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Two of a Kind

Sarah Das Gupta

Food, glorious food! When I think of food, which is rather too often for my own good, I think of two remarkable women — grandma and pishima. It is interesting both words end with ‘ma’, a universally accepted word for ‘mother’. The first was my maternal grandmother, the second, my Bengali husband’s paternal aunt. Two women who came from different continents and very different cultures. Yet both were artistic geniuses in culinary matters.

My grandmother had a tough childhood. One of ten siblings, Ellen Mary had been brought up in Cambridge where her parents ran a pub, The Priory Tap. The children were washing up glasses till the early hours of the morning. At fifteen, she ran away and found work in a railway station buffet. Her culinary journey had thus begun, albeit at first limited to stale ham sandwiches and tepid tea — Britain’s railways have never been renowned for fine dining!

Pishima too had a difficult, even tragic, start to life. Married at fourteen in East Bengal, later Bangladesh, her husband had died within six months. She was fifteen. For the rest of her life, she was confined within the strict rules prescribed for Hindu widows those days. She wore only white with no jewellery. All her bangles had been broken on her husband’s death. She could eat only niramish — foods regarded as ‘hot’, i.e., meat, fish, eggs, onion and garlic were forbidden. Her food was cooked separately as vegetables prepared near meat could be considered contaminated. She ate rice only once a day. On the last day of the lunar month, she fasted. 

My grandmother went on to work in the City, the business area of London. She had soon been promoted until she was managing a large restaurant near the Bank of England. At lunch time, it would serve over a hundred customers. By the time she retired, she was running a chain of London restaurants. Young Ellen had come a long way since the grim days in The Priory Tap.

Meanwhile on the Indian sub-continent great political changes had taken place. After the hurried end of British rule, the sub-continent had been divided into India and the new nation of Pakistan. Pishima found herself, like millions of people, on the wrong side of the new borders. She fled to West Bengal as East Bengal became part of the Moslem state of Pakistan. Life would not be any easier for her as a widow in Calcutta (now Kolkata), the old capital of the British Raj. Widows were often thrown out by their in-laws and generally regarded an unlucky presence at weddings and other festivals.

My experience of grandma’s brilliant cookery skills goes back to early childhood. She continued to serve High Tea, a combination of afternoon tea and dinner. Now, a much-lamented casualty of the frenetic speed of modern life and the effects of fast food. Her homemade potted meat or brawn, was a mouth-watering delicacy, not to be missed. No Sunday afternoon was complete without a generous slice of grandma’s special Dundee cake!

In the sprawling city of Kolkata, pishima began a peripatetic life style which she was to follow as long as I knew her. Always small, she seemed to shrink with age. What she lacked in height, she more than made up for in spirit — I have seen grown men shrink and grovel in her presence. Strictly speaking she was homeless, but this did not deter her in the least. All her worldly goods could be wrapped up and carried in a piece of material. She would suddenly appear in a cousin’s house, an aunt’s flat or her brother’s bungalow. After a month she would pack up and go on her travels again. You never knew when you might see the tiny figure with her bundle, sitting on the veranda or front steps!

By the time of the Second World War, my grandparents, then retired, were living in Surrey very close to the main Royal Airforce base at Biggen Hill. This was the RAF airbase from which the young pilots, who fought the Battle of Britain, flew. For most of the war years my grandparents had pilots billeted at their house. Sadly, few survived beyond a month. Such was the rate of attrition! Looking back, I have often thought that at least they had a few weeks enjoying grandma’s cooking.

Twenty years later, I found myself living in Kolkata, married to a Bengali journalist, pishima’s nephew. I had heard family stories about this amazing aunt but never met her. That was soon to be remedied. Coming home from my teaching job one humid monsoon afternoon, I saw a child sitting on the veranda. Many local children sat there to study as we had electric light, unlike many in the nearby slum. As I approached, I could see this was no child but an elderly woman in a white sari. She stood up. To my surprise she put her arms out, as if to give me a hug. I knew instinctively, this was the aunt I’d heard so much about.

Once settled in, pishima took control. The kitchen became her domain. She cooked the most delicious vegetarian food I’ve ever eaten. Widows, being banned from eating meat, have developed ways of cooking some vegetables which recreate the taste of meat. One such is kathal (jackfruit). Pishima cooked this so that it tasted like lamb biriyani! Even my husband had to agree. In South India, more recently, this has been done on a commercial scale with soya and mushrooms. My favourite vegetables, bhindi (okra) and begun (aubergine) were equally delicious when pishima waved the magic wooden spoon.

There were a few problems. She was horrified that we stored water in clay jugs in the main hallway where different people walked past. This, in her opinion, polluted the water. We had to take the jugs into the street, break them, buy new ones and re-fill them. My husband bore the brunt of her fury while I was the innocent foreigner. There are three pronouns for ‘you’ in Bengali — apni, tumi, and tui. The most intimate — tui — is often used for children. Pishima always used that form for me.

She disappeared from our lives as suddenly as she had arrived. One afternoon, the bundle in the kitchen had vanished and pishima with it. My grandma too disappeared from my life unexpectedly. Complaining of a headache, she went to sit down for a minute. When my mother sent me to check on her, she had died peacefully.

I like to think if the two had met, they would have had so much to share — perhaps even come up with dishes that infused the two cultures.

Sarah Das Gupta is a retired teacher now living near Cambridge, UK. She taught and lived in Kolkata for a number of years. She started writing after an accident last year when she was bored in hospital. Her work has been published in magazines from UK, India, US, Canada, Mauritius and Croatia.