I don’t call myself a ‘lekhak’, or a writer. Just as people become players—or a ‘khelowar’—by playing and playing, I, too, have become a ‘lekhowar’, almost inadvertently, without any formal training, in my years of writing. But before I was a ‘lekhowar’, I was a cook. Before that I was a ricksha-wallah. And before that… the list goes on!
Artworks © Amritah Sen
My life has been a unique disappointment. It has carried me to so many places that I’ve forgotten the addresses. I wasn’t literate—my father didn’t have the resources to send me to iskool with a meal and a couple of books. That is why I was forced to cling on to whatever job I could find—to save myself, to fill my belly. I was a porter, a daily waged labourer, a rickshaw-wallah, a dom, a sweeper, a truck driver’s assistant, a night guard—and there was even a time when I begged for an orphanage on a commission.
I started working early. When I was still a boy, when I would still wet my bed, I was put in charge of herding the cows and the goats. Then I worked as a servant at a tea shop. No, don’t worry—there’s a certain chai-wallah whose name, of late, scares the life out of people. I’m not as terrifying. I neither made the tea, nor sold it. All I did was work there—washing the dirty glasses
If I’d had the capacity to sell tea, I’d be wearing suits worth ten lakh today, dine on fancy mushrooms worth lakhs of rupees, travel in fancy airplanes costing around eight thousand rupees and my humble abode would be constructed with fifteen thousand crores. I’d be thronged by thousands of staff around me. A beautician—earning fifty lakh rupees—would administer make-over after make-over, as and when needed. I’d travel the world on my own accord, surrounded by red and blue fairies. Lakhs of rupees would be spent on my merriment—all of this slipped by just because of this one inability.
Around the time I had entered adolescence, I used to work as a mason’s assistant. I’d walk to the main road the first thing in the morning, and wait to chance upon some form of labour. I wasn’t alone—hundreds of wage labourers would throng this place, people who arrived from different parts of rural Bengal. Our country has a clear surplus of labour. There are more people looking for work on any given day than those willing to employ them. That is why we wouldn’t find work every day. Just like well-fed cows in a cattle market being scrutinized for slaughter, so, too, the masons would arrive, bargain with us, and employ those they’d have to pay the least.
One day, a man arrived and stopped in front of me. Oh my, what a corpulent figure! He had long locks of hair—like a kirtania— streaked with mustard oil. His feet were cracked—he didn’t wear chappals—and he wore a full-sleeved white vest with yellow stains on it. A prominent, thick, sacred thread was clearly visible near his neck. It looked sturdy, as if it had been made to order. It was thick enough to moor a cow. One could use it to hang oneself too. Some of his teeth were missing, but he had stuffed his mouth with jarda-paan, at this time in the morning! Its fragrance stung the air. He walked up to me and said, “Ei, do you want to work for me?”
I had been waiting since the morning looking for work. Someone would employ me, I’d work for them, take some advance to buy lunch—and, in the evening, I’d buy vegetables with the rest of the money and take them home, so that my parents and siblings may also eat. “What kind of work?” I asked. “Work at a marriage ceremony,” he said, “You have to draw water from the tube well and fill it in the drum, you have to ground spices with a mortar, wash banana-leaves and the earthen glasses before serving and dispose of the soiled leaves after meals.”
This was still long ago. There weren’t any mixer-grinders available then. Nor could you buy ground spice at shops either. Guests hadn’t gotten used to eating on paper plates. There weren’t any ‘catering businesses’ there either. And so, during ceremonies, the head of the family would buy the raw materials from the bazaar themselves, hire people to cook the food and make their own people serve the food.
When it came to serving the food, I noticed that the younger men were much more excited than the middle-aged. I’d see them loitering near the ladies at lunch with buckets of mutton and sweets, saying, in soft tones, “Do you want another piece of mutton? Why don’t you try the rosogolla? It’s really good. It’s from the real Bhim Nag…”
It is said that the way to the liver is through the heart. The antics of those young men made it clear—what they were trying to say was this, “Please, let us stay in your heart. Give us space.”
