At age 45 I have finally understood why, unlike most Indian women in my age group, I struggle to make perfect rotis. It isn’t a physical challenge – I’m energetic and my friends and family tell me that I am an excellent cook. The thing with roti making is, I’m fine until I get to the part where I must pour boiling water into the flour.
This part of the process is a reminder that somewhere in my youth, a vindictive woman, we will call Cruella-de-Roti for this article, used making roti to torture me daily. Back then, I was young, timid and simply too terrified to tell her that my mum had taught me that rotis that are the size of an appetizer plate are normal as long as they are soft and tasty.
During the 90’s, the Bauer pan was one of the most sought-after cookware items. The family women Ooh’d! and Aah’d! over how awesome rotis turned out in them. When I saw that Cruella-de-Roti had one in her kitchen, I was overjoyed. The first time I was asked to make rotis, I thought I would turn them out in record time to earn her praise for my culinary skills. I could never have been more wrong, both about the speed at which I would make roti and Cruella-de-Roti, who until that point was sweet and amenable.
Pouring boiling water into flour always reminds me of the cheeky old fossil who would make me pour it into four cups of flour while it was still bubbling in the kettle. Then, she’d make me knead it while it was scalding. No amount of wincing or pleading that the dough was too hot to handle would appease her, and any fantasy I nurtured that my culinary skills would be received well went right out the window. It was replaced by the rude awakening that burned me badly.
The kind of ‘badly’ that didn’t just make my hands suffer but my self-confidence too, that made me want to howl for intervention, made my skin red at first and brown later, and was full of yelling, berating and criticism because there was always the reminder that mum hadn’t taught me well enough, or that I hadn’t seen the tough side of life yet.
Once the dough was kneaded and quality controlled, it had to be divided into equal portions, then rolled into the diameter of the largest Bauer pan. If the roti did not get to that size, or they were too thick or had irregular edges, they had to be scrapped and remade so that they would fit perfectly into the transparent roti container that would be arranged on the dinner table to showcase a high-rise stack that compared easily to some of the tallest buildings in Dubai (I am exaggerating but you know what I mean). Like cutting edge architecture, every side of the roti had to look and be equal in size, texture, smoothness, and cooked-ness. Any minute raw layers that were visible after cooking would not be tolerated. It had to go back into the pan with another reminder that I hadn’t yet learnt to make the perfect rotis.
Days blurred into months and months became a year. Finally, Allah SWT, in His wisdom, answered my desperate prayers, removed me from the home of Cruella-de-Roti and placed me back into the world to have experiences that have enriched my life in more ways than just golden ghee. Alhamdulillah!
This is not the part where I tell you that I am grateful to Cruella for mistreating me because I learned everything that I needed to shape me up into who I am today. (Don’t judge me – whilst I have forgiven her, I shall never forget the experience). I was already quite a fine human being when I entered her life.
On the contrary, it is the rotis that I make these days that whisper the secrets of why it is okay to make them perfectly imperfect. That’s right! After all I went through to learn the art of making the ‘perfect rotis’, I still make them in all sizes, shapes, textures, and levels of cooked-ness but only because I choose to and not because I must. Call me the ‘roti-rebel’ if you like.
If you are a people pleaser, unassertive and have lost your identity because you let others tell you what to, how to, when to, where to and why to do things, under the guise of ‘teaching’ you to be some brand of perfect, then this article is just for you. Here are five important lessons that imperfect rotis whisper to me everytime I venture to make them:
Like the different sizes on a plateful of roti, Allah made each of us unique too. It is gradual but consistent learning that helps us to grow into who we are meant to be. There isn’t a time limit to developing skills and talents. It just takes consistent effort to increase the size of the rotis while we develop the art. The essence of the roti is in its taste just as the essence of life is in enjoying whatever we choose to do. If we choose to make appetizer plate sized rotis until the day we die, who’s to say that we shouldn’t? The choice is always ours to make.
The sight of the different sizes of rotis on my plate remind me that growth is as gradual or as rapid as we want it to be. Everybody should choose their own size.
The imperfect stack on my roti plate, some round, others square, some the shape of dialogue bubbles and others the shape of the map of Africa, tell me that we tend to focus too often on what is unimportant in our lives. When roti is eaten, it is never digested in its original shape and when it leaves our bodies, it never announces itself as the roti we had for dinner.
