Someday, I might glimpse the childhood I left behind in Pakistan

“I am cooking ‘arbi’ (taro) today. So dine at the office,” announced Nandu, our cook, to me. My joy was boundless. I was a sapling boy of seven years in 1928 and I simply adored this dish, when it was cooked in our office. Nandu was a connoisseur cook. He could impart delicious magic to any mundane vegetable.

Merchants from surrounding villages visited Tandlianwala Mandi (in undivided Punjab in British India) where we lived, to sell agricultural produce like wheat, rice, chickpeas, lentils, cotton and ghee (clarified butter) to wholesalers. As commission agents, we would facilitate and guarantee their transactions, charging them a fee for the services.

The merchants needed two to three days to meet the wholesalers and conclude their sales. Eighty-six years ago, there were no hotels in small towns. So, an entire floor in our office building was reserved for our customers to stay over.

We also provided the visiting traders with meals. My father had found a wonderful cook, Nand Lal, affectionately nicknamed Nandu.

Nandu would peel entire pieces of the fresh vegetable with tender care. His knife would glide gently around each contour of the vegetable, as if he were almost caressing it. Then, he would fry the pieces in pure ghee, until they turned golden yellow. When the pieces turned soft, he would flavour them with spices and herbs, which gave the humdrum vegetable a delectable taste and aroma. Frequently, I would eat at Nandu’s kitchen in the office, rather than at home. Nandu was not just a cook. He was an artist. Moreover, like all good chefs, Nandu would never part with his recipes.

Gradually Nandu became a man of all seasons for our family. He took me to the markets to teach me the value of secrecy in business. In the bazaars, merchants held towels in their hands. They indicated the price to prospective buyers by clasping their agile fingers concealed behind the towel. A clasp of two fingers meant two rupees, the third finger represented annas (16 annas was equal to a rupee) and the fourth finger indicated paise (four paise to an anna) per unit of wheat. Lips can be read in the market place, so the merchants announced their prices privately by speaking through their fingers.

We had no electricity at home. Once when my mother fell ill, we cooled her room by pouring layers of sand, 14 inches deep on the floor. Thrice a day we sprinkled water on the sands, and then covered it with straw-mats. The windows and doors were covered with mats (“khas”) to block the hot winds (“loos”).

Nandu would double-up as “punkahwala”. He would squat on the floor in a corner and pull a rope which swung the overhead “punkaha”, comprising of a cloth banner tied to a wooden staff.

My father often travelled by horse to the fields of wheat and cotton. He chatted with the farmers, about how the crops were faring. Nandu and I would accompany him on some of his fact-finding excursions in the villages.

At the time of the partition of undivided India in 1947, we lost track of Nandu. We could not trace him, despite our efforts. I was despondent.

Often I ponder how much of my childhood is left behind, in what has now become a foreign country. I left Pakistan in a dash and arrived as a refugee in India at partition. I have never been able to visit Tandlianwala, the town of my birth or find out what happened to Nandu in the last 67 years.

India and Pakistan continue to be frugal and sticky about issuing visas for visits. Visas are issued for short spans – a week or sometimes even for a few days. They are issued for specific towns and one cannot travel freely.

About 20 years ago, a colleague from Pakistan was visiting India and had asked me what he could fetch for me. “A handful of earth from Tandlianwala,” I replied to his astonishment. He brought it. I have valued the jar of earth from my hometown and preserved it. Its pebbles and sands remind me of a simple but beautiful childhood, now lost in the labyrinths of time and politics.

So, when the prime minister of Pakistan flew down at attend the swearing in of his new Indian counterpart, I was enthralled. India and Pakistan have many misunderstandings dividing their peoples. Frequent visits of people at all levels, whether ministerial or common citizens, will chisel away age-old apprehensions.

Hopefully, someday the peoples of these twain countries will meet frequently as friends. And then maybe I will be able to trace Nandu and his family. Perhaps he may tell me some of his secret recipes also.

Hari Chand Aneja is an 92-year-old former corporate executive who now keeps busy with charity work

Published: July 1, 2014 04:00 AM

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