Something happened a little more than a decade ago. My mother, Usha Dhall, an adept cook with a special fondness for baking cakes, veggies, fish and chicken, was nearing 80. A slow realization dawned on her (and me) that she didn’t have the same eyesight and energy levels as before. One of the fallouts was a gradual vanishing of the aroma of some of her best preparations wafting from the kitchen or the oven.

This is an indoor selfie shot taken by the author Pawan Dhall in his kitchen with his mother Usha Dhall standing next to him. The author is holding his debut cake, a chocolate one, in his left hand while taking the photograph with a mobile phone in his right hand from a position above his head. The freshly baked cake is still in the baking tin, placed in a melamine dinner plate. The author is all smiles, as his mother looks up at the phone camera a bit surprised. The photograph background shows the kitchen floor, a few wooden panels, and someone standing on the far edge, with only their lower legs visible. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

The author with his mother Usha Dhall holding his debut (chocolate) cake

Of course, our long-time cook, the late Lakhi Bibi, was equally talented and she’d managed to learn many of the recipes from my mother. Somehow, though, she never took up the baton on baking cakes from my mother.

Another parallel development was a clichéd but a very real thing. I suffered a midlife crisis, a bagful of personal setbacks and unanswered questions around my career, expanding middle, thinning hair, rising blood sugar, and vanishing boyfriends.

An epiphany saved the day for me. Schooldays memories of helping my mother mix the cake batter and later finger-licking the mixing bowl along with my brother very naturally led to a new venture. On March 19, 2011 (if my photo-documentation is accurate), I baked my very own first cake, with only a little coaching from my mother and some help from Lakhi Bibi.

This photograph is a close shot of a double-layered circular carrot cake with frosting kept on a floral plate on a glass table. Some of the frosting has dripped on to the sides of the cake. A large wedge of the cake has been cut away from the front. The author's mother, his baking coach, is sitting in the background with only her hands placed on her lap visible in the photograph. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

A carrot cake with the author’s guru Usha Dhall’s hands in the background

I was no stranger to the kitchen, but in the beginning, I didn’t even realize that what I was doing would help keep alive an important family tradition. As I persisted with my baking adventures, in spite of the occasional disasters and slowdowns, I learnt to better appreciate my mother’s efforts at foodcraft and the unpaid labour that so many women put in, in countless kitchens across the globe.

Baking cakes has been a healing experience. It has caused its own stress, but more in the fashion of ‘good cholesterol’ that has busted many other stresses. Of late, though, I have had to be mindful about finishing off the leftover sugar-fat-flour-laden batter in the mixing bowl, or how much of my own cake I end up tasting.

On occasion, I stop preparing the cake mix because I don’t want any negativity crowding my head to seep into the recipe. Then, downing a good glass of water or a sip of black coffee takes me right back to the joys of melting, creaming, beating, mixing, whisking and folding.

This photograph is a close-up shot of a plain sponge cake being baked in an oven-toaster-griller. The cake crust is a deepening golden yellow as the cake gradually rises in the baking tin, which itself is light golden in colour. The tin is placed on a grill tray, and the golden cake almost seems suspended in midair inside the steel gray of the oven walls, grill tray, and the base of the oven. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

A plain sponge cake in the baking

The creaming, beating and folding may sound violent, but to ensure that the flour blends just enough with the other ingredients without any air escaping from the mix is to achieve the state of zen. The warm, sweetly fragrant, fluffy, springy creation that emanates from the oven is nirvana. Topping up the cake with icing and decorations is transformative, and to have people eat and appreciate the cake (sometimes more generously than merited) makes me want to shout from the rooftops: “Give me maida, and I’ll give you bliss!”

My bake story has also been about many personal firsts – the first time a cake came out clean from the baking tin; the first coffee cup cakes, fruity cakes and eggless cake; the first time I used almond flour in a cake . . . There have been experiments with reducing the sugar component and replacing synthetic flavouring essences and food colouring with more natural alternatives. But there are many more techniques to master and an online course on baking basics to be completed.

