Bishwanath Ghosh recalls a meal, topped with wood apple chutney, in remote Bundelkhand.
“Everything we eat,” said Jitendra Singh, the driver, as he opened the car door for the umpteenth time to spit out pan masala, “is grown in our fields. We buy nothing from the market, except spices. Everything comes fresh off the fields.”
His words made me hungrier. It was 2.30 now, and we had been on the road for over three hours. We were travelling from Kanpur to his village near the town of Banda, in the rugged Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh. Bundelkhand is rich in history, poor in development: tales of valour are as much in circulation as tales of notoriety.
I had been conned into this trip. “If you want to get the real flavour of the elections, you must go to Banda,” Jitendra had been telling me since I set foot in Kanpur last February, with the purpose of capturing the public sentiment on the eve of the Assembly elections. I didn’t realise, until it was too late, that he insisted on bringing me to Banda so that he could visit his village. I trusted him because tradition dictates that if you are a journalist travelling out of town to report an event, you must take the local driver seriously. So one chilly morning, as I got into his Tata Indica, I told Jitendra Singh, “Chalo Banda!”
It took us a while to get out of Kanpur. It’s a city I barely recognise now, even though I’ve spent the first 23 years of my life in it. But once out of the city, it became a journey back in time: unending green fields — and the monotony of the green broken every now and then by either a small Shiva or Hanuman temple, painted in white; or the hut-like tea shop that also sells samosas and gulab jamuns; or the dhaba selling hot daal and rotis; or asbestos-roofed factories that have smoke coming out of their chimneys. These are sights I’ve grown up with and, no matter which city I live in, they will always denote home.
And now we were headed to Jitendra Singh’s home — his heart, rather. As for a home, he doesn’t have one at the moment: the road is his home. He is based, so to speak, in Kanpur, but he invariably spends his nights in the car, either driving or sleeping in it in some remote town. He is sufficiently happy with the money he makes as a driver, but his heart remains tethered to his village, where his wife lives with his parents and a large number of relatives.
The sight of the ripe crops had begun to make me hungry. I fantasised about the end product: hot rotis, arhar ki daal, sarson ka saag. That’s when Jitender said that everything from his kitchen comes fresh off the farm. For someone who depends largely on take-away meals, his words were music to the ears.
“Will you take me to your village one of these days?” I asked him.
“I will take you there right now, sirji.”
“What do you mean?”
“My village is very close to Banda. Once you finish talking to people in Banda, I will take you home. In any case I was thinking of showing you my village.”
That’s when realisation struck. But my anger melted even before it could build up — largely because of the pleasant drive through rural, central India and also because I was now too hungry to get angry.
“Can I have lunch at your home, then?” I asked.
“Would you like to have a chat with people in Banda first, or would you like to have lunch first and then go to Banda?”
Jitendra called up his home and spoke to his mother. Even as he had one hand on the steering and another glued to his ear, we drove through a village that was a village in the true Indian sense of the word: thatched homes, cows and buffaloes loitering around, veiled women carrying pots of water on their heads, about two dozen children sitting cross-legged on the ground under a tree, facing a blackboard and a stern-looking teacher. The village stood like an island amid green fields.
We drove through few more villages before we arrived at Jitendra’s — I knew we had entered the boundary of his village when a bunch of children began chasing our car in excitement. The village could have easily been Ramgarh of Sholay — this was indeed a village of Thakurs — and Jitendra’s father presently emerged from the door wearing the dignified air of Sanjeev Kumar, albeit with arms intact. He seemed too important to take notice of me even as I sat on a charpoy in the verandah and drank tea. He was going for a stroll around the village.
As soon as he left, one of Jitendra’s uncles came in. He sought to know who I was. Jitendra replied with a tinge of pride, “He has come all the way from Chennai to write about our elections.”
“No wonder,” the uncle turned to me, “I saw you on TV last night.”
I gave an ambiguous nod: I had no desire to contradict him. I asked him his name. “Mulayam Singh,” he replied.
For a moment I thought he was kidding, but he wasn’t. His name was indeed Mulayam Singh, and he turned out to be one of the friendliest souls I’ve ever come across.
Lunch, I gathered, was still under preparation. I suggested to Jitendra that we take a short walk around the house. Mulayam Singh led the way. Just a few metres away from the verandah stood a small Shiva temple, at least 70 years old (it existed even when Jitendra’s father was born). Temples like these, modest and bereft of crowds, provide better connectivity to god — or so I believe. Next to the temple was a cluster of huts. Outside one of the huts, two men sat in complete silence as they crafted the wheel of a bullock cart. The silence was so overwhelming that you could almost hear the horses of Gabbar Singh’s men storming the village. In fact, this was the kind of village that Ramesh Sippy sought to depict in Sholay, even though the movie was actually shot in an elaborate set created in the south Indian locale of Ramanagaram, near Bangalore.
The two Thakurs then led me to the fields. “That is arhar,” Jitendra pointed out, “and that is the mustard crop.” As a token of the newly found friendship, Mulayam Singh pulled out half a dozen radishes and a bunch of coriander leaves from the soil. “When you eat these,” he said, “you will feel the difference.”
A small boy came running to us, to announce that lunch was ready. And soon Jitendra and I were sitting across a centre table that had been placed in the courtyard of the house. The women were now in charge. The kitchen — a mud structure — was right next to us.
First came the salad: tomato and radish, soaked in lemon juice and garnished with chopped coriander. Mouth-watering. Then came the much-awaited decorated plate: chaney ki saag, arhar ki daal (with a generous piece of homemade butter floating in it), rotis (each soaked in homemade ghee) and rice. Very often we city-dwellers appreciate food only when we pay for it through our noses, whereas the truth is that the best things in life come for free.
Jitendra’s mother, who supervised the table, made sure I did not spend even a moment waiting for another roti. They just kept coming, and I kept tearing off pieces and plunging them alternately into the saag and the daal. The rice I ate with the daal alone. All along, I had been biting into a green chilli and also digging my finger into a small heap of greenish chutney, which did not taste either like coriander or mint, but it was — to use the gourmand’s cliché — delectable. I could not resist asking Jitendra’s mother what it was made of.
“Wood apple,” she said, “why, you don’t like it?”
I told her about my inexplicable fascination — dating back to my childhood — for wood apples. As a result, even before I could finish my lunch, a boy placed a plastic packet containing six large wood apples on the table.
“I will take them to Chennai,” I said.
“Look at their luck,” Mulayam Singh remarked from a corner, “they will be travelling in a plane. We have never travelled by air, but our wood apples will.”
One woman came with a mug of water, another with a towel. “Beta,” Jitendra’s mother said, “when you come next time, stay with us for a day or two.”
The sun had nearly set when we drove out of the village. As soon as we hit the highway, Jitendra slowed down the car. He said: “Sir, aaj hum aap ko ek naya jaanwar dikhate hain” (let me show you a new animal today). In the dimmed light, all I could see was a horse crossing the road. But why did it have a blue-grey coat? Oh, a nilgai! Not a new animal, but the encounter was something new, considering that I live in an urban jungle where you see only dogs and cats — and the occasional monkey — crossing the road. I took out my camera and asked Jitendra to stop. But as soon as the nilgai saw me, it sprinted into the fields like a blushing bride.