Delhi Diaries: The Value of a Perfectly Round Roti

This week, I went out discovering Delhi, as I do. One of my visits was to the Bangla Sahib Gurudwara, perhaps the most famous Gurudwara in India, outside of Amritsar. Here they also feed thousands of people every single day, and so after doing the usual rounds, I ventured into the kitchen which is run solely by volunteers. Feeling that I should do my bit, not merely be a voyeur, I sat myself down amongst the women (and men!) who were rolling rotis. No one even blinked. In a country where I am used to be constantly stared at, I blame it on the red hair and freckles, this was a revelation which immediately gave me a feeling of acceptance.


Working together silently and companionably.

Wordlessly,  wooden board was passed to me followed by a rolling pin, no one even looked aghast or quizzical or chattered behind their hands, it was all so matter of course. Soon, every few seconds, balls of dough were being flicked down the marble preparation table to me, rather like counters being flicked across a carom table. If I ran out of flour, causing my rotis to stick, I got restocked. During this whole time, no one said a word. Anyone who has spent time in India will appreciate how unusual this is.  If I happened to look up from my ministrations, rather than the usual bank of stares, if I actually did manage to catch someone’s eye, I would receive a brief, encouraging smile, before eyes returned down and we carried on rolling as before. We were a bunch of people, all sitting together as equals, doing our bit to feed the masses, pilgrims and poor. I had never even rolled one roti before, but I sat there rolling roti after roti for quite some time.

It was remarkably peaceful, wonderfully companionable and surprisingly therapeutic. No one even seemed to mind that my own rotis were not perfectly round, nor stacked expertly.

As a western female who has spent a lot of time traveling around India on her own, in many cases, away from the tourist norms, I have become used to the routine of having the same questions thrown at me almost immediately on meeting new people.  To be seen traveling alone as a female, (even when I was younger!) in a country when marriages are usually arranged for people in their early twenties has often caused wonder.  And so, as I sat there, daydreaming and thinking of the good karma I was generating, a part of my brain was wondering just how long it would be before these were asked.  Under normal circumstances it invariably happens in under 3 minutes, but no. Five minutes passed, then ten, then twenty and not one of the usual questions had been uttered. Of course, eventually, the curiosity was too much for one lady and as I looked up, she caught my eye,

‘What is your good name?’

I replied. Ice broken. She then wasted no time, no interim question, she went straight for it, the question which usually makes it to three or occasionally four on the list,

‘You are married?’

I shook my head and smiled, she must have been bursting for 25 minutes to ask me that. She then looked at my quizzically, three more people also looked up.


I shook my head and shrugged. Who knows? Its a question I often ponder myself.

At that point, the woman sitting next to her who had been avidly watching our exchange, nudged her and pointed to my rotis, they both looked at them and then at each other, knowingly. By the time they looked back to me, resignation was set on their features.  My rotis may be good enough for the pilgrims and the poor, but perfectly round they were not and they certainly wouldn’t pass muster with any mother in law to be. It was doom as far as they were concerned.

Which leaves me in a dilemma. I would happily go back to the gurudwara and roll rotis, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and it felt good to be doing something to assist those less fortunate than myself. But if I do, will there be a part of me now doing it for selfish reasons rather than the greater good?  And how many practice rotis does it take to get them perfectly round? My intention was never to generate karma, just to contribute to the cause, but now that the idea is in my head, would that selfish thought that then wipe out the karma that is generated?  And if the generated karma is wiped out, then what are the chances of me ever finding a husband?



  • chanda singh

    August 15, 2015 at 1:03 pm

    Wonderful.We met recently.And on reading this piece the first thing I thought was, thank God, I dont ask these questions.I do, sometimes, when I know the person really well.But more to understand the person than out of curiosity.India has changed a lot in recent times and even in my family there are girls past mid thirty that do not give top priority to marriage.

  • Jini

    June 14, 2016 at 10:06 pm

    This is such a wonderful story – and it really resonates. I remember rolling roti in Calcutta at Mother Teresa’s many years ago and loving the sisterhood (ahem). It felt really therapeutic too. GReat stuff Phillipa!


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