Baba’r Mangsho

    by Ratul Ghosh

    Baba must have started smoking to look older. In the few photographs that I found from his college days, he looks like a gangling kid who has just started sprouting down on his cheeks. While my earliest memories of him are smudged, I remember snatches of his youth, from when I must have been four or five. I remember the factory-grease, and Baba’s post-smoke smell, but not his face from that time. I remember him better from what might have been his early forties. walking slowly, slightly hunched, with Wills Navy-Cut stuck in the crock of his fingers and the blue smoke curling slowly around him. He still looked younger than his age then but it wasn’t as bad as the college photos. He caught up with his age much later, sometime around when my sister got married, in 1998. In those pictures, he looks tired. He was fifty then. Greying. The wrinkles that began as laugh lines had, by then, branched and spread like the roots of a weed. His stoop was more pronounced. The factory wasn’t doing well and there were loans to repay. For some reason, we seem to have taken fewer pictures for the next few years, till cameras in mobile phones came along. I guess we all got busy. My sister and I were chasing our own tails and dreams. Ma was busy with her teaching and pre-retirement anxieties. Baba’s factory was a sisyphean monster.

    By 2019, his apparent age had overtaken his peer-group. The factory was sold off. He lost a fair bit of his spirit to its loss and to a massive heart attack that left him weak, afraid, and no longer invincible. He looks worried and uncertain in those pictures. His smile appears forced. Through the following four years, cancer eroded his face into an anxious scowl of fatigue and malaise. So smoking eventually got him to look older, but not when he wanted to, and not in ways he imagined.

    There is a rare happy photograph from that time. He is smiling at the camera with his mouth full and his hands cupping the next morsel. There’s mutton, rice and a plate of cut-onions on the sunmica table.

    ***

    I remember him eating. He ate unlike anyone else I knew, comfortable at both extremes. On a usual day, he wasn’t finicky at all. In fact, stories around his indifference to everyday meals were legendary. He could politely finish and even praise half-cooked food with no salt. He could eat boiled raw papaya and bitter gourd and not wince, not even blink. In his heydays, his weekday lunch was a cup of overboiled factory tea and a couple of cigarettes. As he aged, he was forced to carry a tiffin box that he would dutifully finish despite Ma’s limitations in that department. And of-course, his diet towards the end was plain depressing. He would, without complaining, gulp down wheat-grass extract, unsalted fox-nuts, fenugreek seeds soaked in water and raw turmeric in milk, and semi-boiled egg – including that slimy part that looks like snot. I remember when Das Uncle, whom we called ‘Dadu’ to irritate  (he had the other problem, he looked much older than his age), once asked him to try a cup of tea, and then a different cup. Baba said both were good. Das Dadu was furious. Ghosh, you only deserve fly-ash in hot water. This was Darjeeling, second-flush. Makaibari. The first cup was just cheap tea dust.

    Ma had an education-focussed childhood that did not prioritise the culinary arts. She completed her MSc-Mathematics and her M.Ed. She was a working woman who was always in a rush, and any complex cooking she tried eroded over time to the bare bones. Ingredients were dumped into the cauldron before it was hot. The water and salt were added before the frying was done, and everything came out clumpy and gooey and, she insisted, healthy. What is this, Ma? Food. Good food. What kind of food, Ma? Healthy food. Now eat it. ‘Healthy’ was the code-word for what tasted like nothing. We grimaced. Baba ate without a change in expression.

    But he was a completely different person when he encountered good food, cooked well. I wondered if he had other people hidden inside. It seemed Mr. Jekyll was just the thin, polite, undemanding shell for the inner hedonist (Baba preferred the word ‘epicure’). His eyes would glow and he would eat in a solemn, enthralled silence. Mutton, for him, was the apex of culinary creation. Chicken was blah. It was just texture. The paneer of the non-vegetarians. The ice-packed fish in Jaipur was also paneer. But in Calcutta, the appreciation of fish was a complex function of the species, the prevailing season, of age and size, of ‘freshness’ – deciphered from the eyes and the gills, and where it was fished from. The Padma ilish and the Diamond Harbour ilish, the Rupnarayan and the Damodar ones were worlds apart – quite unlike Makaibari second-flush and dust. The meat of the Black Bengal khashi was good but no match for the Sirohi goats. This epicure in Baba lay dormant till whenever we visited Calcutta, or in our otherwise settler existence, till Sundays. On Sundays, he would cook mutton, and that could make the most long-winding, dreadful, laborious week worth surviving. I would accompany him to Dinu, our butcher, who saved special pieces for us. We had to wait till the crowd was thin, and then with a sleight of hand, a clandestine shoulder or leg was unearthed, ruddy and flushed. Dinu would sprinkle water on the floor, sharpen his cleaver, stretch the meat on an acacia stump, and chop thick pieces with strong, precise hacks. He loved us because we knew good meat. We did not want thin slices, or ‘no fat’. We never froze it. And it was always cooked within the hour.

