The clock had struck six. Dusk had set in. Lekha was busy rummaging through the items in the refrigerator while blabbering something to herself.
“Ah! I don’t understand who touched my refrigerator? Who fiddled with the arrangements? Now I am not able to find it. I know I had lots of them in the green box. Sharma ji will also come back from office anytime and then it would be dinner time soon. Let me move few items and look for the box.
There it is! Thank God, else who would go to the market at this time and that too in this cold weather?”
Saying this Mrs. Sharma made her way to the kitchen adjoining the dining area beaming with happiness on finding the lost item. As soon as she lifted the lid, the aroma of Rajma filled the house. As she closed the lid after hurriedly putting something in it, she wore a smile of satisfaction and moved towards the dining table where her grand-daughter Meera was sitting. Meera was a literature student in the Delhi University and had come to her grandparents’ city for a convention. Meera was unperturbed by all the commotion that had just taken place. She was busy staring at her laptop unaware of the fact that Lekha had taken a chair next to her.
She whispered, “Meera, you have been working all day on this screen. Would you like to get up, have some fresh air in the balcony and eat something? Should I get anything for you?”
“No Nani*. I am just so stuck at this point. I have a very important assignment to submit tomorrow and I have not even made the start. My mind is so blank.”
“Could I help you in any way?”, asked Lekha shyly.
“No Nani*. How would you be able to help me? It is not a mere school assignment, it is a writing project.”
Lekha said smilingly, “I have helped your mother in all her assignments all her life. Let us see if I can help her daughter this time.”
“Ok, so I have been asked to write a long story on anything human or non-human, something pleasant, something which will make the readers smile and will leave a mark on their minds. It should be something unique.”
“Oh, is it that simple? I know what you can write on. You can write on Dhaniya*.”
“ What? Dhaniya* who? Your maid?
“No, her name is Pudina.”
“Ok Nani*, whatever. It is the same thing.”
“No, it is not. If you said the same thing in front of your mother’s Dadi**, she would have been infuriated.”
“I am not getting anything but tell me what uniqueness does the dhaniya* have and how can I write a story on it?
“A while ago, I was little tensed as I was not able to find the box of dhaniya*. And then I found it to my relief. The garnishing with dhaniya* raises the tastefulness of Rajma. In fact its august presence in any dish elevates the flavour to new levels.”
Meera exclaimed, “Now I get it. Now I understand Ma’s obsession with having dhaniya* at home all the time. She gets fanatic if we run out of it especially when a guest is about to come. One time, Dad was away for work. It was raining and I demanded some pakoras. Unfortunately there was no dhaniya* and hence no chutney. She literally made me go to the market in my raincoat on the scooty and asked me to get some. I was so annoyed but all of that makes sense to me now. Looking at the stock of dhaniya* in her house, she feels satisfied. People feel elated when they have some exclusive fruits or some desserts in their refrigerator while Ma takes pride in her dhaniya*”. She winked.
However Meera was still not convinced and questioned, “How will it sound? Dhaniya* – A unique tale of love and emotions?”
“Exactly! It will sound delicious. Nowadays culinary names like Rajma Chawal or Jalebi are so much in trend even in the movies industry. On a serious note, let me share with you some memories around this green pleasant looking herb.
As a young kid, I loved to eat its stem. Mostly people use the leaves but I loved the stem. Every time my elder brother would see this, he used to make faces just like you are doing now. One day my father had both of us sit down and explained that among the many things in life, we should respect each other’s eating habits. Food should never be a topic of conflict and there should be tolerance to everyone’s likes and dislikes. This lesson really helped me after I got married. Your grandfather had very different eating habits than mine. I respected his and requested him to do the same. I have always believed a satiated tummy leads to healthy relationships.”
“This is such a beautiful message conveyed in such a simple thing. I am noting this down”, said Meera.
“You will not believe that relationships with strangers were established based on dhaniya*….”
Meera looked puzzled as she could not make any meaning.
“…and the strangers here refer to the vegetable vendors”, Lekha laughed.
“When your grandfather got a new job, we moved out from his parents’ place into a new city. It took a while to settle down but vegetables were something we needed to buy from day one. Previous to this in my in-law’s house, the servant always used to get the vegetables. I had minimum experience in selecting the right kind of fresh vegetables. Dhaniya* and chillies were something which we always used to get free with the vegetables purchased. In the initial days in the new locality, the hawkers took advantage of me being ill-skilled and used to give me all wet and rotten dhaniya* which appeared fresh from the outside.”
“I have a small contribution to make to this part of the story Nani*. Every time I go with Ma to buy vegetables, I feel so embarrassed. She always fights with the poor vendor over free dhaniya* and chillies. Now all the vendors in the market know her so well that as soon as we go, some make faces while some are petrified that how she will bombard them this time.”
Both of them giggled.
“Anyways Nani*, continue with your story. What happened next? Did you also quarrel like Ma?”
“No. Few days into this and I was an expert in picking up the right bunch. The credit goes to the honest and hardworking vendor named Dhuli Ram. The first time I went to his stall, he guided me which one I can pick. And ever since then he was our preferred vegetable seller.”
While Lekha was still lost down the memory lane with a smiling face, Meera was happy to hear such simple and sweet life memories though she was still uncertain if she was going to pick this up as the topic of her writeup.
Lekha continued, “He had quite a big family to feed. His family lived in a makeshift tent right behind his stall. When I met him, he had five girls and his wife was expecting the sixth one in hopes that this time they would bear a son who would fulfil all their dreams.”
At this Meera interrupted, “How sad and agonizing is that? Think about the poor girls and his wife who would have gone through so much pain again and again. It is enlightening to see that awareness has now spread among the lower income groups as well. All the education, demonstrations and campaigning have helped control the population to some extent. Every other day, we read in newspapers about girls from lower classes making their mark in the various entrance examinations. I am happy things have started changing although there is a long road to be traversed. I am still curious to know if they finally had a son or not.”
