In the late 1980s, Bombay (now Mumbai) had morphed into a rebellious teenager, the child of loving philanthropic parents but an incomplete adult, a poster-child of glitz, romancing glamour, confidently toying with risk. It had transitioned from its early years as a booming industrial city into a violent and treacherous megapolis. And my father was a decorated police officer serving the city we all loved.
The walls of our government-issue quarters were stained with the same colors, united in their purpose and the lifestyles of their tenants, the khaki uniforms and blue-lined caps of the officers, the school uniforms of the children: shorts, shirts, skirts, ties, and shoes, and the wives with their multicolored unspoken fears.
My mother used our newly purchased “Farm” away from the city to distract herself from the stresses that came with being a police officer’s wife. With each trip, she saw possibilities beyond the four walls of our government-issue living quarters, beyond the perils that circled my fathers’ life, beyond the tepid sense of security that came from the rank and regalia that constantly surrounded us. She could not escape everything, but our little farm was a good diversion from the pressures of sharing space, rank and anxieties with neighbours. My mother wanted something different for the family: a life that was better than our neighbours—she wanted us to interact with children from families with predictable schedules, parents with stable jobs, and perhaps a business or two—people who did not live in fear all the time. She wanted to wash and wear other colors, to be able to spot us, her children, in a crowd – not because we were part of the crowd, but because she had helped us achieve some measure of success.
But there was another dimension, a reality that breathed beneath the surface of her simple middle-class life, that made her ordinary life comfortable but cost her beyond its dues, clinging to her for sustenance, an unavoidable parasitic relationship. It was the mundane rituals of keeping an urban house and dealing with the “walas” or the doers of mundane tasks, the domestics who kept her city life banal and domestic. My mother wanted, even if for a short time, to not hear of our day maid’s drunken, good for nothing husband, or feel guilty for our pantry, or us being at school. She did not want to succumb into purchasing a month’s worth of ration for the maid’s growing brood, books, and school uniforms, or even offer hand-me-downs, only to discover that they took it all for granted. She did not want to run into the “estri-wala” – the lanky man from Lucknow who lived underneath the stairwell of a different apartment block, who ironed our formals and uniforms – who she caught wearing my father’s good shirt as he courted the nimble, under-aged tomato seller one afternoon in the vegetable market, or flirted with the worldly buxom betel leaf seller the next evening, flattering her with an old rose. My mother knew that she could not fix their lives with advice or guide them into honest living because they could never see the benefit in it. Their desires and aspirations remained trapped in the crumbling walls of their dilapidated one room tenements in their “chawl”, never leaving the cramped and shared spaces. They did not appear to want to be better than who they were, they coveted cheap sundries that temporarily disguised them, and cleansed them of their menial titles and jobs:button-down bush-shirts and safari suits, remnants of India’s connections to Africa, transistor radios, a jar of fragrant Brylcream, or a knockoff Charlie body spray, sarees with strands of gold and sparkle, squeaky plastic flip-flops, hairpins with baubles of rhinestones, gaudy nail polishes, glass bangles and costume jewelry that jingled, and twinkled. They wanted to be loud, wanted glossy things, and these distractions let them escape their less-than-mediocre lives, until those things chipped, tore, broke, or were stolen, and then they wanted more of the same again.
Somehow, the relationship between an urban housewife in India and her many helpers was not limited to their monthly dues or their seasonal bonuses, it involuntarily spilt over into the employer’s lives. More money never seemed to fix anything and living around them all the time limited my mother. They did not see her challenges or her real fears, only the material benefits of it. Her frugal housekeeping seemed to perpetuate their cycle of wants. And my father’s work reminded us every day, that money never cured the magpie’s lust.
Our city was now a place of daily threats, wants, sparkle and short-lived joy, but the farm allowed all of us to escape all of this. Empty paddy fields surrounded the farm, not a village. Our nearest new neighbor was a kindly doctor who lived a half-mile away. We were one of the first in the village to get a telephone line, but all phonecalls were “standard trunk dialed”, charged by the minute; and used during emergencies only. The mailman came but twice a month with the lone electricity bill. No travelling sales people, subscription sellers or even scrap metal merchants paid a visit. Farm hands came each day and left at night, leaving with almost all things they came with, their worries, woes, and wants.
But then again, like a sheet too small to cover one’s body on a summer night, no sooner did we save up to improve one corner of the property, something else needed attention. We never seemed to have enough money or labour to keep it pristine. Reluctantly my mother asked our reformed pickpocket, our long term in-house manny, Gaju, to take over as the permanent caretaker.
