"I am cooking 'arbi' (taro) today. So you could dine at the office today," Nandu Langri announced. My joy was boundless. I was a boy of seven in 1928 and simply loved this dish, when it was cooked in our office. Nandu was a connoisseur cook. He could weave magic into any mundane vegetable.
Merchants from the surrounding villages visited Tandliawala Mandi, where we lived, to sell produce such as wheat, rice, chickpeas, lentils, cotton, wool and ghee (clarified butter) to wholesalers. As commission agents, we would facilitate and guarantee their transactions, charging them a commission for the services.
The merchants needed two to three days to meet the wholesalers and conclude their sales. There were no hotels in small towns, 90 years ago. So, we had an entire floor in our office building reserved for the lodging of our customers.
Confidentiality was highly prized in "bazaars" even then. The merchants held towels in their hands. They indicated the price to prospective buyers by clasping their fingers behind the towel. A clasp of two fingers meant Rs 2, the third finger represented annas (16 annas to a rupee) and the fourth finger indicated paise (4 paise to an anna) per unit of wheat. Lips can be read in the market place, so the fingers spoke!
We also provided the visiting traders with meals. My father had found a wonderful cook, Nand Lal, affectionately nicknamed Nandu.
My favourite dish was "arbi". 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 caressing it. Then, he would fry the pieces in pure ghee (clarified butter), until they turned a 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 a cook. He was an artist.
We had no electricity in those days. 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 sand, and then covered them with straw-mats. The windows and doors were covered with mats ("khas") to block the hot winds ("loos"). A "punkahwala" sat in the corner, pulling a rope which swung the overhead "punkah", comprising a cloth banner tied to a wooden staff.
My father often travelled by horse to the fields. He chatted with the farmers to learn how crops were faring. I admired my father immensely. He ran a successful business. He was a good horse rider. He sent me to a boarding school, which was prestigious in 1937. Above all, I was impressed that my dad's clothes travelled to Lyallpur every week for laundering! He wore starched white shirts and turbans and looked imposing.
Often I ponder how much of my childhood is left behind, in what is now a foreign country. About 20 years ago, a colleague from Pakistan was visiting India and had asked me what he could fetch for me as a present. "Just a handful of earth from Tandliawala," I replied to his astonishment. He did bring it. I have valued the jar of earth from my hometown and preserved it. The pebbles, small stones and sand in it remind me of a lost, simple but beautiful childhood.