“No they did not. One day when it was slow time for business, I went and talked to them in hopes of educating them and advised them to spend their time and effort on their little daughters. And I got back the standard and expected reply. People had this mindset that girls are only to manage household and get married off one day whereas boys are their support for life. This is not true and I can contradict this with confidence. We have always been proud of both of our girls.”
Seeing her grandmother get emotional, Meera tried to change the topic.
“So tell me more of your Dhaniya* stories.”
“As a young bride, I was not very proficient in cooking. In my parent’s house, I had my elder sisters who were very protective of me. Unlike the usual household those days, my family never pressurised me to work in the kitchen. They always encouraged me to use the paint brush over the knife.”
“So you are an artist? It is so beautiful to know that there existed progressive families like yours even in those times. Why don’t you educate the same to Ma. She is always after me to learn cooking. I am content with my tea and Maggi making skills. I don’t have high aspirations in this regards. I also believe that the keys on my keypad are mightier than the knife and spatula.”
“I will certainly ask her not to pressurise you. Coming back to my story, my mother-in-law was very particular about how a dish had to be cooked and presented. Few initial times, I messed up by not putting the dhaniya* and she got really upset. After that every time
I would cook something, she would remind me to garnish the dish.”
“Wasn’t that annoying? How did you even put up with that? If I would have been in your place, I would have clearly told her to stop saying the same thing again and again.”
“This is the beauty of any relationship. With time, we start understanding a person better. Initially, I used to get irritated too but then I started keeping her in my mother’s place thinking that I would not have answered back if it was my mother. If she was strict in the kitchen, she was very easy going when it came to having fun like going out, shopping, watching movies.”
“It is difficult for me to comprehend at this point. But I definitely value your patience and tolerance. I feel that you are like the Dhaniya* in our lives, someone who easily blends with other people, leaving a mark of your pleasant nature in their lives like you have done on me”, saying this Meera got up from her chair and hugged Lekha.
“This is the best and the most special compliment I have heard so far. I am reminded of one more story. It was late nineties. We were going through a phase of inflation. The price rise in vegetables was evident too. Could you guess what happened then?”
“Inflation and a story around dhaniya*? I know what would have happened. The vendors started charging for the dhaniya* and chillies too.”
“Correct. While the prices of basic vegetables like onion, tomato had risen, the poor dhaniya* was also not spared. When the trusted Dhuli Ram charged for dhaniya*, I couldn’t believe my ears.”
“So melodramatic of you Nani*!”
“I am not exaggerating. This really happened. While the fortunate ones like us could still afford a bunch or two, there were less fortunate who had to forego their favorite dhaniya*. One time the vendor had some leftover dhaniya* and he obliged us with some bunches for free because they were going to go bad anyway. I was happy as if I had won some lottery. The same night we had a call with my in-laws and my mother-in-law was happy and concerned at the same time. She advised me to store them in newspapers or some dry paper to keep them fresh for longer period of time. I followed the magic mantra and it worked.”
Meera was all smiles listening to this.
“Why are you smiling Meera? What are you thinking?”
“Nothing. I am just listening to your sweet little dhaniya* tales. People used to lead such a simple life back then. I can understand the gravity of the situation after listening to all these memories. You discussed about the free dhaniya* on phone. Nowadays, the great Google can tell you atleast ten ways to preserve the dhaniya* for long. But at that time, people used to call each other, now texting or snapchatting is the new form of communication. If you tell people that you actually discussed about the free dhaniya*, they would laugh at you but such was the simplicity with which people used to lead life compared to now.”
“But thankfully the situation improved and the star, the free dhaniya* was back bringing relief to many. The stories do not end here. I have one last story to share before your Nana* comes back home”
“Sure Nani*, go ahead. I have loved all your stories so far.”
“Do you remember Hemant Uncle?”
“Yes, Kamla Mausi’s* husband who passed away recently. He was such an intelligent person. I remember him from my childhood days. He always amused us by his wit.”
“He was indeed a very smart person but a very fussy eater. Anything green in food was equivalent to spicy for him be it capsicum, beans or dhaniya*. Initially when Kamla mentioned about this, we did not believe her. When he came home for the first time, my mother-in-law as usual asked me to put a lot of dhaniya* in all the dishes and I followed the instructions. But when we sat down at the dinner table, he refused to eat anything except chapatti. All of the coaxing and convincing went in vain. My mother-in-law felt miserable.”
“How could anyone survive with a partner like that”, shrugged Meera
“Hats off to Kamla Mausi* for living with him. Nani*, I am still not sure if I am going to write a story on your dhaniya* or not, but one thing I am certain is whenever I get married, I will put a criteria that the suitor has to be a foodie like me. I will make a set list of items and have an interview specifically based on that list. I don’t know about anything else but our wavelengths definitely need to match in this department.”
While Meera was seriously discussing her plans, Lekha couldn’t control her laughter.
“Today’s generation is crazy. Although food is definitely important, but there are other more significant paradigms to be considered.”
Lekha could easily continue on this topic but the doorbell rang. It was her husband, tired and hungry.
He freshened up and changed while Meera set the table and Lekha warmed the food. As soon as he opened the lid and saw the dhaniya* laden Rajma, he sighed, “Nothing beats the sight of dhaniya* in the hot pot of Rajma and steamed rice after a long day at work.”
Meera and Lekha both looked at each other with Lekha stating,
“Way to a man’s heart is through his stomach and in this case through the dhaniya* to be specific.”
Nani: Mother’s mother
Nana: Mother’s father
Dadi: Father’s mother
Mausi: Mother’s sister/cousin
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