘Look, I’ve prepared your favourite dish.’
I never found the courage to tell her about my feelings about khichdi.
Mumbai, December 2004
It happened rather unexpectedly. I was visiting India on holiday with my father, and during a routine medical check-up, I was told I needed to have a small surgery. The female doctor showed me a scan on a disc, and pointed out that if I didn’t have the operation, I could end up with more serious gynaecological problems.
Frightened and unsure, I checked into a Mumbai hospital. This was my first surgery. I was in a foreign country, where we knew no one. I remember lying still on the operating bed, looking up at the bright lights thinking, how did I end up here? I felt trapped and terrified. Those were the days of no mobile phones.
My father had also become slightly lost and bewildered by the speed with which I had ended up in the hospital. We had heard horror stories about ‘medical tourists’ with insurance covers being taken advantage of by doctors and now I wasn’t sure whether the surgery had been a necessity, or I had just been scammed.
Had my body been violated by an unnecessary medical intervention?
After the operation, I recovered in a hospital room. I felt weak and nauseous from the anaesthetic. At lunch time the nurse came in with a tray.
‘I hope you’re hungry’ she said. ‘I’ve brought you food which is easy on the stomach and very healthy.’ She lifted the shiny steel cover. In the middle of the plate was a small lump of mushy khichdi garnished with a slab of melting butter.
How could it be a coincidence that when I felt most vulnerable what appeared in front of me was khichdi?
London, July 2021
One morning my sister telephoned me, sounding very excited. She needed my help in paying for a special diet that she’d found on Instagram because her credit card had been declined.
‘It’s a miracle programme. It’s supposed to promote overall wellness. And the food prep time is minimal. Let’s both do it…’
My sister is always finding new ways to get fit and healthy, so I only half listened.
‘It’s called the Khichdi Diet,’ she said. ‘For six weeks you eat only khichdi. That means breakfast, lunch and dinner. And if you’re hungry in between, the dietician recommends a snack prepared using khichdi leftovers.’
‘Yes, it’s very easy. You simply add turmeric, salt, chillies, coriander and lemon, to the cold khichdi and make a dough. Then you make equal sized balls and roll them flat. After that you roast or pan fry them with a little oil. Doesn’t that sound delicious?’
Against my instincts, I paid for my sister’s diet. And wondered if she was being scammed by khichdi.
Lahore, 13th October 2022
It’s been a month since women in Iran and around the world have been demonstrating on the streets and chanting ‘Zan, Zindagi, Azadi,’ to protest the killing of Mahsa Amini, a 22- year-old Kurd woman. She was beaten to death by the ‘morality police’ for wearing her hijab ‘improperly.’
Meanwhile the Iranian government’s Operation Basij, or Organisation for the Mobilisation of the Oppressed, promises to find and punish ‘the enemies behind the unrest.’
I wondered about the fiery and courageous women participating in the demonstrations and their private lives. I tried to imagine what it must be like for them to return home at night; jubilant and angry, voices hoarse from shouting, legs dead tired from walking and arms hurting from waving billboards. How it must be for families anxiously waiting for them.
Was dinner kept ready for the women or did they have to prepare it themselves? What did they cook? Which meal was simple enough to prepare in ten minutes, but also nourishing? What food could keep them resilient? Give them the nutrition they needed to keep going against all odds because the price is never too high for freedom.
My mother’s words, said all those years ago, echo in my ears. ‘We are at the mercy of those in power. You’ll need to be strong to survive, finish your khichdi.’