Home was maa’s meat shelf. Milk powder, tea leaves, sugar and biscuits on top; moong, arhar and masuri in the middle; baking powder and custard mix at the bottom, all in
see-through Horlicks and Dalda jars. Maa had a way of arranging everything in the order of immediacy. Somehow, in maa’s hands, complete misfits lived transparently and in happy harmony. Maa also knew a magic trick which quietly converted a ‘meat shelf’ into a halfway house for a melange of everything but meat. Much like her twenty different dreams and fears converted me into twenty different people, strange(rs) to me at first sight, till I eventually became them.
Baba was a rough-hewn critic of everything maa did, but, above everything else, of the food she cooked. The life cycle of every family meal traces a unique set of rituals. The hierarchy of chairs or the levelling comfort of the floor; the orderliness with which the food is served or the chaotic plunging of fists; the timbre of serving spoons resonating differently with different bowls and pans or the heavy cluck and grunt of approving mouths; matter-of-fact replies to rhetorical questions or, as was baba’s wont, dramatic footnotes on a mysterious deficiency in the food, one which he always said he could not put a name to.
Baba did not know the cold precision of “the onions were not sautéed well, and they are hanging loosely to the potatoes instead of hugging them.” Having made up his mind there was something wrong with the food, he would suddenly stop chewing and turn to maa, always to his right. Maa would continue eating from her makeshift plate on the floor, propping her small self on her left arm – veins shooting upward in a blue shock – but keenly anticipating a comment from her critic of twenty-five years.
“Isn’t there something missing from the aalu poshto?”
A swift and indifferent round of “No”s from maa and me later, he would return to his food, resuming his noisy chewing, almost happy that we vetoed his suspicion.
After every meal, maa would lament the excess rice in the haandi, and baba would blame it on her “bird-like” appetite. “Your maa has never eaten like a human, not once in these twenty-five years. Look at how she nibbles from her dented aluminium plate. A stranger would think she’s been punished!” Maa would let him score a mini victory, veering the conversation to my studies and my grandparents’ health. The finger marks on our long-emptied plates would emerge as ridges of dry turmeric, and the meal would end with baba asking maa about the next day’s menu while sucking his crusty fingers before the final loud wash – involving hysterically coughing out, nearly choking, and generally splashing great volumes of water while rinsing. Baba’s palate demanded a perfect purge after every meal, ugly and elemental.
And so it continued, unchanged for eighteen years, till I tiptoed out of the frame, landing headlong, unprepared, in the world of high tables, eat-outs, modular kitchens and resto-bars. Maa has been replaced by Google, baba by the sophisticated gentleman who knows exactly when the sauté isn’t right. My fingers are sterile from holding cold cutlery, and I have never seen anyone else stocking lime pickle and arrowroot on the same rack. It’s also much easier to spot real problems with the food in this world, though I don’t think that’s enough to make baba want to live here.