Two guests, mutton curry, and a tale of love
It has always been a journey of extreme feelings – each time that I visited the little village, sitting like a pearl about to be cast in a golden orb. I am swamped by feelings that have nothing to do with my present state as a diligent vote casting Indian; but everything to do with a past that keeps resurfacing with tears and longings each time it is dug into.
My grandmother Gouri Rani hailed from Faridpur in erstwhile Sonar Bangla. Even when living in a flat in the heart of the city, she would reminisce about her village and the longing to go back once to her native village with ponds filled with fish, and fringed by coconut trees. The tiny canals that crossed and meandered into village ghats, the boats creaking and bobbing gently on the undulating waves, all were part of her story telling sessions with me. She told me about the wood smoke fish cooked in banana leaves with mustard paste and green chilies, the taste of grounded prawn dumplings floating on a liberal sea of mustard oil, wedged between thick slices of ‘butter like’ potatoes, and the culinary delights would make my mouth water.
I had never heard my grandmother speak the ‘bangal bhasha’ – a wonderful sing song dialect I simply love listening to. She spoke proper Bengali – yet wore her sari in a single drape over her shoulder – the way they wear in traditional Bengali households. I am yet to master the art of wearing that simple dress with panache.
One day, we had just sat down to have the afternoon meal. I remember it to be a Sunday. The menu was the salivating treat of spicy mutton with round potatoes and overflowing curry (we were a large family of uncles and aunts and servants), served with mounds of fat steaming rice, tomato chutney, lentil soup and brinjal fry. The men in the family had finished their share and the women (I always included myself in that category) were sitting down to eat. The bell rang. The maid came in to say that an old looking man and a young boy had come. I was worried. This would mean that I have to do with just one piece of the coveted mutton curry. I hissed at my grandmother, “Thakuma, you will not, not , not ask them to eat.” She did not even hear me and just walked out of the kitchen.
Everyone got up. Nobody could eat without the matriarch starting her meal! We all trooped into the sitting room and there I saw my grandmother, sitting silently and crying. The tears were coursing down in rivulets; a silent sobbing filled the room. We were all quiet. My mother brought in sandesh and water, which she placed before the two guests before touching the feet of the elderly man.
My grandmother got up and announced to all. “Get two more plates ready. My cousin has come a long way.” I was so angry that I could have shouted and screamed. But something stopped me. Today I had a feeling that grandmother would not take my tantrums lightly. Those people left the next day. My grandmother gave a ten rupee note to the young boy and blessed him.
In the afternoon, after our meal, I crept and snuggled close to grandmother on the bamboo mat. The room was dark and cool, the wooden shutters kept the harsh afternoon sun out, and I asked her about the guest. She said, “You are angry about missing a piece of mutton. This man and his family had saved me and my mother, when an angry mob had entered our house, seeking to kill all Hindus in the area. I owe my life to him and his family”.
I was silent and mortified. Anybody who had saved my darling grandmother from death was forgiven. As an adult, I understood the unsaid that my grandmother had not spoken. She who was so finicky about vegetarian and non vegetarian arrangements in the kitchen, hollered if anybody so much as touched a plate without washing hands after cleaning meat or fish, that woman who was a widow and followed all the rigid Hindu norms had personally sat and fed a Muslim in her kitchen. Love and gratitude had triumphed over everything else!
Dr. Arpita Sutradhar, who works at NASSCOM Foundation in New Delhi, is a guest columnist with The Weekend Leader