Artworks © Amritah Sen
The corpulent man said to me that I’d receive three rupees—per day!—for my work. And a hearty meal. I would be allowed to eat everything—fish, meat, curd, sweets. I’d be allowed to eat until my stomach was full. And if I didn’t feel like eating, I could even take the leftovers home in my gamcha.
This reminds me of an incident which took place much later—the man we used to travel to work with was called Naresh Thakur. Naresh Thakur had an assistant by the name of Dukhe. On most days, he was a wage labourer—but goaded by the promise of food, he, too, joined us. And although, here, he would earn the same amount of money by working sixteen hours a day instead of ten, he was happy.
Before every occasion, someone would be sent from the employer’s to Naresh Thakur to make a list of all the ingredients that would be needed. The products would be bought accordingly.
That particular time, Naresh had made a list for the employer.
In those days, people were still not that particular about their health. They hadn’t learnt portion control. Those who could eat a lot would be cared for separately. They would even be celebrated—cheered on as they ate and ate.
Naresh had handed in the list—two-a-half kilograms of moong dal per hundred people. It would increase in volume, naturally, since he’d cook it with fish heads. Four pieces of fish per guest. “Make sure,” Naresh said, “that the number of pieces per kilo be at least sixteen. Without the heads, that is. Twenty kilos of mutton—per hundred people. Four pieces of rosogolla per person. Some may want five. Others three. Four pieces per head should be manageable.”
That night, the ‘thakurs’ sat down to eat after everyone had had their fill. The journey back home was long and weary, so they weren’t very enthusiastic about packing the food and taking it home. The best option was eating as much as one could—carrying it in one’s belly.
Around that time, while working as a waged labourer, I had fled from Calcutta and arrived at Jalpaiguri. I’d found work at a sweet shop there. They didn’t pay me anything—I was just given food! As a daily labourer, I’d earn two-and-a half rupees per day. But here they wouldn’t pay me anything. In other words, they were taking advantage of my desperation and cheating me. But I wasn’t someone who could be cheated willingly. To balance this iniquity, I was driven to polish off ten pieces of sandesh, rosogollas , kalakands and chamchams. Each of them were priced at four annas. That’s how I calculated my income.
A daily wage-labourer would be paid three rupees for eight hours of work. The cooking business had the same rate, but the hours were double. What could the poor fellows do? They would account for the extra eight hours by the amount of food they ate. Megha Das knew the art of shifting the paan to the back of his mouth, on the left side, while eating meat, fish, cashews, raisins and dates. His mouth could have moved in front of a hundred guards, but none of them would’ve been able to tell whether it was paan that he was chewing, or something else.
The babus harbour an ancient belief—that all those in the cooking business are thieves. They believe that these people swiftly plop something in their mouths the moment they are left out of sight. That is why they assign a sharp-sighted someone to oversee the workings of any new cook they hire. They sit in front of the kitchen on a chair, the moment the cooking starts. These overseers are soft-spoken. They say, “No no, I’m not here to oversee. If someone. has to nick something, no one can stop them. I’m here just because I like to watch people cook.” Needless to say, none of the cooks believe these words. But they still say, “It doesn’t matter even if you are keeping guard. We don’t steal.”
That day, we’d made a special fish curry—macher kalia. The katla was fresh and delicious. With a sad face and a hungry belly, Dukhe had polished off seven pieces of it. Once the meal was done, Naresh washed his hands and walked up to the employer, and said, “Sir, please give us our money. It’s late, we have to go now.”
“Do you need it right now? Can’t you come and collect it in the morning?”
“Coming all the way back tomorrow morning would mean wasting an entire day. We will end up spending money on the bus-fares too. If you give us the money now, it’d save us of a lot of hassle.”
The man went in and came out with the money. While counting it, however, Naresh noticed that it was two rupees short of what he had been promised. “It’s two rupees short, babu!” he said.
