She taught me how to wash rice.
We were about 14 and 16, standing in the kitchen of a friend’s grandparents. It was in the middle of high school and we had to prepare food for a special school event. So, with a small group of friends, we had gathered in this kitchen to make our contribution: I can’t remember the dish, but it naturally included rice. Where I grew up, everybody eats rice, everyday, with almost every meal. The rice cooker is a staple in every home, and probably one of the first things every exiled Reunionese student buys when they arrive in their new country. I know it was the first kitchen appliance I worried about when I landed in cold and unfamiliar Paris, at age 18.
So I already knew how to wash rice since I was a kid. I had seen women and men from my family wash it every day since what felt like the beginning of times. I had watched my mother’s back bend softly over the bowl as her hands moved through the grains and water, evening after evening, and each detail of this always-renewed scene is forever printed in my memory: the yellowish kitchen light, the small jet-black curly locks escaping her bun to gently fall on the back of her neck; and from time to time, the sparkle of the gold bracelet on her skin, which possessed this shimmering shade of dark honey I wished I had inherited too. I had watched my grandmother engage in the same task, and my aunts, and some of my uncles too. I remember the specific ways their elbows bent, how they clutched to the bowl, the rhythm, the sound –everything.
But until this day in my classmate’s grandparents’ kitchen, I apparently did not know how to wash it properly.
Because you have to wash your rice before cooking it –that is, unless you’re using these pre-steamed bleached industrial over expensive packages from hell, in which case please stop. Whether you buy it in elephant-sized gunny sacks or elegant and shiny little packages, rice is supposed to come coated in this beautiful starchy dust you need to get rid of. Washing rice is a science, an art: you have to do it fast enough (too long and it will end up soggy) and to assess the color of the water, from milky mess to just the right amount of translucent. I knew that.
But that day, when my friend Séverine watched me do it, she exclaimed, half-amused and half-horrified:
- That is how you wash rice ?!
And then, in her kindly teasing, subtly mothering way, she proceeded to show me how it’s done. Apparently, I was way too gentle, too caressing with the rice. (Years later, upon telling this story, my other friend Anne would say: “Ah, you were probably washing it à la Chinoise, like all Asians!”)
Whereas Séverine handled it like a boss, scrubbing the rice for dear life, pressing it between both of her palms, as if trying to extract some hidden essence out of it. She was fast and bold and assertive. That is how you are supposed to treat the rice, she explained to me, you don’t just tiptoe around it, you go for it with all your might.
I was abashed.
What, all this years and I did not know how to perform the one quintessential task of our home cooking?
But I trusted her. I trusted her culinary knowledge and her confidence. In many ways, Séverine was a woman before any one of us. Not in an annoying, know-it-all, commanding style. She just possessed very early this natural maturity that bordered on sheer wisdom, but tangled with her unique mix of sassiness and benevolence. She was bright and fun, nailing every school subject and telling us crude sex jokes in the stairs during recess that had us laughing in tears. She was daring and unapologetic but humble at the same time, and she probably appeared very quiet to those who did not know her. She looked like she was always amused by something. Also, she was beautiful.
I also remember her showing my friend Laurence how to dance maloya on her 18th birthday. The same friend recalls how she also helped her understand our entire mathematics program, just before our baccalaureate exams. – But those are other stories.
During my years in Paris, I cooked mostly out of nostalgia and homesickness. (I was homesick to a nearly pathetic point, if you consider that one day I cried while breathing the intoxicating smell of a freshly cut ginger root I had brought from home in my luggage).
And every time I immersed my hands into the rice pot full of cold water, I felt –to my great surprise at first- strangely and deeply connected to all the people who had accomplished this before me, generation after generation. My family, my ancestors, my people, from various origins and countries and stories, but each one of us repeating the same gestures over time. Patiently washing rice.
