When Hunger Can’t Be Fed
Suraj Prasad Sharma came to my parents’ home when he and I were both 12 years old. That would have been in 1984. The year of Indira Gandhi getting killed, and Rajiv Gandhi circling her pyre on live television. The year we stood on our rooftop in what was then the southern tip of Delhi, and watched smoke and fire consume the horizon in every direction, as Sikhs were burnt alive and their homes torched. Suraj had come to Delhi to see an elephant, never having seen one in his village in Nepal. He did not expect to see, on a TV screen at that, a prime minister’s corpse lying in state, or a handsome young airline pilot become the nation’s ruler. He did not expect to see the signs of the charred homes and bodies of an innocent community encircle our half-built neighborhood. He just wanted to see an elephant.
Mr. Aggarwal’s factory foreman, a dignified middle-aged Nepali man of Gurkha appearance, brought Suraj to our door. The little boy wore a dirty dhoti and a torn t-shirt. A quaint Brahmin’s tuft hung down from the back of his otherwise short-haired, incredibly dusty head. He had enormous eyes. Someone had brought him into India to show him an elephant. He ended up slaving as a dish-cleaner and who knows what else in a dhaba somewhere near Mr. Aggarwal’s factory in Faridabad. The foreman – I think his name was Thapa – took pity on him and brought him to my parents’ home, knowing they might very well take him, show him an elephant, maybe? My mother patted the boy’s grimy head and asked him if he wanted to stay with us. He began crying. My mother, herself conspicuously large-eyed, turned beseechingly to my father. “Would you really like to see an elephant?” my father asked Suraj. He shook his head and sobbed. “I miss my goat,” he said. “I want to go home.” His voice was still high-pitched, just shy of an adolescent timbre. Between his tears and his halting Hindi, there was no turning the child away. My mother hugged him and then took his hand. “Come in,” she said, leaving my father to settle things with Thapa, “and tell me, what is your goat’s name?”
At the time of his death in the spring of 2002, Suraj was the patient and pedagogically obsessed father of two small sons, Vishnu and Jeevan, and the long-suffering husband of a diminutive but bossy wife, Janaki. From being a Nepali child laborer temporarily given shelter in our home, he had become the pillar of my parents’ eccentric and delicate domesticity – most unexpectedly, given that his interview had consisted only of talk about a-yet-to-be-seen elephant and a never-to-be-seen-again goat. He was a phenomenal cook. And to me, only child of the house, daughter long grown-up and gone – what was Suraj to me? I’m not sure. Something to do with family and its necessary corollary, food. Something that has made it impossible to enjoy a meal at the parental table after his passing, although I continually miss their cuisine in my itinerant, often hungry, and ever-unsettled life away from Delhi. Something signified by the half-khaki, half-beige ceramic pickle jars that now sit in a graduated row on top of the dining cabinet, permanently empty.
My mother, her eyes still large for all the lines that have appeared around them in the twenty years between Suraj’s coming and his going, gives me dagger-looks, should I dare ask about her erstwhile pickling rituals, once unfailingly calibrated to the cycle of seasons. “Look,” she says, standing tall at five feet nothing, her Sikh demeanor enough to intimidate me even though I tower over her, “I have no patience with food-shood anymore. Your father should be grateful I go into the kitchen to get him his meals.” Her husband is crestfallen, but takes the barb in silence. She knows very well he scarcely eats anything at all nowadays, shrinking with the years until he becomes just a deep voice and deeper words, bodiless as befits a poet at the height of his powers, in the evening of his life. And he knows very well what she’ll say next: “Why did Suraj have to die?”
THE FIRST DISH OF MANY: SURAJ’S DAAL
- 1 cup toor daal (dried split pigeon peas, available in Indian markets. Substitute: red lentils)
- 1/2 Tblsp. oil or ghee
- 2 green chilies
- 1/2 tsp. black mustard seeds
- 1/2 tsp. cumin seeds
- pinch of asafoetida
- 1/2 tsp. turmeric powder
- 1 tsp. coriander powder
- Amchoor or raw-mango dry powder (substitute: juice from half a lime)
- Garam masala powder
- 3-4 strands fresh coriander leaves (cilantro)
Wash and soak the daal for an hour or so before cooking. Cook daal with 3 cups of water until soft. Heat oil and add mustard and cumin seed. When they start spluttering, add coriander powder and then quickly add slit or chopped green chillies and asafoetida, in that order. You can add dry red chilies for color. Fry very briefly and add to daal. Salt to taste.