“No it isn’t. I’ve made the calculations myself.” And then Majumdar Babu, in his characteristic Barisal accent, continued, “Sixteen rupees for the four hangers-on, and eight for you. How much is that? Twenty four rupees! You’d already collected five of those as advance. That leaves nineteen. Now, your man here has eaten three extra pieces of fish. So I’ve deducted two rupees and given you seventeen. Count it yourself, will you—“
“But, but,” Naresh stammered, “How is that? Why, we eat for ‘free’ everywhere! You’re charging us for that…”
But the man bellowed, “You had put down in your own calculations that four pieces of fish would be consumed! How did that turn to seven? Just because it’s free, you won’t measure how many you’ll gobble up? Consider this a lesson. Be careful when you eat.”
“But,” Naresh said, in a final effort to get his two rupees, “Everyone had eaten by then! We had a lot of leftovers, so…”
“Leftovers or no leftovers, whatever remains is mine! What do you have to do with it? I’ll do what I please—give it to humans or to dogs! What I do with the leftovers is none of your concern.”
So saying, he went inside, slamming the door on our faces.
That day, for the first time in my life, I had smelt that stench that often emanates from babus. For the first time, in that brief life of mine, I had seen the true face of the otherwise courteous ‘bhadralok’. That rotten, revolting stench—and it had shaken me to the core. And ever since, that rage that I felt taught me to be careful around them and to be wary of them.
I was a child of Partition, born into a family of refugees. Forget nutritious food—we seldom had a full belly. In the past, my father had been able to bring home some food by working as a labourer. Now he’s broken, down with a gastric ulcer. He couldn’t go to work anymore. Our family had had to make do with whatever little I earned. All I could buy with my daily earnings were wheat or some ears of corn. There were days when I couldn’t even buy salt or vegetables. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t, at any cost, refuse such an offer. If it had been any other kind of work, I’d have to be on ‘duty’ for eight hours a day. Here, however, I’d have to work from seven in the morning to a little after midnight. I still agreed.
Isn’t there a certain proverb—each one of life’s experiences contributes to its riches? Who knew my training as a cook would help me in the future? It’s only because I’d agreed that day that I can write about it today. If I hadn’t—this essay, at least, would never have been written.
I belong to the lowest of the low—an untouchable child in the Indian caste system. Those who have their criminality inscribed at birth. If a member of my caste were to touch the food belonging to an upper caste, it’d be judged as a terrible sin. The man who had come to call on me belonged to this same caste—a Jele, an untouchable. He didn’t have any choice but to go into this profession, because he loved eating good food, you see. After thinking long and hard, he’d come up with a solution. He had found a certain guru, on becoming whose disciple, one would be gifted with a certain holy thread. As a result, this man had amassed a lot of disciples.
The very sight of a sacred thread slung along one’s neck makes people believe that the person wearing it must be a Brahmin. This is why those who come to Calcutta from Odisha on the lookout for jobs as cooks buy a sacred thread on the Howrah Bridge itself. And the first thing they do is sling it across their neck.
The man who had offered me the job was called Megha Das. He had become considerably self-sufficient as a result of becoming the disciple of this Guruji with the sacred thread. No one would ask him which caste he belonged to any longer. Only once had a certain man said to him, “What! You’re a Brahmin? When did you become a Brahmin? Do you know how to chant the Gayatri Mantra?” So saying, he had laughed.
Now he asked, “What’s your name?” After I had told him, he said, “If anyone asks you, don’t tell them that last name of yours. Name yourself whatever you want—and as far as anyone is concerned, you belong to the kayastha caste. All that matters to you is finishing your work, getting paid and slipping out of there as quickly as possible—let the others fuck around with caste!”
There was an old adage I had heard long back— “harvest for some, floods for others”. I hadn’t understood what it meant that day. It often goes like this—we hear things without understanding what they mean. The meaning arrives later—in time. Time is a greatest teacher.
