The only thing Indians take more seriously than eating, is feeding.
If you’ve grown up in India, you’ve had ample opportunity to learn that. Right from the warm Bournvita we gulped down during rushed Monday mornings, to the lemon rice that would remain untouched in our lunch boxes when we got home, food has been a part of growing up in more ways than we realize.
My first memory of food is of my grandmother. “Don’t get up till your plate is clean”, she’d say, leaving me to absentmindedly draw patterns with the curry on my plate for hours. Lunch time was a nightmare for everyone. Until one afternoon, Ammama sat beside me at the table and made little balls of rice. She named each ball after a family member and asked who I wanted to eat first. The complexity of decision making, distracting my lack of appetite in minutes. On other days, she’d recount tales from the Mahabharat. Taking advantage of her innate ability to arrest my attention, as she stuffed handful after handful into my mouth with unmatched tact.
Looking back, most of my fondest memories have been around food. From the pieces of papad I’d hide in my left hand until after dinner, so I could eat it ceremoniously after my siblings were finished with theirs. To the rings of potato crisps we’d slip onto our fingers before eating them one at a time, food has always been an integral part of my childhood.
As I was growing up, the smallest coins could buy the most happiness. I remember how the loose change from my weekly pocket money, Ma’s dresser, the bottom of drawers, would clink in our pockets as we made our way to buy that essential dose of candy, chips and gum. And how on winter evenings, our tell-tale Fun Orange stained lips would spark an angry rant with our mothers on how we were bound to catch a cold. How almost every Indian child has been caught pouring a glass of milk down the sink. How birthday parties were never complete without the chips-cake-samosa combination.
Or how back then, it never seemed absurd to stand patiently in line for a flimsy plastic glass of coke, without the rum.
In school, our lunches often established social hierarchy. Those with curdrice were uncool, roti-sabzi spelt average, sandwiches meant you were cool and sandwiches with lettuce made you an instant celebrity. Steel lunchboxes were a one way ticket to social suicide. But with great lunch came great responsibility. ‘Bring extra’, they’d say, as the lunchboxes were passed from row to row while each person claimed his bite nervously from under the desk.
I realise that when you’re away from home, there’s nothing you crave more than the smells and sounds of an Indian kitchen. Of the grinder running through the morning quiet, the violent bout of coughs that greets the smell of garam masala, or the worried maid who runs into the kitchen at the demands of the pressure cooker’s ‘second whistle’.
That its only when you’re back home, that you realize how much you’ve missed it. When you hear the sound of Dosa batter on a hot pan, the hiss of sizzling pakodas in oil, and the mustard seeds crackling in the kadai. When you see that the boiling milk was rescued seconds before it overflowed.
That nothing was ever as much fun as Chocos for breakfast, Golas on summer afternoons and pani puri competitions after school. That sometimes, all you really want is a pudina chutney sandwich, a hot glass of Bournvita, or quiet corner with steaming bowl of Maggi. That on some days, you just want to have someone, oblivious to your pleas, add another spoon of rice to your plate, or walk out of the kitchen with a batch of bright yellow ladoos to celebrate your smallest triumphs.
That at the end of the day, few things will ever taste better than home, seasoned with a dose of bittersweet nostalgia.