Mohammed Hanif: A few years ago, I saw an ad on Pakistani TV that made me, and many others, cringe. In it, a little girl is shown kneading a little ball of dough and making a roti, and her mother announces, with a drum roll, to a jubilant family, “Choti ki pehli gol roti!” (“The little girl’s first round flat bread!”) I despaired at our homegrown capitalists’ attempt to turn girls into kitchen slaves at a time when women in Pakistan were beginning to fly fighter jetsand run the foreign ministry.
Roti is a staple in northern India and Pakistan, consumed for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Meat eater, vegetarian or vegan, you will always have your roti. It’s so central to our cuisine in my home province, Punjab, that when we want to say, “Let’s eat,” we say, “Let’s have roti” or “I’d like to invite you to have roti at my house.” We of course mean an entire meal that will be consumed with a lot of roti.
Roti is almost always made fresh. And although in restaurants and bread shops, it’s mostly men who, hunched over clay ovens, produce industrial quantities of it, at home it’s usually women who have to sweat over the griddle three times a day, every day. When I saw the little girl with the perfect roti, I worried about her being cheered on to join the millions of women who are expected to churn out roti after roti their entire lives. I also worried about her for another reason: Choti, you may not always get that roti right.
I was thinking of my own struggles.
More than 20 years ago when I went to ask my future wife’s hand in marriage, my prospective father-in-law wasn’t very keen on the match. After deriding my choice of profession and arguing about the futility of young love, he tried to dissuade me by saying, “My daughter doesn’t know how to make a roti.” I said: “I don’t either. We should get along.”
We didn’t talk about the obvious middle-class truth: Do you know any man who knows how to make a roti? What are servants for?
As I grew older, I had to live in harsh, cold foreign lands, where the taste of pita and other packaged breads bought from Asian shops left the taste of homesickness in my mouth. I craved a fresh, hot roti.
Shorn of Pakistan’s main middle-class privilege, those servants who serve roti, I resorted to making my own — the beginning of a strangely doomed struggle that always makes me think of past failures.
For a few years in my early 20s, I tried to learn to fly planes. What makes you fail at making a perfect roti reminds me of an aviator’s basic flaws, like being brilliant at takeoffs and hopeless at landings.
I’m sure that hand-eye coordination and natural flair play a role, but we were taught that it’s all about imagining the journey before you embark upon it. Today, still, I can be sitting in an official meeting or a talk at a literary festival and imagine that I am rolling the perfect roti. In my head, my roti are always round, slightly crispy at the edges and, God, do they rise as they begin to cook on the tawa — they balloon up, as of their own will, as if they approve of me.
But like flying, making roti demands complete and undivided attention. If you stray for a moment, you might burn a tiny hole in your roti and it shall never, ever rise. Rice eaters have it easy: Put the rice to boil, go do your life’s work, and when you return, it’s ready. But look at your text messages while making roti and you are left with a half-cooked, half-burnt, strangely shaped disk of dough, thinking, “Why didn’t my mother prepare me for this?”
And for the umpteenth time you tell yourself that the problem was with the dough. Flour and water, water and flour, it’s that simple. But pour a few too many drops of water and you’ll end up adding a bit more flour, and on and on forever. Yes, some people also use salt or oil, but it’s really just about flour and water. And about how you knead the dough, how you roll it, how you slap it between your hands.
Another word for homemade roti is “chapati,” which means something that comes out of slapping. Good roti makers don’t use a rolling pin; they take a dough ball and slap it with both hands until it’s round and flat — and then they slap it down on a sizzling tawa. I remember waking up to that slapping sound in my childhood, with my mother at the stove. For me, the sound of two hands clapping still means the promise of a meal.
It never occurred to me that on a full-house type of day, she might have made up to 50 roti. If I have to make five in a day, which happens only once in a while, I want a medal for being a Renaissance man.
There are many men who, like me, think they are evolved. Men of my generation who boast about even cooking. Other men who brag about their curries and how they grind their own spices. Or who think they are barbecue kings, as though they were the first on earth to think of putting raw meat on fire.
But ask them if they know how to make a roti, and they’ll point to someone in the kitchen who does it for them. Or they’ll produce a packet of whole-wheat pita.
I didn’t really understand the true meaning of male entitlement until I saw a grand old man sitting at his dining table and a woman scrambling back and forth from the kitchen, bringing perfectly risen, steaming roti. He would take a morsel from the center of a roti to dip into his curry, and by the time he was ready to take his next morsel, a new hot roti would appear on his plate. He left a pile of barely eaten roti, with the centers missing.
I have a 3½-year-old son whose fussy eating habits are making me age too fast, but even he can name which one of three types of roti he would like to eat on a particular day. Sometimes I feel I might be perpetuating an old male habit.
Well, I know I am. After a lifetime of failures at making perfect roti, I have convinced my wife that she is very good at preparing the dough. Now if I get the roti right, I’ve earned my medal. If I don’t, there definitely was a problem with the dough.
Mohammed Hanif (@mohammedhanif) is the author of the novels “A Case of Exploding Mangoes” and “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti,” and the librettist for the opera “Bhutto.” He is a contributing opinion writer.
Source: NY Times