The First Supper

On waging war and declaring peace with food

In the first year of undergraduate school, unable to conjure the words for “homesick” and “lonely” in an unfamiliar city, I wrote ever so often about three cups of tea. I grew up black sheep, prodigal child, “difficult”: different, square-est peg in all round holes. At 18 three cups of tea became the only thread that tied me to a home across the country: umbilical. Over the years, blowing into tumblers of not-quite tea I have wondered about the year I spent reminiscing over three cups of a beverage I drink incessantly and yet quite indifferently. No connoisseur, no expert, no particular lover: tea and I are a marriage of convenience. But when made and served in cups of three, tea means continuity, it means ma, baba aar ami, (mother, father and I) and it means pangs of pain down the centre of my chest for no justifiable reason. Growing up, evenings became the time of the day when the universe returned to me the only two people who formed my world; and to appease it for this favour, I routinely brewed three cups of milky, sugary tea and offered it up to my parents in a ritual we called Shondhye Belar Cha (evening tea). Ritualism often makes space for an intuitive perfection; a perfection only three people were privy to, invited to, at home in. Ma, baba aar ami. 

A Cup and a Half of Milk and Water

My parents never agreed on how much milk to water made tea perfect. My mother drinks it bitter and my father scoops out the cream that forms on top of a full fat brew. They are not alike. I broker alliances: neither too milky nor too strong; I am 10, they grudgingly comply. Hours, in the following decades, have been spent drafting treaties in the kitchen. I learnt to cook beyond these nostalgic tea-making stints, in the first year of the pandemic. Packed in a household, now of five (in a house meant for three), one would imagine this more necessity than whim. Wafts of my butter chicken and all kinds of french toast kept my family together. Our agreements: fragile, demanding. I think about this a lot: what does food do for families? Do all families wage wars at the dinner table? Do all daughters cook armistice breakfasts? What are the spoils of battles fought quietly among people who are locked in with each other, whose morning teas are taken separately, differently; who are all beginning to miss each other’s absence more than they ever did their presence.

For so much of my life I have refused to accept that people tire of each other. Once in a Grey’s Anatomy episode a character declared, “People are better than no people” and nothing has stayed with me longer and deeper. My interactions with community is mediated by the loneliness I have experienced while looking on from the outside. I think about Shutu from A Death in the Gunj (2016): forgotten in a ditch, left out, aching to belong; a glass door always separating the outsider from the rest of the world. I cook to kill the Shutu inside me, an act I see as kindness and cruelty all at once. In the last year I have cooked elaborate meals for friends all over the country: parcels, dinner parties, birthdays. Love language, my friends declare. Survival, I am more likely to believe. Having lived years with the debilitating inability to tell people that I need and love them, Now I give in, grudgingly, to whatever popular terminology signifies my longing for affection. And so I barter: food for love, food for affection, food for peace, food for my right to be and glow among my chosen family. 

 Sometimes Milk Sours

The most disappointing evenings were the ones when the milk for our tea soured. It was an opportunity missed. Some days we replaced tea with a different beverage, on some we sat around for a quarter of an hour not knowing what to do with our hands. Eventually a respectable amount of time would pass for us to get up and go about the rest of the night: always slightly unfulfilled, slightly crestfallen. My mother, often on such evenings, shrugged and said, “Sometimes milk sours”, and that would be the end of that. 

My relationship with food remained inconsistent for all my growing years: eating all at once or nothing at all. I grew up overweight, coming out of my corners, fitting myself between places, my body always walking into rooms before I could. I eat when I am not being watched: I eat fast, an unmissable characteristic I am known for almost everywhere I go. Swift and quiet– I get in and get out with clinical precision. A history of distorted encounters with food informs the way I cook: chaotically. I do not have my mother’s method, I have inherited her dexterity. From my mother I have received: aching bones against kitchen doors, an acute awareness of all the parts that make my body, technique. The vessels strewn across the kitchen, the reluctance to clean up and a self professed method to madness are all me.

Cooking allows for the mind to wander– this has served me well. It allows me pause that eating hardly ever has. In a world that was changing how it sees and is seen over the years of the pandemic, I was allowed to take pause and evaluate why being seen with food made me so entirely uneasy, queasy; introspection is an unlikely friend, consistent, quiet, challenging. Sometimes in the hours that were spent chopping, poaching, cutting and tasting I would be surprised by self revelation: my body had been left out in the dark for too long, it had soured. When poured into the saccharine tea that is my friends and families, it curdles. Sometimes bodies sour. Through the adoring smiles of all the friends who have enjoyed warm dollops of my food, I have learnt to break bread among people, perhaps for the first time in forever. When I was in school, an orthodox catholic missionary institution, the image of the last supper intrigued me endlessly. What was it like to eat as equals, to experience food with such consciousness? I have never been an equal at the dinner table: always a glare away from reluctantly declaring, “That was my last helping”, always the one to be apologised for, “She is a growing child”. 

A Hint of Ginger

No one teaches us how to be at home in our bodies. At lunch breaks, in school, walls were built swiftly. Between those of us who had working mothers and those that didn’t, between those who could afford delectable treats and those who opened an nth box of jam and bread without much room for surprise. Everyone sits awkwardly, some keenly, around each other at these meals, drawing lines in their heads; eating is not apolitical. While hierarchies of difference were built around the communal act of eating, it is also perhaps the school yard that introduced us first to eating around and with people; almost strangers, later friends in barter. In the school yard I learnt to drive a hard bargain: My lunch money for their friendship/ “I’ll have a bite of that with everyone else, maybe they won’t notice”. Last year when a friend was visiting she noticed how loudly I slurp my tea: “The tiny perks of living alone”, I grinned. I am making space, I know. More space for the smell of ginger from my tea, for the negotiation to end, for truce. I am calling truce with food, a slurp of lava-hot tea at a time. This war has carried on for nearly thirty years and our soldiers are weary; we lay down our arms in our kitchen of battles: I cook, I eat, I am loved.

Sneha Roychoudhury
Sneha is a historian in the making. She takes a specific interest in sacrality as a process of nation-making in the Himalayan borderlands. She has degrees from Lady Shri Ram College and Ambedkar University, and has worked for a number of years in policy research.