As my hand went to knock on the baby blue door of the house, I could smell the mixture of cumin, turmeric and coriander making its way from the small kitchen that only included a stovetop, oven, microwave and sink.
After walking in, I saw students crowding around a woman dressed in dark orange and wrapped in a dushala (also commonly termed as a shawl) with Kashmiri embroidery resembling red flowers. I instantly knew this was Kashika Singh, an IU professor of India studies, leading her pupils in how to properly make an Indian dish of red lentils and jeera onion rice.
Professor Kashika is from Varanasi, India, and the dish she made is called masoor. She has been a language teacher for 25 years in different areas such as her hometown in India, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and here in Bloomington.
She has been inspired since beginning her teaching career to create a community where students and faculty can both thrive.
Kashika said she has recently noticed the decline in mental health from the students in her classroom. To her, hosting monthly, home-cooked dinners may be what a student needs to be reminded of home and to know that someone is listening.
Once all of the ingredients were added, the bustling of the kitchen calmed. The importance of each spice within the dish was explained, which made me think that the world isn’t much different from a big pot of varying flavors. Each person holds their own significance in this world, just as each flavor is needed in the overall meal.
Kashika described how regular everyday foods can instantly become a rarity for international students. Cups of tea have since become representations of her best friends, the taste reminding her of conversations she used to have with them in India.
“Where we are changes what certain things mean to us,” Kashika said.
When Kashika first came to America, learning how to maintain her habits from India was difficult. But she learned that by being away from where she was raised, cooking kept her connected with those older memories.
With that, I realized the spicy smell that had been infusing my nostrils and making my eyes water was similar to the fragrances that Kashika experienced from her own mother’s cooking in Varanasi. It’s safe to say that it added to the sense of “home,” even though it wasn’t my own.
I sneezed from the spice crawling up my nose, to which one Indian student at the dinner said, “It isn’t home if you aren’t sneezing.”
Kashika explained that in Sanskrit, a language spoken in India, there is a term called “swadharma.” It means “selfless service,” and to her that is what it means to cook these meals for her students and faculty peers.
She said she finds peace through language learning, teaching and sharing her food.
I could see as her tranquility of mind rippled through the others in the room. As everyone set the table, the now-finished meal was brought out of the steaming kitchen.
Everyone sat down and began passing each other various toppings, one of which was yogurt to cool the spice in the dish, which I used very much. The first bite hit the back of my mouth with great warmth and complex flavor, a taste that reminded me of my own mom’s cooking.
By the end of the meal, some students worked together to clean dishes while others ate kheer, an Indian rice pudding, for dessert.
Kashika said she has received an enormous amount of support and love from her students and community. She also said her email is always open to anyone wishing to contact her as she would love to listen, learn and support all students.
After saying goodbye and walking out of the spice-infused, serene atmosphere, I saw the purple and pink sunset stretch across the blue sky. The dinner reminded me that sometimes all you need is someone to say that yes, college is hard, and that yes, it is okay to take a break and eat a good meal with others around you going through the same thing.
Carolyn Marshall (she/her) is a sophomore majoring in media studies with a focus in TV, digital and film production with a minor in English.