Kolkata: In Bengal, from where I hail, the Sunday Lunch was a cherished ritual. For it was usually the solitary weekly encounter with mutton unless married to the mob. But then, nowadays we are notionally richer and seemingly wiser, so this too is becoming a secondary indulgence.
For much of the week, households were resigned to a demoralising diet of petty fish and insipid vegetables. Even the omelette was a prized acquisition, eggs acting as a precarious bridge between necessity and excess. This is why the rohu, either as giant or minor, rapidly became the villain of the palate as teenagers became earning members. Too much of childhood trauma linked to the bony dailies, in timid curries conjured by conservative cooks. As collateral damage, entire generations of otherwise impeccable ethnicities walked away from the wider world of Piscean perquisites.
On Sunday mornings though, the excitement was like a football derby, with the meat being the only winner. Preparations at the back end began rather early as the telltale signs of amply endowed potatoes acted as the trailer for the blockbuster ahead. Usually, the male parent was the procurement agent, but getting him off the morning papers was a considerable challenge. Quite like ration queues, the meat shop had an eager waiting list, with spontaneous adda denied to none. When the cherished turn finally came, the chosen cut was curtly communicated, the front leg for those in the know, with a fervent plea to add the liver as pro bono and not part of the debilitating weight restrictions.
Its arrival in the home was akin to that of an OTT season, the current episode short-lived albeit riveting. The chief curator, whether mother or open source, surveyed the day’s catch with precision vision and scathing touch. A damning verdict on the pedigree of the goat could shatter the peace of the household and also, occasionally, act as anticipatory bail for a lazy or nervous cook. By then, though, the percussion was ready, garam masala et al, and it was time for the cauldron to be mobilised, ideally fossil fuelled but increasingly LPG. The games were thus declared open.
As the morning progressed to noon and the AIR serials could be heard from multiple neighbourly devices, the aroma would soon take over, holding all in spellbound captivity. Most certainly, a valid expression of Stockholm Syndrome, where hostages fall in love with their captors. Each time, the creator was goaded about the ETA, the answer would be more Indian Airlines and less Indigo. Due to the delayed softening of the resident meats, the arrival on the dining table would be after the scheduled time. The only lucky soul to be closer to the truth would be the official taster, usually the youngest and never the hungriest entrusted with the exit polls.
Before the curry could be finally served, there had to be a trying interim - quite like the Films Division documentaries that preceded Amitabh Bachchan. The dal and the fried veggies, conspiratorially served in unusual abundance, to right-size the appetites of seasoned gourmands. Finally, the show stopper was revealed under the arch lights, the potatoes acting as throbbing camouflage - as per the laws of gravity, the real thing was closer to the Marianas Trench. The early evidence of ecstasy was usually silence and not verbose expression - a glorious contradiction appropriate for a cultured exception.
On the sensitive matter of real estate allocation, societal hierarchy was clearly the norm, in inverse order of the Titanic evacuation. First the adult menfolk, then the children and finally the women - unfortunately the last constituency relegated to bones and non-priority organs. Seconds were usually never an option unless it was Jamai Shashthi and the vulture-in-chief was on a culinary prowl. Those in the support staff cadre had to be satisfied by the gravies and possibly a tier-two potato unless a piece of the flesh was surreptitiously hidden amidst the fauna of the kitchen.
No account of this Sunday Lunch can ever be complete without due homage to the potato, a cultural as well as culinary character. It was clearly the official partner of the mutton, designed to evoke the essence and flavours due to a special privilege. The act of swimming in the same gravy as the Ustad, blessed with an identical infusion of masalas and affections. As if an underling from the same Gharana, not quite the torchbearer but worthy of the Khalifa’s patronage. Legends from middle-class households confirm that many consumed the meal with a token piece of flesh but multiple potatoes, the latter being a great equaliser. By allowing all to be part of what is essentially a community ritual, signalling the suspension of socio-cultural exclusion.
Nowadays, we are way more endowed and adventurous than ever before and thankfully so. Nostalgia can be a double-edged sword as it can be a constant reminder of Nehruvian limitations that most endured during the Wonder Years. But the Sunday Lunch mutton curry is purely pleasant and special credit is due to the accompanists - the potato, the gravy and the rice. For bringing the craft of the maestro to life, through the sheer beauty of empathy and inclusion. A chameleon quality that cannot be replicated by the easy affluence of modern tables.