Written by: Kornica Sen Sarma
(Reading Time: 25 min Approx)
Rishabh woke up with the calling bell continuously ringing.
It is a Sunday morning, for the love of the almighty!! Can’t a man sleep peacefully in his house now?
If you are not deaf enough with all that noise, can you please open the door, your highness?
Ma’s muffled voice was heard from the next room. She was probably completing her puja, where Rishabh did not dare to interfere, else he will not be allowed his weekly dose of Gujiya. Hey, hold on people, it’s not your fried Gujiya we are talking about here, alright? It’s a Bengali sweet that you must buy from Subodh Kaku’s shop (he makes the best Gujiyas in the world) made of clarified butter, powdered milk and sugar. Not the ones you find outside Bengal, a hard shelled one with semolina stuffing. The very Bengali Gujiya looks like the Sudha Dairy logo with a hole in the middle.
Rishabh is fascinated by this particular type of sweet from his childhood. Even when he is a grown up now, Baba buys Gujiya when Rishabh comes home, about which he was quite proud of.
Like every typical mother, Ma waits for his son to come home. She somehow feels proud that her son spends more time in the kitchen than in social networking when he is at home. He has to travel a lot of places in India because of his job. This has become a camouflaged boon as he gets to try new food every day and he tries to recreate them in his kitchen. The ones that survive, gets the honour to be created in his mother’s kitchen by him. The mother and son bonding have gotten a lot stronger these days. Baba has always been neglected by the duo because he is the one who judges. Eats the food, comments and criticises, that too without acknowledging the fact that their hobby is getting him a new dish almost every day!
Finally getting himself out of bed, Rishabh ventured to the door to put a light on who was the one causing nuisance at this time of the day!(For the readers, we should add the time, it was eleven thirty in the morning, and Rishabh wishes to sleep till his lunch on days like these, when he is at home.) Opening the door, he got startled a little as there was standing, none other than Shyama Dida. Shyama was not her real name, no one knows what the real name was, as the name was coined, based on her complexion. Shyama means dark, and she was dark undoubtedly but only from outside. Rishabh has rarely seen a person with as clean and pure of heart as her. He has literally grown up seeing her helping others in need. Rishabh always wanted to become someone like her. Rishabh almost cried,
Finally, you are here! I missed you so much!!
I know how much! Not even once you came to visit this old hag. I have heard that you came home the day before yesterday.
I was so tired. See I was sleeping when you came as well.
Are you going to make me stand here all day and do all the talking?
Sorry! Come on…come inside…
Rishabh gave way to the chubby figure of Shyama dida(Grandma) and saw her pushing the half chewed betel leaf from one side to another with the help of her tongue and smile slightly. She was indeed delighted to see Rishabh after so many days. She has no family at all so she treated this family as her own. She has good bonding with Rishabh’s grandmother and mother. Whenever Rishabh’s grandmother visits here, Shyama dida has to be there. They talk all day, eat together, she almost forgets that she has a home too.
Rishabh remembers an incident from his childhood. Once, there was a time when Rishabh’s grandmother came to visit them. Unfortunately, she had fallen ill and the doctors confirmed that it was jaundice. Rishabh’s father, a military man, was away from his home as usual, Rishabh’s mother was in a total mess. Shyama dida, at that time, took care of everything and did not let his mother feel a bit of uneasiness for even a moment. Sometimes Rishabh asked his mother about why she is always around, and she would answer that it was because she was family. Other than taking care of Rishabh’s grandmother, Shyama dida every now and then would sit and tell some stories to Rishabh. Stories of Itu puja (Itu Puja is the worship of Sun God in Agrahan month in Bengal), the stories of Umno and Jhumno and how the concept of Itu came. Mostly we can find these folklores nowadays in Panjika(bengali calendar with detailed description of the rituals that take place throughout the year), Rishabh always listened to the juxtaposition of the folklores with the real life events. Shyama dida described how they did the pujas back then in their home in Bangladesh. In his childhood, Rishabh never understood why Shyama Dida called Bangladesh, her home. As he read in his geography books, it was a separate country, how come it is her motherland? And if it is so, why is she here in India?
On the way growing up, he read about the partition of India in his history and geography books, but the way it affected the lives of people is nowhere to be found in those mere words. Presently Rishabh was waiting for his lunch eagerly as Shyama Dida was the cook today, and there has to be something special on the menu. As obvious as it can be, the dishes she cooked, must have had something different in it. The first dish, which Rishab remembers the most is Chital Machher Muithya, where muithya is steamed fish dumplings shaped by pressing the fish paste in a fist. In Bengali, fist is called muthi, and therefore derived the name muithya with a slight change of dialect. Chital fish is found seasonally in India, and as it is very boney, people prefer to have the pieces from the lower half of the fish(peti).
Most people do not like the parts that are on the upper side of the fish, but some people observed that these pieces contain more flesh and if the bones can be taken out somehow, it can taste heavenly. Bringing the idea to reality, they took the flesh out with the help of a spoon, the consistency of the flesh is almost paste-like without any hint of bones in it. Then the paste is mixed with potatoes and spices and made into a dough. Adding a perfect amount of boiled potato prevents the dumplings from getting a rubber like texture.
Then the dough is shaped and put into boiling water, and when they pop up on the surface, they are removed from the water. After slight frying, these dumplings go straight into a runny onion gravy and sautéed for some time, and then you can have it. Rishabh loved it the most, as he did not like Chital fish at all. But Shyama Dida’s efforts made him like it. Today also, Rishabh was eagerly waiting to have something new on the plate. Entirely forgetting that it was a veg-eating day and a meat loving guy like Rishabh could not even stand the idea of not having fish or chicken in his plate.
