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That House That Age – Chapter 10
“If you ask me about the eating habit, I must tell you that there has been a sea change in eating culture between that time and now,” Balaram said.
Swapnendu and Ruby, a couple from Bangalore, grandnephew and his newly wedded wife of one of Balaram’s brothers-in-law, came to meet them with a message from their granduncle. They heard about him but met him for the first time. Babu Balaram, bare bodied with sacred threads round his neck hanging up to a length as usual, with big moustaches, wearing dhoti and smoking a bidi, (a handmade small sized smoke) looked at them with curiosity as they were hesitating to say anything about eating habit to such a senior person who they have come to meet from a long distance. After offering him a box of sweets as sent by their granduncle they did their pronam as usual custom by touching his feet as they first met him.
The issue was raised as Balaram asked them to have lunch with them and Swapnendu, shying a little, denied telling that they would go in half an hour’s time to his father-in-law’s house which was not far from there. “We cannot take anything now other than a cup of tea, if you insist,” he said.
“Young man, are you afraid of having lunch twice in a day?” Balaram asked to which Swapnendu replied, “Why lunch, we usually do not eat anything beyond scheduled hours and we take food up to the measured quantity only.”
Finding Balaram smoking and smiling, Swapnendu said, “Eating anything anytime will not only upset our health, stomach in particular, but upset our whole days’s program.”
Sarbani, who did not know them, ever ready to cook and feed, peeped in when they entered and heard them from outside about their willingness to take tea, now entered with two cups of tea and two plates of sweets in a tray and kept them on the low side table, pulling it a little towards them and telling them, with smiling face, “Take.”
Ruby jumped to her feet and held her hand, “Oh Kakima, we should have met you first. But please, it will be quite a problem with the sweets. Please take them back.” Sarbani took one plate in her hand and keeping the other said, “OK, I am taking this, please at least take this. Having come for the first time from such a distance we cannot allow you to go without them,” she said and looked at Balaram for support.
“Sure”, Balaram said, “You two take two plates of sweets.
She hasn’t given you lots!”
At this Swapnendu too stood up with folded hands with plea to excuse them. Sarbani took out one dish which she had put again and smiled while going out, guessing what would follow then.
Both of them took their seats to hear Balaram who it seemed was eager to say something.
“Once you know, we met in a marriage party, your granduncle and me with others. After we had our feast filling our belly to the full there was some talks and challenges. Ronidi offered rupees . . . I don’t remember, to one who would eat another 5 kilo of Rasogolla after the usual feast. Money was no matter but the challenge. I accepted it. Coming home she ordered this quantity of sweet to the local confectioner. As it came I sat down and began relishing them with full juice without squeezing it out as the moderns do sometimes. Coming to the last piece I said, ‘This is the last one, please taste. Last few weren’t fresh, bit spoiled giving sour taste. I have taken all but this for you to verify.
"After trying a portion of it she agreed that I was right and called the confectioner for explanation. That part is otiose now. I won and she paid me the bet money.”
Looking at them for a minute Balaram asked, “Have you understood what is real eating?”
Swapnendu said, “That you are still living is a proof enough that such rough eating is possible, but . . . “
Finding him hesitating Ruby took the courage to say, “After all, bizarre!”
Balaram took the comment as bonus after so many years and continued, “Do you know how much I used to take during the marriage feast or on such occasions?”
“We guess!” one of them said and got a pat reply, “You can’t!”
Then Balaram began, “In those days the food servers on such occasions were friends and relatives of the organizers giving the feast. There were almost no caterers; no one hired a separate house or hall for this. The roof covered with sort of shamiana or simple awnings was enough; considered respectable arrangement for such feasts. All sat in rows, cross legged on flat seats spread on the floor, neat and clean. When the buckets full of fish or meat came I took the bucket from their hands asking them to bring another to serve others. And I began taking them. All eyes were on me. I relished both the food and the eyes on me. Same thing happened when the buckets full of ladycany or rasogolla came and I took a pot full doi, kind of your yoghurt. Luchi you know, sort of fried saucer shaped bread, I have doubt if you have ever tasted. Can you guess how many I took?”