The marriage we had gone to that day had made arrangements for four hundred guests. The day was quiet and still—but just as we’d finished cooking in the evening, an incredible storm, a kalbaisakhi plummeted from the sky. Each drop of rain fell like a brick shard. The storm smashed the trees, branches crashed and fell on the street. Fangs of thunder—bright and menacing, ripped through the sky. It would be impossible for any vehicle to arrive now. The power had gone out. A thick, viscous darkness descended all around.
When, after a couple of hours, the rain let up, the streets were flooded. The ponds had spilled over onto the road. In those days, the roads weren’t as developed. The drainage system was terrible. The neighbourhood we had gone to had a brick road pockmarked by potholes. Only rickshaws could travel here. Now that enormous puddles had formed all around, no rickshaw agreed to come. One always ran the risk of breaking a wheel by falling into a pothole. The passengers had cause for worry too. If the wheel broke, they would crash into the mud, and it would ruin their clothes. They could injure themselves too, even be hospitalised.
How were those relatives, who lived far away, going to make it, then? Besides, after sundown, this neighbourhood was notorious for its gang wars. There would be explosions and gunfire between the two rival groups. If they did arrive—by some miracle—no one could guarantee a safe return. As a result, only two hundred and fifty of the four hundred guests arrived. The head of the family was at his wit’s end—what was one to do with all this extra food?
The refrigerator hadn’t arrived yet. There would be certain shops in the locality which would have steel boxes stuffed with ice—bottles of Coca-Cola and soda water would be stored inside and sold thereafter.
Just as a refrigerator has its advantages, it has its own set of disadvantages too. The two of us had gone to a marriage once. We were to work on the day before the ceremony and for two days after the ceremony. We wouldn’t be cooking on the day of the ceremony. That would be taken care of by a bigger, better cook than us. We would be preparing the ‘other’ dishes—the smaller, unimportant ones, the ordinary dishes for the other days. On the day of the ceremony, the food that was leftover was brought in and kept inside the refrigerator. Radha ballabi, mutton, fish, chutney, fish fry. For the next few days, whenever we got hungry, we had to make do by warming portions from it. The people of the house, however, feasted on fresh charapona, koi and fine rice. In other words, the dishes that we were cooking. But when it came to our food, the lady of the house would open that refrigerator and hand us those same leftovers.
The people of the house often suspect those who come to cook to be thieves. That they swiftly snatch away food on the sly. That’s not completely untrue, though. Food is something that appeals to everybody. Just because we have come to cook doesn’t mean we don’t dream of good food. But if we were to ask, no one would give us anything. And so, a petty theft here and there…
Once we had gone to cook at a wedding. One among us had—whether in greed or incredible hunger, I cannot be sure—stuffed two fistfuls of powdered milk that had been kept aside for the tea. And in a bid to swallow it swiftly, he had almost choked to death.
I won’t lie—I, too, have stolen bits of food from time to time. Some fried fish, gulped down some ghee, some half-boiled meat, cashews, raisins, coconut, and much more. Upon reaching there, we got to know that since we hadn’t informed beforehand, no arrangements had been made for our lunch. The only reason we hadn’t was because we had assumed that such a requirement needn’t be spelt out explicitly. We’d assumed that we’d get food anyway. They told us that it was our fault. What were they to do? I can’t think straight when I’m hungry. I suspend all rules of morality, of ethics, of justice. And so, to quell my hunger—I did what I had to.
Anyway—that stormy day, after we had finished work, we spread out our gamchas in front of the employer, and said, “We can’t eat now. We plan to go home and get some rest. We’ll only eat after we’ve freshened up. We ask you to give us whatever food we deserve on some banana-leaves. We’ll tie it with a string and take it home.” The man then replied in a sad tone, “What will I give? Take whatever you want, however much you need. What am I to do with all this food? Take whatever you need!”
“Apna hath Jagannath”—Jagannath now resided in the power of our own hands. We had stuffed our gamchas to our heart’s content that day, and there were celebrations at home. When, after waking up my parents and siblings, I had opened my gamcha, they were ecstatic. This saddened me greatly. Not because so much was wasted, not even for my poor ‘malik’—no, I was sad because my gamcha was smaller than everyone else’s.
