It was the holy month of Ramadaan.
It signifies a period of self-control, sacrifice and introspection.
Little did I know that meeting her during this month would leave me inspired.
After a crazy day at work, we waded through the crowded street of Mumbai’s food paradise at Mohammed Ali Road. Each year, crowds pour in from all over to savour the delicacies served at this street. A long row of stalls is specially set up across the length of the street and they serve the best non-vegetarian dishes in the world. The aroma wafting through the crowd flirts with one’s food senses. One usually ends up eating more than one’s appetite just to satiate the foodie soul.
It started raining as soon as we entered the street and we fought the crowd to reach our favourite joint. On an instinct, we decided to stop over for a bowl of khichda first.
For the uninitiated, Khichra or Khichda is a variation of the dish Haleem, popular with Muslims of South Asia. Khichda is cooked all year and particularly during the holy month of Ramadaan. It is made of meat, lentils and spices, slowly cooked to a thick paste. The preparation time takes effort, patience and passion. Getting the right mix of spices and taste is a special skill.
We made our way to a tiny stall where a lady was handing out bowls scooped out from a huge handi. It started drizzling and she remarked, “Step over to the shade beta, you will fall ill otherwise. The rains can be bad.”
That is the first time I made eye contact with her. The warmth that she exuded was overwhelming. Amongst a myriad of unknown faces trying to reach their favourite food joint, here was a lady who touched my heart.
She managed her stall single-handedly and had a huge crowd waiting in anticipation. The fact that she took out a moment to lend a positive stroke, really touched me.
Within moments, the bowls came to us, we hungrily dug in. We took one spoonful and our senses lit up. We moaned out of sheer pleasure. The khichda was simply divine. Just the right mix of grains, pulses and meat flavoured with spices. We wolfed down the entire bowl within seconds and wiped it clean. When I handed over the clean bowls, she smiled warmly and asked, “Itna accha laga?”. I nodded like a happy little toddler.
Even though we wanted more, we decided to explore the other stalls. Surprisingly, not a single stall that served khichda matched the taste and experience. After tasting almost every dish that the stalls served we realised that our tongues were searching the same taste as the khichda served by Aunty.
Realisation dawned, what if the handi gets over? We hurriedly rushed back. Our worst fears were confirmed. Only one bowl was left. My friends and I began to dig in. To our surprise, Aunty handed over one more bowl. Our joy knew no bounds. She stood at our table with a victorious smile that lit up her large brown eyes. We started talking.
One usually imagines a roadside vendor as an uneducated person who strives to make ends meet using quick techniques to make food that caters to a large group of people. The cooks at the stalls rarely maintain eye contact and go about their business with economics being their only goal.
Aunty was different, she took time out to nurture relationships with her customers. She narrated her story to us. The stall originally belonged to her dad who brought this closely-guarded recipe from Pakistan when he migrated during the partition. Her brother ran the stall until his untimely death a few years ago. She decided to take the legacy forward and went about it with passionate furore.
We were surprised to learn that she was educated and an employee with the Old Custom House. Her husband was a contractor who picked up odd projects and ran the house on his meagre earnings. She added to the income and took pains to educate her teenage daughter and pre-teen son. Despite living for many years in Mumbai, she didn’t have her own home. She narrated how her biggest dream was to see her children settled. She romanced the idea of dying in a house that she owned. No maids for this woman of steel, all the housework was deftly executed by her experienced hands.
She happily doled out the details of her daily schedule to an enrapt audience. Her day at the stall ended at 2 am. Cooking khichda began again at 4 am. She would finish washing the utensils and clothes, cook food for the family and complete other jobs at the same time. After sehri (Ramadaan breakfast) and namaaz (prayers), she would rush to work while her daughter oversaw the boiling pot on a slow fire. Despite fasting and working at the office all day, she had enough energy to rush back and lend her magic touch to the khichda. Each evening, she ensured that she reached her stall in time to serve her hungry patrons. Through this grueling day, she never forgot to smile and crack a joke or two so that the atmosphere is relaxed.
I was truly amazed at her grit and commitment. To add to my surprise, she said that she was pursuing her law and dreamed of being a lawyer soon. She believed that a new profession would fuel her dream of owning a home. She wants to bring justice to the downtrodden and stand up for the rights of the poor.
I asked her how she found the time to nurture her dreams, take care of her family and still smile all the time. To this query, she replied, “Sab ho jaata hai, shidat honi chahiye”. (It can be done if one possesses perseverance and conviction)
I took a moment to study the aging lines on her face, her rough wavy hair framed her Asian face perfectly. Her face glowed even though she had had only 2 hours of sleep each night for the past entire month.
While speaking, she looked down at our bowls, the khichda was long finished. We got up to leave after exchanging smiles and views. My steps were heavy, something felt incomplete within these cursory goodbyes. I stopped in my tracks, turned back and gave her a big bear hug. She was completely taken aback. Her body was soaked in sweat, but it didn’t matter to me, the respect I felt for her was beyond anything.
She blessed me as I promised her that she and her family would remain in my prayers forever.
“Zindagi rahegi to Inshallah agle saal phir milenge. Khuda Haafis beta.”
“Thank you, Aunty.”
I don’t know her name. I was too overwhelmed to take a picture with her. But the lessons of grit and commitment that I learned from her will stay with me forever.
I returned to my life as a wiser and less complaining person.