We were at Gurdwara one day for cooking seva, and I remembered. I remembered.
I have a phobia of making rotis at the Gurdwara.
Let's be clear here; I don't fear making rotis, and I don't fear the Gurdwara. I fear making rotis AT the Gurdwara (it is imperative that you read it like that).
Don't laugh!! I am being serious, wholly serious.
For those unfamiliar with Sikh culture, all our places of worship, known as Gurdwaras, also run free kitchens, where all, all, are welcome to join and partake what we call langgar. This means that any devotional activity that takes place at the Gurdwara is automatically followed by food being served to the congregation and visitors.
As a result, the kitchen usually swings open several hours before prayer, with numerous Grandmamas and Grandpapas and Aunty Jis and Uncle Jis busying themselves with making oh-the-most yummalicious food. More often than not, this includes the subject of my phobia: round rotis.
I can trace this irrational phobia back to its origin. Ulu Yam Gurdwara, age between 9-12 years, at prayers held for the annual celebration of Bhai Vir Singh. My little cousin Sukhsharan and I, roused from our little sleeping places early in the morning, walk across the road to the Gurdwara to help with the roti-making for the hundreds of people that would arrive later in the day.
We go to the all-familiar cooking area, and everyone takes up a spot. Roti-making has several stages and the ladies automatically form clusters. Speaking is not necessary; everyone knows where what takes place and who fits where - it is just a matter of settling into your spot and rolling up your sleeves.
And what are the options?
STAGE 1. Kneading dough
Texture, texture, texture.
STAGE 2. Making perrey (dough balls)
Global Punjabi Standards of shape and size to be adhered to.
STAGE 3. Rolling perrey into round rotis (uh-oh, trouble starts) and tossing them unto the tava (pan)
A Perfect Roti is a Blooming Roti.
STAGE 4. Flipping rotis
A Master only requires two flips, no more, no less. That's all, kthxbai.
STAGE 5. Spreading ghee
A dying practice - health awareness to be blamed for the gradual demise of the ghee-fied roti.
Obviously, it is your seniority/ experience/ number of inner circle contacts (ooo touchy subject) that determines which category you will fall into.
Dough-kneading is supervised and carried out by the orang kuat (i.e. the main force) of the kitchen; the ones who know how many people are expected and how this translates into quantities of flour and water (which is the crux of a perfect roti). It is generally wise to not disagree with this group, simply because they really do know what they are doing, and are divinely bound to get it right, period. Exclusive rights are reserved and entry is by invitation only.
The Perrey-Makers I consider to be apprentices, on their way to Stage 3. Usually these are doe-eyed young girls, and generally just grateful to be elevated from Stage 5 with promises of Blooming Rotis dangling in front of them. This is a critical transitionary level indeed - it is like being initiated into a sorority. Here is the first door into the most secret enclave of the community of Punjabi women. They are now on the path to making their mothers deliriously happy. Look here, they say, my daughter, the roti-debutante, has arrived.
Stage 3, oh Stage 3. Rolling rotis is an art in itself. And rolling them round, that is a gift. But rolling them round, while under pressure to churn them out at a rate of 3 per minute, while having eyes bore down on you to see if you deserve to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Stage 3 crowd, while trying to estimate if you have too much/ too little dry flour on your roti and whether that will improve/ hinder your rolling activity? I fall at the feet of those who achieve this.
If you're flipping rotis this probably means that you are nearing the end of your roti-making life-cycle (with a potential promotion to Stage 1 should any vacancies arise). You have worked your way up, from Stage 5, to Stage 2 and then to Stage 3, to arrive at this comfortable position that says: yes my child, I have walked the Path of the Roti-Maker, and have earned my place here. Your reward is the long roti-flipper that adorns your fist - it is a dream, a dream I tell you, to be able to wield this instrument of beauty and wave it around like a medal. To use a Roman reference, this would equal to having a Triumph, and a Roti Triumph is the true test of a Punjaban. It is a home run.
Finally, in the corner, far away from the rest of the prestigious roti activity, sit a a handful of little girls. Spoons in one hand, hot rotis in the other, spreading ghee onto every other roti. Don't look down on these girls; the rotis that they work with are fresh off the tava, and with their burning fingers they have to pick the right side for spreading (of course there is a right side!!), and gauge how much needs to be applied on the edges so that the white cloth that wraps the rotis doesn't become totally stained. Moderate staining is, of course, permissible. We are reasonable beings afterall.
And that, in a nutshell, is an overly generalised, intensely exaggerated, and substantially fantasised view of the process of making a (round) roti.
So back to little Sukhsharan and I, standing in the kitchen at the Ulu Yam langgar area, figuring out where we fit in with this confusing clockwork of The Sisterhood of Round Rotis.
I have no idea what to do. Eyes still a little hazy from insufficient sleep, I try (fail!) to underderstand this unspoken arrangement while also trying to decide which cluster I was least likely to embarrass myself in. I had watched my mum and grandmothers making rotis many times before, and had had a hand in making them too, but nothing on this terrifying scale of Gurdwara-level round rotis. My rotis thus far had been oddly-shaped, uneven, unbloomed, and would probably have been better served as poppadoms (remember the age group: 9-12 years old - have a heart!). And from that, I was being thrown into this.
And to make matters worse, just a little whole lot worse, 9-12 year old Sukhsharan, seeing an open space for a Roti-Roller (STAGE 3! STAGE 3! STAGE 3!), starts to walk over.
Oh my, oh oh my.
Oh my, oh oh my.
Imagine my reaction, in bullet time. Eyes going wide, hands reaching out to pull her back, mouth opening to make way for the silent shout that is rising in my throat.
Imagine what happens, in real time. She reaches the open space, grabs the rolling pin, and starts rolling.
Yes, she obviously could not roll 3 rotis per minute.
Yes, she didn't have eyes boring down on her to pick on her mistakes - when you're that young they are more inclined to praise you than chide you (yes, I'm bitter, deal with it).
Yes, there was perhaps a little too much/ too little dry flour on her rotis that hindered her rolling activity.
BUT. Oh, the crucial BUT.
They were ROUND.
As round as a merry-go-round, as round as a Gurdwara bowl, as round as Po the Panda.
Here, a realisation.
I knew I could not make rotis like that.
And without round rotis under my veylna (rolling pin), how-oh-how was I going to add the Roti-Triumph feather to my chunni?
I was being dragged off the track of my home run, that same track that generations before me had run on and Triumphed on, and I was helpless. Oh the shame I would bring to my family!
And thus, in this dramatic, curtain-parting, floodlights-shining, earth-rumbling way, out of the womb of insecurity and fed on fear of watchful eyes, a phobia was born. Roundrotiphobia.
Would the ground just open up and swallow the 9-12 year old me now, please.
~ to be continued (time needed resurface from ground-swallowing) ~
Note to reader: I draw your attention again to an earlier sentence: "And that, in a nutshell, is an overly generalised, intensely exaggerated, and substantially fantasised view of the process of making a roti." Emphasis on "overly", "intensely", and "substantially". Please do not take my breakdown of this seva literally. Please instead, laugh. At me, if you will. Thank you.