losets can be full of strange things. Skeletons, scared Queer folks — and rotis. But how did the rotis get there?
On a chilly Tuesday night in April, I was sitting with family talking about weekend plans and gritting my teeth through the usual criticisms when a cup of chai slipped from my father’s hand. He got up to pick up the cup and stumbled, his eyes unfocused, unintelligible words stumbled from his tongue as if it was asleep. My mother and I looked at each across the room, and we knew something was wrong.
Everything I learned in neuro 101 came flooding back: “He’s having a stroke,” I said, “we need to go now!” I rushed him to the car and we drove to the hospital as my agnostic father sat next to me, silently praying. When we reached the ER, we were greeted by an overworked white nurse who told us to wait for our turn. After a screaming match, the ER staff finally accepted that my father was having a stroke and took him to be treated.
I sat alone in the room looking at the floor with tears in my eyes. I was overwhelmed by emotions for the same distant man who I’d told I didn’t love — a father I called absentee in a heated moment of anger. When I saw him the next morning, he was weaker than I’d ever seen him in my life. He struggled to speak to me. I patiently waited. .
Slowly but steadily he began to recover. His mobility came back first. Every evening when I came back from work, he and I cooked while he practiced speaking. Saying the names of ingredients, stuttering and struggling with pronunciation and remembering what he was trying to say. Then came a day where we were talking about our favourite foods — he had a breakthrough.
“Doli Ki Roti.”
At first, I thought he meant to say something else, but he assured me that was precisely what he wanted to say. I’d heard of a million kinds of rotis, paranthas, and naans. But there was something about the surety in his voice and the happiness on his face that I hadn’t seen in so long. It ignited something in me, something that told me that I needed to find him doli ki rotis, whatever they were.
I had all the usual ingredients for rotis: some whole wheat flour, water, and a pinch of salt. So I was sure these mysterious rotis wouldn’t be too different.
I opened up the family Whatsapp group chat and asked my maternal grandmother and aunties what doli ki rotis were. They didn’t have a clue either. How could no one know? These were some of the best cooks I knew, and they didn’t know about this magical euphoria-inducing food.
The next step on my recipe hunt was surprisingly difficult. After so many years of painful silences and purposeful avoidance, I decided to have an honest conversation with my father. Our daily speech practises helped, but it didn't prepare me for the journey into his childhood that I went on that day.
As he recounted the days of years that had long since passed, I got a glimpse of who he used to be. Much like the rotis we were dedicated to making, he was once a little impressionable ball of dough before life left him burned and charred.
Amidst the emotions and heartfelt words, I found some missing ingredients.
“It’s something my mom used to make for festivals when I was young; she would spend days making the dough, putting it in the closet,” he said with a stutter.
“The closet!?” I scoffed, “Why would you stick roti dough in the closet. It would spoil!”
Chuckling, “that’s what made it special,” he replied. “You had to be a master chef to make them, everything had to be perfect, or the dough would spoil and taste awful.”
So, doli ki rotis needed flour, water, salt and a bit of Multani flair. Something my mom’s Haryanvi side of the family wouldn’t know anything about it, so talking to them again would get us nowhere. But as much clarity it gave me, it left me even more confused than before.
I barely knew anyone from my paternal side of the family. I knew they had fled Multan during The Partition of India and Pakistan, but that side of the family tree was something my dad and uncle had pruned away after my Dadi passed.
It was almost comical. His choice to distance himself from his family was my generational curse too. My parents provided for me, but the emotional distance between us existed for a reason. They never got me, and after I came out, I let that barrier widen and keep us further apart.
But would the literal closet of these magical rotis heal what had been lost to a figurative closet?
Weeks passed and one afternoon while scrolling through social media, a pop up came up, “People You May Know,” it felt like lightning had struck. I’d heard of so many people from my parents’ generation reconnecting with old friends on Facebook, finding those they had lost. So why couldn’t I use it to see my other family? I had all the tools I needed. A phone, data, and my father’s old family name. Hours and Hours of Raj this, Nina from way over there, and eventually I found her.
