Preserving Fruit, Preserving Memories, Preserving Myself

There are times in life when things just don't go according to plan. For someone like me, who loves to plan the future, there is really nothing worse than periods of chaos and uncertainty.

I've spent the last six years in graduate school, getting a PhD in Indian literature. For the last six years, my life has been fairly well organized, with plenty of structure and purpose. I travelled all over India to examine archives and learn languages. I spent days and nights single-mindedly writing my dissertation on Classical Indian poetry. It was the perfect life for me. A life of pleasant order, with plenty of time to write and think.

Then, one day, I finished my dissertation and graduated. I was suddenly on the job market, in the real world, forced to reckon with my next step. I spent days searching for jobs, applying to jobs, facing rejection for the first time in my life. There was nothing to do but to keep forging ahead, against the odds. For me, not having a vision of the next step was so disheartening that I became, well, not depressed, but perhaps, blue. While I waited to hear back from jobs, I felt completely unproductive. In fact, I felt like I was losing sight of what I wanted from life, of the things that gave me pleasure in life, of the joy of pursuing a project. It was hard, when I was not doing anything, to remember who I was.

It was then that I reread Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie. The main character of the book, Saleem, describes his relationship with chutney, that wonderful Indian canned delicacy. Towards the end of his exciting life, Saleem spends his days making chutneys because preserving food, to him, is a form of preserving memories. In a jar of chutney, he can include his favorite flavors and tastes, which as everybody knows, are connected to memories:

"...Rising from my pages comes the unmistakable whiff of chutney. So let me obfuscate no further: I, Saleem Sinai, possessor of the most delicately-gifted olfactory organ in history, have dedicated my latter days to the the large-scale preparation of condiments... You are amazed: but then I am not, you see, one of your 200-rupee-a-month cookery johnnies, but my own master, working beneath the saffron and green winking of my personal neon goddess. And my chutneys and kasaundies are, after all, connected to my nocturnal scribblings – by day amongst the pickle-vats, by night within these sheets, I spend my time at the great work of preserving. Memory, as well as fruit, is being saved from the corruption of the clocks." (36, Midnight's Children. Salman Rushdie).

Inspired by Rushie, one of my favorite authors, I decided to stop despondently looking ahead to the next step, and to do something productive. I decided to make chutney, or in American terminology, jam.

It was the best thing I could have done to get out of a funk. Jam making is an inherently productive task. You take your fruit, you create an interesting flavor profile, throwing in spices and liquors, and then, at the end of the process you have produced a bright, beautifully colored jar of something delicious. It gives you something lovely to offer those around you–your friends, your loved ones.

The task of jam making also gives you time to think. As you are chopping fruit and as you are slowly stirring your pot, so that the sugar does not burn, your mind can wander, or perhaps focus. While I was jam making, I stopped thinking ahead to the next job application or the next stage of my career. Instead, I remembered making strawberry jam as a little girl growing up in Paris with my mother. I thought about all the delicious jams I had tasted while having tea when I was living in London to do research. Like the character Saleem, preserving fruit allowed me to preserve memories. I thought about the things in life that give me pleasure and happiness. I began to feel like a whole person again. Someone who had a great deal to offer the world.

The creativity in the kitchen made me feel creative in other ways as well. I thought about all the different, exciting things I could do with my life. Things that were not in the original plan. Now, I'm on track to do a range of entrepreneurial and humanitarian projects that I never imagined I would do.

Why do I can? It gives me something productive to throw myself into, and that productivity is contagious. It helps me remember who I am, the simple tastes and experiences that I enjoy. It allows me to be creative and to think creatively about my future.

CAA contributor Liz Segran recently completed her PhD in Indian literature. She currently lives in Cambridge MA with her fiancé.

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