The first meal

April 1999. I was shifting bag and baggage to Sevagram. My husband worked there. Although we had been married for a year, I had a job in Nagpur and he worked in Sevagram. We met during weekends when he came to Nagpur on Saturday afternoons. Now that the tenure of my job had ended, I had decided to shift in with him, and was trying to look for a job around the area.

There was a lot going through my mind. How was this transition going to be? Things were still awkward between us. It is one thing to go out for dinner or watch a movie together on a weekend. But to live with someone was not going to be easy. I still weighed my words twice before I opened my mouth in front of him— not quite knowing what the reaction might be. Another unspoken cause of anxiety was whether I would get a job here. I had done well in an interview in Chandigarh and had a good chance of getting a temporary post there. But the family wanted us to stay together.

Late that afternoon, the luggage was delivered. There wasn’t much. A steel almirah, a bed, and a refrigerator. A cooler, a study table and some utensils which had worked for me since my college days, and of course, heavy cartons filled with my books. With the help of the delivery guys, Subodh and I managed to get everything inside the house.

I think I need to pause here, to describe the ‘house’. The quarter or house that we were living in was built in the style of a British barrack. Tall walls, and a tiled roof. It was GD Birla’s guest house which he had donated to turn into a hospital, and is still called Birla Niwas. Actually in the times of Mahatma Gandhi, this part of the building had served as the labour ward of the first hospital. Now that there was no use of the building, the administration had walled off the sanatorium-style hospital whereever possible, and turned it into quarters of different sizes and shapes. So we had a huge bedroom with no windows. The corridor of the old hospital with jaalis on the windows was turned into a living room and the dark narrow side room, perhaps used by the nurses earlier, was the kitchen. It worked well for us then, as we hardly had any furniture, except the bare minimum. The tall walls kept the house cool in Sevagram’s searing heat.

Coming back to the story. After all that unloading and unpacking of our stuff, we were exhausted. It was time to eat. Unfortunately Sevagram, in 1999, didn’t offer any choices to eat out. I looked around the empty kitchen and realized that the only thing which could be cooked in a jiffy was Maggi two-minute noodles. There was no gas connection, and I spotted a rickety heater. Another contraption from our postgraduate hostel past. The largest utensil I could find was a steel pateela kept for boiling milk. I filled it with water, kept it on the heater and proceeded to cook two packets of Maggi noodles.

Half way through the exercise, the husband peeps in. He is ravenously hungry, or so he says. He looks at the two packets of noodles boiling, and a deep frown lines his forehead. He breaks another packet of noodles into the vessel. Now that pateela is full to the brim. You can’t stir it without something spilling out and causing nasty sizzling sounds on the heater. Worse, the noodles which were boiled earlier have been overcooked, while the packet added later is raw. By the time I finish, the Maggi looks like one unappetizing solid yellow coagulum. And this incidentally is the first meal that I have cooked in my new home.

I am seething with rage as we both sit down to eat. Hot tears fall down my cheeks. True, I don’t know how to cook gourmet meals, but I certainly can cook Maggi noodles. Now he has got evidence to say that I can’t do that basic stuff either. And it wasn’t my fault. The hubby looks perturbed, not knowing how to react. “Kya hua, achcha to bana hai.” he says gently. My tears turn into sobs. Not knowing what to do, he helps himself to a double serving. As if it is proof that it tastes well.

That day and now, twenty one years later, if he takes more than a double serving, I know exactly how my dish tastes like. Some learnings are for a lifetime.

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