Aren’t you going to take a bath? I can’t remember you taking one after you came.
A visibly offended Rishabh answered back,
Don’t say it like that, I shower every day!
Yeah, only the bathroom floors remain dry even after you take a shower.
How weird can you be Ma? You check the floor after I come out of the shower?
Enough of talking, go take a shower now, Shyama Dida cooked something special.
Did baba bring mutton or fish today?
Can’t you ever think of anything other than mutton or fish these days? We are going to eat veg today.
What is there to rejoice about? I am not a cow Ma! I don’t like vegetables….
Rishabh unscrewed the shower tap muttering these. What did his mother say as the answer was not audible because of the sound of the water?
After coming out of the shower, Rishabh saw his mother setting the table for them. Shyama Dida was watching all the chores very intently. Seeing Rishabh, she called out to him and said,
Come fast Rishu, the food is getting cold.
As if that matters, it all veg as far as i can remember.
You have a stubborn child; I tell you Sumi.
See it yourself! It’s all your and Ma’s fault. All because of your indulgence!
Okay, okay, go on, do the table, I am going to get the food from the kitchen.
Typical Grandmothers, intolerant about anything bad about their grandsons.
Said Rishabh’s mother in an inaudible tone, not forgetting the fact that she was talking to an elderly person.
Rishabh sat at the table unhappily, waiting for something stale and bland in taste but surprised, he saw some dark green julienne of something, cooked with poppy and nigella seeds. Before he could ask anything, Shyama dida said, ‘mix it with some rice and eat.’ It was more like an order than an advice, and he did what he had to. Unwillingly he took a handful of the mixed rice and put it in his mouth. He just had a blast of taste which was savory and the flavours the nigella seeds added to the dish started playing a symphony inside his mouth. There was a subtle crunch to it because of the poppy seeds. Rishabh could not help asking Shyama dida,
What is this thing? I don’t remember having anything like this all my life. What is it?
Have a wild guess dear. Let’s see your imagination.
Umm…nope. Nothing, oh say it already!
It’s the peel of a bottle gourd.
What? Bottle gourd? Peel? I can’t understand a word you are saying. I would have eaten it if I was informed before. How do you cook it?
At first, we peel a bottle gourd and make julienne so that it looks like little pieces of cut nails.
Rishabh scrunched his nose out of disgust with the reference while Shyama dida continues
Add a spoonful of oil and heat it, add nigella seeds and a green chili, sauté a little and add the peels. We have to cook it in a low flame as it has a low amount of water in it, so has very much chances to burn. When half done, add the poppy seeds and cook well till it becomes dark green in colour. And you have it. Simple!
An astonished Rishabh finished the rest of his food with other dishes like bottle gourd cooked with bori, Chholar dal (Bengal gram soup), Cabbage, cooked in spices and finally curd. After he finished his food, he felt like his belly was almost going to burst. But he diverted his mind into wondering what made Shyama dida cook bottle gourd peels, and how did she get the idea? At the time of his afternoon nap, Rishabh went to her and asked
Are you sleepy?
Sleep doesn’t come to us in this age dear, we have to wait for it.
Why don’t you tell me some stories about your childhood?
I didn’t have a childhood dear; I was married at a very early age.
Still tell me what you remember of your childhood.
Never did he know that he was bringing out the worst memories of her life. It was about the scarred past that India beholds in her bosom for a long time. Most of its inhabitants knew about it and almost forgot, but the everlasting after effects in their minds are still visible in the behaviors of these people. Shyama dida started as if she had gone back to her old days. With dilated pupils, she started
When I came here in this country, we were all bankrupt. We had to leave everything back there in Bangladesh just to save our lives and exist in the face of the earth. I was really little back then. Didn’t understand what a partition really meant. I only realized that I will not be able to play with my best friend Ayesha anymore. We left our house at midnight behind everyone’s back. No one knew about our departure, we wanted to be left alone and leave for the newly born India. After my father opened the back door, he was as stunned as we all were. There was Bashir chacha(Uncle), Ayesha’s father, standing on the other side of the door. He was a family friend but no one can be trusted at that time.
You just said he was a family friend!
I did. But at times like this, everyone can turn on you. But falsifying all the rumors, Bashir chacha’s eyes started welling up and I will remember the words he said for the rest of my life.
What did he say?
He said, ‘I wish I could stop you people from leaving the country. I wish I could say it like before, that we all are with you brother, stay here, we all will save you. But time has taken us to a place where we cannot trust our brothers even. It is not safe here anymore, go to India brother. You have to. Shyama is my daughter also. I will drop you people to the station. Don’t worry.’ The man was true to his words. He helped us safely reach India, but we did not know anyone here, and started living in the slum nearby. And we were not the only family stuck in that kind of devastating situation. There were thousands of us struggling for existence. As days went by, we became like family. And to tell you the truth, we got the native Indians by our sides. Some of them helped us by sharing their foods and clothes. In these days, we learnt that we should not waste even the peels of vegetables as those too are edible. Fried potato peels can be eaten with normal daal and rice and also saves the cost of a side dish. The days have changed now, but those awful days taught us a lot about life.
As Shyama dida’s voice was fading because of the burden of sleep, those words that came out of her mouth, Rishabh was forced by his conscience to open his laptop and start studying about the horrifying past incidents. Soon came the inner justification of all of Shyama dida’s helpful nature. Though no one cared to help her in her odds, why did she always help people. It was her life that taught her to be by the side of her people.
Today’s incident has increased an enormous amount of respect for Shyama dida in Rishabh’s heart. With a happy heart, he started planning dinner which he was going to cook for his Shyama dida today.