Food in the times of strife

To catch a moment from all the running-around, I went to the hospital’s garden patch to catch a breath. Amid the fresh breeze, I noticed a small kiosk selling tea and sandwiches.
(Representative image)
(Representative image)

While spring seems to be knocking on our doors with its chilly winds, my week began on a rather sombre note—not in tune with the weather outside. Due to a personal emergency, I found myself running helter-skelter in the emergency ward of a hospital in NCR, trying to make sense of the chaos that surrounded me.

While it’s been bright and sunny outside after almost two months of gloomy grey, inside the hospital it felt like a world of its own. You come across rush and anxiety in relatives and friends, and then some happy faces who’ve welcomed a new member into their families. There are also the relieved ones who’ve now left their loved ones in the care of the able doctors, and then you find the most amount of people outside the little place of worship at the hospital—praying for the well-being of their family members.

To catch a moment from all the running-around, I went to the hospital’s garden patch to catch a breath. Amid the fresh breeze, I noticed a small kiosk selling tea and sandwiches. Having had not even a morsel of food since morning, I finally got myself a cup of tea early in the evening and settled down on a sunny spot in the garden. “Biskut khayegi beta?,” said someone. An elderly lady—a stranger by all means, sat next to me and asked, with a tender quiver of care in her voice. I’d seen her earlier—hands folded and with moist eyes, in the waiting area of the emergency ward. Together, we shared a cup of tea each and some biscuits; although neither of us were in the mood to savour it, the tea acted as a fuel for our tired, worn-out bodies and minds.

I noticed another elderly couple sitting near me. The man was reading the newspaper, while the lady was chanting silently while holding prayer beads. Next to them was a steel tiffin that lay open on a rickety plastic table in front of them, with half-eaten aloo subzi and some rotis. Even as I ate the biscuit dunked in tea, I felt a sense of guilt in doing so.

You see, there is a certain sense of stigma attached to eating when coping with grief and loss. Even if you haven’t felt it, there’s an unease in moments like these, which choke your appetite at the very first instinct. While we often attach food with comfort, exigencies that beckon you to a hospital’s emergency ward are so overpowering that food takes a back-seat. It is then that food becomes a basic requirement, instead of being an elixir of happiness and joy. Almost everyone in that garden, near the tea kiosk, was ordering tea and settling with it—not because of a craving or the desire to eat out, but out of necessity and a shared sense of faith.

It is perhaps because of this that outside the biggest hospitals in the Capital, you come across tiny shacks, makeshift stalls and kiosks that sell tea, biscuits and cakes round the clock. Food, you see, is not just a source of joy—it is omnipresent, and serves us as a source of strength and sustenance in times of tension. You also realise that at times when you pray, you lay bare your fundamental emotions. You’re no longer in a social pretence, and in such times, for most of us here, it has always been the humble biscuit and the ever-so-significant tea that gets us through. We seek comfort and reassurance through food, and the latter comes to us as if putting a warm hug around us. For at times of strife, a hug is what we need.

As we got up after finishing our tea, the lady I shared the tea with, said: “Khaa lena kuchh beta (make sure you eat something later, my dear),” she told me. I smiled back at her, and said, “Aap bhi (you take care of yourself, too).” As I made my way back inside, I realised that others, too, shared a similar goodbye—until we met again.

Vernika Awal is a food writer who is known for her research-based articles through her blog ‘Delectable Reveries’

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