I had chanced upon a similar feast once more. This time, it was mutton and pulao. Since the employer was an acquaintance, I’d been able to convince him to lend me his brass bucket—I’d fill it with the leftovers and return it the next morning. That’s how I’d been able to bring the food home. I’d stuffed the bucket to the brim with the mutton and the pulao. It was too much for one person—besides, it is said that happiness multiplies when shared, so I shared it with a few poor people in my own neighbourhood.
Sukh, one of the boys in our neighbourhood—whose mother I called “Khurima”—lapped up the food happily, and, feigning nonchalance, said “We’re familiar with this kind of food. Those who’ve never had ghee before won’t be able to digest it.”
The next day, Khurima was seen rushing to the bushes nearby, a mug in hand, over and over again, all the while throwing expletives at me. It wasn’t her fault—the fault lay in the food that I had brought along.
Ours is a country of ascetics. The land here is pious. Too pious, in fact. Not even the Almighty can resist the gravity of the soil. That’s why He returns, time and again, in different avatars. It’s interesting to note that although there are two hundred and nineteen other countries in this world, He doesn’t love any other country as much. He didn’t choose to arrive as an avatar anywhere else. He has arrived as a boar, as a turtle, as a half-man half-lion—Narasimha, I mean—to stay with us. The practical implication of these acts is this—our country abounds in piety. There are too many ascetics—so much so that some have to resort to staying in jail. And so, jails have come to become like akhras.
These ascetics have shared their holy advice with us. Whatever He has left behind for us, He has left behind in Sanskrit. He should have understood that most of the people in our country are illiterate. They won’t understand Sanskrit. He should have left his messages behind in a language that would have been understood by the entire population of seven hundred crores. Such that everyone understands—Jarwas, Murias, Mundas ,Santhals, everyone. Why He didn’t do this, though, is beyond my meagre understanding.
The preachers of this God share their teachings in Sanskrit too. They say—do not court greed. Don’t be greedy. Remember, Greed is a Sin, and Sin leads to Life in Hell. But these words, too, have not been paid heed to by the ordinary people. What do they mean, “Don’t be greedy”? How can they tell us that—when they themselves hog vast sums of money as pronami? He must be a crore-pati now, by extracting money from his followers. If He really believes in abstaining from Greed, why isn’t He letting go of these indulgences?
That’s why people rarely listen to them. I couldn’t bring myself to listen to them either. I was engulfed by a terrific, terrible greed. Passionate and hungry, I began taking up the job as a cook more often. I was able to cook well within six months. If someone helped me with the produce, I could cook for two to three hundred people easily.
Around this time, we got word of a job in the North 24 Parganas. It was for an Annaprasan ceremony—a rice-eating ceremony for the newborn child. About three hundred guests had been invited. The menu included—Rice, begun bhaja, dal with fish head, jackfruit curry, Rui curry, mutton, mango chutney, papad.
This same employer had had one of his daughters married at Jadavpur, where Naresh Thakur had cooked for the boubhaat. Bowled over by his cooking, he had made up his mind, that if and when a grandson would be born to his eldest son, he would bring this thakur, from Calcutta. When that auspicious day finally arrived, they booked him for this occasion.
Initially, Naresh Thakur had agreed without a second thought. Little did he know that another big offer would arrive on that very day in Calcutta itself! And it wasn’t an offer from a stranger. No, it was from Mahadev Saha—the head of Mahadev Decorators, who were responsible for most of the offers, that we received throughout the year. It was his daughter’s wedding. He had declared beforehand—“You have to cook for the wedding. I don’t care if you have any other commitments. You manage it yourself. If you refuse to cook for my daughter’s wedding, consider our professional relationship over. If you refuse, don’t expect any opportunities from here on out.”
