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Rationed lives

As a fauji spouse, I know better than to hold on to the remote when there is a discussion on pay disparity in the armed forces on television. But the other day, amid that infernal din, I caught something being said about ‘rations.’ I heard a remarkable comment about how high-altitude rations of chocolates and nuts were expensive, and therefore the faujis should shut up and stop complaining.

I remember teasing our army friends posted in the glacier about how they were lucky to get chocolates and dried fruits every day. I wish I hadn’t, because now I know how soldiers suffered severe frostbite or the dreaded High-Altitude Pulmonary Oedema and sometimes even died (chocolates and nuts couldn’t prevent that).

But I am here to share memories of rations. Food was a big part of our life. The once-a-week rumble of the three-tonner that brought our rations was music to the ears. I was going to say ‘free’ rations, but Raju always irritably points out that it is NOT ‘free’; it is a part of the salary. Each fauji is entitled to 90 gm of sugar, 80 gm of oil, 40 gm of dal, 170 gm of fresh vegetables, two eggs and so on each day. Married officers get a cumulative ration at the end of the week, while that of the unmarried ones goes to the Mess kitchen.

For example, in Leh, we ate at the Mess and dehydrated eggs and shalgam (turnips) were at the top of my hate list. Kilos of shalgam were cooked, served and ignored at every meal. But sometimes that was the only fresh, locally-grown vegetable available. Tired of tinned tindas and sarson ka saag, the wives had to find a way to make the turnips shine. Once, they got the Mess cooks to grate great mountains of turnips and cook it in exactly the same way as they cooked baingan bharta. It was polished off!

We always cribbed about the rations and sometimes they were the cause of dissent. Nanhi Mann remembers the time the rationwala bhaiyya delivered the chicken. “Dad picked up one of the birds and bhaiya snatched it away saying that one was for the Group Captain Saab, not him. Dad sarcastically asked if the Group Captain’s bird had four legs!” Deepali complains about chicken legs too. “The contractor who supplied the ration chicken almost always gave us a bird with only one leg. We suspected he had thrown a legs-only party the previous day!”

When it was not an incomplete bird, it was cabbages, she says. “Once I got three kg of cabbage. I tried every trick in the book to use them up. I steamed it, made vadas, pulao, raita and even cabbage kheer, and still could not get through it!”

As a newly-wed, Surekha Datar was bewildered at bushels of pineapples delivered to her in Bagdogra. “It took me a long time to learn how to dish out gourmet desserts using pineapple along with Nutramul, custard powder, milk bread and sugar, also received as ration.”

In Hyderabad, it was grapes. We learnt how to turn them into raisins. The milk powder became rasagullas, gulab jamuns or was just eaten plain. I also remember the cornflour, cheese in rusty tins and, would you believe it, dalda! I shudder now, but a retired Mess cook taught us how to make the flakiest of puffs using the dalda. Minnie Mathappan, who made delicious banana wine, swore the taste and sparkle came only from the ration bananas — black and overripe.

When there was a sortie to Jammu, we knew the delicious Rajma from Bhaderwah would be on every dining table in the AF station. We ate it with rice from Bareilly. I loved that about life in the Armed Forces. No matter where we were posted, we ate well and it was a tasty geography lesson for me. I ate oranges from Jorhat, cooked with groundnut oil from Jamnagar and grated coconut from Car Nicobar.


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Printable version | Oct 24, 2021 6:11:32 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/Rationed-lives/article14571262.ece

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