Saturday, April 09, 2011


My niece’s daughter was being christened. The function, held in my mother’s house, was followed by a vegetarian lunch.

As I got up after the hearty meal, my uncle who was sitting opposite me looked at the plantain leaf I had eaten from and remarked, ‘You have left nothing behind. A clean leaf – like your grandfather’s used to be.’

Waste not, want not. Yes, that was something my grandfather had taught us – not to waste a morsel of food. ‘There are thousands who have to sleep on a hungry stomach; it is criminal to waste food,’ he used to say. He would eat every bit of what was served – curry leaves and chillies included – and leave an absolutely clean leaf behind. That he was a strict vegetarian, of course, helped. The only giveaway sign that it was a used leaf would be the change in the tint in the green caused by the hot rice scalding the leaf.

All of us in our family have imbibed this respect for food. We are sad that at parties and feasts, even buffets, many throw away a lot of food. When serving ourselves, we take only what we can have, no more. We consume what we are served, all of it.

This has caused us some amount of embarrassment. At times, a guest may keep away a piece of brinjal they do not particularly relish, or leave behind some rice in the plate, to be thrown away. We used to pray that this indiscretion escapes our eight-year old son Hari’s notice, for, he would frown and, in all innocence, ask, ‘Why are you wasting that?’ and may be follow it up with a stern ‘Eat it up!’

Honestly, there have been a few rare occasions when I too had to throw away food. I have never been able to like sarson-da-saag and makke-di-roti, it, despite my five-year stint in Punjab. Any self-respecting Punjabi would bet his shirt on that, to them, is a delectable combination. I guess you have to cultivate a taste for it, like you do for beer or alcohol, which I have not been able to (I mean the sarson-da-saag and makke-di-roti, not the beverages in question) despite my being served these in several homes.

The hospitable hosts would proudly serve their well-known delicacy and top it with scoops of butter. As the butter melted in the hot deep green saag and floated in it, my thoughts would go back to the hot black coffee into which castor oil had been poured. (For the uninitiated, this abominable concoction was the medicine in the village homes in my boyhood for de-worming the intestines.) With that vision, do you think sarson-da-saag would go down the throat that easily?

The hostess, obviously unaware of the connection, nay psychological association, between butter-on-saag and castor oil-on-coffee, would lovingly serve huge helpings of the delicacy, much to my discomfiture, prod me, ‘Chakh lo, ji, changa haiga, khub pasand aavega.’ I had no choice other than throwing it away when the hosts were not looking.

The other was the tinde-ki-subzi they used to serve for lunch on Wednesdays and dinner on Saturdays in the YMCA Hostel in Chowringhee, Calcutta. The menu was unalterably fixed. If it is maachher jhhol for lunch, it is Sunday. If it was Friday, there would be chana daal and aalu poshto for dinner. The joke doing the rounds was that it was easier to get the Constitution of India amended, compared to the YMCA menu.

The footman allotted to the residents of the four rooms in the wing which my room formed a part of was Gaurang Prasad, a man from District Chhapra in Bihar. Fair-skinned, tall and lean, he looked different from and spoke a different Hindi/Bengali than the other footmen. Later on I came to know that all the other footmen were from East Bengal. Not just that, Gaurang told me one Sunday morning while polishing my shoes, they are all ‘Mussulmans’, while he was a Hindu. ‘See their names: Alam, Altaf, Rahman, Murad, …’ Not that it mattered to me one bit!

To get back to tinde-ki-subzi. On the occasions it was made and served, after placing the bowl of soup before me at the dining table, Gaurang would tell me, in sing-song fashion, ‘Sir, aaj tinde-ki-subzi hai’ and look into my eyes mischievously, knowing well that I do not like tinda one bit. Gaurang was considerate, though. The astute Man Friday had discovered my weakness for the chutney made of dried ripe mango which went well with roti. He would take away the bowl containing the contentious tinde-ki-subzi and get me a generous helping of the chutney. Not once did he offer me the chutney before serving the unwanted dish and singing his lilting ‘Sir, aaj tinde-ki-subzi hai’, looking into my eyes and taking the bowl away.

That was perhaps his method of driving the point home that I was being granted a special dispensation, implying that the gesture deserved to be reciprocated when giving him his monthly baksheesh.


anilkurup said...

"food for thought"- I guess gluttony is as much a vice as squander of food.Then they also have said ,"your food is my poison and my food your poison".
Asides what will you say of those pale colored gentry from the west who indulge in Tandoor Chicken with the aid of the tablewares like fork and knife? And in the bargain waste, leave out the major chunk of the fascinating meat?

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

I didn't read this story earlier. I stumbled upon it while I was trying to search something else on your blog.

Through your writing, your grandfather comes out as a very special person. You were indeed fortunate to have someone like him to hold your hands when you were a child.

Looking forward to reading more about him.