Gaju enjoyed the new responsibility, this level of trust. He now had the freedom to live on his own. My parents set him up with the basics of a house near the barn. He managed the farm hands, kept ahead of my mothers’ checklist of tasks, and prepared the house whenever we were to visit. He was the mukadam, the foreman.
But I missed Gaju. No one told me stories like he did, or encouraged me to finish that last morsel on my plate. I had grown accustomed to having him sit with me at lunch, particularly at school. And not having him at lunchtime made my convent lunches even less enjoyable. I was merely ten and I always looked forward to my school lunches, with Gaju.
I was educated in an English convent school, run by a set of strict and dedicated nuns. When the gong rang at 12.40 p.m. to signal lunch break, a sea of grass green skirts barreled out of classrooms and descended upon the school gate, waiting to escape, waiting to appease their stomachs. Some girls walked home, others picked up their tiffins from the profusion of colourful lunch bags that different tiffin-walas had dropped off. We only had a forty-minute break, and there was a lot to do in that time. Having picked up the respective lunch bags, groups of friends huddled gathered on the concrete paved school compound, giggling and gossiping through their meals, returning their lunch bags to the same spot as they had picked up, and rushing off to play for a few minutes before the classrooms trapped them for the remaining afternoon. Those who did neither went to claim their adult, a parent, a manny or a nanny, who had been waiting for some time in the heat with their lunch bag. If the guard knew the grown-up, he would allow them to wait in the scant shade of the awning inside the gates along the marble steps, but not otherwise.
I, had learned to look for Gaju.Whenever he was to bring my lunch, I knew the drill: scan the hot marble steps that led into the school building to see if he was here, then scan the crowds of grown-ups. Gaju would raise his hand and wave to me, and motion to meet at our regular spot and head towards it, meeting somewhere along the way. He would ask about my day, get me excited about lunch, and make small conversation that would tide us through the next half hour. I was always a shy but mischievous child, whose few friends went home for lunch. A slow, picky eater, who rather preferred to talk to someone at lunch than eat the meal that mother had so carefully packed for me.
My mother typically packed two hot tiffin boxes a little before noon, one for my brother and the other for me, both would turn lukewarm by our lunchtimes. She and Gaju would leave together, taking the same local BEST bus but to different schools. Gaju would get off at my school, and mother would continue another three stops to my brothers’ school. This arrangement of Gaju bringing my lunch worked well. It most meant two things, a warm-ish school lunch, and someone fun to keep me company.
Gaju would arrive bearing a meshed flat-bottom shopping bag. It held a separate plastic bag that contained a three-level stainless steel tiffin, whose locking mechanism was reinforced with a kitchen towel knotted underneath the top handle; a small floormat to sit on, a spoon wrapped in a tiny washcloth, and a bottle of water. Insulated lunch boxes were expensive, this would have to do.
Each three-level tiffin contained ghee-laden rotis or pooris in the top-most level, a semi-dry vegetable preparation in the middle, and a mixture of daal and rice in the lowermost one. Raitas were saved for meals at home – they were far too messy for the tiffin box. If my mother had planned for a gravy-based vegetable for the night, like a stew of moong beans in coconut, she would pack scrambled eggs with onions, tomatoes, and cilantro in the middle container, my least favorite dish. Despite the locking mechanism and reinforcements, every container would leak a little bit, leaving greasy and spicy spill marks all over the tiffin and the kitchen towel wrapped around it. My mother’s cooking was flavorful but spicy, and her hand was generous with the garnishes: an extra helping of cilantro or shredded coconut, finely chopped tomatoes, or even finely chopped onions always sat on top of the vegetable or daal. She believed that if there were no garnishes, she was not a good cook, and it was not good enough to eat. If it were not for Gaju, I would have stained every white uniform shirt at lunch time trying to pick away the garnishes. Gaju helped me keep it all tidy, wiping down the tiffin containers as he setup lunch, reminding me to be careful as I ate, watching for errant bits of my mother’s shaak or vegetables escaping my mouth.
My mother also knew that we wanted something “fun”, so our lunches often contained surprises. On some days, she would pack a serving of cold grapes, pomegranate arils, chopped bananas, or segments of sweetlime or orange. On other days, she would replace the bottle of drinking water with cold water flavored with a kokum (mangosteen)syrup, adding sabja (sweet basil seeds) floating hypnotically in the magenta or plum colored liquid. “Sabja is cooling for the body,” she would say. I simply loved to swirl it around my mouth, and tried to bite into each slippery seed, lengthening the duration of every sip. As the heat of summer approached, my mother would pack cold water that freely shared its condensation with the tiffin. We had discovered a foreign drink, Tang, but I liked to lick just its orange-flavored concentrated powder. When the March days heated up, mother would wrap the cold water-bottles in the washcloth, so we could bury our faces in the cold towel, a refreshing treat after a stuffy morning in hot classrooms. Sometimes, she packed a sweet lassi in addition to water. If there were extra fruits at home, or if it was a birthday, she would make fruit custard that Gaju would carry with him carefully in my lunch bag in a small jar or a steel box with a tight-fitting lid. There was nothing better than enjoying these extra surprises, those made my routine school lunches exciting.
