Canjeera (Deb Wain)

The house is early-morning quiet when Khadro wakes. Light leaks into the room; the moon glows through the poorly curtained window. Nightmares of her past have followed her across borders, along dirt roads, into tented settlements. They have found her in this house—notable only for being one of a string that look alike. There are whole streets of brown, brick veneer abodes in this neighbourhood, built as a housing development by a builder with passable skills but no imagination. Here trauma is hidden in plain sight.

She lies still under the covers, the edge of the sheet balled into her closed hand, her heart’s drumming is loud and it keeps her from getting back to sleep. The red glow of the clock on the floor beside her mattress tells her there are hours to go before dawn. She used to need to wake at about this time to start preparing breakfast. Now, only the dreams rouse her at this time. There is no more canjeera, no lion roaring in her house.

She walks carefully on the outside edges of her feet, quiet. She learned to walk in this manner years ago, gently rolling her foot onto the floor to avoid the slapping of sole onto floorboard. Don’t wake the lion.

It was early in the long, hot afternoon, and she was calling to her neighbour again, asking for some canjeera mixture to use as a starter. She had cooked up all of her batter that morning. The lion had been roaring—demanding extra canjeera because there was no beer iyo basal to eat with it.

‘We are not a poor family but this is all you serve me. Where is the liver and onion?’

She did not answer the question. There was no acceptable answer for, where is the meat? They could not afford meat this week. The money the lion gave her bought little in the market, but she knew not to say any of this, especially while he was eating his breakfast. She brought him hot tea and poured it over the broken canjeera for him. He grumbled about going to work, into the world, about working to provide for his family all while he was hungry.

‘A man should not go hungry.’ He added more canjeera to his bowl from the plate on the table.

The boy, sitting quietly, watched it all. He watched his mother’s hands pouring the teapot to fill his father’s bowl with the hot, spicy tea. He watched his father’s hands take the last of the canjeera on the plate while his own bowl remained empty. He looked at his mother, opened his mouth to speak, but the almost imperceptible shake of her head stopped him. His eyes followed her shoulders as she returned to the kitchen to cook the saved batter.

That evening she needed to borrow a cup of canjeera batter from her neighbour, Mala. It did not come without a price. Mala thought her lecture would help the young mother to become a better housekeeper, a better cook, to be better at managing her time and the canjeera batter. Next time Khadro would ask elsewhere.

She gets out of bed and the predawn moon lights her way to the kitchen. She boils the kettle on the gas ring of the stovetop and waits for the hissing to change to the rolling bubbles of boiling water. Her feet are cold on the linoleum; her slippers are still beside the mattress in her bedroom. She pours the hot water over a teabag in a mug once printed with a floral pattern but faded now with repeated washing. She keeps the spoon from touching the edges of the cup as she stirs, so as not to wake her son. He does not sleep well either. From the kitchen she listens to his youthful snoring, quiet, rhythmic. She carries her tea and her study notes to the back porch, leaving the back door slightly ajar. There is no breeze to slam it closed so early in the day. She cups her hands around the sides of the mug and sits in the cane chair positioned under the porch light.

Studying takes up more time than she imagines it should. She hears the lion’s voice tell her that this is because she’s too stupid to study. Her frail brain couldn’t possibly be up to the job of bettering itself. Best that she just concentrate on getting what she is already trying to do, done right. Only a bad mother would leave her child in the care of another so she could selfishly pursue something as ridiculous as study. She places the cup down on the glass top of the outdoor table and the clunk of porcelain against glass silences the lion’s voice in her head.

It was early evening. The lion was roaring. She was trying to mix the batter for the next morning’s canjeera. It needed to sit overnight so that it had the sour taste that the lion prefers. Her hand slapped into the wet mixture, smoothing the batter, adding the water—an evening sound. As a child, the canjeera music of her mother’s hand working the batter had soothed her to sleep. There was comfort in the sound of her breakfast being prepared. She had fallen to sleep to the sound of mixing and woken to the sound of the street vendors calling.

Hot canjeera! Hot canjeera!

Fortunate is he who gets it.

Lucky is the one who eats it.

Good wife, buy it.

Give it to your knight,

So he would roar like a lion!

After they married, he had raged over the first breakfast she had cooked him. The canjeera were not right; they tasted nothing like they should. She should go and ask his mother the right way to prepare them. He had thrown the plate onto the dining room floor. Later he said he had not meant it. The table had been too cluttered—if only she would keep the house tidier—and he had accidentally knocked the plate that she had set carefully by his elbow.

The first of the quiet morning sun finds her still sitting on the cane chair on the back porch. The dregs of her tea are cold in the bottom of the mug—a pattern of faded flowers. Here there are no canjeera vendors calling—no morning sound. The good wife who buys it for her husband does not exist, so there is no one here to be interested in the vendors’ wares. She thinks of the thin pancake that she used to cook in the pan, spreading the batter in a spiral with the back of a spoon, the bubbles making the eyes that form on the surface. She remembers waiting for the top of the pancake to cook through, the careful timing needed to avoid overcooking the base, the practice needed to get the heat right on the new stove of her married life.

She carefully removed the pancake from the pan without tearing it. One hand had the spatula; the other eased the cooked bread out of the frying pan. The lion would not tolerate torn canjeera on the serving plate even though he was going to tear them into a bowl anyway, then sprinkle them with sugar and sesame oil, before allowing her to pour tea over the top. Torn wouldn’t do for the presentation on the table. Very many things were not good enough for the lion. On the plate, she rolled each individual canjeera into a tube, and placed it alongside its companions. The bubbles that make eyes on the top of the bread were cooked closed on the bottoms. The spiral swirl in the mixture allowed the top to colour as well. The pattern is a circle that never comes back to itself but continues to get smaller: a life in the top of a breakfast pancake.

She repositions herself on the cane chair, hoping that the creaking of the woven fabric is not loud enough to wake her son. She wraps an old blanket around her knees and tucks her feet underneath herself. Opening her notes again, she reads the information under the heading ‘Responsible Service of Alcohol (RSA)’. Others in the class seem to know much of this topic already. She is behind and wants to make up for her ignorance. Some already have experiences to share—violent, alcohol-fuelled outbursts of hotel patrons to which they had been witness. She thinks of the lion, who had no need for alcohol.

‘Hot canjeera! Hot canjeera!’ The vendors call in her dream. She has no batter prepared and cannot find the money to buy the breakfast she must provide for her husband. Her purse is empty. She thought there was money, coins carefully saved for this eventuality.

‘Hot canjeera! Hot canjeera!’ The vendors call. Every minute that passes in her search is another minute closer to the lion waking.

‘Hot canjeera!’

The lion roars.

‘Fortunate is he who gets it. Lucky is the one who eats it.’

There is no canjeera for his breakfast. No stew. No liver and onions.

‘Good wife, buy it. Give it to your knight.’

He eats the boy instead and she is relieved he did not choose to eat her.

‘So he would roar like a lion!’

Her waking self shakes in fear at the heartlessness of her own dream—she allowed him to eat the child. Her child.

Even in her dream she is not brave enough to protect the boy. And she was glad that he had spared her.


Deb Wain is a poet and short story writer who is passionate about food, culture, and the Australian environment. When she’s not writing or talking you can find Deb playing with her dogs, drinking coffee, or digging in the garden. Her work, which has appeared in Verandah, Tincture, Verity La and Meniscus, is often inspired by the Australian communities in which she has lived. In 2017, Deb won the CAL Fiction Prize in Meniscus Literary Journal and was shortlisted for the KSP Short Fiction Awards at the Katharine Sussanah Pritchard Writers Centre.