My best friend Raka has a maternal grandmother who is 96 years old. Today she lies infirm and barely coherent after a lifetime of eating what must rank as an extremely Spartan diet. The sheer wonder of it is that it was not economics that imposed the diet: it was a mixture of societal expectations and her own conscience.
Up until three decades ago, Bengali widows were expected by society to cook on a separate stove, using their own cooking vessels – mainly kaasha or bell metal – and maintain a separate set of table-ware. They’d sit on the floor in the kitchen for their meals, which had a long list of don’ts: No meat, fish or chicken, no onions or garlic. No garam masalas like cinnamon and cloves. Not even masoor dal was allowed, probably due to the pink colour. No parboiled rice for sure, though Gobindbhog was accepted. Raka’s grandmother stuck to sendha namak, the mountain salt that is the norm all over North India for Navratra fasts. In fact, one of Raka’s earliest memories was of her grandmother pounding salt with the other spices on the grinding stone that nobody else in the family used.
If this sounds like prison fare, it avowedly isn’t. Raka – as indeed all my other friends who have widowed aunts and grandmothers of a certain age – speak with eloquence about widow’s food. Raka’s parents used to quarrel with her grandmother’s brothers about where the grandmother was going to stay for the next three months. And it was all because of the dal that she used to cook. When she dry-roasted the dal in a bell-metal vessel, the perfume would drive the family mad. She had to keep cooking larger quantities because widow’s food or not, the entire family would pounce on it.
Other friends recall with trembling voices, the dhokar dalna and ash gourd with grated coconut that only their widowed grannies could prepare with such precision that these dishes would taste sublime with the least amount of spicing.
So what exactly is the secret of Bengali widow’s cooking? Could something so Spartan actually be made to taste good? Proponents of this theory say yes, it can. And that is because of the labour-intensive processes that were involved. Which leads to the question: do the rest of us over-spice our food as a short-cut to making food tasty without necessarily taking time and effort on the process?
The other school of thought declares that whatever you tasted in your childhood will stay with you as a pleasant memory. But whatever the truth, it couldn’t have been pleasant for the widow herself. Raka’s own grandmother was married at the age of 16 and was widowed slightly over a year later, which means that she has been a widow for upwards of seven decades. And imagine having to end it all at the mercy of someone else when you are too ill to carry on a lifestyle that has been yours for all that time.