Taruna Masi, my father’s distant cousin. I sent her a request and let her know who I was, fully expecting her not to respond. I mean, who would reply to some random kid who pulled up in your DMs claiming to be your estranged cousin’s child? But she responded the same night! She said my face reminded her of my Dadi, and she knew I was telling the truth. Talking to her over a Facebook call, I could hear the joy in her voice. Zuckerburg’s hellscape had revived the branches of the family tree that had withered away. She got to rekindle childhood friendships that she had lost decades ago. It allowed me to reconnect to the family and heritage I’d lost before I even understood the meaning of that loss.
Masi and I spent hours on a Saturday on Skype trading recipes of all the foods my dad grew up eating. But when it came to my closeted rotis, she knew what went into them.
Baking & Spices
But the secret of how they came out perfect was something no one told her. I waved it off, overconfident in my ability. If my Dadi could make them way back in the day, I could too. I followed my auntie’s recipe to the letter! Knead. Ferment. Stuff. Roll out and then fry. It wasn’t right, though.
There was something I had missed. My parents offered to help, but my Aquarius sun demanded I do this myself. I tried to remember her, my grandmother. All I had was the hazy memory of a short, stout woman. A practical woman who did nothing without reason. So there must have been something specific she did that made those rotis perfect. But what was that thing? What was it that she did that we weren’t?!
The closet! We weren’t putting our dough in the closet.
That night I remade the recipe, plopped it into a Tupperware that had no lid with some cling wrap on it and took it to the closet. As I opened the door and walked into my parents’ master bedroom closet, a waft of warm, heavy air engulfed me, and it became clear to me why our dough wasn’t rising properly.
India is a hot and humid country, especially where my family used to live. So obviously, this spicy-sweet roti dough that needed to proof in an old-fashioned metal wardrobe wasn’t going to ferment in the cold oven of a Canadian kitchen!
I did a quick about-face with a single thought racing through my head: “We need heat!” I ran to my car, drove over to Walmart and picked up the first heating pad I could find and took it home. With renewed enthusiasm, I went back to the closet and set up my makeshift Indian fermentation room. I wrapped the bowl of dough in a blanket with the heating pad between the layers, plugged it into the wall and shut the door on my mad food scientist lab for three days.
Those 72 hours trickled by like honey, but the reward for my patience was even sweeter. Opening the plastic-wrapped lid, the smell of the dough filled the kitchen. Warm, bready, cinnamon-ey. It worked! I could feel it in my bones that my closet contraption had worked! Grinning like a fool the entire time, I made the rotis. Rolling them out, stuffing them with the lentil mixture and frying them to the Fenty approved shade of golden brown. The mouth water aroma of sizzling doli ki roti pulled my father out of his room, and I knew my job was done.
Looking at his face, I saw time turn back the hands of time. The smell of those rotis took him back to before the stroke, before Canada stripped him of his accomplishments all because he was Indian. Before the night I told him that he would never really be my Dad.
That night as we all ate together smiling and happy, sharing a meal, the past four months of doctors’ appointments, physiotherapy and failed recipes faded away. Just as the ghee melted on the hot rotis, some of the pain I had held onto for years after my father walked out, melted too. Sip by sip, the cold, salty lassi seemed to douse the smouldering anger I had felt since I came out.
I’d never seen him as the perfect father. That relationship was damaged beyond repair; those memories tarnished, and no matter what, that couldn’t change. But sitting at the table amidst the smell of winter spices and the jasmine incense that wafted from our family temple, something clicked back into place.
Those rotis that found their way across the world, through the divide of lost family, built a bridge over the ashes of one I’d long since burned. They turned the closet where I hid my pain into a place that is warm and nurturing, capable of creating something beautiful and delicious.