My father lived in England, while working on his PhD in Ophthalmology in the year 1955. Being far away from his family made him lonesome not only for his children, but also for his wife’s cooking skills. Despite the meagre stipend he received, his family sailed to London on a ship named the M.S. Batory. I was four years old.
We slept on bunk beds in the middle deck and the rolling of the sea had me perpetually feeling nauseous and sucking a lemon. I remember the menu in the ship’s dining hall: a yucky, watery soup, mashed potatoes, soggy cutlets with undercooked peas. I missed my rajma chawal with desperate passion.
Ensconced in a small flat in London, my mother, in an effort to extend the family budget, used to give talks on radio BBC’s “Women’s’ Indian Hour,” a cooking program, where recipes of chole bhature and Indian curries were shared, making her the recipient of one guinea, that was added to the frugal family coffers. She also joined pastry making and bakery classes.
London, when we arrived, was cold and unwelcoming, but the smell of fish and chips, wrapped in newspaper cones doused with vinegar is a smell that is lodged in my memory. After spending four years in London and Leeds, my father got a job in the Medical College in Amritsar. We sailed back on the same ship, experiencing the same repugnant menu combined with constant seasickness.
Amritsar was a heaven for me as every corner had an eatery. Mangal thi Macchi, Novelty’s Puri Allu, Bansal with his ghee laden motichoor ke ladoo. It was sybaritic gluttony, at its worst and best. The pleasure principle came from food and more food. Food was the leitmotiv that defined my life. My tongue was bruised and browned by the amb papar that I licked constantly.
We changed many homes in Amritsar. For six months we were in one, eight in another. I remember colorful bundles and baskets containing clothes, utensils, potatoes, onions, books, and images lying strewn in corridors. Most homes we lived in had a camp-like feeling, as if we were a family on the move. This spirit of impermanence never unsettled me. Having no fixed structures and sleeping on any bed that was available appealed to my bohemian spirit.
My parents had migrated from Lahore to Amritsar during the riots in 1947, and the readiness of being prepared for flight stayed with them. We then moved into a picture postcard government house located inside the Medical College complex. It was a cottage with a slanting tiled roof, open rain water drains, and red oxide floors with deep verandas. The kitchen was not attached to the house, but connected by a long winding semi-covered causeway, with a roof of corrugated tin sheets. The sound of monkeys jumping on the tin roof sounded like an attack of the aliens. They stole whatever they could manage, including pickle being dried, papads being sunned, grain and rice. No vigilante army could match their dexterity and agility.
My mother had a fetish for cleanliness, and the kitchen was her kingdom. The moment she entered the kitchen, a transformation took place. Suddenly mother ceased to be “Ma,” and a fresh visage replaced the familiar mien. She would be checking for dirty rags, stale food or imaginary cockroaches and had the domestics scurrying around, in order to keep up with her. The kitchen was her favorite space and she spent endless hours checking and rechecking her spices and lentils, her ghee jars and pickles. The image that I see while writing this article, is of a delicate, diminutive woman, an apron wrapped around her waist, a scarf controlling her wispy hair, a string of curses upon her lips, while she juggled the various ladles, wooden spoons, steel pots, bottles of spices, sprigs of coriander and mint along with finely chopped ginger and garlic pods. The only conversation I recall having with my mother was about food. The planning of a menu for lunch and dinner was serious business.
Even before breakfast was over, lunch was being planned and the circle continued.
Meals were planned both for their nutritional value and aesthetic appeal. Breakfast was a bowl of porridge along with paneer cubes, lightly fried with salt and pepper, arranged with a ring of grilled tomatoes and onions along with french fries. The preparation for lunch started even before breakfast was over. No food was allowed to be wasted. Austerity was a virtue and my parents had habits that bordered on asceticism.
My father, being a doctor, insisted on healthy eating. This consisted of butter, milk, ghee, lassi, before the counting of calories had manifested itself in dietary considerations. My father’s constant refrain was, ’Once you start eating all the vegetables, I will consider you mature.’ To be perceived as mature, we were motivated to eat karelas, tinda, lauki, none of which was exactly considered child-friendly food.
The other obsession my mother had was her love for floral curtains, chintzy upholstery and decoration pieces in porcelain. The sofa in the living room was a hand-me-down, from a kindly relative. It had creaky springs that flatulated and squeaked every time someone sat on its placid surface. I loved posing against it, doing my mummery, while munching greasy chips and a coke without fizz, bought from the canteen within the medical college complex.
