Summary

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Last Updated April 3, 2024.

Introduction

"Gajar Halwa" was first published in Githa Hariharan's 1993 collection of short stories, The Art of Dying. Over just a few pages, Hariharan transports her readers to a kitchen in Delhi. There, a young woman—Perumayee—reflects on her place in the world as she peels and grates carrots. 

Through Perumayee's experiences, Hariharan addresses the challenges marginalized people face when adjusting to new environments and navigating complex social structures.

Besides writing, Hariharan took an active role in advocating for women's rights in India. By taking the reader into the everyday situations of the story's narrator, she subtly addresses the social issues of impoverished women in her society. In so doing, she explores human resilience and the search for identity—all within the mundane scope of Perumayee's life.

Plot Summary

The story begins with the narrator, Perumayee, peeling carrots as she reflects on her life. She recalls how she ended up in Delhi cooking for a wealthy family, remembering being persuaded by her neighbor's cousin, Chellamma, to take a job in the city to support her struggling family. 

On Chellamma's advice, she over-represented her skills to get a higher salary. Perumayee was hesitant but went along with it anyway. 

Now employed as a household servant by the memsahib, the woman of the house, Perumayee is tasked with new and unfamiliar chores. The first is peeling and grating carrots for gajar halwa, a popular Indian dessert. As she works, Perumayee thinks about her past life in the village, where she and her mother worked hard to support the family. It was in the village that she learned "to fight and push and shove."

After her alcoholic father left the family, Perumayee's mother worked hauling gravel at a nearby highway construction project—all while carrying her infant child. Perumayee stays home to care for her other siblings and do the household chores. After the highway project comes to an end, the family finds itself without an income. Their dire circumstances worsen after a drought and the resulting crop failure. Consequently, Perumayee goes to Delhi in search of work.

In Delhi, Perumayee sees Chellamma as her new mother. She has to give her fifty rupees from her salary each month. Despite this deduction, she still has enough to send home a hundred and fifty rupees. With her remaining income, she plans to buy a sweater, like the one she saw a girl wearing at the milk booth line, to stay warm at night. Until then, she will continue using a thin, uncomfortable mattress as a blanket.

Perumayee considers what it is like waiting in line at the milk booth. She has made friends there who support each other against the boys who try to bully them. Her friends also work in the same colony and have similar experiences with their employers. Although they crack jokes about her poor Hindi, they are also supportive and encourage Perumayee not to work too hard. They suggest she find a better-paying job in a wealthier area soon.

Back in the present moment, Perumayee notices that the carrot she is grating is reaching its end. Careful not to scrape her fingers in the grater, she grinds the carrot down until it is just a small nub. Checking to ensure no one is watching, she eats the last bit of the carrot, savoring its juicy sweetness.

Perumayee continues to reflect on her new tasks for the memsahib. She finds doing the laundry unpleasant but enjoys the heat of the kitchen work: 

If I shut the door and turn the gas knobs to high, and hold my hands over the onions sizzling in oil, I feel warm, safe, almost as if I was at home.

Perumayee continues to cook the gajar halwa, stirring it tirelessly as instructed by her employer. She describes the process vividly. For her, the cooking is like feeding her hungry brother at her mother's breast. The halwa absorbs the ingredients. It becomes a "greedy round red mouth" that sucks in everything, including Perumayee's exhaustion and struggles. Perumayee feels like she is becoming one with the dish—and with the city itself, as it envelops her "with one well-aimed slurp."

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