What was to be done? There were hundreds of people in the North 24 Parganas waiting to taste Naresh Thakur’s food, but here was Mahadev Saha, standing in the way. Then, Meghnath—Megha—said, “Send Mona and Dukhe. They’ll be able to manage.”
“Will you be able to?” Naresh Thakur asked. Around this time, I was basking in the rays of self-confidence. “I will,” I answered. “Once you reach there,” he said, “Tell the party that I suddenly fell ill. That’s why I haven’t been able to make it. Ask for the rest of the money once you’ve finished the work.”
We were to leave in the evening and prepare the earthen oven today itself. The cooking would be done tomorrow. We’d return the day after. The prospect of three days’ worth of income made us leap with joy. Unlike other forms of employment, this cooking job is seldom a regular source of income. Maybe twice or thrice a month. We were overjoyed—we were going to receive three days’ worth of money at once.
By the time we reached the address, the sun was setting. There were banana groves, jute fields and wheat fields all around. You could see a serpentine rail line in the distance. The entire house was being decorated then. The decorators were busy setting up bamboo poles in front of the gate. These would be decorated with flowers the next day. One man was busy slicing a dry log with an axe. The wood would be used for cooking tomorrow. There was no electricity here. Another man was filling some Petromax lamps with kerosene. And sitting under a mango tree, on an easy chair, in that clean courtyard was the head of the house, the great Mahamahim borokorta. He was wearing a thin dhoti—crumpled and crisp like a lungi, naked from the torso up. A white thread—sacred and shining— slung across his waist. He was fanning himself with a palm-leaf fan. In front of him, on a small mat, lay a healthy, fair-skinned baby. It was his ceremony tomorrow. He looked as if he was covered in gold. Ornaments—ornaments everywhere, on his hands, on his neck, on his waist… These babies are truly fortunate. The moment they’re born, they inherit tons of gold. Something we wouldn’t be able to amass even over ten generations. The moment we walked up to the door with our paraphernalia, he asked, “Where’s Naresh? He isn’t here? Why?”
“His health…” I stammered. But before I could finish, he roared, “He isn’t well, is it? How convenient that he suddenly got sick today itself! That’s it, that’s what you were going to say, no?” After eyeing us like a hungry tiger for a few moments, he continued, “Who among you is a Thakur? Who is going to cook?”
Staggered and stumbling, I raised my right finger and pointed it towards Dukhe. He, on the other hand, pointed his left finger towards me. “Look over there!” the man ordered. We turned towards the direction of his gaze and saw the man digging and hacking away at the log. Showing us the beams, he said, “I don’t care who among you is going to cook. If the food isn’t good, I’ll break those on your backs. Remember that. See that you don’t forget that.”
The evening ebbed into night. A silent, heavy night! Sleep eluded both of us. We had been given dinner, but we hadn’t been able to eat. We were too scared to enjoy our fresh pona-macher jhol with rice. Someone, somewhere inside, was whispering, “This might be the last meal of your lives.”
The ovens had been made for tomorrow. We slept right beside them. There were no mosquitoes here, but we still couldn’t sleep. I believed in my own ability. I knew that I was good at cooking—and the wood wouldn’t be broken on my back. But Dukhe couldn’t bring himself to trust my ability. I was I—but there are times when even the greatest of cooks end up making miserable dishes. On those days, a hundred tries are still not enough.
Towards midnight, Dukhe whispered, “Ei Mona, everyone’s asleep. Let’s run away from here. If we leave now, we’ll be able to board the first train at dawn. Who knows what’ll happen otherwise! You never know it with these people! They might love it one moment and then spit it out the next. They aren’t good people. If we make a mistake, we’ll be killed. They’ll beat us to death.”
But there were things that I had taken into account that Dukhe hadn’t. For instance, if we did run away now, the employers would be in hot water tomorrow. Unable to feed their invited guests, they’d get angrier. Then they’d come looking for us, find us in Jadavpur, and beat the living daylights out of us. The public wouldn’t say anything. Everyone would support them. Who knew—if we left without doing our work, they might even slap a criminal case against us. Theft, perhaps. I explained the situation to Dukhe—we’ll have to accept our fate. Whatever will be, will be. So help me out the best you can. Trust me, the food won’t be bad. You’ve tasted it before, haven’t you? Then? Why are you so scared?”
