It’s funny the things which trigger memories. The latest, a curry, dispatched to me via my wife from her friend two nights ago. She said she’d made it especially not hot for me… which can mean one of only two things: either there was a mixup with the tupperware in the kitchen, or we’ve just discovered the source of her husband’s high blood pressure.
Only the roti could possibly have been described as not hot. Not even the green yogurt chutney, which I presumed was there to counteract the heat, could be described as mild. As for the karahi… well my tongue went numb immediately, and my mouth has been sore ever since.
I’m not complaining, though, for that oddly satisfying sensation has brought back very fond memories from the past. Specifically, of a wonderful old man who took it upon himself to feed me up, apparently the only person in my life back then to recognise that my extremely gaunt appearance was not right.
He was the father of a close friend I had met at university: a learned man, working in academia. He had raised his four children alone as a single-parent. He was very softly spoken, gentlemanly and kind. I can still see his contented face in my mind’s eye. He was one of those souls intently in tune with the purpose of his creation. In the morning of the day he passed away, he set everything in order for his adult children, leaving clear instructions, as if he knew he had been called home.
And so he was in relation to me. In eastern traditions, young men will address even their unrelated elders as uncle out of respect and as a term of endearment. For me, it was probably even more appropriate, for his care was almost fatherly. At gatherings at his house, seated on the floor, he would load my plate with more food than I could possibly eat. When I declined, he would insist on putting flesh on my bones.
Thus I would be forced to work my way through mountains of pulao and haleem, gradually acclimatising myself to a hot nihari or biryani, always the last to finish. And just when I thought I could declare victory, and relax, he would return to fill my plate up again. A guest is always honoured in the Muslim household, but this went beyond hospitality. Uncle was on a mission to fix my physical form, which he would have been justified in thinking was caused by malnutrition.
After two courses of rice and meat would come dessert. Usually it would be seviyan, a milky pudding made with vermicelli, sometime rabbdi. I would have more than my fill, washing it down with milky masala chai infused with cardamom. It was impossible not to be fed at those delightful gatherings. At the end of the evening, uncle would always send me home with the left over dessert in a large glass jar, which as a pudding-lover was like winning first prize.
Interactions like these are what touch the human spirit. Hospitality, kindness and care have far greater impact — and more long-lasting effect — than any kind of preaching or proselytisation. Indeed, the sister who despatched me dinner the other night is famous in her neighbourhood, who in typical Punjabi fashion, shares a meal with her English neighbours weekly. Even if they never reciprocate, I’d hope their hearts are touched by her selfless charity.
As for that old uncle: I think if he could see me today, he would be pleased that I have lost my skeletal frame, now sporting your average dad-bod instead, a little flabby. I’m so grateful to all the wonderful men and women I have met on this journey of mine, so caring for this wayward wanderer, so insistent on nourishing my body and soul.