    Baba would chop and slice a mountain of onions, then peel and grind a small mound of garlic and ginger. Next, he would slide in a couple of large bay leaves, a few cloves and peppercorns into a kadhai of smoking mustard oil. I would watch, transfixed, in the stinging fumes and rabid anticipation. The oil would splutter. The cloves and peppercorns would explode. Cinnamon and green cardamom followed, then cumin, and once it foamed, the red-chilli powder. The meat, marinated in curd, turmeric, and salt would then slide in, and the pink would slowly turn brown, bubbling in quivering onion slices and swollen spices. Pre-fried potatoes were added. At some point, he would add beaten curd and leave it to bubble, then cover it, stirring and adding a little water from time to time. Sometimes he would add ground pepper. Right at the end, he would add ghee and ground garam masala. While this was on, the house smelled delicious. The dogs on the road would yowl and moan. We would salivate and keep checking if it was done, stomachs growling. Now? No. Now? That wait was pure torture, till it ended in the reverential silence broken only by the soft sound of peristalsis. And then – the next week would devolve into its usual humdrum dal-bhat-tarkari, made bearable only with the promise of another Sunday at the end of it.

    The family joke is that back in the day, whenever my sister and I were asked what we wanted to eat, we would say, “Baba’r mangsho khabo”, which translated literally to ‘we’ll eat Baba’s meat’.

    ***

    I have later photos on my phone. They are numerous, clearer than the faded ones in albums, but they only evoke the dull drudgery and throbbing ennui of the days. In March 2019, he had a cardiac arrest. Prescriptions, scans and reports invade the photos, the percentages of blockages and ejection fractions. His shins now had stitches where they harvested veins for the bypass surgery from. His chest had suture scars. He was forbidden red meat and he finally quit smoking. He lost more of his zest. He spoke and smiled less. I don’t know if it was the intimation of mortality, or the loss of the kosha mangsho or the Wills-Filter-Navy-Cut, but it was bye-bye Mr. Hyde.

    When cancer struck him in 2023, it was the last blow to our joie de vivre. Death was outside, knocking, waiting, then knocking again, growing insistent. It stole our optimism, and our appetites. The X-rays and PET images are meticulously organised. The first few cycles of chemotherapy were clinically successful, but the victory was pyrrhic. After the second cycle, he lost what was left of his appetite. He couldn’t taste food. Everything tasted metallic. Steroids led to an oral fungal infection, a black tongue and sores in the mouth and throat. He refused water as swallowing was painful. He was hospitalised for ten days. For the first week, I would finish his food. He was on saline drips, intravenous glucose and occasional spoonfuls of food. He did recover before tube-feeding, but eating became a dreaded chore. The hospital sent up fish once, but it was a Basa fillet. Baba never ate fillets. Never trust a fish you can’t look in the eye. He tried the chicken too. When I asked him how it was, he weakly mouthed, ‘paneer’. That was the darkest stretch of the road.

    It passed. We got him home. The dosage was adjusted. The tumour shrank. He started asking me to order junk food for a change, but Ma was paranoid. Baba had diabetes and the heart condition. The oncologist asked us to relax and let him eat whatever he wanted to. Nothing, she said, could kill him faster than the cancer itself. He had, at most, nine months left. I thought of checking if he could smoke again, but didn’t.

