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Regaining Culinary Vision After Losing My Sight

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My earliest memories of recognizing that food was more than just what went into the mouth to be savored was when I was still a little girl. Watching my restauranteur uncle cut, chop and toss a bunch of vegetables, meats, oils and spices around with a magician’s flourish, turning it all into something deliciously edible, had me transfixed and involuntarily mirroring his moves with my empty, little girl hands. I didn’t ever think this would translate into anything more than a passing interest or momentary fascination. However, the interest didn’t wane; it morphed into a fixation with vegetables and fruits in particular. Why that was, I’ll never be sure. Perhaps it was the visual delight and appeal of the various shapes, colors and textures of nature’s bounty that called to me.

My visits to the traditional vegetable and fruit market were visual and olfactory delights. Everything was stacked high in baskets, looking so pretty and tempting that resisting to reach out and touch was almost impossible. The shiny and colorful palate of the wares still stays a vivid memory, years after I became blind — reds of tomatoes, greens of varied leafy vegetables, shades of purple of brinjals… I could go on and on. The “Bhaiya” always obliged with a taste of the juiciest tomatoes and raw mangoes when in season. The quick and efficient slices made with their sharp knives were a treat to watch.

When, years later, I found myself enrolling in a three-year course in hotel management, nobody was surprised. Right from the word go, I knew I would become a chef at the end of the course and work my magic in the kitchen: cutting, chopping, whipping and cooking up a storm. The three years were a revelation of the best kind. From learning the right way to use the various tools and gadgets in a commercial kitchen, to the various kinds of cooking methods to delving into the history and cuisines of countries far and wide, it was a culinary journey in the truest sense of the word.

Then there was the introduction to the world of raw material, and all the fascinating ingredients that made for learning for life. How a collection of powders, flours and a little bit of this and that translated into an aromatic eyeful of food goodness left me more convinced where my career path lay.

But then, whoever said life went according to plan? In the course of my three years in college, many decisions changed and I ended up not being a chef after all. However, my love for food and dabbling in cooking at home didn’t change. I was the gourmet food expert at home who went out and hunted up strange ingredients and created new dishes for everyone around me. No regular food for me — after all, I was a chef wannabe, wasn’t I?

Then, a few years down the line, my life spiraled out of orbit, never to be the same again. This marked the second phase — as I live it today.

I was 22 when an unexplained and then-undiagnosed cerebral attack struck and damaged most of my sensory system. In a matter of weeks, I was transformed from being a healthy, happy young girl to a disabled person — physically, mentally and emotionally.

The attack left me totally blind, hearing impaired, and with no sense of taste or smell. My sense of touch was left patchy too. Any dreams or aspirations I’d ever had for my life were gone forever. Left debilitated, I never thought I would ever do all the things I’d so loved. There must have been some method to the universe’s madness to have had me record so many visual and olfactory memories in all the years when I took delight in absorbing them. Staying imprinted in my brain, they served to be the perfect images to recall in a flashback when life did indeed move on, as unbelievable as it may have seemed at the time.

It took me two hospital stints and many months of alternative therapy to finally realize my disability was irreversible and I would be deaf-blind forever. It was a shock to say the least, and as I saw what I believed to be the last of the hope drain out of my life, true devastation set in. How was I going to live the rest of my life? Closed in an emotional hell, I fell into a deep depression and an abyss of hopelessness. Barely able to lift my hands to feel anything, there was no way I’d return to the kitchen and my experiments there. I could not taste anything I ate, or smell what went into my mouth. My family had devised a method of writing on my palm using their fingers to communicate with me. That was the extent of my knowledge of what I ate. For someone who loved food and the smells and colors of food, this was a deathly blow. How much more was going to be taken away from me?

Fortunately, with the help of alternative treatments and medication, my sense of smell and taste began to revive. It was a strange experience to smell and taste, but not exactly the way it should be. Underdeveloped for a long time, I often found myself guessing things wrong. It did eventually become completely normal and I went from having an underdeveloped sense to a hyper-sensitive one — something I am eternally grateful for.

Gradually, my hearing returned as well. From being a soft, far away, to a garbled and then clear sound (although only in my right ear), I was elated to be able to hear again. I almost didn’t believe it when I first heard the sound of a crow from very far away in my right ear. After that, I strained to absorb every sound to assure myself that I was indeed hearing again. From here on, things began looking up again. My sense of touch was still patchy, but I could now lift my hands and feel things I touched. It was not the best or what I had, but I’d learned to be grateful for the small steps towards near-normalcy my life was taking.

Once the dust had settled after all the upheaval my life had been put through, I returned home. Everything was new and different, of course; I was seeing nothing and hearing very little. My mother, the superwoman, decided enough time had been wasted in trying to revive a physical condition that may never change. She believed if it had to, it would on its own, and waiting for it was a fruitless task.

