Every family has a Madeline cake. Eating it, like the narrator in Proust’s semi-autobiographical book, you may remember your childhood. You may remember that there was a house in which your aunt lived and it was she who would make the Madeline cake. It would be dipped in limeflower tea. And eating that cake many years later, you might remember the house and everything in it.
Food’s old connection with memory is made over and over again in the Satwik household. Looking back means knowing the family hierarchy, adjustments in taste and entering kitchens that are so full of smells and stories that they inevitably lead to other smells and other stories. Which part of Maharashtra are they from, where should I begin this tale? Ujjain, says writer-surgeon Ambarish Satwik whose first attempts at identifying with his roots begins, as with many children, with their grandfather. “I had the romantic notion,” he says, “that he moved to Ujjain with the Holkars, till I realised his father was with the Railways so his travels had a more commonplace explanation.”
Ambarish’s father, Anil Satwik, had at 17, introduced a new chapter in family history by flouting the strictly vegetarian orthodoxy that most Deshastha Brahmins follow. “The proximity to Old Delhi, Delhi 6, made him do it,” explains his wife Varsha. “At the home of my classmate from Zakir Hussain College, a Qureshi,” says her husband, “it was my first experience of eating meat — mutton korma, dal gosht — and breaking bread not in separate thalis but from one plate. I didn’t tell Mother then”. Ambarish’s grandmother, who lives with them, has now allowed non-vegetarian cooking in the kitchen. “I’m the polluter,” chirps Ruma, a UP’ite. After marriage to Ambarish, one gathers, the two hijacked the daily menu and introduced prawns, kebabs and chicken drumsticks in culinary rebellion.
During dinner, however, there’s a falling in line. Everybody gets into position; everyone takes his or her own seat. Except for Ambarish and Ruma’s one-and-a-half year old, Rudra the little prankster, who wriggling from one lap to another is, while it lasts, something of a free agent. “More than any other expression of filial piety, mother (Varsha)”, says Ambarish “is a believer in the virtues of a common table. We try to have one meal together. Usually it’s dinner; on Sundays, it’s lunch.” The food items also have their place and sequence in the order of things. At the centre of the plate is a small nub of rice; to its left are the relishes — salt, lemon, pickle, chutney, raita. On the right are two dry vegetables. Sweets are eaten along with meals and not at the end. “It’s an idiosyncrasy but we don’t believe in courses. It’s not messy and it means plates are all cleared at the end”, says Dr Varsha Satwik.
Doctors all — Anil Satwik is a physician, Varsha’s a pathologist, Ruma’s a gynaecologist and Ambarish is a surgeon — the family does not burden food with expectations of ‘health.’ That is not the prime consideration says Ambarish whose book Perineum opens with a story on Robert Clive and his doctor and a surgeon, who in between circumcising Clive, reminds himself that he had better finish the job before the silver pomfret in coconut milk curry is brought up for lunch. At what point do doctors start feeling like a human being? I am guessing – when they feel hungry.
What Proustian memory jabs our surgeon at an operation table? “His last stitches done, Ambarish calls home, and
says he wants rajma, he wants maa ki dal,” says his father Anil, with some indulgence. When both Ambarish and Ruma have returned, the family sits down for dinner.
As doctors, Ambarish and Ruma have, they say, their own laws of fat: if you consume more than your daily requirements of calories you will put on weight even if the extra calorie is in the form of a cucumber. “I have a food problem. Once I start, I cannot stop eating. I’m not distressed by the format and I wouldn’t advocate it for everybody but I just eat once a day,” says Ambarish. As a health or even a weight loss plan, I’m not sure it’ll make the Lancet, but his defence of the communal meal has thunder. “The obesity epidemic,” he contends, “began from the time food becamedesocialised. When you share a meal and sit down as a family, you defer to another person. When you are by yourself and on your own, you pop a snack, you don’t bother about anyone or anybody.” And that my friend, came with the Empire.