When a friend loses a loved one, I usually express my condolences by saying something along the lines of “They don’t really leave us, not really. They’re just not here in the way they used to be.” However, if someone were to say this to me, I don’t know how well I’d receive it. He didn’t know the woman I became. I never saw him defeated, yet I knew he’d given up. He never saw me wrestle with the catastrophic guilt of absence, nor did he know about my depression. Did he think I stayed away because I discarded him? Did he think I no longer loved him and so I left him to die alone?
I was Dadu’s taste tester. Small morsels of chicken, lamb, goat, or fish, tucked into a small steel bowl with a little broth and a dainty spoon, would arrive in my lap as I sat reading or drawing. No one else was trusted with this task. Dadu watched, beaming, as I tasted what he was concocting. Every damn day I regret that I never had anything but simple compliments to give, for the bowl’s contents were always phenomenal. “It’s really good!” I’d chirp, handing the bowl and spoon back wiped clean. He’d smile, nod, and go back to the kitchen. I wish I’d paused to consider the salt levels, the acidity, the prevalence of spices, the ratio of onions to garlic and ginger. But I hadn’t been the person I am now. The small steel bowl was just a forecast of the large plate I’d eat off later, that brief happy exchange a prologue to the many conversations we’d have about spices and stews and grains when I grew up.
Perhaps his most indelible contribution to my life was quite literal. Every weekend, Dadu sat me down with a cursive exercise book. With great care, I recreated each letter of the alphabet, in both upper and lower case, in both pencil and pen, over and over and over and over. Much like my responses to his cooking, Dadu was always pleased with my efforts. When I expressed frustration over my lower case g’s and capital N’s, he patiently showed me how to correct both. He told me in Bengali almost all of O. Henry’s short stories, having read and loved them as a boy.
Telemachus, Friend was his favorite, and each time he told me the story, perhaps as he tucked me in for the night, I would sleepily remind him that in Greek mythology, Telemachus was the son of Ulysses and Penelope; he left home to find his father, only to discover that Ulysses came home before he did. Dadu would commend my memory and proceed with the story. I was in college before I noticed how eerie it was that Dadu translated into Bengali the stories of one of America’s best known short story writers, who, like me, lived in New York City and Texas, long before my grandfather could’ve ever known I’d reside in both places. When I lived in Manhattan on Irving Place—where O. Henry himself lived, worked, and drank for many years—I bought a drink at Pete’s Tavern and wept happily, thinking about the day I could tell Dadu about my one-block pilgrimage.
In all the years I spent away from him, I hadn’t noticed all the ways I’d become like him. As per my grandfather’s instructions, I first write in pencil, longhand, then write a second draft (a “fair copy,” in his words) in fountain pen. He prized fountain pens—unfussy ones—appreciative that they were relics of a time when people had to trust and care for their instruments, instead of taking them for granted. I treat my handwriting as an art form, as Dadu did his, and send letters by mail to friends all over the country. If I’m watching any sort of food television, everyone around me needs to shut up so I can listen and learn. The very nature of food helps me feel closer to people, that they can gather to toast each other’s company over a meal I’ve prepared. Dadu taught me cooking for others may seem benevolent but what the eater has to give to you was far greater than any meal you could prepare. You gave them a few plates of really good food, but they gave you their time, energy, love, patience, openness, commentary, gratitude. You were able to witness their happiness. What greater gift could there be?