This happened in Ghatsila, perhaps 30 years ago. We used to live in my mother’s bungalow in Moubhandar, in the copper company’s township. The bungalow was divided into two, for it was so huge, and one part was allocated to my mother. There was a large lawn in front, where yellow rain lilies grew and where my father taught me how to ride a bicycle. Beyond the lawn was a row of acacia trees, one of which I saw being hit by lightning one rainy afternoon. The tree took on a pale hue, and nothing grew on it after that. No leaf, no new branch. Beyond the row of acacia was the boundary wall of our bungalow, after which there was an alley, about 20 feet wide, while beyond the alley was the tall wall of the copper factory. We felt that our bungalow attracted so much lightning because it was so close to the copper factory.
One of my mother’s acquaintances was a doctor, a man who lived in the Dahigora area of Ghatsila. From what I remember, he had his own practice. The doctor had a daughter who was about 5-6 years younger than me. If I was 10 at the time, she would have been 4 or 5. I do not know about now, but in those days, children were not allowed to drink tea or coffee—at least, not in my family. I remember my folks telling me my growth would be stunted and that I would turn into a baanwaar—midget—if I drank tea. Tea was that unattainable goal for which I wanted to grow up, grow into an adult, and soon. Had I known at that time how difficult adulting would be, I would not have been swayed even by the best of cha.
The doctor came to visit us one evening, with his wife and daughter. Conversations led to tea. My mother served tea to all the adults, and some biscuits, some chanachur too, probably. Since in our house, children were not given tea, we by default did not serve tea to the little girl. The adults started sipping their tea when the little girl, holding a biscuit in her hand, asked her father in Bengali, “Baba, kothaay doobabo?” Father, where do I dip this?
We all laughed as the doctor began explaining that his daughter always dipped her biscuits in a drink. Perhaps we should have served her some tea without assuming that children do not drink tea just because they did not in our family.
But the doctor told the little girl to dip the biscuit in her glass of water. The girl did just that. Our guests left after some time. But the incident stayed in my mind.
I started drinking tea in my teens. I turned 13 or 14 and grew taller than most adults I knew and I found that I had automatically earned the right to drink tea. Everyone joked about how I had been scared off tea and coffee my entire childhood. In Madhuri Vijay’s story “Hill Station”, a mother orders tea for her 11-year-old daughter who has just had her menarche, and tea becomes more than a beverage—it becomes a milestone in a girl’s passage to womanhood.
I love my tea and coffee thick and sweet. Very sweet, in fact. I need at least four sachets of sugar in a cup. At coffee outlets, I ask for latte. And I grab as many sachets of sugar as I can. Recently, I have discovered the joy of having gud wali chai—tea with molasses.
My favourite way to drink tea—from the time I started drinking tea—is to dip edibles into it. Mostly, glucose biscuits. Like, Parle-G or Britannia Milk Bikis or Tiger Biscuits. I had anyway grown up being force-fed a hurried breakfast—at the deathly, unthinkable hour between 6:00 and 6:30 am—of two parathas dipped in a tall glass of hot, sweet milk before doing a 100-metre dash to the bus stop to catch the school bus. Our regular bus driver derived some sadistic gratification out of making us run after the bus before pressing the brake to allow us to board—but that is a different story for some other day. Point is, I too, like that little girl all those decades ago, love to dip biscuits and patties and luchi and paratha and whatnot in my tea.
“Kaisa bachcha jaise khaate hain! Chai mein biskoot dooba ke!”
Look, how he eats like a child! Dipping biscuits in tea!
“I love my tea and coffee thick and sweet. Very sweet, in fact. I need at least four sachets of sugar in a cup.”
That was what the nurses at the medical college hospital in Jamshedpur said about a colleague of mine who too had the habit of dipping biscuits in his tea. We all laughed, even as my colleague, totally unmindful of our comments, continued eating his biscuits, dipped in tea, entirely content with his repast.
Was dipping biscuits in tea really a childish thing to do? I often mull over this proposition. More than seeming childish, dipping food into tea—or coffee—seems to me a practical way of eating the food.
In Chandil, the place where I work now, tea shops sell a variety of baked snacks, all of it shut tight in big plastic jars. Salted biscuits, coconut cookies, cream rolls, a slightly burnt version of the basic butter cake, and other goodies. Two of the snacks I order most of the time are dilkhush and patties.
It was the name dilkhush—something that makes the dil (heart) khush (happy)—that attracted me and intrigued me enough to try it. The intrigue is now gone, but the attraction lingers.
The dilkhush is a triangular snack—like a single slice of pizza—that seems to have been cut out of a larger, circular snack. Perhaps that circular dish is baked whole, like a pizza, and then cut into slices. Perhaps it is cut into pieces already and then inserted into the oven. I must find out.
The other snack—the patty—tastes just like dilkhush—perhaps they use the same ingredients. The dough for the patty is rolled twice over itself and then baked, so the patty turns out into a solid, fist-sized snack different from dilkhush, which is basically a larger, spread-out item.
