One of the things I think about instead of sleeping at night is this: There is, it seems, no end to the ways in which a person might be consumed. Lately I am fascinated by conceptions of the self as fuel which may be consumed in order to be useful to other people. The need to be of use is a central drive for me and many people I love. I lie awake in the dark and wonder: Why?
Why are people like me so compelled to be useful that we willingly use ourselves up for maximized utility? As much as we might find answers via therapy and other means of obtaining knowledge of the self, still there exists a why that to me feels unanswerable.
I have always been someone who looks to stories for answers. Lately I keep returning to Rati Mehrotra’s “Amma’s Kitchen,” published in the February 2023 issue of The Deadlands. If I cannot say that this story answers any questions, still it speaks to the parts of me that cannot stop asking.
Amma’s existence centers around being of use. Proprietor of a diner for the unsettled dead (and, as the name by which her clientele knows her implies, a maternal figure to the souls who frequent her establishment), Amma does not know why she must spend her own afterlife cooking. She does not remember her real name, or why she agreed to cook food she is never allowed to taste. All she knows is that she must serve everyone who enters the diner that she is not permitted to exit. Because she is also not permitted to ask questions, all she can do is wait for the promised day when she is supposed to at long last remember the why of it all. In the meantime, she must cook, and carry the burden of knowing her customers’ past lives—and deaths—in place of her own.
What struck me about this story is the satisfaction Amma finds in a situation where nothing she does is for herself. Amma is hungry, tired, and aching, yet she cares for her stray souls, is touched by their troubles, is pleased by the pleasure they take in eating her food. Despite her uncertainties, she finds contentment in giving her customers what they need. “I like to think I fulfill a useful role in people’s afterlives,” she tells the reader. She helps them remember their lives and deaths; sometimes that helps them move along to where they are meant to go next. Amma may not know where she is meant to go next, but she gives her all to helping other people find their next.
“Amma’s Kitchen” is brimming with delicious dishes, and I struggled to choose just one to be my taste of Mehrotra’s story. I was particularly tempted to try the rogan josh Amma cooks for a bridegroom murdered on his wedding day. In the end, though, I cooked the fish pakoras she serves a girl named Akanksha who needs to taste her mother’s fish pakoras with coriander chutney one last time. Akanksha’s pakoras mark the point where both her story and Amma’s turn toward new chapters, so they seemed best suited for a taste of an ending.
When I sat down to nibble at crisp chunks of fragrant battered fish, I watched my partner fall upon their portion with an attitude that seemed to fall somewhere between glee and awe. Watching the person I most love devour my work, I was reminded that in some ways I understood completely why Amma—despite her complaints—could find satisfaction in an afterlife devoted to serving others regardless of whether she was ever served.
I have never found it as easy to cook for myself as for others. Like Amma, I have sometimes cooked food others craved that I could not even eat, and tried to satisfy myself, as she does, with a glass of water. I could surely unearth a variety of explanations for why I would do this. Explanations or no, though, and setting aside the simple satisfaction of watching someone I love enjoy my cooking, in some ways I feel my motivations will always be as mysterious as the forgotten past that set Amma behind the counter of her diner.
There is a point in “Amma’s Kitchen” where everything that matters to Amma is finally revealed. Where Amma gets to know what choice shaped her fate, and remember her past enough to know she would choose it again. Where Amma is allowed to lay down the burdens of others and pick her own afterlife back up. This is a deeply moving scene. It is also a scene that felt more fantastical to me than the concept of a diner where dead souls are served by a culinary psychopomp.
I am incapable of imagining a point at which a person who must be of use can find another way to be. This reflects no flaw in Mehrotra’s story, but rather the inflexibility of my own existence. I cannot imagine ceasing to need to be useful even after I am dead.
For all the answers I seek in stories, I must admit that I rarely find them. Understanding Amma’s choices does not illuminate my own. It is only a story, and it is not my story. I may never truly know what drives me to consume myself as fuel for my usefulness to others. I do not know if, in Amma’s shoes, I could let myself move on after serving my time. I imagine myself serving dead strangers for all eternity and never understanding why. Still, I like to think of Amma finally understanding her why and being set free. It is only a story, but what a lovely story. Looking to stories for answers sometimes makes it harder to value them as stories. I am grateful to Amma for reminding me to love stories for what they are rather than for what I wanted them to teach me.
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