Garnish with amchoor, garam masala and chopped fresh coriander leaves.
Serve hot with fresh chapattis, parathas or boiled rice.
Sense the mood of your guests. Multiply proportions as needed. Improvise, add tomatoes or onion or fresh ground pepper or ginger root. Make it spicy, make it soupy. Make it beautiful for fussy eaters. Whip up something delicious and tempting. Cook with love and devotion and a heart set on giving pleasure.
Professor C’s coming to Bangalore! Where has time gone, that I haven’t seen him in years? I struggle to lift my head from the stupor of my present, and register his arrival into town, to be followed much too soon by his departure. Scourge of his foes, his name means, utterly inappropriate for so gentle and cerebral a man. Like the good Bengali that he is – no doubt, history will in fact pronounce him a great Bengali of his generation – he is bearded and bespectacled; he sings, he paints, he sculpts, he teaches navya-nyaya and analytic philosophy, and he writes books that are extremely hard to decipher. He also makes atrocious puns in Bangla-accented Sanskrit, and in English that is doubly Oxonian thanks to his Calcutta education topped off by Oxford. Best of all, he makes delicious food.
I have to meet him, to remember a time in my own life when I was wide-eyed, and perhaps to get a good meal out of him. To tell him that even though I’ve been playing truant for much too long, not devoting myself to the pursuit of knowledge as he would have liked me to, I remember well the lessons in the backyard of his house in Maurice Nagar, in the Delhi University staff quarters. Grammar interspersed with logic interspersed with songs interspersed with snacks – how many teachers break their arduous lessons with sweet offerings from their harmonium, from their kitchen, from their heart? I and someone I loved at the time, we were Professor C’s students outside the classroom. We read Sanskrit together at his home. He challenged our minds, soothed our souls, and nourished our bodies. He was exacting and irascible like some medieval pundit. He was caring and fussy like the Mother he worshipped in the privacy of his puja room. Now he’s coming to this alien city where I happen to find myself living an existence bereft of all things beautiful. I don’t really want to talk to him as much as I want to sit down and eat with him.
No character in this piece is imaginary. Every person referred to here is alive, or was. That’s why I’ve told the editor it is ‘non-fiction’. At the time of Professor C’s visit, I was completely unable to eat. It was a strange condition, a disconnection from the only thing in human experience – food – that is at once indispensable and pleasurable (with the exception of water, perhaps). I was alarmed by the weight I lost, but also fascinated, in an objective way, by my own utter disinterest in food. If I were likely to become a Buddha or a Gandhi, we could put this period down to my experiments – with Suffering, with Truth, or with Something Else equally grand. The real reason, unfortunately, was much more banal: unhappiness. Literally as metaphorically, I could not swallow what was being doled out to me by way of a life. I declined politely as the ladle hovered over my plate for a moment: thanks, but this is simply not palatable.
It turns out Professor C is sick and coming to see some of Bangalore’s famous doctors. It turns out his little daughter, who used to run about in a frock in the backyard of the Maurice Nagar house where we had our special extracurricular lessons a decade ago, is now a young lady almost as tall as me. She will be taking her father to the specialty neurology hospital. It turns out that because Professor C still doesn’t touch garlic or onions or non-vegetarian food, he can’t eat out and needs me to bring provender for him and the voracious teenager accompanying him. What’s over is over – the time for studying serendipitously, accepting treats for brain and stomach alike from a gifted and generous connoisseur, feasting on a few rich hours that will make famished years like this one livable. Now it’s my turn to serve up a meal.
I am thrown into a state of panic. What will I take in my four-tier insulated tiffin when I go to pay my respects? Sometime since I had last seen Professor C, I had become a passable cook. My repertoire was limited, but I cooked with love. Alas, that phase was over. I ring up one of my two aunts in Bangalore; she agrees to do the needful at an hour’s notice. When the professor praises the food and his daughter wolfs down her share in the blink of an eye, I am embarrassed by the debt that I have merely passed on, instead of repaying it. “You,” he says, glaring at me over the glasses that have slid halfway down his nose, rounding up with his fingers the runny mess of rice and curds and sugar to scoop into his mouth, “we have to fatten you up. You look anorexic.” I’ve brought the food, albeit it’s borrowed rather than homemade, but he’s still the one feeding me.
