We lived in a small one bedroom-hall-kitchen government flat in south Delhi. They were our neighbours who belonged to West Bengal. Bengalis, as Indians would call them. We Indians have a way of tagging people. Instead of simply calling them as Indians we give them tags. So they were Bengalis, while we were Punjabis. The lady’s mother, a 5 feet tall lady in her early 70s, was called Dida (grandma) by her two daughters. I too called her that.
Such a pretty word : dee-da. Like a song. Deeda.

I used to come back from school at 2pm sharp and my brother, whose classes ended a little later, would reach around 2:30 pm. My mother and father both worked, so Dida used to help out us kids with after-school meals. Everyday, she would come to our place in her signature blue-bordered white sari, keys tied at one end of her sari flung over her shoulder, her (mostly) salt and (hardly) pepper hair always covered by her sari pallu and her squarish face that had a large forehead, pug like nose, hooded eyes, always carried a warm smile. She lovingly warmed up lunch, cooked early in the morning by mom. Sometimes she would bring something from her own kitchen. She was an exceptional cook! My little Punjabi self, with her little Punjabi sense of taste, loved her ‘dal-bhaat‘, which was thankfully a frequent visitor. The pale-yellow colored dal subtly flavored, without being overpowered by spices unlike the robust Punjabi curries are, nestled snugly inside the ‘bhaat‘ (boiled rice). It was a vision. It was like looking at a pretty little pond set amidst white balloony mountains. That’s how I saw it. For her own grand-daughters, along with dal-bhaat, she would also keep a boiled potato and some salt on the plate, and would crumple a fresh leaf of lemon plant. The beautiful tangy smell it emanated still fills my nostrils whenever I remember ‘dal-bhaat‘. They had a small plant of lemon for this purpose, from which we were also given those leaves. I loved the entire crumpling action, the result, the smell and the taste. Back then I didn’t know whether it was the smell or the taste of the lemon that brought about the difference. Whatever it was, it went so well with the dish.

The arrangement worked beautifully,for her and us. For us it meant warm food and surprises from her kitchen. For her it meant fresh company, a peek in Punjabi cuisine. It made her feel wanted and loved.
So, she would come on time everyday and would pick two plates, heat up the chapattis and sabzi, made by mom earlier in the day. Then she would call us and we would carry out plates to the table. She would then produce her own culinary works and I would jump with joy. How contrasting were the flavors and how I loved them both- equally. Every time she made her special date-jaggery infused rice-milk sweet, that she called Paaesh and I called kheer (cheekily correcting her), she would bring it over in a small bowl specially for me, complete with a square spoon that I grew so fond of that it was later given to me. I still have it with me, but it isn’t used anymore. It digs Dida’s date-kheer, but we won’t get to see it again. I can’t dare use it for anything other than her kheer. That would be blasphemy.

My mom loved Dida. She was like a mother that mom lost when young. Dida introduced mom to Bengal – the place, the language, the cuisine, the festivals, the rituals, the mannerisms. We loved that world. It was so different from ours. Maybe that’s why. We often joined in their celebrations. I remember the multiple red ‘aalta’ painted feet, shuffling busily and peeking from underneath the saris. I remember getting my own little feet colored red, just like the pretty aunties and didis. I remember the auspicious loud synchronized sound made by the ladies during the pujas, which sounded like ‘o-lulululu’, produced by moving their tongues from side to side. I remember the Durga Puja. I remember how the family dressed up like they were going to a wedding and would go to the ‘pandal‘. The grand pandal would have a grander idol of ‘Durga maa’ and loads of people, all laughing, dancing and eating. It WAS like a wedding! The lovely ladies all dressed up alike and yet not so much. The food was plenty and it was sumptuous. I distinctly remember the sweet spongy-dripping-with-sweet-syrup ‘roshogullas‘, the wholesome and fragrant ‘khichadi‘, the ‘luchis’ and the other dishes. Oh, how far back was all that and yet it was only yesterday.

We moved when mom-dad bought their own place and the connection with the family got thinner. They came to visit us once with Dida, minus the two daughters. It was she who wanted to meet my mother. The mother-daughter bond between them was not thinner; it was just how it was when we had left. She looked frail and tired. After the wedding of her elder granddaughter she had started losing life. She had lost someone who was her own. This granddaughter was the reason for her existence, the reason she left Bengal to join her daughter’s family, the reason why she stayed with the family even after the kids grew up. This granddaughter was Dida’s favorite. This granddaughter wasn’t very sharp and was always bullied by parents for just being who she was. Maybe that’s why Dida loved her. She was much in the same position. All alone and unloved. Dida saw her honest heart, which loved Dida back. Dida became her world and she Dida’s. After she left, Dida’s world suddenly became smaller. As much as the elder granddaughter loved Dida, the younger one disliked her. She found a fault in everything Dida did. Maybe because she saw the biased love between her sister and her grandmother or maybe because, much like her father, she felt that Dida was an unwanted fifth spare wheel in their four-wheeled family. After the elder granddaughter married away, the balance of love got disturbed for Dida.
The spark in her eyes had dimmed. Her bright white plain cotton sari looked paler and crumpled. Her nails were long and shabby. Her feet callused. She seemed to have stopped taking care. There was no reason perhaps. She met mom and some of the light returned in her eyes. It was the last time we saw her. Last time she had mom’s food and said “Khoob Jhol” (very spicy), last time she brought her Bengali kheer for me and the last time anyone called my mom ‘Chanchala’, with an extra “aa” in the end.
We never know when the last time would be the last time. If only we had known.

She left soon after. We got the news from her daughter on telephone. She had gone away peacefully, remembering two people- her elder granddaughter and my mother, both of whom she could not see for the last time before passing away. I saw mom’s tears. I saw mom and dad leave to pay their regards for the last time and I sat remembering. I remembered the old lady and the smell of food that emanated from her. The smell that permeated every cell of her skin. Her kitchen was her temple. She cooked for all her kids. We were her kids too. We didn’t mind the little thief in her, who would sometimes steal an apple to give to her elder granddaughter or some vegetable that she would nick from our refrigerator to add in one of her curries as a way of experimentation, which her son-in-law otherwise wouldn’t allow. She collected coins and loose change lying about in our house, but only to buy little birthday gifts for us kids. I remember I told my mom once how I saw Dida stealing! It was a big crime in my little perspective. Dida, the chef, the friend, our Bengal guide and smile harbinger- a thief?! My mom had just smiled and said “I know. It’s okay.” I never understood that back then, but now I do. It’s okay.

I remembered her today and cooked ‘dal-bhaat‘, just like her’s, for her. The 7 year old me was pleased. The 30 year old me was emotional. I don’t know if Dida would have liked it or not. There is nothing much that I can do now but I can show her still how much I loved her food and appreciated her.

Few people and things leave a mark in your heart. She was one of those for me. I would never get to taste again the food she so lovingly prepared, but I want her to know that she is remembered and was loved by us too!
The little thief with a big heart.
The cook who never lost her art.