Raghu Rai, says his wife, has two left hands but they are creative. “You’ll see him pick up a glass but the trolley will topple. He has scotch with coke or tequila with orange juice and you’ll never find a Frenchman doing that,” says architect and conservationist Gurmeet Rai, with some indulgence.
To her right, the photographer tries to crush ice into the drinks, a lime-Sprite-orange juice concoction and line the glasses with salt. It’s an interesting close-up with most of the ice flying in all directions. For his wife, Gurmeet, dinner is clearly about form and style. For Raghu Rai, an experience.
Dinner — delicious tomato fish, crispy ladyfinger, a vegetable salad, raita, cottage cheese in mustard — waits on bright red tablemats but one feels that this is a family that can, if need be, eat without ceremony. Abani, the elder daughter, this evening, for example, starts with dessert — seviyan — first. Purvai, her sister, tucks into a big bowl of popcorn before the evening meal.
Raghu Rai confirms the feeling when he fondly recalls a trip he had once made with his mother-in-law from Gurdaspur to Chandigarh. “We had started without eating breakfast. Around 9.30 a.m., when we started feeling hungry, we saw a small dhaba in the middle of mustard fields. I walked in and told them to make omelettes and paranthas with onions, dhania and pudina for us. The paranthas cooked on slow fire in butter and we made our own tea. My mother-in-law was most impressed.” Good pictures, says the photographer is choosing the extraordinary from the ordinary details of everyday life. The same principle, he says he applies to food and its making.
The family is almost vegetarian. Rai says he owes his good health to a non-meat diet. “Chicken, mutton, pork preparations are overloaded with spices and heavy. If your body has dead animals inside,” he says, “in today’s times of stress, how can spirituality prevail?” Surely he can’t be serious, I protest convinced of the benefits of chicken-mutton-pork but somewhat shaken by the possibility of my shrinking spirituality.
But there’s no faulting his anti-deep fry logic or his case for the beauty of greens. “My mother would cook great vegetarian food. Her baingan ka bharta — the sight of it was wonderful. The tomatoes and onions would be sparkling in their richness. It was not one undistinguishable hash. What nature has produced in terms of vegetables — its colours, its flavours — he who doesn’t keep that is robbing himself of the gifts of nature. Why deep fry anything at all? Everyone’s doing that anyway.”