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How to eat an Orange
An essay, and recipe for eating an orange. Words and photographs by Vijeta Kumar.
Good morning and welcome to Cooking From Life: a Vittles mini-season on cooking and eating at home everyday.
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Cooking from Life is a Vittles mini-season of essays that defy idealised versions of cooking – a window into how food and kitchen-life works for different people in different parts of the world. Cooking as refusals, heritage, messiness, routine.
Our ninth writer for Cooking from Life is Vijeta Kumar.
How to eat an orange
An essay and recipe for eating an orange. Words and photographs by Vijeta Kumar.
Every morning, my father walks into my room and throws oranges at me. This is how he shows love. In that way, he is only as special as everybody else. But if I tell you why he eats fruits, and insists that everyone he loves also does, you will know that he is unlike anybody else.
When I was growing up, I didn’t like food. Eating felt like homework because it took effort to finish. I couldn’t tell what I disliked and only had a vague sense of what I enjoyed. Fruits weren’t anywhere on my mind then, and I spent a large part of my adolescence staying foolishly away from them. This seems odd to me now, that while I had no relationship with fruits, in another part of the same house, my father was filling his life, and our home, with them. Even now, when he returns from his morning walks, my father always brings back oranges, bananas, or apples. Occasionally he will bring a fruit neither he nor I can recognise, but he will still eat it with pinching curiosity.
My father’s childhood didn’t have fruits. I’m not sure if he even had a childhood to begin with. The relationship between Dalit parents and their childhood is too frightening to ask about. Even so, I once made a small attempt, urging my father to tell me about his childhood and what he had liked eating. He shook his head and muttered ‘childu illa hooddu illa’ – that he had had no childhood. So now, I take the briefest things he says to me and join the dots with everything else he doesn’t.
I imagine that the only fruits he saw in his childhood were either hanging from trees, growing beyond walls, or as pictures in textbooks – always beyond reach. I think that a lot of his desire to accumulate money came from the desire to hold these fruits in his hands. In many ways, Dalit parents are given a second chance at childhood in the childhoods of their children. I know this because when my family watched Tom and Jerry together, my father enjoyed it more than any of us. He saw the fruits and food in Tom and Jerry like they were a dream he longed to wake up in. Everything from roast chicken to sausages to cheese to watermelons and berries – he swallowed with his eyes.
Every year, when March is barely over, my father restlessly waits for mangoes. In the months that follow, he walks around the house, playfully hiding ripe mangoes from all of us – behind the sofa cushion, in rice bins, inside pillow covers. So, when the rest of us dig into the box looking for them, being careful not to tear their deep-pink wrapper, we cannot find them. When we accidentally discover the hidden mangoes, my father laughs a belly-laugh as we yank them away from him.
Throughout my childhood, whenever we travelled, my father would stop by the side of the road and buy kilos of whatever fruit was sold. He bought these in bulk, assuming they would all be over as quickly as they had come. But this never happened, and it made him unhappy. Like once, when we went from Belgaum to Hubli in a Tata Sumo and he purchased a bagful of chepekayis (guavas) and passed them around. We all ate one and moved on with our lives. It was only after we had reached home and were unloading luggage that we discovered the rest of the forgotten guavas in the back.
When he saw the crushed fruits and their aimless juice wetting everything, smelling richer and sweeter than before, my father beat his chest like my aunts did when we played in the sun without sunscreen. He looked like an unforgiving child, like a broken promise. Had he known that the guavas were there all along, he wouldn’t have left them to rot. His face was soft, humorous, and full of heartbreak. It was a look I will never forget.
But that is not the look my father gave me when he found out that I eat beef. When he did, he stood up to hit me, his face small with the anger he was withholding. And before my mother whisked him away, he asked her why she had given birth to an Arundhati Roy. After that, I spent some time directing all my rage towards his last comment, when the people I told this to were more concerned that Dalits were not eating beef. The comedy of all this was not lost on me when I came across Savarna acquaintances who sometimes forced themselves to eat beef to prove an allegiance of some sort, and held me to similar loyalty tests.
Brother, if the only choice is between identity-circus and heart-matters, then I greatly prefer my father’s passion for fruits. It took me a while to realise that he has more than just a political checklist to lose if he’s found to eat beef. So what if his politics don’t come from being Dalit? His love does.
If you google the words ‘Dalit’ and ‘fruit’ together, you will read news of men and women being beaten, raped, lynched and murdered for touching fruits, let alone owning them. In a country where Dalits are treated like criminals for these things, my father’s love of fruits is anti-caste to me.
In my world, eating fruits is never a pause like it is in my father’s. I don’t put my life on hold to eat them like he does. Fruit in my father’s world is protest, poetry and the fiercest, most romantic love song. You should watch him eat an orange. He eats it as if it’s the last one on earth, as if he is eating it with the memory of not being able to eat one as a child, of never being able to forget what hunger is like.
On joyless, noisy days, when there is too much righteousness and no love, I come back home at night and there are oranges on my table. They look carelessly thrown there, sitting idle – but they tell me that, if I’d been there to catch them, they would have been thrown straight at me.
When I see the oranges, I don’t immediately eat them. I gather them together and give them some semblance of order. Then I begin to retrace the oranges back to my father. I imagine him walking into my room, holding a blue plastic bag bursting with the fruits. In my head, he rolls the oranges one by one on my table: he stops at six, seven, and finally at eight. Then he leaves the room, closing the door quietly behind him.
When I think of him doing this, I am reminded of Gabriel García Márquez’s grandmother, who told him about an electrician leaving behind a trail of yellow butterflies every time he left a room. This is how I have come to know if my father has been somewhere: when he leaves, there are either oranges or their fragrance.
Eating an Orange
Pick orange that looks most orange.
Insert thumb into centre and poke hole.
Peel skin however it comes.
Once orange is naked in your hand, ignore segments and tear in half.
Put one half of the fruit in your mouth and drink it slowly. If you suddenly feel more alive, then put the other half in your mouth and repeat.
Vijeta Kumar teaches communicative English at St. Joseph's University, Bengaluru. She spends time feeling torn between the book she's not writing and the PhD she's not doing, and takes comfort behind rumlolarum.com.
Vittles is edited by Rebecca May Johnson, Sharanya Deepak and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.