The family meal, occasioned by get-togethers to celebrate the many birthdays, anniversaries and what-have-yous of an extended family, was a huge ritual by itself in our house. By extended family I mean my maternal side of the family with three uncles and three aunts, their spouses and the dozen children between them. For some reason that I could not explain in my childhood, the paternal side of the family rarely visited us and even when they did visit they stayed a few hours and they never visited en-masse.
My mother was the oldest daughter and the second child among seven children, probably it is because of this that more often than not it was our house that was the venue of the family get-together. A number of my aunts had also spent some brief couple of years of their pre-married life at our house, my maternal grandfather had died early so it was natural for them to want to come back to our house whenever they wanted to meet their side of the family.
Invariably such get-togethers would be on a Sunday or a general holiday, most of the adult members working on other days of the week. All of my aunts are teachers, and homemakers, holding double jobs so to speak. Why on the only holiday they had they would choose to spend slaving away at the kitchen was beyond me, but this they did with wholehearted dedication. The meal was the highlight of the get-together and neither expense or labour was to be spared in the preparation of this meal.
Ours was a typical Assamese family of those times with gender boundaries well drawn. The men would buy the groceries and that sort of heavy lifting while the women would cook.
On the morning of the meal my mother’s two sisters would show up at around 9:30 or 10, ready and eager to follow the instructions of my mother, the head Chef. By then the maid who would have arrived at around seven in the morning would have finished cleaning and gutting the fish cutting it into neat slices. The kadai with mustard oil would splutter with the fat and water from the frying fish, my aunts expertly scooping the pieces out of the oil when they were just done. The small fish had also been gutted and cleaned, but those would be fried just before the eating to give the crunch. Meanwhile one of the aunts would start frying the slices of onions that had been neatly cut by the maid and start putting masalas in it for the Masor Jhol, while on another side the Masor tenga would be made, sometimes with boiled potato pieces and tomatoes in it. Pas phoran jar would be close at hand for the tadka. The putting together of the dish would always be done by my mother, the right amount of masalas salt etc. etc. and she would be the one directing the entire operation.
In an hour or two, around noon my Uncles and their wives would arrive holding large casseroles. One would hold chicken, another prawns, and maybe a dish of matar paneer. Paneer was a relatively new entry into our household, but once it came it stayed and gained a very prominent place in our food necessitated by me and my brother having turned devout vegetarians.
While all this was going on me and my cousins would be given tasks like cutting up the salad, or the nembu tenga (lemon) and green chillies and decorating them on a salad dish.
At around 1 pm the largest cooker we possessed would go onto the stove with rice, and very soon the meal would be ready. My uncles and my father would eat first, with the women serving the food. Paneer/ fish fry/ masala fish/ sour fish curry/ chicken curry/ pulav/ prawns/ paneer/ and maybe a few slices of fried brinjal and Potol.
How could such tiny men (my uncles were all 5’7” or less) eat so much, or for that matter, how could the rest of us eat so much I wonder now. Today when I am cooking if I manage to cook more than a couple of dishes for a meal I consider that a feast.
Next came the turn of the youngsters, and then finally the women ate, leisurely and enjoying each other’s company and gossip while the men had already eaten their Tamul-paan and had found various beds and divans to lie down and digest the huge meal they had just eaten.
I hardly remember any of the women sleeping though, they had much to catch up on. And anyway by the time they had eaten, cleaned the kitchen and seen to the dishes it was time for the afternoon tea. Most of the men had woken up and ready at 4:30-5 for afternoon tea and the delicious rasmalai that someone would have brought over.
A few rounds of tea and slowly one by one my family would leave, to regroup again in the future at yet another occasion to cook and to eat. That is all we knew to do, and that is what we did again and again. Maybe that is what being a family meant to us, maybe that was our way of expressing the love that none of us had the gift of language to express.