Food follows the way of memory. It hangs imperceptibly around us, and one does not quite know when a faint fragrance or a hint of flavour will lift us to other worlds and times. My grandparents, from Angul in Odisha and from Calcutta, made Ranchi their home almost a century ago. While my grandmother—Dr Pushpitabala Das, was the doctor-in-charge of the women’s section of the Indian Mental Hospital at Kanke, my grandfather—Dr Baroda Charan Das, first worked as a doctor for the government and later, with his meagre resources, started his own private clinic and a small charitable nursing home for TB patients, the first of its kind back then. My late father and my uncle doubled up as manual drip stands, while food for the patients was prepared at home.
Now, what has food got to do with this little back story? For most of us, childhood and early youth memories of my father and his brother are inextricably intertwined with food, and the stories I grew up hearing about their meals, picnics or get-togethers with the extended family were steeped in eclectic aromas. The fact that my grandmother lived in Kanke, on the outskirts of Ranchi, cut off from electricity and other trappings of the modern world, made it seem all the more surreal. Waking up at the crack of dawn to light the kitchen fire, taking rounds of the hospital late at night, even in the biting cold, accompanied by a ward boy swinging his lantern and tapping with his lathi (staff), her days were packed to the last second. At a time when most middle-class households in small-town India ate local, preparing mostly traditional recipes, my grandmother’s kitchen seemed to be a melting pot of cultures and cuisines. Early in the morning, while the household was only stirring into daylight, she would be pulling out unconventional ingredients from the pantry like Chinese spices or Worcestershire sauce to rustle up all three meals of the day that were then kept in ‘meat safes’ or ‘doolies’—wooden cabinets with wire-mesh that stood on stone bowls filled with water to ward off ants and insects.