Monday, October 16, 2006

Food for thought

All my spurts of impulse and misbehaviour at home would invariably be followed by a shrill scream from Aaji, "You'll get to know what living is all about when you go live in a hostel".
Infact, there are a lot of things which teach you about living, but let's not get that personal.
I eventually did leave home.

It's different to be shouted at home, called names and be scolded to the bones. You are nestled in security and protection in spite of all that. It's different when you get to a new city, start hunting for places where you can get a decent meal two times a day.

When I came to Pune, I initially devoured the idea of eating outside. I humoured myself with my fascination as long as I could. But one day I realised I was missing home. And aaji's cooking. In time, I discovered there was a decent 'mess' just in the lane behind.

As I climbed the wooden stairs, each floor showed a different kind of lifestyle. On the ground floor, inside the building entrance, there was a modest courtyard, and a tulsi plant right in the middle. On the first floor was a well furnished house, with expensive tiling, a spacious kitchen with most modern gadgets and visibly well-off people stayed there.
Then I reached my to be 'food place'.

To the right of the stairs, was a small passage, 10 ft by 4ft by my vague estimations. A small wooden bench was accomodated to the left of the passage. The kitchen where kaku (aunty or an elderly lady, as called in Maharashtra) sat, eternally rolling chappatis was, to put it most generously, another 10 ft. by 4ft.

But in this area, also imagine a cooking platform, a gas stove, cooking utensils, a small TV space, 4-5 large steel vessels full of the days vegetables, rice and dal, besides a small single gas stove on which kaku cooked chappatis. And why forget- the two to three girls eating their lunch in this space? Life accomodates everyone...

The first day I ate there, a strange feeling enveloped me. I could faintly hear my aaji's screams, "When you go and live in a hostel, you will learn what living is all about".

I paid Rs. 15 per meal. A meal which was cooked with hygiene, precision and most of all, affection. At Rs. 15 per meal, I ate two chappatis, a generous serving of rice and dal.

My meal meant business to kaku in more ways than one. Each day, her work would start early in the morning, perhaps 4 or 5 AM. I always saw her with the rolling pin and the dough, skillfully going about one chappati after the other. She had to visit the doctor when she couldnt sustain the backpains any longer. As kaka, her husband, who helped her side by side in the kitchen, cutting vegetables and serving us, fondly put it one day, "Your kaku doesn't get up for 2-3 hours once she sits for making the chappatis". And then other day, he told me, as if divulging a great personal moment, "Your kaku's home is just 5 minutes away from this place, but since marriage, she has not once gone away leaving the business to me. She has stood by my side all along."

Half a dozen sparrows always hopped up to us while we were eating. One was rather brave. She came right to the stove and picked small balls of dough from kaku's hands.

I met honest people who made a living out of cooking. They didn't use bad cooking oil, the dal was not water-thin, plain salt and turmeric like I experienced in a friend's tiffin. The rice was not full of stones which crackled thru the teeth. In the chutneys she made, out of beetroots, guavas, sesame or mango, we got glimpses of kaku's culinary mastery. And on sundays, she lovingly treats us with sweets.
Rs. 15 a plate...

I used to buy shoes and clothes and earrings and what not. And spend without thought, to hear once again, "When you begin living on your own, you'll know the importance of money".

I still buy what I like, but I have started giving more thought on my expenditure than before. The efforts people have to put in to earn whatever little they do are much more than can be imagined. And yet, they don't grumble. In their contentment and simplicity, I find new meanings of humility.

- Gauri Gharpure