When only silence followed him he said, “About fifty to sixty. That was the base food besides all other savories.”
“Oh, oh!” Both of them jumped to their feet.
“Oho, sit, sit,” was the command and they sat willy-nilly. “You know I am the lazy son of a Zamindar! I usually joined parties quite late. They served me in one of the last batches. Sometimes servers came to their wit’s end how to meet my demands for hunger and thirst satisfactorily when I took such quantity of foods, ending with some dozens of mangoes and a full earthen pitcher of water. Sometimes there was a shortfall and they reported to the elders who came with humble suggestion to satisfy me separately with request to finish for the evening as the whole batch was waiting to break for wash. They begged my pardon openly before others. At that time you know, the custom was for everyone to wait till the last person in a row finished eating. They didn’t get up one after the other as and when their part was done. On most occasions I was the last person; a cynosure of all invitees.” There was a win-win smile on his face.
The audience now reached a point of disbelief. They couldn’t compromise with such idea of satisfying hyena like greed and elephantine hunger of an invitee; it required enormous expenditure besides time and energy of all important persons gathered. And all that for one person only! Balaram guessed their feeling as he had enough experience about the reactions to such tales though he knew them to be true. He continued,
“We had some cows kept in cowshed adjacent to our house. One of the cows was red. Once when my father was in good mood he said to me, ‘Yes, you beta, you are the fittest person at home. You can digest the entire milk from the red cow.’ And he ordered that one needed not henceforth milk that cow with others as before. Milk of that cow should be kept separate, he meant for me. And, believe me, each morning during the milking time I used to wait for them to milk that cow in my presence in a separate pot. As they did I used to take the pot from their hand and drink the whole milk; raw, fresh and hot without boiling, without adding sugar or processing it in any way.
“You can understand my capacity to eat and drink, acquired as birth right; eating and tasting food as I used to relish. I always took my daily meals which were quite more in quantity than the average persons in our circle. And I had the capacity to regulate and adjust ingesting food on occasions; increasing the quantity more than what I took usually or reducing them. Why me only? One of my cousins who was a wrestler, used to take daily yolks of 16 raw eggs poured in a big tumbler of milk.
"About the ordinary eaters I may say that people of that time could take and usually took food as much as they liked according to their choice and taste as they could digest naturally provided they could afford to take them, without waiting for some others like doctors or dieticians or nutritionists to recommend or prescribe what and how much they should take for good and healthy physique. People of our generation took foods as their appetite and choice dictated which as was natural and healthy diet for them, depending on their ages. They didn’t bother to know about the food value of different kinds and qualities of foods and their effects on their bodies as the scientist had observed. They had usually good health, suffered less and led a joyous life barring a few who were sick by birth, habit or circumstances. Our food habits and consumption of food did not depend on foreign expertise, outlandish ideas and practices. Let people of earth live according to their choice and habit following their traditions.”
This talk was of such weight and value that no modern man or woman could easily defy, sensing substance in them. Though both Ruby and Swapnendu were almost fidgeting by then, they admitted the substance in his talks but said that modern science is more accurate in finding and prescribing diet, in analysing the relationship between food and health.
“They take huge quantity of beef and pork which are harmful beyond the minimum, otherwise justifying them with the measuring rod of their choice. Man and his culture are different from science and reason many times,” Balaram said, and, each body and its system is different from others.
They were stunned. They understood that it was beyond them to effectively argue. They mentally admitted that age and culture, time and tide guide everything like dressing, eating and dwelling. They felt that talks on the subject would take days and they weren’t quite ready or fit for that. They looked at each other and looked at their watches. After all, it wasn’t that interesting for them; they felt which was mentally shared by the speaker too.
