Taste of Life: Food, the most powerful connective tool
Food serves as a particularly strong cue of trust. Sharing food makes us more trusting of each other. Conflicts could be resolved over a shared plate
Food has the ability to connect, remind, trigger, comfort, and evoke. It is the most powerful connective tool we have. Our bonds with family and friends have been created, strengthened and continued through sharing food.
Deenanath Dinkar Vaidya came to Poona from Chiplun in 1939. He was 12 years old then. His parents enrolled him in a government school. His father had found employment with a famous goldsmith and brought his family to the city hoping for a better future for his three children. Deenanath was the eldest son.
Even before Deenanath could start liking the city, the Second World War started. Poona, like other Indian cities, was largely isolated from the ongoing turmoil initially. Deenanath was happy with his school and studies. Money was little, but the family was content, as was the norm then.
The year 1942 made Indians aware of the deleterious effects of the war. The Nazis and the Japanese were fast making progress. The British and the allies were trying hard to resist. The war had reached the colonies. Rising inflation meant few families could afford food grains. Rice and wheat had already disappeared from the markets of Poona. The food grains were being reserved for the soldiers. Rationing of food had started in many Indian cities.
The Vaidya family too was suffering. Deenanath, like many of his classmates, was looking for a job to support his family. He had already decided to drop out of school. A job opportunity came in the form of American troops that landed in the city one morning in the monsoon of 1943.
The China-Burma-India (CBI) operations brought American troops to India in 1942. The first group of more than 10,000 soldiers was mostly deployed to the bases in Calcutta, Bengal, and Assam. In 1945, it was estimated that 400,000 American soldiers were in different parts of India, including Ahmednagar and Poona.
The Americans were no fans of the Indian summer and the monsoon brought out various insects. The humidity would be unbearable for many. The living conditions were “primitive” for their taste.
The food provided by the British government was hated by all. There were complaints of maggots being found in rice at the Purandar base. There were requests for pure drinking water. Several soldiers suffered malaria and dysentery. Most American officers did not eat the food provided at their bases in the cantonment.
Before coming to India, even though the soldiers were made aware of the climate, crowds, and animals in the subcontinent, few could acclimatize quickly. Some units would be moved from the northeastern parts of India to the western cantonments, and the stark difference in the weather and the landscape would startle many.
On arriving in India, the American troops would be given pamphlets which would advise them to maintain a cordial relationship with Indians. The American government was aware that the relationship the British shared with Indians would be different from the one between the Americans and the Indians, and hence the soldiers were asked to cultivate friendship with the locals they interacted with. They were not to interfere in religious and political matters, and Indian women were off-limits.
In Kolkata, the American soldiers would hire valets or bearers. These were mostly young men who had some training in serving British officers in India. With many British officers deployed on the war front, they were free to seek employment elsewhere. The new American bosses paid a lot more, too. They were much friendlier than the British sahibs.
The American soldiers in Poona followed the footsteps of their compatriots elsewhere and hired young men and children to do menial jobs. Deenanath and his friends were among a large group of students who had quit schools and served the American army, unofficially, of course.
These young “bearers” were supposed to wash their bosses’ clothes, polish their shoes, and bring them food from the city and cantonment markets. There had been a few instances of British and American soldiers getting into fights with the natives, after which they were no longer allowed to leave the cantonment area. The food would be sourced from Goanese and native Christian cooks who had stationed themselves near the cantonment. They would cook whatever they thought would appeal to the American palette with rationed food grains. Deenanath and his friends would spend the entire day with and working for the soldiers. The bearers were paid 4 annas per day.
Deenanath’s “boss” was a 21-year-old soldier named Patrick from Nashville. He was friendly and kind. He would talk to Deenanath about his family back home.
In December 1943, some soldiers from the American unit stationed at Poona decided to celebrate New Year’s eve. Despite the grim progress of the war, the troops were eagerly waiting to welcome 1944. There was going to be an official dinner at the barracks. The Army warehouses had received extra food – barley for soup, milk, pork, beer, fruits, potatoes, and cauliflower. But these soldiers decided to have a party of their own. Furthermore, they invited their bearers to join them.
During the few months of working at the cantonment, Deenanath and his friends had never eaten anything there. The American soldiers would offer food to them out of courtesy, but they knew that the bearers would decline politely. Religious and caste considerations prevented them from sharing the morsel. But now, the Americans wanted their Indian ‘friends” to have dinner with them. The Indians were allowed to bring their own food.
On December 31, 1943, a feast was cooked by a Goanese cook in a dilapidated corner of the barracks. There was rabbit pie, orange juice, bowls of custard apples, figs, and guavas brought from nearby villages. There were buttered cauliflower and Christmas cookies.
Deenanath was asked to buy pastries for the party. He went to East Street hoping that he would be able to buy some at Muratore’s, the famous Italian confectionery. But Muratore had been arrested by the British a few months ago because of his nationality. Britain and Italy were at war with each other. He then went to a Jewish bakery in Sholapur Bazar and brought cupcakes.
Deenanath and his friends had brought raw mango pickle, “bhakari” (jowar flatbreads), chutneys, and papads. They had an early dinner. Deenanath ate the fruits and vegetables offered by Patrick. Patrick loved the bhakari Deenanath’s mother had prepared for the occasion.
Each of the bearers was given a gift of 8 annas.
Deenanath shook Patrick’s hand and offered him his gratitude. When he walked home, the pockets of his coat were stuffed with potatoes.
Deenanath and his friend worked at the cantonment till the American troops left in 1944. They resumed their education shortly after the war ended. Deenanath secured a job at Sawai Madhopur after graduation and spent his life there.
He stayed in touch with Patrick till the end. They would exchange cards and letters.
I met Deenanath’s grandson during a train journey from Pune to New Delhi a few years ago who narrated this story.
Food serves as a particularly strong cue of trust. Sharing food makes us more trusting of each other. Conflicts could be resolved over a shared plate.
May the New Year give us a chance to share food with friends and strangers. May the New Year make us all more loving, accepting, and trusting towards each other.
Chinmay Damle is a research scientist and food enthusiast. He writes here on Pune’s food culture. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org