The Mask

‘Nobody expects you to cook, you know,…’ said Anil. ‘It’s not like anything will change. My parents will still accept you as their daughter-in-law, and besides, you saw how they treated you at our wedding. They completely adored you. I don’t know why you’re so nervous about the visit.’
Indeed, Adriana didn’t herself know why she was so nervous. The wedding had been almost a year ago and even though there had been no glitches and no drama, especially with the language problem, she hadn’t quite shaken off the feeling that her in-laws would have preferred Anil to get married to a nice South Indian girl, or even better a Kannadiga (1). To be sure, they’d treated her very well and never once expressed any hint of dissatisfaction, but she felt that they were just playing nice for Anil’s sake. Anil interrupted her thoughts-
‘Besides, with all due respect, you can barely make toast without burning it. How on earth are you going to make a traditional Kannadiga meal? Once again, I suggest you relax and let me do the cooking. I’ve been at it for much longer than you have and I assure you nothing will happen. Not even one eyebrow will be raised.’
Adriana wouldn’t let Anil dissuade her. She had the Internet to depend on; in fact it was on a community weblog for international couples that she first hit upon the idea of preparing a meal for her in-laws. She felt that if she pulled it out, she could rest easy and be comfortable in her role in Anil’s family. But it was not going to be easy… in fact it was going to be impossible.
Anil did his best to help her plan out a feast. He made the long trip to Parramatta after work one day to help her pick out all the ingredients she needed. There were a couple of Indian groceries on Wigram Street and between the two stores they found everything they needed. Adriana especially wanted to make Bisibele Bath (2). Luckily for them, the Indian Diaspora had been established in Parramatta for quite a while and it was easy to get the spices.
The next weekend, Adriana stood in front of the stove and a recipe book, determined to get it right. She followed the instruction carefully, paying attention to each ingredient and measuring everything to the nearest milligram. Occasionally, she ran out to the garden where Anil was busy repotting some plants, tapped him on the shoulder, waited for him to disconnect the Garden Mask, and then asked him for clarification on some procedure before racing back to the kitchen. After a few dozens of these interruptions, Anil finally switched off the Mask, waited for his brain to go back to normal and headed back into the house. He paused near the kitchen, and said petulantly, ‘It’s not fun to keep switching the Garden Mask on and off, y’know…’ but Adriana was deep in concentration, stirring the pot as if her life depended on it. She just muttered a hmmm in his general direction. Anil went to take off his shoes just as Adriana let out a wail. ‘It’s ruiiineddd’, she cried, and Anil rushed to the kitchen. Somehow in the space of a few seconds, the Bisibele Bath had charred and was even now threatening to catch fire. Anil helped her take the heavy pot off the stove. That stopped it smoking but it did nothing for Adriana’s mood. She threw down her apron, and left the kitchen. Anil followed her to the sofa where she was sitting in a forlorn heap, and hugged her. She sobbed, ‘I’ll never be able to do this. I don’t know what to do anymore…’
After a while she calmed down, and looked at Anil. Anil just pointed out again that she was creating a fuss over nothing, but Adriana still wasn’t convinced. Having grown up pretty much alone in her native Colombia, drifting from hostel to hotel before finding a job in Sydney, she keenly felt the need for a family. Her own sister barely spoke to her and her mother, when she’d been alive had never made a secret of the fact that she’d disliked Adriana’s penchant to travel overseas instead of staying in Bogota. Now that she’d finally settled down with Anil, she was anxious to be as perfect a part of his family as she could possibly be. She still wanted to show her in-laws how much it meant to her to be accepted into Anil’s family, and she only wished that she’d learn to cook somewhere along the way.
‘Programming software is so much easier – you run the program, if doesn’t work, you debug and before you know it, it’s working. Cooking- not so much, once you screw it up, it’s all over, and you have to start from scratch.’
‘Look,’ said Anil, ‘It’s not possible to learn to cook overnight. Forget about it…’
‘Yes,’ she accepted, ‘It’s not possible …’ She stopped speaking, struck by an idea. ‘Unless,…I cook with a Mask!’
Anil laughed. ‘Sure, like you’re going to get a Mask encoded with Kannadiga cooking techniques. It’s hard enough to get a good recipe book.’
‘No, but there are Indian Cook Masks, aren’t there?’
‘I think so, but you know, India is a rather large country and frankly the cuisine differs from town to town, let alone across the country.’
‘Yes, yes,’ She said impatiently, ‘But I can hack the Mask. I’m sure I can. There’s no software that I cannot find a way to modify.’