    When chemotherapy stopped working we tried immunotherapy. I remember some good meals in the following months, but few and far-between. One couldn’t say anything about Ma’s cooking, especially now, given all that she was doing. She was working herself to the bone and not allowing anyone else to cook for Baba. None of us even felt hungry. Amidst the cholesterol fears and a reduced appetite, Baba did not get to eat mutton right to the end. I ordered Butter Chicken on New Year’s Eve. He had some, and said the gravy was nice. Then there was constipation. Psyllium husk was added to his dietary tribulations. Things went south pretty fast after February, 2024. The next PET scan showed the immunotherapy was ineffective. We all knew what we were staring at. We decided to stop treatment. There wasn’t much to say. He felt nauseous the next few days and reduced his food intake. On the fourth day, the oxygen saturation started falling. We rushed him to the hospital. The last time he was coherent, he asked me if I had had lunch. He floated in and out the next day. The vitals kept dipping. On the last morning the doctors asked us to stop feeding him. He was non-responsive and could choke. By that afternoon, before they could try the Ryle’s tube, he died. We cremated him the same evening.

    ***

    The next few days flew by in a daze. The neighbours sent in food for the family. I don’t remember what I ate. I had no sense of taste. Everything tasted metallic. I wore his clothes and slept in his bed, surrounded by his unused medicines. The hours hung heavy like sludge. There was no will to move.

    But there was stuff to be done, remains to be collected and offerings to be made. The post-insurance billing had to be finalised and the death certificate had to be collected, then corrected. The tiye ki baithak was organised. There were hoops to jump through at the banks. After a week or so, things were quieter and I went to a school-friend’s place to air out. We sat in awkward silences and feeble attempts at conversation. It got late.

    As I got up to go home, he asked if I wanted to eat and go.

    I was conflicted but I couldn’t think of a rational reason to refuse. He set a plate and put it in the microwave oven. As it heated up, I sniffed the air. Wait! Cardamom. Cinnamon. What was that? Nutmeg? Ah! And the mutton! A spark flew across a primordial synapse. I felt a shameless dribble of juices at the back of my throat. Isn’t one forbidden such emotion so soon after bereavement? Can I grieve and smell what feels like longing at the same time? Has it been thirteen days already? I remembered a catechism lecture I may have overheard in school. He commanded them to do this ‘in memory of me’ while referring to the bread as ‘my body’ and the cup of wine as ‘the blood of my covenant’.

    The oven beeped, and there it was, on the plate, steaming and glistening in its dark gravy of lust with a roti on the side. I touched it with a hesitant finger. It gave way and bounced back, pneumatic, just as it should be. God, please forgive me.

    I tore off a bit of the roti already steeped in the juices. I broke off a bit of the meat. I lifted it to my nose and smelt it again. It smelt sinful, and heavenly. This couldn’t be wrong. It smelt of joy, of Sundays, of Baba, of those long interminable moments of primaeval longing before the meat touched the tongue. I put it in my mouth and squeezed my teeth together. It exploded in a spasm of flavour. A gush of saliva was ready. I swallowed and the vortex went down. I could feel it sinking in warm waves, dissolving….disintegrating, and slowly becoming a part of me. I squeezed my eyes shut. I inhaled again.

    There was perhaps another faint smell there. Navy Cut.

    Ratul Ghosh has spent most of his left-brained life in the C-Suite across boring conglomerates and clueless startups. As his father battled cancer last year, he stepped down from work and into writing. He has been a columnist for the Economic Times, a TEDx speaker and a spokesperson for his past employers. His debut story, Ants, was one of the winning entries for the Deodar Prize in the Bangalore Literature Festival 2023 and was subsequently published in the Hammock magazine.

    Subscribe to our newsletter To Recieve Updates

      The Latest
      • The Usawa Newsletter June ‘24

        There are no chairs for audience in the court room You sit on the window sill

      • Test
      • Navigating Appetites, Feminism, Loneliness, & Murder

        Butter is the first of the books by prolific Japanese writer Asako Yuzuki, to be

      • Food That Becomes Something More – Aditi Yadav Reviews The Kamogawa Food Detectives

        In his magnum opus, The Physiology of Taste, published in December 1825, just

      You May Also Like
      • Father Helpless and Other Poems By Ankush Banerjee

        0330 am Vocal cord the size of Eiffel crash My ears I stuff my mouth

      • Tanka, Haiku and two found poems by Tejinder Sethi

        Tanka shiuli flower trembles in the night breeze and perishes at dawn

      • A portrait of snow as a living thing by Sunil Sharma

        Snow starts the written conversation Hari sends the statement: Snow is live!