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Hunger pangs

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on January 08, 2018

What’s in store A neighbourhood shop rescues a festival from becoming an uneventful day

Why Diwali is a bad time to be part of a sensible, frugal, ghee-is-bad-for-you sort of household

It’s as good a topic for a research paper as any: What makes somebody so besotted with food that they sit at their computer for hours, writing about raspberry conserves and golden jalebis? All this, when they could be paying the phone bill, taking care of an overdue sonography or meeting a friend for carrot cake and coffee?

I suspect that the findings would throw up diametrically opposite answers.

In general, food writers seem to grow up in homes where grannies are constantly grinding masalas involving 17 ingredients or rolling out filo pastry finer than gauze. Their memories are redolent with the aroma of fresh cinnamon rolls and pungent fish curries. All of which eventually go into cosy food memoirs with titles such as Mango Pickle Chronicles.

At the other end of the spectrum are food writers who’ve grown up in homes where meals are purely functional. Important because of all that stuff about building, maintaining and repairing body tissue. But not as important as homework and projects. Or catching Star Trek on TV. Little wonder, then, that their articles are more about discovery than nostalgia.

I belong to the second category. Growing up, food was about nutrition rather than flourishes. And that was fine — except when the festive season trundled along.

The twinges of dissatisfaction began every year in September, when heaps of marigolds appeared in Colaba bazaar; glittery gift boxes elbowed out digestive biscuits in grocery shops; red awning flapped outside mithai shops; and the Sunday supplements went into overdrive.

Pages and pages of advertisements urged readers to buy ACs and earrings danglier than chandeliers. Fashion sections babbled about zari-encrusted kurtas. Nostalgia sections sighed over Diwalis past. While the rest of the supplements focused on food.

On every glossy page there were sweets. Some stuffed with dried fruit. Others deep-fried and dipped in sugar syrup. Tantalising mouthfuls glistening with ghee and silver varak. Diamond-shaped kaju katli and melt-in-the-mouth Mysore pak. Silver bowls filled with halwa and kheer.

These recipes were accompanied by enthusiastic, it’s-time-to-eat-yourself-into-a-stupor articles and pictures. “No celebration in India is complete without a table decked with sweets,” the writer would proclaim, supercilious in the knowledge that she would soon be slaving in the kitchen to produce the most mouth-watering, magazine-worthy shahi tukda and dry fruit halwa. “Diwali is a time of fun and feasts. In households across the country, women gather together to make the special snacks for the festival of light.”

Little wonder, then, that after reading around three Sunday supplements, I would get into a funk. It was not that I wanted a flock of aunts to descend on our kitchen and start frying badushah and shakkar para. I didn’t even like the stuff.

What I envied was the drama that went into the all-consuming, arteries-coating business of making Diwali sweets. This was clearly not a good time to be part of a sensible, frugal, ghee-is-bad-for-you sort of household.

My Muslim mother is very practical about festivals. For Eid, she’d make sheer korma and maybe her healthy version of biryani. For my dad’s Parsi New Year she’d make seviya and then we’d go out for a fancy meal. For Diwali, my parents would take us to the cracker wholesalers at Mohammed Ali Road.

After all, for my parents and brother, crackers were the glittering heart of Diwali. The three of them could spend hours debating the merits of Catherine wheels, flower pots and rockets. But I was afraid of anything more bang-and-pop than a sparkler. So the great building cracker dhamaka held limited charm — and I always wondered why our building couldn’t have a great mithai potluck instead.

Of course, Diwali goodies did arrive every year. Neighbours sent across paper plates of shakkar para, chivda and pedhas. And my dad’s work contacts sent red-and-gold gift boxes with those super-expensive mithais that pretend to be tiny apples or pears. And I would finally feel that I was making the most of the “festive season”.

(Years and years later, I was hugely pregnant and due on Diwali. The secretary in my office announced, “You won’t deliver on Diwali. If it’s a boy, he will come out before Diwali so that he can enjoy the crackers. If it is a girl, she will stay inside and enjoy the mithai.” I wasn’t sure whether to be amused or offended by this gender stereotyping. At any rate, the baby emerged well after Diwali — and she was a girl with mithai-apple cheeks.)

Now for the grand confession: The most fitting end to this piece would be a description of Diwali feasts that I whip up for my family. After all, my husband grew up with big, fat, traditional Diwalis, complete with pre-dawn oil baths and elaborate meals.

Except that I’ve realised — like my mum did decades ago — that I really don’t mind celebrating Diwali with a little help from Colaba Sweet Mart down the road.

Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist, author and food writer based in Mumbai

Published on October 13, 2017

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