But there was none of this when Gaju began staying back at the farm. My mother engaged a tiffin-wala, the husband of our day maid, to deliver my lunch. She would hasten to pack my brother and my lunches by 10.30 a.m. Two shopping bags containing the lunches were picked up, hung precariously on the back carrier of the bicycle on one of many hooks, taken through the streets of Bombay as the man collected other lunch boxes, and deposited them all into the chaos of other lunch bags inside the respective child’s school gates. His route included about fifty such lunch boxes and at least five different schools, he had never misplaced a tiffin in fifteen years.
I can only imagine the journey of all these lunch bags as they lay abandoned inside or near the school gates, waiting to be rescued by their respective owners. Hanging off the carrier hook of the tiffin-wala, my own lunch bag would arrive completely shaken. Rain or shine, I would find my lunch bag at the same spot every day, exposed to the elements. It smelled dusty, the smell of smoke and dust replacing the aroma of mother’s food. Almost every tier would have leaked its spicy and flavourful sauces into the plastic bag, sitting in the hot sun, baking in the heat of the concrete floor, till the lunch bell rang The plastic bag would send out a lazy puff of stale hot air as I peered in to examine the scars of its perilous bicycle journey. The sun had left the steel tiffin scorching hot, but the heat did nothing for the food inside, which almost always had turned cold. Everything edible in the lunch bag would be cold, and everything inedible hot. The worst was the scrambled eggs, which became runny, and chopped bananas that had oxidized in the heat into limp disks of blackened ivory-colored pieces. Cold scrambled eggs was never my favourite, I now hated cold lunches even more. My mother had stopped packing special treats, there was no time to add anything more than the lunch, spills were more common and she feared that her treats would tempt the the tiffin-wala.
But my unhappiness at Gaju’s absence from my lunchtime ritual was not just about the companionship or care he took about my meals, it was far more.Not having sat with other girls to eat lunch in the past, I found it difficult to break into the huddles of the classmates. The classroom sparring continued well into lunch time and there were no grown-ups to monitor the bullying. My classmates were unable to relate to our police-officers’ family life. Because of my parents’ respective mother-tongues, I could speak two regional languages fluently, but it also meant I could not fit into either of language-affiliated cliques. My mother loved to cook, so meals never conformed to a specific regional Indian cuisine. Classmates were quick to point out the differences, and remarked why my food was never like the way their mothers made it.Some turned up their noses at any latent aromas wafting out of my tiffin, countering it by talking about their carefully packed warm meals nestled in insulated lunch boxes decorated with Japanese cartoons, containing commercially purchased confections that I had often salivated over. Eggs and meat were common in our Hindu kitchen, my mother cooked nearly everything from scratch, my father had a non-traditional job and everyone’s parents feared him because he was a police-wala. Neither did I live near any of my classmates, nor did I take vacations to foreign places like they did.It was settled: I simply spoke one too many languages, my food was different, and so I was different. “Different” meant strange and weird – it made them uncomfortable.
Meanwhile, my parents believed it was of little use to pander to my insecurities. With the many demands on my mother’s time, I would have to stop being so serious about everything –there was no time for my childlike pouting, she said. I was to be part of our family for only a few years more, just until I was married, she said. Then, I would belong to some other family, be someone else’s ‘responsibility’. It was the fate of all daughters, at least all Hindu daughters. We were a responsibility, temporarily held in our parents’ care until claimed by another. Meanwhile, I would have to learn to adjust. I would have to learn to “get over it”.
Torn between simply wanting lunchtime company but hating having to explain myself to classmates; wanting to belong and yet finding no continuity to friendships past the school gates, nor empathy from my family, made me hate the lunch time ritual at school.
And just like that, my three-tiered tiffin box lunch morphed into a tussle between identity and belonging, wondering why something so simple became complicated.
I was only fifteen, as my own daughter is today.
Over these thirty-some years, so much has changed, and yet, not enough.
And just like my mother, I have a fear that our diminishing personal freedoms risk stifling the desire to merely be.
This work is Adapted from: Not For You: Family Narratives of Denial & Comfort Foods, © Nandita Godbole (2018)
Illustration for this article is by Shreyaa Krritika Das