It is a frustrating fact of life that sleep is nearly impossible when one needs it most. At the cabin that night, the bed was uncomfortable: I didn’t know it was standard practice to build mattresses from rusty shovels and old playground equipment. I lay next to ECG and tried my hardest to sleep, but the mattress jabbed at my back and snot cascaded down my throat. The only solace I had was the book I had brought with me. It was No one belongs here more than you. Stories by Miranda July.
A couple of years ago, some of you may remember, Miranda July wrote, directed, and starred in an independent movie titled Me and You and Everyone We Know, which I saw in the theater (instead of my usual MO, watching the Netflix at home) with my friends J and ECC. It is a strange, surreal, lovely little movie. To me, it reveled in the ways innocence can give sickness and corruption a blow. It pointed out the ways that even the most broken can help heal others and how compassion connects us all. Despite the sorrow of the characters and the pain they experience, the movie is hopeful. In my sick, wishing-I-was-well-enough-to-wonder-at-the-beauty-of-my-surroundings state, that was exactly the kind of read that I felt I needed.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the kind of read I got. Miranda July is a great writer. She makes me think of the most accomplished draftsmen, those who make drawing seem so simple, but are able to create lines that get heavy with emotion and emphasis and lines that sometimes almost disappear to just barely suggest a form. I loved the craft of this book, but its theme upset me. Instead of exploring the connections of people, she wrote in the first person over and over again in stories of people who live closed-door-closet lives. She wrote about people whose selfishness is so powerful that sometimes they convince even themselves that selfishness is the same as love. Here characters lead mundane lives of disconnect without ever seeming to find the beauty of compassion that she explored in Me and You and Everyone We Know. Physically exhausted and sick, I was overly sensitive to emotional pain, and this is the last thing I needed. I read story after story, hoping to find the optimism I expected, but it wasn’t there. I finished, closed the book, turned off the light, and cried silently.
Still wide awake, I argued with Ms. July in my head. “You’re wrong,” I told her. “I know you know better than this. People are connected to each other. They do care about each other.” Tears made damp spots on the pillow on both sides of my head.
In the quiet dark, ECG rolled towards me. Asleep, he tossed his arm over my body and his moved face against my own.
I fell asleep.
I’ve lost track of how many years ago it was now, but my good friends S and L were marrying each other and I had the opportunity to be included in the three-day event that is an Indian wedding. Few occasions that I’ve experienced celebrate the giant web of human connection like an Indian wedding does.
For S and L’s wedding, hundreds of guests flew in from all over the world. L’s parents fed guest after guest before the wedding, and at the wedding, S rode up on a white horse while we all danced before him. Women were decorated with the intricate designs of mehndi and bright saris. After the wedding, every generation crowded the dance floor: old people danced with children, young people with parents. And oh, how we ate! Everyone was there to happily show S and L how un-alone they were, how many people were there to support them through their marriage. For those three days, four hundred people told S and L that they would be part of their lives for the rest of their days.
A few years later, when J and ECC prepared to marry, I tried to re-create some of the splendor of an Indian wedding for their shower. I found a talented mehndi artist willing to work at the party and I read everything I could on Indian cookery. In the weeks preceding the party, I practiced preparing what I planned to make. In all the Indian cooking that I did prior to and for that joyous party celebrating J and ECC’s life together, I noticed something unique about Indian food: in Indian food, no single ingredient stands alone or dominates. One spice brings out the sweetness in another, while the ginger often brightens everything. Something—sometimes cream, sometimes ghee, sometimes yogurt—works as a loom to weave together seemingly disparate flavors, and cilantro and chilies work in tandem to remind every eater that the food that he is eating was once alive and now it is part of his life. Indian food is all about how each simple ingredient supports the next to become something much more complex, exciting, and powerful than any of its parts.
Miranda July, this bhartha’s for you.
Baingan ka Shahi Bhartha (Mashed Roasted Eggplant with Cream)
Adapted from 1,000 Indian Recipes by Neelam Batra to what I have currently available from the vegetable garden. This is a rich dish, and exceptionally good smeared on burnt-edged naan.
You will need:
1 ¼ pounds of eggplant (I had a mix of Japanese and Italian varieties, which worked well)
2 tablespoons melted ghee or vegetable oil
1 large red onion, finely chopped
1 large clove garlic, minced
2 small green ancho chilies, finely chopped
3 ripe arbol chilies, finely chopped
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon garam masala (or more to taste—I like more)
¼ teaspoon cayenne
½ teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 large tomato, finely chopped
1 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro, including soft stems
Scant ¼ cup cream
To make the bhartha:
Pierce each eggplant with a sharp knife. Over your grill or under your broiler, roast the eggplants until they are blackened on all sides and collapsing on themselves, then use tongs to place them in a bowl to cool a bit. When they have, peel off the blackened skin and squeeze the soft flesh and juices into another bowl. Discard the skins and roughly mash the collected flesh and juice.
Heat the ghee or oil and a heavy bottomed pan and cook the onion until golden and the edges are beginning to brown. Add the garlic and two kinds of chilies, all the spices and salt, then cook, stirring, until the mixture is incredibly fragrant (about one minute).
Add the tomato and cilantro, and stir as the tomato juice cooks off, for about 6 minutes. Mix in the mashed eggplant. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes or so, as the flavors meld. Stir in the cream thoroughly and remove from heat.Serve this mushy, smoky bowl of hot lovin’ immediately.