It was a very unexpected and powerful physical sensation. I felt at the newest end of a century-long cycle, like the heiress of a lineage, a nourishing tradition. As if the movements of others were embodied in my hands, their souls gathering in this small, humble, rice-washing ritual. And I felt a little bit less lost, a little bit less lonely in my tiny kitchen of cold, unfamiliar Paris.
But I had forgotten that Séverine was the one who taught me how to wash rice properly.
Oddly enough, this memory came back a few months ago, vivid as a slap.
Last year, my high-school friend Séverine jumped off a bridge and killed herself.
This is a whole, whole other story. And telling it does not belong to me.
But here are some of the things I can tell:
In the weeks following this incomprehensible news, 20 000 kilometers away, I had a dream about her. We were in high school, our gang of friends reunited after years. We all knew in the dream that she was dead. But then she appeared, in our school courtyard, exactly how she was the first day I saw her, or how I remember her the best. She wore that signature combination of purple spaghetti strap top and ankle-long, slightly split blue jean skirt. Her dark hair were loose in a squarely bob, her light coffee skin glowing, her eyes sparkling. We always had admired the femininity of her features, the long eyelashes that underlined her night-deep piercing look, her thin straight nose (“It’s so pinched! How can you even breathe ?” were the words of her little brother she jokingly repeated to us one day), and this flower bud of a mouth that opened on the most dazzling smile. In my dream, she walked peacefully towards us, with this unforgettable smile on her lips. I threw myself at her crying: “But we thought you were dead!” She answered in this characteristic amused tone of her, laughing a little bit as if I were expressing a silly, childish fear. “Don’t you worry. Look, I’m ok. Everything is ok.” I collapsed on her shoulder, sobbing in sadness and relief while she patted my back, still smiling. There, there, I’m ok.
(I woke up angry at my subconscious for sending me such a deceiving dream. Then I was grateful for it.)
About a year later, back home for an extended stay, a friend brought me to see some kind of magic woman who communicates with spirits (don’t judge me, we all need a Matrix experience once in a while. Plus she didn’t ask for money). At some point, out of nowhere and without giving her any context, I blurted out: “What should we do about Séverine?”
The Being asks not to be forgotten
…was the answer of the spirits, written by the woman on a piece of paper.
A few weeks after that, I was having brunch with my other high school friends Laurence and Anne It was a sunny Sunday morning in Anne’s garden, her eldest and baby daughters were with us, she had garnished the table with fruits and bread and cheeses and meats, champagne and orange juice, homemade pancakes, yogurt and jam, we had brought quiches and puff pastries and cakes. It was a feast of generous food, constant chatter, bursts of laughter.
The three of us hadn’t been reunited in years, but it did not feel like it at all. They were still calling me the little one (a school nickname I used to hate), as if I was their child, and my heart filled with warmth.
After avoiding the topic for about an hour, we finally spoke about Séverine. At some point, I shared the magic-woman answer.
Anne’s eyes became watery -a sight I don’t think I had ever seen in 17 years.
How do we remember her now? How do we not forget about her, ever?
Then we exchanged stories about Séverine, tiny ones, and heavier ones.
And that’s when the rice washing episode came back to me, almost abruptly, as if it had been with me all of these years, waiting for the right moment to pop out of oblivion.
It might look insignificant but I don’t think it is.
Séverine and I had drifted apart and had not spoken to each other in years, as it often regrettably happens when adult life begins. She still remains one of the most remarkable, shaping figures of my teenage years.
Washing rice may seem like an insignificant task, too. But I certainly don’t think it is.
Every time I do it now, I think about all the women (and the few men) who did it before me, and about all those who are doing it at the same time, miles and oceans or even doors away.
I also think about Séverine.
I carry her with me while I scrub the rice with all my might, trying to be as bold and sassy as her. She probably has better things to do than watch my clumsy hands prepare clumsy meals. But wherever she smiles now, I hope she’s content.
I hope she thinks I’m doing it right.
 That is, if you’re not trying to fight a bad case of diarrhea. In which case, be my guest and leave the starch.