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Vikas Khanna's pots, pans and a family story about partition

A mysterious room in the Michelin-starred chef's childhood home stored huge ladles, big kadhais and a poignant memory. An excerpt 

Vikas Khanna cooking with his aunt. 

One of the strange places in our home was this locked room in the attic. We used to call it upar wala kamra (room upstairs). What was strange was that not many of us in the family were curious about it. It had lots and lots of huge pots—brass, iron—big ladles, big karahis, big patilas.

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The reason I used to go there was because I was fascinated by this wooden hand-churning machine that was used for making ice cream in summer. This was the only thing we used to bring from the upstairs room. We used to clean it during the summers and sit together to make our hand-churned ice cream. Eventually, it was replaced by a Made in China ice cream hand-churner, so the old one lay there in the attic and no one ever used it. This was terrible because I remember sitting in the shade in the summer and having this amazing family time together. We’d take turns and put the crushed ice around the little vessel that was inside and hand-churned it. That’s how you incorporated air into that custard of mangoes and it became the most delicious mango ice cream ever on the planet!

I was the only one who used to go upstairs. It was a sad room. No one in the house even cared to put a light bulb there. There was a damp, musty smell and a lot of cobwebs. It had a wooden ceiling that had been almost eaten through by termites.

The pots were majestic. It seemed as if they had had a glorious past. They were the kings and the queens and they had their own kingdom where everyone circled around them, in their honour. I used to visualize and imagine creative stories about what food must have been cooked in them. Sometimes, when I thought that everyone was in a good mood, I’d ask my grandmom, ‘Why don’t you cook in those pots any more, those big pots?’ And she’d reply, ‘It’s not your business; just don’t talk about them.’ At the same time, my grandfather would interrupt me. I knew it was something they were sensitive about, so I did not pursue it any further. But I was always this irritating child as I would ask a lot of questions.

My grandfather was a huge fan of Mirza Ghalib and he’d torture us with his shayari—we didn’t understand what he was saying, but he was on repeat mode. We would be sitting in the winter sun, having sarson ka sag and makka roti (mustard leaf stew cooked with just ginger—one of the staples of Punjab cuisine with corn bread, and one of the best things in life). And he would always be reciting Mirza Ghalib. Most of the kids would walk away and even my parents would go for their afternoon nap but I realized that there was opportunity in it. I’d sit with him and listen to Mirza Ghalib. Once he got into this romantic mood, fantasizing about Mirza Ghalib’s painful love shayaris which were beautifully poetic, I could ask him questions.

I would say, ‘I’ll listen to you on one condition—that you’re going to give me answers.’ I listened to his poetry, sitting there out of respect and love for him and also because of how passionate he was about languages. He only spoke Urdu and he only read and wrote in Urdu. So I asked him, ‘Why don’t they teach us Urdu in school? We don’t understand his books any more.’ He said, ‘Before the Partition, we had textbooks mostly in Urdu.’

I said, ‘So, as we’re talking about Partition, can you tell me why there are so many big pots in the attic and no one seems to care about them? It’s almost like no one sees them any more.’

And though he was in a good mood because I had admired his Mirza Ghalib recitation a lot, he was emotional too, as he was talking about Urdu. He said that this dated back to pre-Partition days when many Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs used to live around here. When Partition was announced, many Muslims decided to go to Pakistan. They had to find settlements or homes that they were going to live in. It was going to be a totally new life for them in a new place. When they were leaving, my grandmother would tell them, ‘You should leave your daughters with me and I will take care of them till you go there and find yourselves new homes. Then you can take your daughters and wives back.’ So, the men left to find new homes and many of these girls were taken care of by my grandmother.

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My grandfather explained further, ‘The pots that you see in the upper room, the big ones, your grandmother would give them to people who were having weddings at home. This was the age when we didn’t have chefs who used to do banquets, so everything was cooked in these utensils. At that time, people either got married in temples or they had relatives who had big houses or they had it in a little garden or park. We used the utensils there. But the last time your grandmother used them was to cook for all these girls who were taking shelter in our home. And she doesn’t want to talk about it because that was a dark time. Partition was very heartbreaking for all of us because suddenly, the cities of Lahore and Amritsar, which were so united that people used to call them sister cities, both very rich in culture and heritage, were being divided. It was being said that one day there’ll be a border between these cities, and we won’t be able to travel to the other side. So, all the friends on the Lahore side and all the friends that were leaving from India, we would never see them again!’ He continued, ‘That was the last time your grandmother used them. After that, she left them in the attic. There were some weddings that she catered for, but no one ever used them again.’

I never forgot that story about food. Food knows no boundaries.

My grandmom used to say, ‘If I protect your daughters, someone will protect mine.’ It was as if the cycle of life was supposed to be completed like this. That generation was brave, they had fought for freedom from the British and they were the ones who wanted their identity back. They didn’t want their children to grow up as slaves, they were the ones who took pride in everything, and this Partition took a lot away from them. So, that attic was important. And I’d go back and touch those utensils time and again.

And then something very strange happened.

When I returned from America in 2008 and went to the attic, there were no utensils there. That room was totally cleaned up! I asked my father what happened to all the utensils. He said, ‘Oh, no one was using them, so we sold them at the price of metal and they’re all gone!’

I had a breakdown then. I was crying and I was repeatedly asking, ‘Why would you let them go? You should’ve given them to me! I could have taken them to one of my restaurants. I could have taken them back home. I could have done something with them. They were part of our heritage . . . there were stories in them and there were memories in them and there was so much of generosity in them!’

However, that heartbreak and that meltdown actually led me to open a museum on utensils, which would happen more than a decade after this incident. But I was very clear as a child also, that you cannot disconnect memories, pain, sorrows, happiness and generosity from a kitchen. My grandmother would say, ‘It does not matter how much you have. What matters is how much you’re ready to share.’

The cover of the book Barkat by Vikas Khanna.
The cover of the book Barkat by Vikas Khanna.

Excerpted with permission from Barkat, by Vikas Khanna, published by Penguin Random House India, 240 pages, 499.

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