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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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