We met Shashi in Udaipur, a city located in the provence of Rajasthan in the Northwestern part of India. At the dinner table, she told us her story.
She entered into an arranged marriage, one in which she spoke Rajasthani and her husband spoke Hindi. They understood each other, but could not talk to each other, so Shashi learned Hindi and their communication improved.
Shashi lived with her mother and father-in-law, as is the custom in India. Her mother-in-law would fight with her over everything, such as every time she smelled garlic cooking. Shashi loved to cook with garlic and onions, which is against strict Brahmin culture -- and her mother-in-law was Brahmin.
Shashi had two boys, and when they were 7 and 9, her husband died at the age of 35. This left her in a real bind. By this time her mother and father, and all her in-laws had also passed away. She had no way to earn money.
As is Indian culture, she was required her to stay in her house for a year and then go through a forty-five day period of sitting in a corner with her face covered. During this time, her friends would come console her and often sit in the corner and cry with her.
The Brahmin caste prohibits a widow to remarry. She was really alone and depressed. She could only get up when she was to fix meals for her family, and this small refuge kept her alive for many years.
After the mourning period had finished, she was forced to find work. She had no university education and no way to earn money. Since she was a Brahmin by marriage, the highest caste in India, it was not allowed for her to work at any menial jobs, only professional ones. She could not bring in laundry to wash or clean houses.
Finally, a brother-in-law suggested she teach cooking classes, so she decided to try it. Her first class was with an Australian couple. Shashi could not speak English. She was so nervous that her hands were shaking and she spilled the chai tea she had prepared.
Then French and German customers came. Shashi continued in nervousness, continuously spilling the chai tea until she eventually learned enough English to speak to people and communicate with them about cooking.
During this time she demonstrated her cooking skills by action rather than by word, with a motto of “watch me and do what I do”. The smell of her spices and delicious curries could be smelled all the way down the street, and people started coming.
Eventually, with the help of a customer, she was able to make printed copies of her recipes and have them in her cooking classes. As people began to cook with her, taste her food, and leave her positive reviews, her small business began to grow. Her favorite dishes include paneer, vegetable korma, dal, and chana masala -- all dishes she teaches in her cooking class.
When Shashi started her cooking classes, there were only two other cooking classes in Udaipur. Today over sixty different cooking classes are held throughout the city, and Shashi (like many other Indian widows) struggles to support herself, take care of her family, and do what she loves.