So, off she went, thinking of all the things I could do around the house, devising things and thinking up all she would herself do without consciously seeing. Among the first tasks was handling vegetables. After all, who needed to see to string beans or peel carrots? I distinctly remember the feeling of putting my hands into a bowl of cold French beans and feeling tears well up in my eyes. It had been so long since I had felt anything clearly enough using my hands. I had always loved cutting and chopping vegetables, but this was far beyond anything I had felt before. This time I was actually concentrating on the texture, shape and build of the vegetable, which so far had been a mechanical task.

I could smell the vegetable when it was first peeled and then cut. Everything I had thought of as lost came rushing back in that one moment. It felt natural and comfortable. It was exhilarating! When I was doing this, my loss of sight or the dimming of other senses were relegated completely to the back of my mind, never to surface again.

Since I could use a knife without using the chopping board, cutting came easy. Slowly, deliberately at first, and then with increasing confidence, I remember the first batch of beans and carrots I’d chopped. Running my hands through it gave me a sense of accomplishment like none other. It grounded me in some weird way. I loved the order and symmetry of the shapes and enjoyed the precision of the task.

This beginning was over 26 years ago and my love for reducing mounds of vegetables into various shapes and sizes has stayed with me. It made me feel like I was contributing in some way at home and that small boost of encouragement went a long way in bolstering my sense of self-worth. This became a cathartic sort of routine during the later years when I was struggling in my marriage as well.

I still remember the first time my instructor, a blind man himself, initiated me to light the gas stove all on my own, drizzle oil into a “kadhai” and put into it “bhindi” or okra that I had chopped myself. My mother, mortally afraid I would burn myself and the house down, walked out of the kitchen. It didn’t stop me from going through the motions, burning my fingers a time or two, but in the end, completing the task assigned — cooking the vegetable to near-perfection.

That was the beginning of the revival of my love story with cooking once again. Each time I felt restless and needed validation, cooking was always my go-to activity. It always helped retrieve my sense of self, cheered me up and gave the family something new to eat.

Soon, the degree of difficulty in what and how I cooked increased and I found myself looking forward to once again experimenting with new ingredients and methods of cooking. Going from someone who couldn’t smell and taste for a while, I went to being able to smell the degree of doneness of frying onions and could tell when the gravy was ready to pull off of the fire. Reading up recipes from any accessible source became a hobby and swapping ideas with friends on various new things became a catharsis.

I became more confident each time I pulled off the feat of cooking something I’d never tried before without incident. Soon I was running my own home and kitchen confidently. At times when my marriage put me through the wringer, I found myself turning to a space within myself that was my safe space. Pulling all the raw vegetables out of the refrigerator, I’d start processing them to be used later — chopping, slicing/dicing, pureeing. This single-minded concentration kept me from confrontations and gave me time to think and gather myself.

There were times when my ex-husband would not talk with me or eat the food I’d cooked as a way to punish me because he knew it was what would hurt me the most. I’d still cook and freeze food for the day he might come around and I’d have food ready. These were times when I kept myself grounded by simply churning out dish after dish in the kitchen.

It was when I started baking once again that I found my true joy. Always a little complicated, since the ingredients had to be in the exact measure, I’d never attempted baking after losing my sight. Suddenly I discovered there were Braille-labeled measuring cups and spoons and realized I could mark my oven to identify temperature and modes that would make me independent. A talking weighing scale gave me precise measurements as well. I still remember going through the steps to bake my first cake — a hot milk sponge. The aroma of a baking cake was a high like none other. Being able to now make sweet treats on request and as gifts was as humbling as it was uplifting. Each subsequent activity in the kitchen I was able to perform independently was a step towards a new me.

Attempting new and more complex recipes to bake is always a personal challenge I periodically put myself through. Each cake or dessert that I didn’t get right would either deter me from trying it at all or I’d go after it with gusto and keep at it until I got it right. In the community of blind persons, I soon found myself becoming the go-to person to learn cooking from. This was also a bolstering vote of confidence. The relevance of relationships forged in this process was more precious than I could have ever imagined. For every instance that I felt defeated and down, one call from someone looking for help in the kitchen lifted my spirits and made me believe in myself again. After all, when so many thought I was more than I believed I was, I must be…

Soon I found myself mentoring and teaching cooking and baking either in real-time or over the phone. I have walked friends through an entire evening of their cooking, guiding them every step of the way until they were done. All this with me over the phone and they cooking in their kitchens. Anyone listening thought we were crazy, but, that sense of accomplishment on both sides was something only we could understand and relate to. The joy they felt at having served something to friends and family they’d cooked themselves and I having seen them through the entire process-unparalleled satisfaction and a growing sense of being bigger than my disability. I was definitely no longer defined by my blindness or hearing impairment. Life had flung me far into the deep and I had managed to swim against the tide and make it to the other side. Not diminished or changed, but a whole new person.

This story originally appeared on Payal’s blog.

Getty image by SStajic.

Originally published: April 28, 2021
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