To mollify her, Anil decided to buy her an Indian Cook Mask. He didn’t think it would work, but at least it would keep Adriana in a better mood. She always found herself calming down after a coding session at the computer.
Modifying the Mask would not be easy. For one, Adriana was not familiar with the neural wiring in the Mask. She couldn’t mess with the wires without causing some damage. The breakthrough came when she realized that since all the newer Masks came with an update option, she could hook it up to a computer and in this way change the software encoded in the features of the Mask.
Using knowledge enhancing Masks was still a relatively new thing, but it was gaining ground all the time. Once people got used to wearing them, or seeing other people wearing them, the Masks became really popular. Why spend hours poring over gardening or fix-it-yourself books when you could simply wear a Mask for a while and tap into its database and do the task as if you knew how to do it? The shape of the Mask was necessary because it recreated the encoded knowledge in all the senses, and this way the sensory input was complete. Thus when Anil wanted to do some gardening, he simply put on his Garden Mask and then he would know precisely how to repot, or aerate the lawn or even how to tell the health of a plant from the smell of its leaves. The Masks were first produced in advanced bio-engineering factories, but they’d proved to be so popular that they were changing the face of human society much like cellphones had many years before.
It was many nights of hard work before Adriana was able to update the Indian Cook Mask to accommodate Kannadiga recipes. Luckily, she’d made contact with a bored and homesick Kannadiga programmer somewhere in the US Midwest, who had gone through the Indian Cook Mask blueprint inside out. By sharing code, they had finally arrived at the optimum solution. And the US guy confirmed one night that he’d tried it out and the result brought back memories of his home. The Mask was good to go.
***
The first weekend after Anil’s parents landed in Sydney, Adriana was all a twitter with anxiety. She didn’t want to cook with her in-laws in the house, so she asked Anil to take them to look around the city. As soon as they left, she put on the Mask and started her preparations to cook. It was a revelation; suddenly she knew what to do. She knew how long to sauté the onions, she knew how to do the seasoning, she knew all the tricks that would have taken her a lifetime of cooking to accumulate. Soon the kitchen was overflowing with the aroma of a myriad spices and this in turn was relayed to Adriana’s brain by the Mask. Just before the in-laws returned , she was all ready and she switched off the Mask. She’d made sure to taste everything while wearing the Mask and she was certain that the cooking had gone according to plan.
When Anil entered the house, he immediately detected the same. The house was filled with the smells that he invariably associated with his childhood in India. His mother also noticed it, and headed straight to the kitchen, where Adriana was transferring the food into various serving pots and pans.
Anil’s mother said, ‘Oh look at this. You’ve made Bisibele bath! And Raitha, and Curd Rice even. It’s amazing! I didn’t even know you could get Sandige (3) here! It must have taken you hours. You didn’t have to do all this, but I am glad you did. It looks very good, and right in time too, because -I don’t know about you all,- but I’m starving.
Adriana just smiled weakly in her direction.
Anil’s mother continued, ‘Here, Add.riyana, let me help you with it.’
Anil, who’d followed his mother into the kitchen interjected, ‘Ad.riana, Mother. Adriana. Not Add.riyana.’
His mother looked apologetic and said, ‘Addriana? Adriana?’ ‘That’s alright,’ said Adriana, ‘You can call me Adri if you want, that’s my nickname back home.’
‘Adri…well, I suppose that’s easier for my ancient tongue to handle’
***
Anil’s parents were staying only for two weeks and they spent most of their time traveling around Sydney, doing all the usual touristy stuff – Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, the lot, – but also they visited a few dozen relatives who over the years had made Sydney their home. Most of them were living in and around Parramatta, where the easy access to Indian supplies and other members of the Indian diaspora meant that they enjoyed living in some sort of a half way house. Adriana’s work was such that she couldn’t accompany them on their various trips, but Anil quite happily took time off from the University. Despite her culinary triumph, she cooked rarely and only when her in-laws were away, and even then Anil often pitched in to make things easier. Anil refused to try the Mask, he preferred to cook in the old fashioned way, but even he was surprised at some of the tips that Adriana told him via the Mask. He would grudgingly do as the Mask suggested, and was always pleasantly surprised with the results. His parents spent their time catching up with their friends and relatives and they invariably mentioned how good their new daughter-in-law was at cooking Kannadiga food. Consequently, news of Adriana’s cooking skills spread like bushfire through the Indian community. Word of this eventually got back to Anil, but he chose to keep it to himself. He knew that it would only spoil the mood. But he couldn’t stop the Kannadiga community from inviting Adriana to cook for the Krishna (4) festival.