Balaram felt their pulse without holding their hands. He was smiling and smoking bidis, one after the other. Now he ignited a cigarette. Swapnendu said, “Dadu, many thanks for your valuable talks today,“ but before he finished, Balaram said, “I won’t take much of your time to tell a very humorous tale of a village folk, rustic of a sort. A tail piece on the subject of eating habit for the day.”
They sat steeled without choice and Balaram began the tales about Raghupati Khudo.
“There was one of our uncles we called Raghupati Khudo or Raghupati uncle who lived in our ancestral village. Somehow their family wasn’t well off. He used to visit us from time to time and stayed on for some days. What he managed to get from my mother besides stay and food was not known to us. He made a kind of friendship with my mother. Being quite young and distant cousin of my father, she was his sis-in-law, he called her Boumoni. My mother was kind hearted and sympathetic to his condition and tried to help him when he came.
Greediness was one of his telling weaknesses. He expected varieties of sumptuous food served to him in our house; a rich man’s home then. My mother supervised the lunch and dinner which were served to him. His seat was arranged apart from others to avoid inadvertent humorous injury to him when he sat for eating. Bengali village people love rice most and he was no exception but the speciality in it was that one could not easily find his face sitting behind the heap of rice, so high it used to be! Then going closer one would find many pots of vegetable and fish items served which he would take leisurely taking his time. He was not elder to us by many years; we were like friends. Our friendship with him was jocular. We used to cut jokes at his cost for which he gave reasons enough. Sometimes he was found eating and then for a couple of days we didn’t find him anywhere. After thorough search he was found sleeping like a log somewhere in an unknown place. On asking he replied that after having a heavy meal his stomach was upset, he took complete rest as advised by Boumoni.
“Once, few of us with Raghupati Khudo went to attend a function as invitees. They gave us sumptuous food and Raghupati asked for many helpings, we noticed. At the end we stood up to come out but he was sitting still. We moved expecting him to follow us. After all talks with the hosts and others, taking leave to depart when we proceeded towards the exit gate we found him absent. One of us came back to find him sitting still. ‘Wonderful! All have gone out and you are still here? Won’t you go home?’
“He could not instantly answer. Bending, he found him uttering in low voice with tears in his eyes that he could not get up.
“Asked ‘Why?’ he replied pitifully,
“‘I don’t know, maybe for overeating,’ he confessed. One was at a loss, how to get him up on his feet! There wasn’t any doctor nearby. The enquirer came back to report his position and all of us gathered at the place. Someone out of helplessness and rage stroke at the back of his head, another of us abused him. He started crying. Then all of us holding his hands and trunk raised him and leaning on our shoulder he started walking. Coming up to the car he was pushed from the back, thrown inside. Every one joked and he warned that going home he would complain to Boumoni about the harassment and misbehavior he received from us. However, we reached home and he took rest for three days, taking some medicines.
“It was his habit to try to reach my mother at odd times; once he knocked at the door of my mother’s bed room quite early in the morning. He called in very low voice, ‘Boumoni, Boumoni, can you give me a small metal box as you promised?’
“Getting no response, gathering courage he raised his voice, requesting for a box to be replied in a hoarse and loud voice, ‘Dhet, shala!’
“Hearing this unexpected rebuff from a male voice he realised that he was knocking at their bedroom at an odd hour! Boumoni is all right but she wasn’t alone! It’s a tiger’s den!
Considering this and realising the dire consequences his nerve failed, heart began to palpitate at the thought of Sumatha Nath coming out and chasing him. He started running in speed down the staircases, shouting in fear, ‘Oh save me, save me!’
“The person shouting at him didn’t even try to get up to wrap his dhoti on his bare body. That much of work for this trifle job! His frown was enough to set Raghupati to motion, he knew well. He slept as before.
“And half the household woke up not realising what great danger was going to engulf them. Some of them came out opening their doors to see or hear only half known or unknown Raghupati’s voice. They thought that he must have committed some serious crime. But before they thought of saving him or facing him he vanished from the house not to be seen in a fortnight.”
