The Aroma Wafts on...
a question that oftentimes bothers me: If I were not the one what I’m now known
for or, more precisely, known to my friends as, what else would I have become?
A farmer, for all that quiet pleasure I always
find at the mere glimpse of an expansive paddy field undulating into sparkling
waves in the swishing September breeze? Or a gardener, for all the rapture a
sapling sends me into as it grows from strength to strength, from its dainty
existence into its fragrant efflorescence? Or a teacher to root out the rote
learning that catapulted all the obedient kids of my time into the legendary
gold medalists? Or a crusader against poverty, seeing people offering their
dilapidated aluminium bowl on pawn for a bowlful of water-rice? Or an entrepreneur,
for all my readiness to struggle and suffer and learn and excel? Or a writer
trying to identify with the environs and gain insights into the phenomenon
called relationship? Or a philosopher bent on unravelling the purpose of
existence? Or a priest? A thief? A beggar? What exactly would I have become had
I not been pushed into the stream and chosen to swim downstream? Where is my
alter ego that has been eluding me for ever?
The other day I met him, my alter ego—I think I
met him. I met him in a party, amongst my friends; say among some thirty of us
who could assemble for a nostalgic get-together. It was a kind of reunion of
all those who passed out from Utkal University, Vani Vihar in the year 1980.
Not all of us were present, but the crowd was compatible enough to rekindle my
feelings and guide me straight up to my insight where lay the answer to my
You Nanda. Do you remember me? I’m the same XYZ that lived upstairs, the room
above you in the third floor, while yours was the one in the ground floor?’
Well, you’re MNO, I know, you’re living upstairs in the third floor of our
Fourth Hostel while I occupied the room in the ground floor, right?’ I faked as
if his tone had kindled enough.
meeting after forty-three years, you know, after donkey’s years,’ he spouted. I
knew we were meeting after thirty-three years. It was an inconsequential
arithmetic slip-up on his part, a rounding-off error. And I ignored.
my wife…and tell her how I was like forty-three years ago,’ I introduced my wife
to him. ‘Meet my most bosom buddy who lived two floors above me, the floors important
pupils used to choose to avoid mosquitoes.’
No doubt my words made him happy. He was, in fact, important in my view. And he
continued to spout, ‘Nanda used to cook excellent dalma and we’re the beneficiaries
of its rich smell, day in day out.’ I was happy too, for my friend did exactly as
I intended him to do: unknowingly he had opened a PR blitzkrieg to impress my
lifelong critic, my wife.
proved an attentive listener every inch. And she was curious too, to discover
what I was like when she had not extended me the benefit of all the sublimating
and civilizing strokes that, according to her, I badly needed then. Every saint
has a past…and…and a woman is nothing if not a born investigator!
I was suddenly reminded of my nagging question: ‘If I were not the one what I’m
now known for or, more precisely, known to my friends as, what else would I
have become?’ I’d have become a cook, or to choose a more glorious word, a
chef. Forty-three years ago, thirty-three to be precise, I had enough talent to
impress my friend living upstairs merely by the scent of my pan and ladle. Not
me flash back…back…and still back. My first cooking lesson started when I was a
thirteen-year old greenhorn. My teacher was my necessity; my stove was one that
was of cutting-edge technology then, a sawdust hearth that was to be vigorously
stuffed; and a meticulously lit kerosene-smeared plank in the middle
shaft-tunnel was to make the surrounding wall of sawdust smoulder and burn. No
issue—I had succeeded in a single session even though the sawdust was damp.
is how I understood how different was salt from sawdust!
I learnt so many things, all by self-effort. It needs less of labour to make
batter out of wheat flour than to knead it into dough—a discovery that helped
me to make pancake as tasty as those loaves of fresh bread sold in the streets
of Old Delhi during Ramzaan. I became nutrition conscious and added egg to the
batter…and the result was marvellous. The pancake bloated like puri
swimming on bubbling hot oil. A friend asked me, ‘What’s the name of the
recipe?’ and I remember to have replied, ‘Well, it’s Italian Pizza.’ And by the
time my friend got the proof of my culinary talent from the aroma of my dalma,
it was six long years after I was introduced to the sawdust hearth. No wonder I
was experienced then. So skilled I was then and so uninterrupted was my
progress since my acquaintance with salt and sawdust that another friend of
mine at Rourkela, after savouring the meal I had served him a couple of years thereafter, advised
me: ‘I don’t want you to suffer owing to your skill. Your wife is going to make
a cook out of you. In order to avoid being a lifelong cook in your own house, you’ve
to forget everything. I say this in your interest only. Why don’t you
forward…. Somehow I forgot what I learnt so early in life—I won’t blame my
friend for that. He had merely discharged his friendly duty, warned me to be
careful. Aha! The good old days! Now I am like a precocious school boy turning into
a half-witted dullard by the time he reaches his high school. I’m like a
marathon runner finishing the last even though as a nine year-old boy he had
come on the front-page news running fifty miles at a stretch. But I continue to
be an eater, a committed eater of sort: more people are interested in feeding
me now than in helping me to refresh my culinary skill. What a change! The
wheel has turned a full circle.
my only satisfaction is that I can still make out salt from sawdust. I have
retained at least this much of basics, even to this day. Nobody can forget
cycling and swimming: it’s as ingrained as that.
I’m convinced; I would have become a good cook had I not decided to do hundred
other things my way, had I not been pushed
into the stream and chosen to swim downstream, the easy way. The other day I
met my alter ego—I think I surely met him, thanks to the billowing aroma of dalma
my dear old friend is still able to smell after forty-three years have elapsed.
Nay, to be precise, it was an aroma that had once wafted up to the third floor
of a hostel room some thirty-three years ago.
A N Nanda