Eating against the florid extravagance of the sofa made me feel like a luxuriating odalisque, notwithstanding the grease stains that the oily chips left behind. An image that constantly follows me, is my mother washing pickle before eating it. This is an aberration that defies analysis. She was what you call ‘vhamee’ in Punjabi. You could never pick a morsel of food from her plate or wear her chappals or sit on her bed. A term that is fairly untranslatable, ‘jhuta’, which is related to how purity and pollution is imagined, was an affliction that she was stricken with.
This attitude was in evidence during Diwali when endless boxes of mithai used to come home, as gifts for Doctor sahib and his family. My mother would empty the mithai in a huge wok and like a high priestess, churning a magic broth, she would chuck the various mithais into the wok, sprinkle cocoa powder with some nuts, transforming the barfi, kalakand, pinii and milk-cake into a gooey fudge. She was certainly not going to feed her family mithai from the local halwai without sterilizing it.
Despite that, I recall the kitchen of my childhood with reverence. Monday was baking day, and her sojourn in London had made her quite an expert in the art of baking. Hot cakes, scones, coconut crunches, walnut brownies, and cream puffs rolled out of her 1955 Baby Belling Oven. Her expertise in making chutney, jams and pickles saw all the shelves in the kitchen filled with ceramic jars in a white and mustard design, labelled and dated in a way that was reminiscent of an apothecary.
I was fascinated by the commingling of yeast with flour and water. This dough would be placed on a steel platter covered by a thin muslin cloth, washed many times, making me understand the term ’threadbare.’ The swelling of the dough seemed like a miracle to my young eyes, while I sat on a stool, immersed in the warm fragrance of this mysterious process.
Class and caste hierarchies were in evidence. It used to distress me to see the cleaning woman served leftover food on old newspapers. Even though I fretted and fumed and tried to argue, I was a disenfranchised child with no agency. Later, I saw that the newspaper was replaced by chipped plates with fresh food doled out, meagrely. After a few years, the scenario changed, and the domestics could eat whatever they wished on whichever plate they chose. This was a journey, indeed, which became a barometer of the political and social changes taking place at home.
Being a family of vegetarians, meat was never cooked. One day, much to my shock, an overseas doctor came visiting – a chicken was going to be cooked in our vegetarian kitchen. It arrived two days prior to his slaughter and I adopted him and even gave him a name. The day of his death had me clutching the chicken, pleading for his life. As my parents were sceptical about their decision, they readily acquiesced. My love for the chicken, made me bathe and shampoo it. The next day he died of pneumonia.
My parents came from different backgrounds. My mother constantly talked about the glories of her parental home. She would say, ’In our home we used toilet paper, while in your father’s house, there was no toilet.’ I am told that after my father married my mother, he built a toilet for her on the roof of the house, with a tin covering, and two bricks to serve as latrine.
My mother’s father, Sardar Sant Singh, was a Member of Parliament and the Ambassador to Ethiopia. He was a close friend of the Nehru family. Their home in Nizamuddin had a central courtyard with two bathrooms; one English style and the other Indian. It had two kitchens: one for vegetarian cooking, and the other for non-vegetarian preparation. The non-vegetarian kitchen had white glazed tiles and a sink while the vegetarian kitchen was made of mud and brick, and liberally smeared cow-dung on the floor.
In contrast to my whisky-drinking, bridge-playing grandparents from my mother’s side, was my father’s family, where my grandfather, Sahib Baba Hara Singh would sit in the family gurdwara in Sector 21, Chandigarh. The Gurdwara was given in lieu of the property that was left behind in the newly-created Pakistan. We used to visit Chandigarh almost every month to be with our grandparents, who lived in the Gurdwara. The langar was my favourite place, and I would join the women rolling out rotis that were baked in the open tandoor. I would knead the dough and the sound of its squelch would mingle with the shabads from the Guru’s bani, sung collectively while kneading the dough. My shapeless rolled out rotis were a cause for mirth, but as this was holy food, and could not be discarded, it was mixed with the rest of the food and served.
In Amritsar, the Golden Temple or Darbar Sahib is both a space for pilgrimage and a secular space. School children would go there with their school books and study, and sometimes marriages were arranged within its precincts. It was both a place for the esoteric, as well as for banal negotiations. The public and private, sacred, and profane segued seamlessly.
It was de rigueur to go to the langar, attached to the Gurdwara. The massive cauldron of daal being cooked on huge tawas, churning out massive quantities of rotis was a sight that made my eyes well up with reverence and humility. Gunny bags spilling with rice, atta, daal, sugar, and salt, with giant-sized tins of ghee presented a vision of plenitude. The atta flying in the air, the rolling of the flour balls, the slapping of the roti; all of these were sounds and sights that coloured my universe. The kneaded dough heaving and breathing seemed to be alive.