Three or four summers ago, whilst traveling through northern Italy, I went to see Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in Santa Maria delle Grazie, an old church near Milan’s Cadorna station. The painting has been painstakingly restored and is displayed under carefully controlled conditions. Only a few people at a time may stand and stare, at a particular temperature, in a particular kind of light, at da Vinci’s masterpiece that depicts Jesus supping one last time with his disciples, both loyal and treacherous. All the Christian meanings of bread and meat or of wine and water aside, it struck me that many of our memories center on meals. Often times we remember the people we care for in the context of food eaten together, tables we sat at, dishes they prepared for us or we cooked for them, happy times and good cheer. Certainly this was the way in which I recall Professor C, my teacher who went too far away for me to follow, he to one side of the planet and I to the other.
As I stood in front of the Cenacolo Vinciano on a June morning, I realized that the work before me counted as great art not just because of who painted it, or whom he painted, but because it had the power to evoke for me, a random viewer from among the countless who must have seen the painting over the centuries, persons and events that have a very personal relevance to me. It depicted one of the most important scenes in the history of the world, but it also recalled to me significant moments in the insignificant narrative of my life, a life, any life. Like da Vinci’s other famous work, the Mona Lisa, this too looked me straight in the eye, and held my gaze, and drew me into my own past, otherwise vanished without a trace.
Suraj’s death was a violent one. An undiagnosed pain gripped his legs, and spread upwards into his body until his heart stopped. My parents were with him in the emergency room of the local hospital, with no idea that those would be his last hours. My mother held his hand, as she had done on his first day in our lives, and my father rubbed his feet, to try and keep his blood circulation going. “Go home,” he kept repeating to them, “I’ll be fine. It’s only pain.” The doctors asked my parents how Suraj was related to them. They had no answer. “Just help him, please,” my mother said to them. “He has two small children and a young wife waiting for him.”
Also waiting in the kitchen were several packets of whole spices, which Suraj had planned to clean and grind the next day to make his next lot of garam masala. He didn’t believe in buying it ready-made from the market. He had to make it himself, as he had to have sacks of wheat sunned and ground in a mill to make flour, and cream accumulated for weeks and cooked over a slow fire for hours to make ghee, and curds separated in a finely-woven white cloth to make paneer. “What century do you people live in?” my godmother Madhu would ask with a laugh each time she came over and observed Suraj’s elaborate cookery. “Is the food good or not?” he would ask. He did not get “no” for an answer, not from anyone who ate at my parents’ place. We never really knew how Suraj discovered his métier as a chef, because my mother didn’t teach him to cook like he did, and he certainly hadn’t come to us from his village knowing the first thing about cooking. But once he found that he had the power to make people happy with his dishes, he carried on doing things in a wholesome, laborious, old-fashioned way – until the day he died, in spasms of unbearable pain, the cause of which was never figured out. I suppose in the century Suraj transported us all to with his culinary time-machine, people routinely died like that, for no discernible reason, at a randomly young or old age.
I knew Suraj as well as I might have known a brother, if I had had one. We grew up together under my parents’ roof, dreaming of elephants and Ph.D. degrees, respectively. We often fought fiercely and secretly, as siblings will. We often covered up for one another, so that vast numbers of his childish crimes and my innumerable immature misdemeanors went unnoticed by my parents. For a good ten years they naïvely believed their home to be populated by two unnaturally well-behaved youngsters and two equally unnaturally idiosyncratic dogs (one of whom reminded Suraj of his long-lost goat).
For both Suraj, who suddenly crossed the threshold out of the world of the living, and Professor C, separated from me by the curve of the earth, I felt what in older English novels used to be called “sympathy.” After Suraj’s passing the slightest something fluttered onto my heart. It’s settled there for good, it seems, a weightless but visible darkness, like a black butterfly. I’m not sure what it is – “grief” might be too strong a word – but it sure took away my appetite for a long time. Sometimes hunger causes death and other times, death kills hunger. If I were to call Professor C, right now, he would quote me the line from an Upanishad where a wise man long ago said exactly that.