Dukhe had been a wonderful partner that day. I had cooked well too. The guests had complimented the dishes lavishly. This was an old practice—when the guests would be busy eating, we’d ask—“How is the food?” and they’d reply, “Oh, excellent!”
But good things do not always beget better things. We came to this realisation when the last person had finished eating. The groom—from Jadavpur—wasn’t any ordinary man. He was a local goon—notorious for flexing his power in this region. He owned two lorries! He had been drinking some country liquor with some liver curry all this while, sitting on a deck in the banana grove with his beloved brother-in-law. After he was done, he recognised Dukhe, and said, “Arrey! Didn’t I see you in our para a few days back? Weren’t you cleaning a clogged pond? Naresh has sent you dressed as a Thakur, has he?”
It was true that we didn’t get to cook regularly. Weddings or funerals did not take place every day. Maybe twice, maybe thrice a month. But hunger—hunger arrived every day! Desperate and hungry, Dukhe would be forced to work anywhere and everywhere. He would dig fields, assist masons, and yes, even unclog ponds. How else would he survive? How else do the poor survive? It was true—that Dukhe had indeed gone to the groom’s neighbourhood and unclogged a pond there. And maybe the groom had seen him there, and hadn’t forgotten his face.
There are certain people in society, who, on getting the opportunity to torture others, don’t let go. As a result, they prey on the dispossessed, the silenced and hopeless. For example—if, on their way to work, they come across a man caught pickpocketing on the street, their own hands start itching and they give him a beating too. Supposing someone points towards someone else and shouts, “Kidnapper!”, they will attack the accused mercilessly, without even an ounce of information, without even verifying the veracity of such a claim. The groom here was one of those people. As if, by catching us, he had chanced upon a wonderful opportunity, a possibility of flexing power. And so began our torture. He made us rub our noses on the ground, made us lick his spit, made us squat while holding our ears, and of course, served us a generous helping of slaps. After an hour or so, he shouted, “Now scram!” Maybe, to him, this was nothing more than a game, something he enjoyed. But to us it was a terrible insult—equal only to death.
It was almost morning. We left before the sun rose—we left quietly, without telling anyone anything, without even collecting our wages. We weren’t in a position to show our faces to the people anymore. We ran away from there—two poor brutes on the run. And while walking by the rail-line, we cursed ourselves, died inside at this terrible iniquity, cursing this terrible life of ours. It wasn’t something we had done, it wasn’t because of some conscious fault at all. It was just because of what we had been born as, that this casteist society looked down on us—as if we were lesser beings, as if we were petty thieves, pickpockets. Anyone could do whatever they wanted with us—and they wouldn’t be held accountable.
I never went back to cooking after that. There were times when people would want to hire me for picnics. “You won’t need to spend any money,” they’d say, “Just come cook for us.” But I still found myself saying no. I couldn’t bring myself to travel to Murshidabad, the Sundarbans, Matla, or by the banks of the Damodar. It is said that a lack of practice makes one lose one’s skills. In time, my refusal to cook made me almost forget that I had once known how to cook in the first place. I was reminded of it only years later.
A school for the deaf and dumb had been set up at Mukundapur, near the Bypass. The school had been constructed, yes, but it had neither the affiliation from the government nor the sanction. On the other hand, the moment it had opened, almost sixty to seventy students had arrived, from the different districts of West Bengal. It was a residential school—so arrangements had to be made to put them up within the premises. But food arrangements ended up being an issue, since no cook could be found.
