This is a story my mother used to tell, of a village woman and a village goddess and of the unexpected friendships that can develop over a good brinjal curry. Here it is, along with the vivid and lively watercolor illustrations by my dear friend, colleague, and fellow-discoverer-of-children’s-worlds, Khushboo Biyani.
This is the story of a woman who loved to eat brinjals. Her name was Manjula, or Manju for short. She lived in a time when daughters were married into the homes of their husbands, and lived with mothers and fathers-in-law, brothers-in-law and a whole mess of an extended family. And at a time when young daughters-in-law would feed everyone in the household first, before eating themselves.
Now Manju’s brinjal curries were delectable. So much was her love for the vegetable, it poured itself into what she made. So much so, that the dish was gone almost as soon as it was made–and there was never much left for the cook herself.
It got so, that Manju would go to the temple to cook brinjals just so that she could enjoy them alone. She would carry a little pot and her spices, sit in the company of the goddess, and the aromas of her cooking would waft everywhere.
Of course, the goddess noticed, too. She noticed and she couldn’t resist a taste either. So one fine day when Manjula left her cooking pot to simmer and went to wash up, she returned to find the eggplant curry half gone.
She looked around: nobody, nobody, nobody. Who could have finished her curry this time? Could it be — no, it couldn’t — it was so improbable — but she looked up at the goddess anyway, slowly. And indeed, there was a telltale sign of gravy on the goddess’ lower lip.
Unable to contain herself Manju confronted the diety. “My husband, my mother-in-law, my brothers-in-law, all the children in the house — and now you?” she shouted.
And before she could think further: “How can you?!” and there delivered a resounding slap across the goddess’ face.
The goddess was startled beyond belief. The force of the slap turned her face, and in a sulk she kept it there. Manju stormed off with what remained of her curry, swearing never to return.
But soon, people started to talk about the goddess’ face and why and how it had suddenly turned. Her countenance was full of upset now, not benevolence. This fact precipitated great and widespread consternation. What could have happened? What would happen to the village if the goddess herself would not look upon her devotees? Pujas and prayers and all manner of special rituals were performed to exhort the goddess to turn and return to her original form. To no avail. And nobody, not even the priests and the learned ones, could figure out what had happened.
Only Manju knew what had happened. And as time went by, and the goddess refused to budge, her heart melted much as her brinjals invariably did, simmering in their gravies.
So one day, at a time when she knew the temple would be quiet, she went back to the temple and started to cook. Silently, for the cooking was her prayer. And when the aromas of all these mixed spices and the melting brinjals rose towards the goddess’ face, Manju looked up — to catch the goddess glancing at her so-so-briefly, and then looking away.
Manju laughed, prepared two plates, pushed one towards the goddess, and started herself to eat. Soon, she noticed the second plate was empty — the goddess had returned to her original position, and there was a bit of rice and brinjal gravy still on her lower lip.
Manjula smiled. She prepared another plate, and this time offered to feed the goddess herself–so she’d not make quite such a mess this time.