On several mornings, unable to find a proper breakfast, and when acute hunger grasps my stomach, I have found myself hurriedly dipping a dilkhush or patty in a cup of tea and gobbling it down. Another variation I like is to bite into a piece of dilkhush or patty and then take a swig of cha to soften the baked item in my mouth and wash it down my gullet. There are also times when I am unable to walk to a chai ka thela and end up buying dilkhush and patty from a roadside gumti that sells cold drinks but not tea. So I have also washed down dilkhush and patty with Amul Kool, Appy Fizz, Mirinda, and even the energy drink Sting.
Claire Keegan, in her novel Small Things Like These, has an evocative passage about a character named Sarah hungrily gobbling down food with tea, reading which reminded me of how I gobble down dilkhush and patty with a beverage, never mind if it is hot or cold:
“The girl [Sarah] sat at the table and awkwardly began picking bits of fruit out of the cake then went about swallowing down the rest with the hot tea, but she struggled over the cup, trying to replace it on the saucer.”
Hunger or necessity or habit or just a quirk—it could be any of these. There are so many habits or quirks associated with how we eat our food, what we do before, what we do after.
In my community—and in my family, of course—there is a custom of offering food to ancestors before one puts a morsel in one’s own mouth. For as long as I can remember, I saw my pishi, father’s younger sister, place some rice and sabji from her plate on the table before starting to eat.
“Why do you do it?” I asked her.
“Oh!” she laughed, “it’s for my grandparents. In case they’re hungry.”
I knew that her grandparents had passed on a long time ago, even before I was born. So, I realised that the food must have been for the spirits of her grandparents.
Offerings for spirits
Among us Santals, anyway, we begin any activity related to our faith by offering some sprinkles of haandi— the home brew distilled from rice—to our ancestors and to Marang Buru, the highest deity in the Santal pantheon. This offering is made in the bhitar orak—the inner chamber, usually in the kitchen or attached to the kitchen in the ancestral houses in villages—where the gods and spirits of the ancestors are supposed to dwell.
In our ancestral house in Kishoripur village of Chakulia block, these offerings were common, but even in our quarters in Moubhandar, whenever we prepared pitha or other delicacy during Sohrai (the harvest festival the Santals from my part of the world celebrate in autumn) or Sakrat (the Makara Sankranti), we tore off pieces and placed them in a corner of the kitchen or storeroom which was our makeshift bhitar orak. I remember feeling quite important when I, as a child, first made this offering.
“Should I also place some food?” I asked my pishi when I learnt that she offered food to her dead grandparents.
“No, no,” she protested. “Why should you? Your grandparents are still alive.”
Which was true. At that time, all those years ago, the only grandparent I had lost was my mother’s father.
“When your turn comes,” pishi told me, “you decide what you ought to do. Now you just eat.”
I am grateful for the freedom I was given, and having realised that I am just not cut out for rituals and propriety, I just eat. I believe that the spirits of my ancestors and gods will be happy and satisfied seeing me eat.
In the story “Godsend”, from Anjum Hasan’s collection A Day in the Life, the narrator watches her neighbour place “a mound of rice… a bright splash of sambar, a small vada, some greens, chutney, [and] something that looks like payasam” on a banana leaf on a stool in her veranda for the spirit of her dead grandfather and then call out to the crows “[emitting] a high-pitched two-note call that [sounded] shockingly avian” believing that her grandfather’s spirit would come in the form of a crow and partake of that spread. In Kyung-Sook Shin’s novel Please Look After Mother, translated from Korean by Chi-Young Kim, there is mention of an ancestral rite during which some birds came and perched on a bowl of rice, leading the eponymous Mother to exclaim: “I saw them! There were six birds. The birds are our ancestors, who came to eat!”
In pishi’s case, no birds came, nor did any other creature. In our village house, there could at least have been ants taking a share of our offerings on the floor. But pishi’s offerings were placed on the dining table, and she cleared those away when she mopped the table clean after her meal. Pishi’s offering were a token, an approximation of the original ritual carried out in a place and time far away from her home—in this case, our ancestral house in Kishoripur village.
After my mother retired in 2015, my parents shifted to the house my father built in Ghatsila. My father passed away in 2020, after which mother has been living on in that house, cared for by my cousin, the daughter of my mother’s brother. The distance between Chandil and Ghatsila being about 70 kilometres, I try to go and see my mother during the weekends.
My cousin cooks the meals, trying to hone her skills from videos she watches on YouTube, and every day, before every meal, my mother and she take a little of what has been cooked and place them in two neat rows on the kitchen floor, just beneath the counter where vegetables are chopped and the atta kneaded into dough. One row for the gods and the other row for our ancestors, one of them being the spirit of my father as well. My mother derives a certain calm by placing the offering.
One day, I brought biryani from a restaurant for dinner. That is, I brought food cooked outside the house and nothing was cooked in our kitchen for that meal.
“Wait,” my mother told me as I took my place at the dining table, “I’ll place some biryani as an offering, and then we can eat.”