This is a collage of some of the cakes baked by the author over the years. Clockwise from top left: A doughnut-shaped coffee cake with a generous sprinkling of walnuts on an off-white creamy frosting; former Varta volunteer Sayambhu Sen biting into a large slice of carrot cake baked by the author; a gathering in the author’s home with people sitting on the floor helping themselves to a variety of food items, including a doughnut-shaped chocolate cake decorated with Gems occupying centre stage; and last but not the least, a colourful flower-shaped cake decorated with almonds, cashewnuts, Gems and lollipops, titled the Diwali Pataka cake placed on a plate. All photo credits: Pawan Dhall

Some of the author’s creations and his friends doing justice to them. Clockwise from top left: Coffee cake topped with walnuts; former Varta volunteer Sayambhu Sen devouring a slice of carrot cake; a chocolate cake takes centre stage during a gathering at the author’s residence; and a fun creation called the Diwali Pataka cake

This is a collage of three photographs. The left half of the collage has a photograph that shows 16 vanilla cupcakes lying in six rows on a cooling rack, looking fresh out of the oven. The rack is kept on a glass table. To the top right is a photograph of four generous slices of an orange cake covered in chocolate frosting and silver sprinkles. The slices are arranged on a floral plate. Below this photograph is that of a flower-shaped rose water cake, decorated with almonds, silver sparkles and pink stars, showcased on a floral plate. All photo credits: Pawan Dhall

More of the author’s bakes over the years. Clockwise from left: Vanilla cup cakes, orange cake, and rose water cake

My mother’s and my bakes have been part of Kolkata’s queer activism as well. In the 1990s and early 2000s, when I was part of queer support group Counsel Club, my mother would bake a chocolate cake for the group’s foundation day on August 15 and other get-togethers. In more recent times, it has been good fun baking over-the-top decorated cakes for Kolkata Rainbow Pride Festival’s events, and my cup cakes have been a serious distraction during many of Varta Trust’s volunteer meetings. One of the most memorable occasions was when four of my cakes were a sell-out from Varta Trust’s stall at the ‘Kolkata Rainbow Carnival 2018’.

Now, after toying with the idea for a few years, I’m gradually moving towards a home baking venture. More than earning a personal income, I want to gain experience and skills that I can transfer to other queer community members. Some of them may well go on to take up baking as a livelihood and also create jobs for others.

This photograph shows a long shot of a group of excited young children gathered in a hall around a large chocolate cake baked by the author. The cake is placed on a table, and several children are together holding a knife to cut the cake. Others are laughing and clapping as they look on. An adult man standing next to the table is also clapping. The wall behind the children has a few balloons stuck on it, and there is a line written in Bengali which says keep your surroudings clean. The occasion is Christmas celebrations in December 2021. The children are those living in difficult circumstances in Titagarh town, north of Kolkata, and the celebrations have been organized by a Kolkata-based child rights NGO. The author baked the cake on the NGO’s request. The adult man, a social worker associated with the NGO, and some of the children are wearing masks, but most are not. Photo credit: Siraj

Children in Titagarh cutting the Christmas cake baked for them by the author on December 25, 2021. Photo credit: Siraj

While the home baking venture takes its own time to rise, I can relish the experience of having baked two large cakes for several children living in difficult circumstances in Titagarh town, north of Kolkata, last Christmas. Many heartfelt thanks to the NGO that sent out a request for contributions for a Christmas celebration for the kids.

By now I have fed cakes to an army of children, guards, electricians, plumbers, nephews, nieces, siblings, parents, neighbours, friends, lovers, admirers, activists and researchers. If nothing else, I can take pride in saying that there’s a little bit of me in each one of them.

This last photograph is a close-up indoor shot of a large double-layered chocolate sponge cake baked by the author. The top of the cake has a shiny coat of melted chocolate, some of which has overflowed on to the sides of the cake. A generous helping of colourful sprinkles on the chocolate coating makes the cake look bright and inviting. The cake is placed on a round plate with a polka dotted pattern. The photograph has been taken under a soft light that accentuates the chocolate coating. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

A chocolate sponge cake baked by the author

About the main photo: Red wine chocolate cake baked by the author for the New Year (2022) with wine bought from Bow Barracks, Kolkata during the Christmas week in 2021. All photo credits Pawan Dhall, unless otherwise mentioned