In India, it’s very easy to strike up a conversation and in this way get to know some aspect of someone’s life in a relatively short time. The following is the gist of a chat with a total stranger while seated on a bench on a station, waiting for a train. “When I was a student in school, I was a very quiet child. Very timid. Very awkward. No friends. Didn’t know how to make friends. Everybody else had someone or other they called pal. I had nobody. I had my books. They were my pals. I got good grades. I didn’t disappoint my parents. But a youngster needs friends. And I liked to show my classmates that I was friendly. I just didn’t know how.
Then one day, an accident happened. I was seated under the big banyan tree near the school playground, eating my lunch all alone. I remember looking at all the others seated in small groups, eating, laughing, chatting away. I was so distracted that I was not prepared at all. Suddenly a flutter of wings was heard. Like a rush of wind and a part of my lunch which I held between my fingers was snatched away.
The snatcher was a huge kite. In snatching my food its claws left a gash on my thumb. What it snatched was my mother’s lovingly prepared chapati roll. Mother used to give me three of these rolls every day, each with a different filling. She was an excellent cook. A-1, my father used to say at the dining table. That day, I was so angry and a little scared with the kite that I left my lunch box under the tree and went to wash the blood from my thumb. When I returned to the classroom later one of my classmates, Arun, handed me my box. An empty box. “The chapati rolls were great. I thought you were wasting them. So I ate them up,” he confessed.
Arun was one of my first friends. From that day on, I shared my lunch with him and he gave me his mother’s food to sample. Simple curd rice which I actually didn’t like. But I liked Arun. And Arun liked my lunch. This taught me something. I asked my mum to show me how she cooked. I spent a lot of spare time with her, watching and learning. Little by little I grew interested in cooking. Little by little also whatever I cooked tasted better and better. Soon my father started calling me the A-2 cook in the house. I would invite one classmate, Arun, then other classmates to have dinner I prepared. They always came and left contented. Always asking when the next dinner invitation was going to be issued.
Over the years, my network of friends had grown. Not by a little. By a lot. My friend Arun and I both went to catering courses after finishing school. He quit after a year because his father wanted him to study computers. His dad said that computers were the future. I remember asking my parents one day if I had maybe chosen the right career path. Both my parents looked at me astonished. Their looks seemed to say, “What kind of question is that?” My mother said, “As long as people eat and as long as people love eating, and as long as you continue to cook the tasty meals you cook, you will always be in the right career. Never doubt it.” I was glad to hear that because I’d already realised that the way to a person’s heart is often through the stomach.
The train rolled in almost simultaneously as my tummy began to rumble.
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.