Sometimes by mere chance a forgotten event pops up in mind. It may have remained buried deep in memory for many decades, yet it surfaces in surprising clarity. This happened when in the first half of August 2009 my younger sister Santosh and I went to our elder sister in Hyderabad. We were visiting and sharing old memories. Santosh suddenly recalled meeting an interesting man when we lived briefly in Bareilly, U.P. in the year 1948. She then was 14 and I about 17.
I also quickly remembered the man, for I had noticed him in the warehouse next to our house and gone over to befriend him. His name was Britanti. This Hindi word means a narrator. Indeed, he was an excellent raconteur and to use his skill he had an inexhaustible stock of stories. But in the city nobody cared to sit down with a humble watchman and listen. Britanti naturally was happy when I went over to converse with him-- especially hear.
He was a short lean man, about 45. I found out that he was able to read but not to write. This was common in his village. People were so eager to read the epic Ramayana that they learned to do so without bothering to learn writing that was not so pressing. Working as a watchman in an isolated warehouse gave Britanti plenty of free time to read but there was none to hear his stories. Since I was a captive audience he welcomed me and told stories sometimes nonstop. Most of them were rural folklore of the area drawn mainly from the Ramayana and other classics.
As we became friends, I began to notice peculiar personality traits of Britanti. One that struck me was that he ate not twice or three times a day like most of us but only once in two or three days. I am sure he told me why, but I do not remember all the details.
Britanti cooked with great seriousness and care. It was almost like worshipping God. He first cleaned his whole house and put a coat of mud mixed with cow dung on the floors and lower three feet of the walls. This was done with special care in the kitchen where even the stove was coated all over. All the utensils were of course rubbed to shine with sand and washed with clean water. While the floors dried Britanti went for his bath. He did not use soap but rubbed his skin and hair with a mixture of gram flour, yogurt, oil, and mud. He wore only an undergarment and tied a dhoti around his waist. His torso remained bare until the whole ritual was over.
His staple was chapattis, lentils and vegetables, or khichdi of rice and lentils with cooked vegetables. To garnish his food he used salt, turmeric, green chilies, and green coriander leaves. He used no expensive spices like black pepper. After the food was cooked he put some ghee over it to add taste and nutrition. He always ate alone sitting on the floor of his kitchen. No visitors were allowed at mealtime for it was a strictly private activity. He allowed me to sit and watch only after we had become very close friends. He also began to invite me to share his food when he noticed that I wanted to taste it.
The food was delicious, indeed very tasty. His favorite lentil was Tur that I had never tasted before. I liked it very much and always relished it also in the homes of many other local friends. Another dish I tasted for the first time was khichdi made with rice and split urad (black gram). This too was delicious.
Since Britanti did not eat daily as most of us, the quantity he ate appeared excessive. Both my sister and I noticed the huge heap of food he gulped down. We shared with other members of our family these peculiar habits of our friend. They were also interested and wanted to taste it. Britanti gladly cooked extra quantity and gave some to me. Everyone liked the food. In fact they were amazed that it tasted so good without using any nuts, spices or ghee at the time of cooking.
We noticed, or perhaps imagined, that his stomach bulged out enormously after eating the big meals. But I am sure we exaggerated the size of the bulge to add spice to the story. My sister had blown up the whole thing and thought that Britanti ate once a week and his stomach stretched out by 6 inches!
9th August 2009