Society

Food for thought: A Bengali woman’s Wazwan experience

It was a hot summer day in Kashmir. We, a group of heavily made up people boarded two cars from North Kashmir to Central Srinagar. My friend was getting married. It was her engagement party. Interestingly, she herself wasn’t allowed to be present in a function arranged in her name.

“Tradition,” she tried to quench my curiosity.

Being from a family which does not subscribe to such lavish parties and the wedding business, it was a new experience for me.

‘Gifts’ were being packed a day before the party. Huge baskets filled with all sorts of dry fruits and chocolates were being wrapped up. I offered to help them. It was fun; filling the large round baskets with all the ingredients. But then when my friend’s sister started putting money on top of every basket, I was visibly shocked. This was a new view for me. Despite my efforts to understand the meaning behind this, I couldn’t grasp the same. This was the first cultural shock for me.

I thought that was it. New surprises were awaiting me. The next day when my friend picked me up from hotel for her home, I saw a smartwatch, a small bag full of gold (ornaments and coins) and a big basket of cakes, not the small cupcakes, big bars of cakes.

Upon expressing my disbelief in seeing so many gifts, I was informed that this was not a lot.

“Many families exchange much more than these. Weddings are serious and expensive business in Kashmir,” explained my friend.

“Won’t all of these get wasted?” asked a naive me, “who will eat all these fruits and cakes and chocolates?”

“No, no, nothing will be wasted. My in-laws will distribute it amongst the family members and the relatives.”

Coming from a nuclear family and a comparative individualistic society, I still couldn’t comprehend how all the gifts could not go waste.

“Tum zyada socho mat. Bas jake wazwan khao” (Don’t overthink. Just go and have wazwan), advised my friend.

I stopped asking any question at the mention of the Kashmiri traditional food, warning myself only to use my Bengali nose for smelling the delicious food awaiting me and not into anyone’s (wedding) business.

After an hour’s ride, we reached our destination: the groom’s home. The foodie in me started sniffing the air (no, not literally).

I was informed that it was a family function only and close family members would be present. What I witnessed was enough to make me sit and deconstruct the meaning of closeness in the family unit. I learnt that the bride’s brother-in-law’s sister and husband (who couldn’t be present, unfortunately, as conveyed by so many to other so many and so many more grieved over their absence) are also considered as close family members. I started critically appraising my whole upbringing and lessons about closeness.

Surely, only a tiny portion of the gifts might get wasted. There are quite a few people to be distributed among,” I comforted myself. What can I say, after seeing so much poverty around me and in my own family while growing up, due to which my brother was born malnourished and my mother almost died while giving birth to him, I am quite sensitive about wastage of food. Everyone should be.

While others engaged in dialogues with each other, I started texting my mother. No, I was not being rude. I cannot understand Kashmiri.

Prochur khabar dei ora. Khete na parle kouto bendhe dei. Ek thalai charjon khai. Besh moja. Puro experience niye firbi. Chobi tulte bhulbi na kintu” (They feed you a lot. If you cannot finish it, you are even allowed to pack it in box and take it home. And four people eat in one plate. It’s exciting. Make sure to have the whole experience. Don’t forget to send me pictures), my mother’s comment was delivered to me by the Facebook messenger.

Disappointed in seeing a language one wouldn’t understand, the stranger lady next to me stopped peering into my mobile. I continued speaking to my mother while waiting for the much-talked about food.

First came the starter pack. Dry fruits in beautiful small boxes for everyone, and juice. I was informed that we could carry the boxes back home. There was even money in the box! What a fortune!

Then came the tea and huge pieces of cakes. I knew I had to save myself for wazwan. Hence I offered to share my cake with the person sitting next to me.

Then finally, the moment came when one man brought a pot for us to wash our hands. It’s the time for the show-stopper.

After handwash, gigantic, covered plates were brought in one by one. Four people circled around each plate. Baskets with plastic bags, cold drinks, mouth freshener, wet tissue and soap, each were kept by every circle. Each four in number.

We, the honoured guests and the groom were served first. Three plates, twelve people.

Aapke liye alag plate la rahe hein” (We will serve you in a separate plate), I was informed.

“Why?”

“You will not be able to eat with three other people. We eat with hands. You will not be comfortable.”

“I will be. I want to have the whole experience. Please let me eat with others!” I exclaimed. After all I promised my mother the same.

“Are you sure?”

“Hundred percent.”

Reluctantly they agreed to let me sit with others and share a platter. Everybody concentrated on the food. Before they started to eat, every single person opened the plastic bags and kept next to themselves.

“Wait and watch,” my co-eater laughingly answered my curious glance towards the plastic bags.

The plate was filled with so much rice that I wondered how could we finish all. The kebabs and the fried ribs tasted heavenly. We could barely finish what was in front of us. Meanwhile more meat preparations were served. Then came another round of meat and another and they kept on piling up giving us barely any time to finish the previous one.

I tried remembering their name. I failed.

Despite protests, we were served with more rice even though our plate had enough in it and we realised we couldn’t finish it all. I stopped eating the rice at one point and concentrated on the varieties of meat.

After three or four preparations, my co-eaters started stuffing the leftover meat pieces into the plastic bags. I finally understood the use of them. “So that’s what my mother was referring to!” I achieved the sudden enlightenment. Only, instead of boxes, plastic bags were used. I handed over my pieces to my friend’s mother for safekeeping.

“How much more?” I asked. I was literally panting by then.

“A lot more,” someone educated me in between chewing a deliciously prepared dead goat.

“Generally, how many preparations are served in Wazwan?” I probed again.

“As much as one can afford,” my friend’s sister, who had been a faithful companion to me the whole evening, translating all important stuffs, answered. She continued, “It is a status symbol nowadays. One prepare varieties according to their class status. The more rich a family is, the more types of preparation you will see. Traditionally, wazwan didn’t have these many types of meats.”

Honestly, I lost count of the number of preparations I had, rather served. In reality, half of them were safely sealed in a plastic bag.

Finally the serving stopped. Pile of rice left in each plate.

“What will happen to the rice?”

Zaya ho gaya ye to.” (It’s wasted now)

Three mammoth platter of rice. Enough to feed a family of ten for two days would be thrown away.

“Hey, what’s up?” pinged my Whatsapp.

“I just had wazwan.”

“How was the taste?”

“They wasted so much rice. It’s not like Bengali weddings or functions don’t have wastage of food but if a small family function can waste so much, then what happen in bigger events?”

“Yes, we waste a lot.”

“It can feed a family of ten.”

“More than that, I am sure,” concluded my Kashmiri friend.

Suddenly, I couldn’t stop thinking about Arati mashi, our long time domestic help, her overused sarees, broken voice and ever paining feet on which she has to work to feed seven mouths.

Her face was haunting. Her broken voice was ringing in my ears, “Boudi porer masher maine advance e dite parbe? Nahole natiguloke khawate parbo na” (Sister, may you pay me in advance for the next month? I wouldn’t be able to feed my grandchildren otherwise).


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