Among the few festivals that were celebrated in full strength by the Kannadiga community, the Krishna festival was one of the biggest. This festival had special meaning for Anil and his family since Krishna was also their House God (5). The Kannadiga community had been organizing these meetings for years and this time they were holding it at one of Anil’s distant cousin’s house. All the women were expected to go early and join in a community cook-a-thon for the festival feast. When Adriana got to know about it, she was horrified. There was no way she could join the group cooking extravaganza wearing a Mask, and if she did go without the Mask, everyone would immediately know that she couldn’t cook. She couldn’t even come clean on her ‘cooking prowess’ since it would jeopardize her role in the family. All the old tension immediately came back, and the strain of thinking about it re-ignited her insomnia.
Anil kept imploring her to refuse, pretend she was sick, anything really, in order to get out of the cooking duty, but Adriana couldn’t listen. She was at her wit’s end, and desperately looked for a way out of this predicament. Her in-laws made things worse by noticing that she was out of sorts and inquiring about it. They tried to make her feel better by saying that she needed a break and the festival would bring her spirits up. Which of course, didn’t help matter a bit.
The day of the festival loomed darkly and Adriana was close to tears every time it came up in conversation. She still had no idea what to do about it. She’d tried reading a few how-to books about cooking, but her nerves were too frayed to take anything inside. She started spending more and more time at her computer, comforted by the glittering rows of numbers and code that she knew how to manipulate to do her bidding. When the day of the festival finally arrived, Adriana had come to a decision. She would go to the cook-a-thon and reveal to everyone that she’d used the Mask, and that she couldn’t cook. All the hiding and evading conversation had made her more insecure, and she couldn’t take it anymore.
***
Even though it was fairly early in the day, the house where the festival was being held was already packed. Groups of children were running in and out of the house, screaming and laughing. The chatter of voices filled the air, overpowering the faint strains of Carnatic music (6) that was emanating from somewhere. The smell of incense mingled with the perfumes of the guests and the aromas from the kitchen- a cornucopia of smells. A comfortable chaos reigned in the house.
As soon as Anil and Adriana entered the house, they were accosted by people,- all greeting them and putting drinks and sweets in their hands. Adriana gulped down her juice and steeled herself to enter the kitchen while Anil went to make a quick bow in front of the Krishna idol which was decorated with flowers. Anil then gave Adriana a last few words of encouragement, but he knew that she would have to deal with this on her own.
There was more chaos in the kitchen. About half a dozen women were in there, doing all manner of things. Some were chopping vegetables, some were putting pots on the stove, and even the microwave was constantly humming. Adriana paused at the door, her heart throbbing, and just as she was about to say something, one of the women saw her. Adriana hardly knew her as they’d only met briefly a couple of times before. The woman, who was the grandmother of one of Anil’s cousins said, ‘Oh there you are. So glad you could come … do you want to join us in the women’s club?’
Adriana could only nod.
‘Great,’ the woman continued, ‘Come over here. Could you chop these potatoes for me?’
Adriana put down her purse and headed to the kitchen counter and with a shaky smile at the women, started cutting the potatoes. A few minutes passed and the chatter of the cooks gradually calmed her. One of the women came over and told her, no, hold the knife like this, it’s easier this way, and Adriana thanked her gratefully. After that, she moved on to other small tasks and each time she was given a plethora of hints on how to deal with the food. She felt a sense of deja vu and realized that she was remembering her session with the Mask. All the instant knowledge that she’d had access to while wearing the Mask was now becoming real knowledge and with the help of the happy camaraderie of the women, she felt like she was finally a part of the community. It wasn’t so hard to cook when there were so many people acting as a safety net. The cooking was over before she knew it and the women headed back into the main part of the house.
Anil was carrying on a conversation with one of his relatives, but he was hardly paying attention to it,- he had one eye on the kitchen all the time. He saw Adriana come out and started walking up to her but even before he spoke to her, he saw Adriana smile at him. In that moment, he knew that it would be all right.

Notes:
1. A person from the state of Karnataka in South India
2. a rice dish with vegetables and lentils, a signature dish for Kannadigas.
3. puffed and dried rice balls, which are then deep fired
4. One of the main deities of Hinduism, an avatar of Vishnu
5. House Gods are the deities worshiped in a special prayer room in the house, and is considered as the primary deity for a particular house
6. Classical Indian music from the South, usually devotional in nature

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