Biryani? Outside food? As an offering?
“Don’t want to stir up a biryani war, but from all the biryanis I have eaten, I have a fondness for the Kolkata biryani primarily because of the potato.”
I was puzzled. Should not offering be only of foods one cooks oneself in one’s own kitchen?
“Don’t,” I told my mother. “Biryani is outside food. Our gods and ancestors would be upset.”
Mother laughed at my reasoning and sat down.
“If you say so,” she said.
I emptied a box of biryani on my thali, all ready to stuff myself. But then I looked at my mother and felt bad. For, even though my mother laughed when I stopped her from offering biryani, she looked sad, as if she had been denied something vital.
“Okay,” I sighed. “Go, leave some biryani on the kitchen floor.”
Immediately, my mother sprang up, took some biryani from her own box and offered it up. She looked happy as she sat down to dig into her thali.
Saving the best
Quirks or mannerisms associated with food interest me. More so because there are several that I follow to the brink of being obsessive compulsive.
I was relieved to learn that I was not the only one in the world to keep the best item in a meal for the end. As a child, my usual lunch thali consisted of rice, dal, a tarkari or bhaja, and an egg item, either a boiled egg, an omelette, or a fried egg. I finished off the dal-bhaat-tarkari first and kept the egg for the end. This habit has continued. On being served a meal, I check for a favourite and keep it for the end. In Chandil, I usually have my meals in the quarters where my staff live. That is, I eat whatever they cook.
One of the easiest items, I have observed, which working-class men living alone cook is egg curry. Hard-boiled eggs shelled and fried a bit in oil and cooked with potatoes. The frying is optional. I remember eating egg curry at canteens in Kharagpur and Howrah railway stations where they were fried before being cooked in the gravy, and I remember eating egg curry at a railway canteen somewhere in south India where the eggs were not fried. It is the same as cooking paneer I suppose, some fry the paneer cubes, some do not. Another trivia: all those other egg curries come minus the potatoes. Potatoes are perhaps added only to the egg curry at home.
Anyway, talking of egg curry: it is an easy recipe and it is what we eat most of the time in our hospital, whether with rice (for lunch) or roti (for dinner). I finish the aloo and even the jhol (gravy) and leave the eggs for the end. I wash down my meal with the eggs.
At Bengali wedding receptions, I keep the plastic chutney for the end. The sweet and gelatinous chutney is one of my favourite dishes and I know I can find it only at a Bangali biye barir pritibhoj, so I treat it like a treasure.
I do not want to stir up a biryani war, but from all the biryanis I have eaten, I have a fondness for the Kolkata biryani primarily because of the potato. And yes, I leave the egg and the potato for the end. And I have a particular style of eating those. I break the egg in two, take out the yolk and eat it, then stuff as much of the potato as possible into each half of the now hollow egg, then stuff the whole into my mouth.
I have always wondered if I was the only one obsessed with keeping the best for last.
Then on a WhatsApp chat, a friend told me that she too keeps the “dim er kushum” (the yolk in a boiled egg) for the end, and I felt deeply relieved, as if I were part of a secret food fellowship.
In Ghatsila, one of the popular sweets is kheer kadam. It has two parts. The inner sweet core—which is basically a round chamcham—and a shell made of khoa. In Pakur, this kheer kadam became ras kadam. Ras kadam is slightly larger than kheer kadam, and the shell of the ras kadam slightly darker and harder than the shell of the kheer kadam and dusted over with posto (poppy seeds).
I do not directly bite into a kheer kadam or ras kadam. I follow a procedure. I eat the khoa shell first, after which I pop the chamcham core, whole, into my mouth with relish, sucking the ras (sugar syrup) off and slowly, slowly swallowing it.
I give the kheer kadam treatment to samosa too. When no one is watching, I crack open the samosa and eat the maida shell first, then eat the spicy potato filling slowly-slowly, lest it gets over too soon.
We all have our favourite dishes, and we all have our eating rituals. I would not call those quirks any more. Food is sacred, and so is the way we eat. Special. Our own.
And even if we might not be aware of it, we share some of those rituals with others. Rituals which we think of as unique and so private we cannot talk about them surprise us when we see them as an integral part of other people’s lives. Did not the Oreo advertisements—in which children pry the biscuit apart to lick the cream first—make us all go: But isn’t that how we’ve all eaten cream biscuits?
May our rituals stay, for they bear the innocence of childhood and the love we have for certain foods. So much love that we invented rituals for them. And may there be food, enough, for all of us, forever.
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar writes in English and translates from Santali, Hindi, and Bengali. I Named My Sister Silence, his translation of Manoj Rupda’s Hindi novel, is forthcoming from Westland Books.
- Quirks or mannerisms associated with food interest me. More so because there are several that I follow to the brink of being obsessive compulsive.
- My favourite way to drink tea—from the time I started drinking tea—is to dip edibles into it.
- When having egg curry, I leave the eggs for the end.
- And even if we might not be aware of it, we share some of those rituals with others.