The average human being has no idea what part of the roti has benefitted their bodies yet continues to happily (or unhappily) obsess over making them perfectly round. Frankly, not even rotis care what shape they are in.
When I sit down to eat and pick a roti from the stack I have made, I am always eager to see what shape I’m getting next. I make fun of what I made and joke about being the ‘roti-rebel.’ Most things in life, like imperfectly shaped rotis, are not to be taken seriously. Obsession is unhealthier than roti dripping with golden ghee. Laugh often at what life dishes up – challenges, like the heat from the Bauer pan, are temporary events that are soon sweetened by ease and better opportunities. That’s not to say we should not get out when the Bauer pan gets a tad too hot and threatens to destroy us. Allah has given us all the space to exercise the right to prevent ourselves from being charred.
We are all rough around the edges at something or another because Allah has reserved perfection for Himself only. He gifted some of us with a few talents and made others poor at the same. The imperfect edges on rotis are a glaring reminder that too many of us spend too much of our time smoothing out our rough edges – often to please others. We lose ginormous clusters of our lives striving to be who we aren’t, voluntarily making ourselves miserable, ill, and stupendously unsuccessful.
The rotis on my dinner table rasp at me, claiming that we ought to be content with who we are. We need not seek perfection from others either. However, being content with our rough edges isn’t an excuse to wallow in grief and use it as a reason to stifle growth.
From time to time, we may all get caught in the trap of investing our time, strength and resources into people who never appreciate us. Exiting these situations are an invitation to improve, to seek what is better – which is entirely different from seeking perfection because we think that we were mistreated because we were grossly imperfect. The narrative that if we are fed with enough criticism we will often start to believe it, is true but lurking somewhere behind the critical voices of others is the intuition that Allah blessed us with. Intuition is the niggling whisper that tells us that we aren’t what others claim we are – we are better than that.
The tiny burn spots dotted all over rotis are inevitable and a testimony to the heat the layers of dough endure before becoming edible. A little extra or slightly larger spots don’t make rotis inedible. We too, can be burnt from life’s challenges – some of us more than others. That doesn’t make us unfortunate, unlucky, or less than whole. We should never let anyone tell us differently and should always remember that it is because of our extra burnt spots that Allah made us stronger, wiser, confident, intuitive, and spiritual. They also make us kinder, amenable, empathetic, and patient. Most of all, our burnt spots add to our personality and are a reminder that Allah has tested us because He loves us. If Allah loves us, we are whole and worthy of the love, respect, care, justice, mercy, and compassion others should give us. We are not wrong for wanting it, in fact we are right to expect it.
Rotis that are soft, layered and a little uncooked are delectable. They are fabulous with anything we serve, and no one will die from eating it (maybe a little tummy ache though). The roti layers that melt on our tongues convey the message that we too evolve, experience by experience. We grow leaps and bounds through layers of poor decisions, immaturity, anger, anxiety, poor health, abuse, travel, fear – collectively we can all create an exhaustive list.
Cruelty, criticism, and harsh perceptions that come from others reflect who they are and not who we are. I know myself better than others, can make my own decisions, am good at what I do and I am made up of layers of wisdom and experience. I am sure that every person reading this is layered too.
I am not delusional that I am now a fully done roti. I acknowledge that more challenges and experiences will layer who I am even further. Therefore, though we never know what lies in our future we should always live in the hope that the roti we evolve into will always be a delectable blend of size, taste, texture, shape and layers with just the right number of rough edges and burnt spots to define us beautifully.
Making roti and living a fulfilling life is really a matter of nurturing the correct mind space about perfection. We can choose to be appreciative, supportive and respectful of those who make our rotis or we can appreciate, admire, learn and continuously strive to improve our own roti making skills. That is to say that, we can quit expecting perfection from others and refrain from expecting perfection from ourselves while we all mutually grow.
In the end, perfection is subjective and whosoever wants it for themselves or demands it from others is asking for something that isn’t fully tangible. Cruella-de-Roti demanded something that I really should not have been expected to give at the cost of my emotional, physical and psychological well-being. But I too gave into her expectations and allowed her to make demands that were harmful to me. Hindsight will always remain the perfect teacher. We can choose to be bitter or simply enjoy the secrets our delectable rotis convey- the secrets of why you should never make the perfect roti.