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Writing, cooking and the purpose of life

Food and prose are intricately linked in your columnist’s life, accompanying and defining each other, whether writing about Veerappan or supercomputers

Halarnkar in a helmet and a .303: With the anti-Verappan operation in 1990.
Halarnkar in a helmet and a .303: With the anti-Verappan operation in 1990.

Load your weapons,” shouts sub-inspector D.V. Shivanna to his six men. As he draws his service revolver, the dull clang of .303 rifle bolts ramming home rings through the windswept calm of Adigarkalahalli village.

This was me, writing as a crime reporter in August 1990. It was my first job, The Times Of India was new in Bengaluru and my laconic chief reporter, Imran Qureshi, did not object to my experiments to infuse crime reporting with prose, however purple.

Workdays sometimes stretched 12-14 hours, weekly offs came once in 30 days, and life was defined by adrenalin and good food. When I wasn’t chasing fire engines or trying to ferret stories from the city’s seamy underbelly or the state’s ungoverned, forested edges—ruled by a sandalwood smuggler called Veerappan—I was either testing out cheap restaurants, the types open after midnight when I got off work, or cooking when I ran out of money.

My career as a reporter has run alongside my prime off-duty diversion of cooking. Indeed, one has inspired the other. I cannot work on an empty stomach, and my family knows I am cranky and find it hard to write when hungry. When I cook or eat well, I find myself calm and inspired.

Since I ate out so much during my first job, I managed to land myself an eating-out column called—very creatively—“For a change”. I wrote about cheap food, creatively cooked; there was a substantial amount of it in a city that had not yet become India’s IT capital but was a mix of diverse cultures.

My yellowing files reveal I wrote, for instance, about Sana Arabian Fast Food, run by a family of friendly Syrian Arabs. Nabeel Gani, the owner’s son, once declared, “A person who comes here can eat full stomach and then sleep in peace.” His mother, Raza Abdul Gani, flashed her gold-capped teeth, if she was in a good mood, and read my fortune in the dregs of a tea cup.

Most entrees were priced at around 10, except the pre-ordered Ouzi for 1,500: a whole sheep stuffed with a chicken, stuffed in turn with eggs, almonds, pistachios, cashew and rice. I had an Ouzi only once, after a bunch of us pooled money. 1,500 was 500 more than the salary I had left over every month after paying 800 as rent for my one room and terrace.

It was in the one room that my culinary adventures began. My friends lived with parents but instead of inviting me home, preferred to congregate at my bachelor’s pad, swigging Old Monk on the terrace. The restaurants were unaffordable after the 20th of the month, so I would pull out my hot plate and squat on the floor as I whipped up my pièce de résistance, sausage masala with bread.

I had no fridge, so whatever was made had to be consumed. My larder was my wardrobe, three stone shelves with no door. Onions nestled among the shirts and eggs among the, um, underwear. A tree branch touched my window, which was nice, but this soon became a highway for bugs and—once—a family of scorpions. After finding babies among my socks and in a shoe, I slept for weeks on a bed with its four legs placed in four plates of water.

Culinary observations often defined my reportage. I once wrote about crouching and crawling through the forests of Sathyamangalam-Bargur on the border of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, accompanying tense, trigger-happy police commandos on the trail of Veerappan, who by then had killed 250 elephants and 25 police and forest officials. I was given a helmet, a .303 rifle and told to look out for myself. Alongside an informant, I reached a cave the brigand had just vacated and recorded the presence of—and discussed for a few paras—porcupine quills, chicken bones and a still-smouldering fire.

When I profiled one of Bengaluru’s last shoemakers, an irascible, humorous man called Yang Thung Hing, I noted his proclivity for good food and good thanner (drink). I wrote profiles of motor mechanics, parking-lot attendants and circus clowns.

I even persuaded the arts editor to let me review a show of Gongbi paintings from the Han era—of which I knew nothing but noted their “shimmering ethereality” and “coy and reticent” women in the “full flush of maidenhood”. Either I was extremely persuasive, or I had caught the editor at a desperate moment. I like to push boundaries in the kitchen as well, once roasting a 4kg duck. It took the good part of a day and tested my skills sorely.

Many writers believe in eating on the go, focusing their limited time on their subjects and their craft. I cannot. My focus depends on the time of day. Three years ago, I was in Assam, reporting on the grim subject of people’s lives being torn asunder by loss of citizenship. I always found the time to persuade subjects or lawyers to refresh themselves and me over a good patot dia mas (small fish steamed in turmeric leaves).

I ate the best of Israeli and Arab food while exploring the divided city of Jerusalem, waded through a Maharashtrian lamb thali in Pune while reporting on Param, the Indian supercomputer, and shared kafuli (spinach and fenugreek) and rice with Kumaoni villagers in thrall of a man-eating leopard.

Last week, I wrote the most difficult piece of my life—an eulogy for my father. I could not sleep for many days, and I realised it was because I had not written what I knew and had heard about him. So, I did. Here, too, food intruded. His last words came in reaction to a doctor who asked, “What would you like to eat?” His response, delivered in a haze of fading consciousness: “What do you have?”

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.


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