Diary entry, 3rd to 5th March 2007, Vadodara, Gujarat:
“I am surrounded by people of all shapes and sizes in various hues. It’s Holi. I have covered huge rallies in Mumbai but never had I imagined that 40 people could make as much noise as a thousand. It’s all Gujarati. I don’t understand. Rachit told me he lives with his parents and Ba (grandmother) and his sister is visiting from Ahmedabad before she heads to the US. But there are 40 people here! I shouldn’t have come alone. Who comes alone to meet her prospective groom’s family? And the food’s all fried, all carbs, all veg!”
We have been married for eight years and this diary entry still makes me wonder how I ever agreed to the marriage. I am Bengali (just in name) and spent my younger years in New Delhi, Pune and Mumbai. My circle of friends includes people of various nationalities, many who have lived in the Middle East. Rachit’s father is a businessman and prominent member of the Nagar Brahmin Gujarati community in Vadodara. They are a tight-knit community who have their own set of rituals and traditions and everyone is related to everyone else. Though he spent his first 21 years in Gujarat, thanks to his parents who are Rotarians and his passion for tennis, Rachit travelled outside the state and country and was exposed to people of various customs and habits. In spite of that, he had not met anyone as staunchly non-vegetarian as I am.
During our dates in Mumbai, Rachit would dig into a chicken dish I ordered. He told me that he eats chicken, seafood and eggs ‘outside’. “No non-veg at home.” When we brought up the subject of getting married, his father told me, “We don’t cook non-veg at home. You should be OK with that.” I looked at Rachit and said, “Yes, I know.”
Two days after our wedding, I sat at the breakfast table. Upma, it was. I have never liked it and each time I try, I dislike it more. The house was teeming with relatives who were devouring platefuls. Rachit suggested I could have a slice of bread or cornflakes if I wished and so I did. Then came lunch: Peculiar green stalks. I had never seen them before. “Guvar,” Rachit offered. I tasted two pieces and washed the bitter aftertaste down with two glasses of chhaas (buttermilk). Later, my mother told me over the phone, “The reason you haven’t seen it on our table is because in Bengal it is used only as buffalo-feed.”
At dinner, my mother-in-law expectantly handed me a bowl of spiced potatoes. I swallowed them without saying anything. Later, I told Rachit, “I hate potatoes, even as wafers.” He was alarmed. “My mother believes that even people who don't like any of the vegetables will mostly like potatoes. What vegetables do you eat?” I replied, “Hmm... veggies... raw... preferably as salads. No frying, steaming, boiling, cooking.... Give me carrots, peas, tomatoes, spinach, lettuce, mushrooms, olives, capsicum, cabbage, cucumbers, etc.”
My father-in-law was worried. He called my mother. “You keep whatever has been cooked on the table and Eisha will pick whatever she wants to eat. She has always been fussy about vegetables,” my mother advised. I ate what I could and lost seven kilos in three months. When someone enquired what the new ‘bahu’ had cooked, my mother-in-law would say, “She’s still figuring out her vegetables and how to eat them. We’ll keep the cooking for later.”
Once a week, Rachit and I would go out for dinner, where I would stuff myself with chicken, fish and meat. I could eat! I would panic if we did not go out to eat on weekends, even cry. Our extended circle of friends, relatives and acquaintances are mostly vegetarian. Even talking about meat with them is sometimes taboo. To have my experience of dining out with non-vegetarian friends, I visited Mumbai every month. I took up projects in Ahmedabad so that I could keep travelling to the city for a lunch of the most delicious mutton biryani it offers.
Then one day, I was sick. My comfort food was chicken soup and I could not make it at home. Rachit offered to take me to a restaurant. As I was walking out of the door, burning with fever, my father-in-law asked me where I was going. “For chicken soup, to a restaurant,” I whispered. “Why don’t you order it here?” I shook my head in disbelief and headed out.
The next day, after dinner, Ba (grandmother-in-law) said, “We are vegetarians. I was born in a family that did not eat even onion and garlic. I married into a family that did and have slowly got used to their smells. I still don’t eat them but the rest of the family does. When your mother-in-law came into this house, she introduced eggs here. The children were playing sport and they needed nourishment. You come from a different culture and have fit into our family very well. I do not want you to go hungry because you can’t eat what you like. You may bring whatever you want into the house. My only request is to not cook in the kitchen because I have my puja room there. You can set up your oven, etc. in the hall upstairs.”
I could not believe my ears. I looked from my father-in-law to my mother-in-law and then at Rachit and grinned like an idiot.