After a moment’s pause Balaram suddenly said, “But you may be surprised that even such a tiger was greeted with his own word once, and that too uttered by his desperate nephew. He stayed in our house studying medicine. He was quite afraid of his maternal uncle like all others. Once he might have done some wrong and was threatened by his uncle. Afraid, he somehow managed to avoid his presence. But once he was cornered and finding his position precarious he fled from the house uttering desperately, ‘Mama shala’ meaning the same as was heard by our Bhupathi Khudo.”
However, Ruby and Swapnendu were stunned with a kind of odd feeling of fear and disgust. But those feelings could not continue as both of them received calls at the same time in their mobiles. Ruby’s father rang up Ruby and Ruby’s mother rang Swapnendu asking in astonishment as to how long would they stay there? It was already beyond lunch hour and they haven’t started yet!
“Really, really!” They said and both went out of the room to talk privately with the callers. Balaram relaxed on the bed after quite some time. He felt tired. Finally Ruby’s parents wished to talk to Balaram. One of them came into the room and gave the mobile to his hand.
They heard jovial talks and laughter between the caller and the receiver. After some time Balaram smilingly returned the gadget to one of them. It was decided that they would have their lunch there and in the evening report to their parents and parents-in-law. At this Sarbani faced some problem as she wasn’t ready to host them with this short notice. But with her ever expanding desire to cook and feed specially her favourites who always ate whatever she served them and appreciated, she was rejoicing the situation even as she realised that they would not be good eaters. It is sure enough, even a voracious eater like Balaram agrees, that she is a cook exceptional! He assured the guests that they would experience an exceptional lunch and that their wait would be amply rewarded!
Her grandson Suro and his wife too came back for lunch in the meantime and there were some others too who accompanied them. However, all women in the house volunteered to share the job and their nice meal was ready almost in time.
Ruby too heard about the big body, dynamic personality and strange activities of Babu Sumatha Nath Roy Chowdhury whom none of them saw. Ruby felt intrigued to continue with Balaram for some more time to hear him about his father, to get good materials for her thesis in the making, on the psychological traits of misguided and misdirected minds with enough riches during a particular phase of colonial rules in Bengal. Whereas some educated youth dedicated even their lives for the cause of freedom of their country some lived helped by fantasies. Large numbers of people were unfed or half-fed whereas some made bumper profit in war market. There were surely some mental distortion and degradation, some mental retardation, she felt.
She had begun her studies for her PhD before her marriage and continued after that. Twice she came back to Kolkata to complete formalities and wished to continue for some more months to conclude her work. Though married at Bangalore her In-laws agreed to help her complete her thesis and for that purpose her stay at Kolkata for some more time was felt necessary. Ruby came to Balaram and said that she was very interested to know more about the angry young man, Sumatha Nath; tales and traits of his character. Balaram agreed to sit with her but after an hour of his lunch as it was time for his rest.
After a gap of one and half hour they tried to wake him up by knocking at his door. Balaram usually dozed but rarely slept even at night, he just had a nap. He got up easily and was given tea. It was already five in the afternoon.
They sat in two chairs before him and he was sitting on his bed half inclined. He began without any prop.
“My father was born rich; whatever required for that had been done by his father who had full trust in his ability. There were enough resources to enjoy. On one hand he got good business houses to further his financial prosperity and on the other hand he got enough resources to enjoy and make fun. He had a very quick temper and of course self confidence. His nature was to live lavishly, to enjoy life. He was never inclined to observe austerities. His nature might be intolerable to some but he was the opposite of the nouveau riche and inept employees who are paid more than their efficiency now-a-days.
“He would throw a hundred rupee note among the fawners and sycophants to enjoy their fight for life to get possession of the note. After bath he would comb his hair before a mirror held by the hands of a servant. If he moved a little or could not hold the mirror in place he would get a good slap, sometimes thrown aside with the mirror and abused. He would kick a subordinate for disobeying or shout to silence if someone passed whistling on the road below his window. A mood, a whim sometimes guided his activities. But he was always generous when someone brought something which pleased his fancy, even among the common and trifle things like a bunch of stalks of roots or greens, say of good brand or place name like Katoa, which tasted nice. He would throw two ten rupee notes when cost for such things in the market was just two annas. It means he would pay 160 times of the price.”
