One of my (North Indian) friends in Delhi, Minakshi fell in love with a Baidik Bengali boy whose family hailed from Mymensingh (later Bangladesh). The boy’s grandfather had arrived in Delhi before the Partition, and the boy’s father was already born and brought up in Delhi, an illustrious civil servant in the election commission, with an elite circle of friends. Minakshi’s boyfriend, and later husband was therefore, equally a Dilli-wala, a college classmate of hers, and an engineer working at a corporate firm. The family despite the challenges to their traditional identity, had however remained deeply conservative and culturally rooted in their Baidik Bengali identity.
As soon as she got married, Minakshi naturally came under the radar of the household ladies, who competed with her and were keen to outdo her, especially in the domain of household tasks. They were jealous of her for the deep devotion she inspired in her husband. He was besotted with her, quite to their disapproval and dismay. With time, Minakshi and her husband bought a separate apartment not too far away, and moved out.
But the criticism did not abate; it shifted subtly. First it was a criticism of my friend’s short hair, and her clothes – jeans and her high-heels. Then it shifted to her Hindi and English-speaking ways, her non-Brahmin, North Indian (Hindustani) background, and her journalism career that kept her out till odd hours. This criticism was exacerbated by Minakshi’s refusal to wear shindoor, shankha-pola-loha and live in a saree as if she were born wearing it. Gradually, the focus shifted to her cooking, for she was liberal with her use of onion-garlic.
One of the curious facets of Baidik Bengali food is their disavowal of onion and garlic as cooking ingredients, even if they do eat meat and fish. Though this onion-garlic taboo generates a special cuisine that tastes delicious, Baidik Bengalis cannot unfortunately follow other popular recipes that involve onion and garlic. Now, Minakshi, being experimental, was an excellent cook. Many family members and friends soon discovered her talents, as Bengalis are foodies too, and flocked to her kitchen. Moreover, they praised her cooking to no end. This was galling to the household ladies. They began feeling offended when Minakshi’s father-in-law’s friends started organizing parties at her place – praising her cooking.
Soon, Minakshi was invited to an afternoon cookery show on TV. Phone calls of congratulations started pouring in, and this proved the final straw. It was too much for the household ladies. The fact that everyone praised Minakshi’s cooking made the ladies feel reduced in status. So, finally, Minakshi’s eldest sister-in-law initiated a counter-narrative of how the secret of Minakshi’s cooking actually lay in her use of onion-garlic. The eldest sister-in-law challenged Minakshi that she would cook a better dish than Minakshi ever did, only if she were allowed to use onion-garlic too. She would show Minakshi what ‘real’ cooking was.
The challenge was accepted, and hectic arrangements began. Mutton-do-Pyaza was carefully selected as an ideal dish, and the back courtyard was prepared with a special stove (since onion-garlic could not enter the kitchen). A special cooking pot was bought for the occasion and oiled beforehand in preparation. Onion and garlic was cut and crushed in large quantities and there was excitement and adventure in the air. Everybody exclaimed and discussed the wonders of pure Baidik cooking, and how the housed ladies would now ‘show’ her. The family, her husband’s colleagues, and father-in-law’s friends, and locality members were invited to sample this ‘real’ cooking, and some people came specially, just out of curiosity to see how a Baidik family cooked its first onion-garlic dish.
The food was prepared with much clucking, shouted exclamations, and flurry of instructions. A lid was brought out and clamped onto the cauldron, sealed on the edges with strips of kneaded dough. Small clusters of burning coal were placed on top to facilitate even cooking. The waiting began, as the household ladies volubly explained their new experience. There was much moral high ground, much surety about an easy conquest, and much self-justification in the air. While Minakshi and her hubby were also invited to sample ‘real’ cooking, they were both working that afternoon. So, Minakshi heard the story from others and later told it to me. I used to work briefly with her in those days and took a special interest in her stories, as I was partly Baidik myself. But I was on her side in the matter, supporting her in the face of all the conservative, xenophobic, and rigidly ethnic aunties.
Well, soon the ‘smell’ emanated. While it initially smelled good, and the clucking, and self-appreciative screams of the ladies (O-maa! Dekhechho!) increased in crescendo, the smell did not remain all that good. It deteriorated and started turning bitter. Gradually, the pot started turning black at the edges. Some of the kneaded dough stuck at the edges fell away in blackened stiff crumbled pieces. The black smoke and stench streamed out in great puffs through the gaps. There was consternation, pandemonium, and shouts of panic. The stove was put out, the coals swept away, and a jug of water poured on top of the closed pot to stop it from burning. The lid was slowly prised open after a while from the pot that was now a burned and squelchy mess. The meat had turned to cinders. In all their glee and anticipation of defeating Minakshi, the household ladies had forgotten to add any water to the cooking, and the meat and the pot had burned completely away from the insides.
People laughed for many months at the poor ladies, the boudis, asking them whether they would soon cook Mutton-do-Pyaza again, and when they would issue the next invitation for onion-garlic food. Many joking references were made to the incident by Minakshi’s friends, her hubby, and even father-in-law’s friends. The poor boudis had no way but to walk away in a huff. Towards Minakshi, they remained stony. But their constant criticism also melted, as the ladies group in the household broke apart over the Mutton-do-Pyaza incident. Now some of them accused the eldest sister-in-law of embarrassing them, completely forgetting that they had supported her in the challenge she had issued Minakshi. Now they pretended to be Minakshi’s friends.
We laughed over the incident one evening at her place, as we clinked glasses and ate the delicious Mutton-do-Pyaza Minakshi had cooked (in a pressure cooker)!