The area was very poor. Most of the people who lived there were daily wage labourers. There were many who knew how to cook and even cooked for a living, but none of them agreed because the school couldn’t promise to pay them any money for some time. The money would only arrive when they would receive the affiliation and the sanction from the government. But when the salary would arrive—and whether it’d arrive at all—was something no one could really vouch for. And so, not much interest was generated. They had another fear too—they thought, “What if, after working without wages, they remove me the moment the formal sanction arrives, and appoint someone of their choosing? What guarantee do we have that they won’t do such a thing? It’s difficult to believe that those who perform a million heinous acts won’t do this as well.”
I was unemployed then. I lived off my wife’s salary. She was a teacher at the Angan Bari Chhatur School, and earned four hundred rupees a month. That’s why I decided to take the job. I thought to myself, “If and when I get paid, I will. Even if I don’t, this will, at least, lessen one mouth to feed. It will lessen the pressure on my wife.” And so, I joined that school for the deaf and dumb.
A residential school! There were not many opportunities to cook good food here. Good food, I knew, required quality ingredients. You needed good produce too. This place didn’t have any of that. All we could gather from the local market were some dry flat beans, rotten potatoes, insect-eaten brinjals, shriveled greens, overripe gourds and rotten fish. These were the cheapest, so we bought them in great quantities. They’d be brought in and dumped somewhere. Then we’d sort them out, fish out the palatable ones and, somehow, manage to make an edible meal. Just like I’d forgotten how to make good dishes due to years of no practice, they, too, had had their tastes altered by not eating good food.
It happened one day. The dal pulses had run out in the godown. It was a Sunday, so the local market was closed too. What was to be done? It was then that I said to the hostel in-charge, “I know a certain recipe. I can cook the rice gruel in such a way that people will think that it’s dal.”
“You can? Go ahead, then—do it!”
And then, I deep fried some onions and cooked it with some garlic, a few green chillies, some ginger and some tomatoes. I then added a dash of turmeric, some bay leaves, added some salt, some sugar and black cumin to season. This mixture was then added to the gruel and cooked. Not only had no one noticed, there were even some who loved it so much that they drank it directly from their bowls. To tell you the truth, in all these years of cooking, this, to me, was my greatest dish. There had been some, among the group that dined here, who could speak. When even they had said that the ‘dal’ was excellent, I felt like kissing my own hands.
My dear readers, all this while you kept reading my distasteful writing. So I won’t stall you any longer—I’ll conclude by sharing just one more thing. It’s a recipe for a dish. It’s the recipe for a certain chicken dish which I’d made for Mahasweta Debi, who, upon eating it, had lavished me with praise.
Take one kilo of boneless meat. Hundred grams of sour curd. A hundred grams of cashew nuts. Fifty grams of ginger. Fifty grams of garlic. Hundred grams of pure ghee. Hundred grams of poppy seeds. Three fifty ml of refined oil. Eight to ten fat green chillies. Some bay leaves. Ground flesh from half a coconut. And ten grams of cardamom.
First, cut the chicken into small cubes, like soya chunks. After washing and draining it thoroughly, marinate it in with some salt, ginger brine, some ground garlic, and some green chillies and keep it covered for half an hour. Then soften the coconut flesh by keeping it in water. Ground the cardamom. Crush the ginger, the garlic and the poppy seeds into a paste. Slice the chillies along the centre. Then heat the oil in your wok, and slowly add the meat. Fry them slowly and lightly, like fish.
Now add a little of the ghee in the refined oil. After that, add the ginger-garlic paste first, and, after frying it a little, add the poppy seed paste and fry it slightly. Then drain the coconut and pour the milk into the masala and fry it. Now add the sour curd. Then add the fried chicken with some bay leaves, some salt and the green chillies. Decrease the flame and continue stirring. Once the chicken has boiled and softened, add the rest of the ghee, a small amount of sugar and the cardamom powder. Don’t add any turmeric, please! Make sure that the meat is completely white in colour. Once it’s softened and boiled completely, turn off the flame and let it rest for some time. Once that’s done, you can now eat with rice, rotis or whatever else you want. If you like it, let me know—it’s my recipe, after all. If you don’t, it’s the fault of your own cooking.