Going to the Darbar Sahib and doing sewa was ingrained in us. We washed utensils, swept the floors, and distributed food in the langar. This was both a game and a service to the Guru. Bhakti, sewa, and play coalesced, without contradiction or euphemism. In the langar I would make little dolls and birds, from the malleable warmth of the freshly kneaded dough. The aroma of the langarwali dal made with whole black gram and split chickpeas scooped up with thick clunky rotis, is a taste that is embedded in my memory. Sitting in rows on a running coir matting, we were served holy food on dried leaf plates by young sewadhars in patkas.
When I went to visit my friends in the Seher, as the area around the Golden Temple was referred to, I noticed that the kitchen was the least significant space in their homes. My friends lived in flats above their family shops that sold either grain or cloth. Each home had an intricately designed wrought iron balcony that jutted over the street. A basket with a rope was tied to the balcony and they knew the timings of the food hawkers. ‘Chhole, kulcha lla loo!’ had them lower the basket and enjoy the tangy flavor of the fermented kulcha. The over sweetened kulfi, with lots of faluda in a terracotta bowl, had me salivating.
We made a monthly visit to Kesar ka Dhaba, behind the Golden Temple. This shop, renowned for its seven-layered parantha, dripping with purified ghee, and served with kali dal, topped by chopped onions and radishes in lime juice, made the meal a sensual delight.
To accompany my mother to a restaurant was a mortifying experience. On entry she would survey the other diners to see what they were eating. A barrage of questions was volleyed at the waiter over the freshness of the vegetables and the condiments. She would then examine the table, sniff the air, and rub her fingers over the cutlery for any possible grease stains. The menu was picked up with the edge of a towel that had been carried along with other weapons of cleanliness. When the task of ordering the food was over, she would tilt the jug of water onto the plates, along with a pinch of salt and every item was cleaned with the roll of toilet paper that she carried in her handbag.
My parents, when they entertained, made the house buzz with excitement. The Wedgwood crockery, a bequest of our ancestors that had been stored for a century, was taken out of the darkest corner from a storage cabinet along with the tablecloth starched linen with cross stitch embroidery, procured from the cloistered convent, during their annual sale.
Guchchi, a delicacy, was mixed in a rice pulao, a dish which I felt was more hype than taste. The story of guchchi being more expensive than gold, was repeated ad nauseam. Seeing the wrinkled variety of mushroom, I wondered how it had acquired such an elevated status.
The other items on the menu were baked vegetables with Russian salad, along with mai ki dal, sukhi allu, and seasonal vegetables. This hybrid menu was a vestigial survival from the colonial past, and the Punjabi table.
For many years I had been toying with the idea of cooking live on the stage, to celebrate the potential of plunging into another world; a world filled with the aroma of mustard seeds and cumin, red pepper and asafoetida, fennel, and turmeric. I wanted to see if actors could perform while peeling onions with the sting of the juice in their eyes, or if musicians could play musical instruments while cooking pakoras and jalebis.
The protagonist of my play Kitchen Katha, Tara, was born on the kitchen table, with tears rolling down. Were the tears due to the onion smell that clung to the kitchen walls, or genuine tears of a new born child? The story of Tara, not allowed to marry her lover, is one where she pours her unsatiated love into cooking and conjuring magical dishes. The story becomes a mapless journey through the regions of sensual memory, in which the boundaries between food, love and appetite get blurred and dissolved. The play is also about the relationship between women and food. Food as food, food as metaphor, food as image, food as drudgery, food as empowerment, food as expression, food as text and meanings.
Consuming food on stage while managing lines requires not only dexterity but also an understanding of the digestive system. Sound has its own seductive power, and the musical composition designed by BV Karanth for the play, evoked the hissing sound of an onion browning in oil, the syncopated rhythm of a knife mincing vegetables, a mortar grinding seeds, the burble of a boiling pot, the lyrics being the recipe of the food being cooked live on stage.
Food is daily philosophy and anthropology. There is always negotiation, of eating or not eating that extends into matters cultural, that include habit, hygiene, to wash or not to wash. A papaya being cut into equal halves seems to suggest the womb and the birth of man. The pomegranate seeds of life, the sensuality of the aubergine, the sense of touch while kneading dough, the magic transformation of grain into flour, into dough, into hot rotis, nurtures the spirit and renews our sense of life, seeping away with one stroke, the fatigue and disappointments gathered along the road of life. This breaking of bread, this sharing of food, bonds and connects us with the earth from where it was produced.