“Sir, don’t you find that they were the glaring examples of pride and self-esteem as well as contempt for the low born as he considered the poor as such?”
“I am telling you the facts. Not analysing. You may think the way you like. To help you further assess his conduct I am telling you another story of him; don’t get puzzled for he gave reasons for his conduct too. He used to keep treasury notes below the soles of his legs within the shoe telling us that notes are always to be kept as such to keep them tamed and subdued, that one need not dance keeping them on the head. He sometimes had a spending spree and he lost money but who can say how many folds he would have gained them had he lived?
“Though it is true, seen from a distance now, that he did some things sometimes which should not have been done that way, but they were done! He loved the way of enjoying life like some other rich man’s sons enjoyed, like spending half of the nights elsewhere with other charms and returning home thereafter or arranging dance soirees at midnight in the other part of his house engaging professional women with minimum covers on their bodies while his wife was at home. These were the wont of rich people of that day, good or bad they didn’t consider. Mood, you know, mood and whim. But he was considerate enough to take my mother with him in some other evenings to Outram Ghat on the Ganges or New Empire theatre to view and enjoy the evenings or often presented very costly ornaments and dresses to her. Outram Ghat on the Ganges at that time used to be a pleasure hunter's paradise in the evening. Red faced Sahibs with wives or mistresses thronged the Ghat.
“I have said many times, there was no doubt that he loved my mother truly. She had no complaints ever against him. Respectable ladies of the time knew how to adjust with the men folk of that time. She had no wants so long as he lived!
“Before marrying my mother he had another marriage and married my mother, a second marriage, they were quite normal in those days, even today in such circumstances; nobody can deny. His first wife was gone when he married my mother. But another thing happened, an unexpected contact before his contact with my mother’s family. Had anything happened there we would not have been here and the story of his life would be altogether different,” Balaram said and looked at them.
Ruby was noting the essence of his talks in her notebook.
After noting she asked,
“What’s that?” Apparently they were curious to hear what would have changed the flow of his life altogether.
“Once, a year before my father’s marriage with my mother, he had visited Udaipur. He was known and distantly related to the family of Krishan Chandra Mukherjee whose uncle was in business contact with his father, Babu Ram Nath Roy Chowdhury. His majestic body and royal look drew attention of the royal court where Krishan Chandra or big bodied Hathi Babu, which if translated becomes ‘Gentleman Elephant’, was an important member of the Government as its Finance Minister and Education Minister. He served the term of a judge also for quite some time. His father was more famous than him as the Diwan or Prime Minister in the royal court. There are roads in their names in Udaipur.
“Hathi Babu became his friend; their physique drew them closer. During his stay there for a fortnight Sumatha Nath Roy Chowdhury spent lavishly and was almost going to be absorbed in the royal family as one of their sons-in-law. He had grown a relationship with one of the family’s finest girls. Hathi Babu helped him in this affair.
“Sumatha’s father, Babu Ram Nath became worried about his son’s sudden absence for unusual length of time and began sending him telegram after telegram. At this Hathi Babu became worried as the relationship of his friend with the royal family was going to be beyond the usual matrimonial norms and practices. His help again dissuaded my father to settle anything without the permission of his father. He came back sharply and referred nothing to his father about his adventures. The prospect of lengthening his Udaipur stay was arrested. Long after, one of my brother-in- law’s daughter has been married to Hathi Babu’s family.
“It’s a different age after the end of royal families in India. My father did not live long to see that the legacy of his Udaipur visit bore fruit in the same matrimonial route but quite differently. After my wife’s death my relationship with them has become very thin.”
Finding them viewing their watches more often than before Balaram stopped and said, “More on the next occasion.”
They left after offering pronams at his feet as was the parting norms then. Balaram blessed and wished them well.
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