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Friday, June 15, 2018

THE FLOATING DIARY (Short Story Journal – 14): THE RICE BOWL

I began writing this journal to note down aspects about me that only I can express to myself, so that when my amnesia engulfs my memory, I would be able to discover myself once again! However, it is quite funny that many of such intricacies about me are somehow related to my culinary notions! Thus, today again, I would note down something that tickles out the gastronomic personality within me.

On the ground floor of my office building is a small shop called “Ramu’s Kitchen”. The shop is famous for one item it sells the most… “The Rice Bowl”. Ramu is the owner of the shop and the chef behind the classic recipe of the Rice Bowl. Served in conical shaped melamine bowls, the recipe comprises of two large scoops of scented rice, a ladleful of “Dal” and a vegetarian or non-vegetarian side. The customers receive this wholesome meal, served hot during the busy lunch hours, at a price that suits the pocket of almost every officegoer. However, the patronage is not restricted to middle-class folks, even senior executives make a beeline for grabbing a share of the popular “Rice Bowl” prepared by Ramu.

It is immaterial to say that I too am a regular patron of “Ramu’s Kitchen” and the “Rice Bowl” is my staple for lunch. There are two aspects of the “Rice Bowl” that I have discovered as its unique selling points. Firstly, the cookery that goes into the recipe has a uniqueness that Ramu has mastered (from where I really don’t know) that attracts and suits the palates of almost everyone. Secondly, the menu, I mean the curry and the “Dal” has a new taste every day. Nobody knows how Ramu manages to do this, but it is something that acts as an attraction, a mystery to b discovered, by many of the customers who rush to the shop just to taste and find out what the “Rice Bowl” would contain! Even I am a slave to this enigmatic culinary schedule, and eagerly wait every day for the arrival of the lunch time!

However, today I discovered a third aspect that has made Ramu’s Rice Bowls even more precious and special to me. Unlike my usual habit, I came down for lunch a bit early. Most of the customers are yet to arrive and “Ramu’s Kitchen” was yet to begin its day’s business. I walked inside the little kitchen and took a glimpse of the interior for the first time. The small rectangular room had several wooden racks filling with so many different things! There were jars full of various spices, different utensils, vessels, ladles and rows of melamine bowls that would soon boast with the contents of the famous Rice Bowl recipe! The ingredients for the day’s special Rice Bowl, including vegetables, pulses, rice, paneer and eggs were lying on one of the lower racks, while the higher racks were mostly crowded with containers loaded with some unknown elements whose fragrance floated in the air.

Near the right-side of the room, stood a busy Ramu in front of a gas oven making final preparations for completing the day’s menu. He whistled lightly while focusing deeply in his work. There was an expression of tranquility in his face that made me feel good. I spoke, “Hey Ramu, isn’t the lunch ready yet?”

Ramu gave an astonished look at me, as he was least expecting this sudden arrival of mine. As the initial confusion cleared, Ramu replied, “Yes sir! I am almost done. Today’s special Rice Bowl is as good as any other day’s!”

I smiled and asked him the secret behind the exemplary recipes of the Rice Bowls every day that attracts so many people who make a beeline in front of his shop. I was really enthralled by the rush of customers and huge amount of supply that this single guy had to manage, that too with a content and smiling face!

Ramu knew me well, as I was one of his oldest customers. He asked me sit on a stool and began to talk, “Sir, today, let me tell you the story of my life. There is still time before the flow of customers would begin and I think we can make good use of that time. I used to live in a small village named Kakori near Bharuch in Gujarat. I was the only child of my parents and the three of us lived happily in our little mud-house. My father was a spice seller and had a shop adjoining our house. The little income that came through the meagre sale was enough for running our family of three. My mother had always been happy with whatever god gave us and she taught me the same. We were a happy family. My father was so proficient in mixing spices and his assortments were really popular among the villagers. Everybody in our village used to call him a magician of spices! My mother was equally skilled and used the spices to create flavors that were ethereal to taste! My parents used to teach me that culinary experiences are direct outcomes of human emotions. They taught me the magic to imbibe human emotions in the spices and create exemplary delicacies with them!”

I listened keenly while Ramu continued after a little pause, “Manjeet Chetri was our village Sarpanch! His daughter was Lavanya. She was my childhood friend and I used to call her Imlee! As we grew up, the innocent friendship developed into a secret romantic affection that brewed in both our hearts! However, when Manjeet Chetri came to know about this, he didn’t confront me or my family directly. He plotted a deadly plan against us and defamed my father in front of the entire village. My father couldn’t bear the insult and suffered a serious heart attack. He passed away within three days and my mother followed him soon. I was left devastated. Manjeet Chetri didn’t stop yet, he cooked up a mutiny and got me ousted from my house and from my village! I was left homeless, at the tender age of twenty-one!”

Ramu looked at me, smiled and then went over to check the consistency of the rice that was getting readied. He returned and said, “It has been twenty-five years since that day! I came to Mumbai twenty-five years ago and started to work as a servant in a street-side shop. The owner of the shop, septuagenarian Govinda Das, became my guru. He taught me, never to lose hope and said every human being possesses some unique quality that can make him special. He implored me to search that special quality in me. After my guru breathed his last, I started to operate his business.”

Ramu picked up the first Rice Bowl of the day, handed it over to me and said, “Soon, I realized that I indeed possessed a unique quality… The mastery of species and imbibing their flavors into the food I cooked! I was amazed to find that I truly could incorporate emotions into the spices and that is what make Rice Bowls unique! The dreams in my eyes, of sorrows or happiness, get transferred into the recipes! Its magic, that I have inherited from my parents! I don’t want to go back to my village now. I don’t even have any heartache for Imlee, my only dream is to make the Rice Bowls so popular that the entire world would know it someday, and father’s name would shine like GOLD!”

There were little drops of tears in his eyes, and the recipe of the Rice Bowl tasted a sweet melancholy flavor that touched my heart. I finished my food, paid for it and walked out from the shop. The queue of customers was gathering volume and Ramu became busy in his work. As I walked up to my office, I made up my mind that I must note down about this extraordinary person in my journal so that whenever I forget everything, I would be able to recall about Ramu’s “Rice Bowl” and return back to his shop for the exceptional culinary experience!

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