Itts Bitts

Drama

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Itts Bitts

Drama

Sanjha Chulha

Sanjha Chulha

10 mins
677


Love thy neighbor is an age-old proverb. I am not sure how relevant it remained in the modern world. In the past few decades, the pace of life has rapidly increased. First industrialization and then digitization changed the way we interacted with our surroundings. The advent of mobile technology brought the world into our hands, but also took us away from the physical world.

In this madness, the first set of people we lost touch with were our neighbors. In the last 15 years, my family has moved across five cities and nine houses. Of all these places that were home at a certain point, I can recall only four neighborhood families with whom we managed to establish a connection. With our weekdays divided between work and traffic jams, and weekends dedicated to pending work and outings, leisurely time spent at home was always a rare commodity.


The arrival of COVID-19 brought life to almost a halting stop. Half the world was confined to the safety of their homes. While it was comfortable for the initial few weeks, slowly it began to dawn on all of us that there is no short-term solution to this problem. We geared up to face this challenge, brought about a change in our lifestyles, added masks and sanitizers to the list of basic amenities, and got ready to once again step out in the world.

And as soon as we opened our doors, the first set of people we met were our neighbors. It was no brainer to guess that they too were in the same boat as us. Skeptical to step out, concerned about the well-being of their families, and hesitant to go very far. Thus, we met them across the common boundaries. Sanjha Chulha is the story of such neighbors whose friendship started during the lockdown days and matured and flourished in their homes, especially the kitchens. 

 

Saloni and Arin are also neighbors.

She left a promising career to take care of her two adorable kids. Her husband Suhas is a senior manager at an IT company. Even though Saloni left her job, she couldn’t leave behind her aspirations. Saloni and Suhas had always enjoyed hosting their friends and family. She is a great cook and he is a natural conversationalist. Together they ensured their guests always felt welcomed and well taken care of. Saloni sought to take this partnership to the next level. She dreamt of owning her own café. A place where she could cook, bake, meet people, and make money too. Suhas also supported her choice. He had promised to not only support the initial investment needed but also agreed to share the responsibilities of childcare. Thus, allowing her to focus on her dreams. Owning to this, over the last few years, Saloni enrolled in various cooking courses from some of the esteemed and renowned institutions. She often treated her guests with some of these delicacies. From the venue to the menu, and from branding to budget, they would often talk about this planned venture, and probably the biggest adventure of their lives.


Arin on the other hand is a financial analyst, crunching numbers at his fingertips all day long. He too is happily married to Avni, a researcher in biotechnology. They have a toddler son, who demands much time and attention from them. For Arin, cooking is a hobby and a great stress buster. It allows him to keep his mind off from his constant work pressure. It is also a medium to bring out his creativity, quite contrary to his logical process-oriented job. Avni, on the other hand, is more of a scholarly person. Given a chance she prefers a quick fix meal and would rather spend her extra hours flipping through the pages of her books. A reserved and introverted kind of person, she becomes a little over-conscious of her inabilities or weaknesses. The kitchen is a similar territory where her nervousness often makes her clumsy. More so in the presence of enthusiasts like Arin, who usually performs his tasks with an elan. 

When the pandemic arrived, Suhas, Arin, and Avni started working from the confines of their homes. The initial few days were spent adjusting to this new routine. But soon they were all missing their social interactions. It was challenging for kids also to remain restricted inside four walls, without an opportunity to visit either schools or play areas. The initial euphoria of multi-tasking soon gave way to tiredness and boredom. Social media platforms that saw a shift from holiday pics to food pics also moved to newer topics. While a majority started scouting for new hobbies or means of entertainment, the likes of Saloni and Arin stayed focused on improving their culinary skills.


It was on one such day that Arin knocked on the door of Saloni’s house. He was trying his hands at a new recipe and didn’t have one of the key ingredients at home. Not wanting to either compromise the flavors or visit the grocery store to buy something so small, he decided to borrow from a neighboring house. As Arin entered Saloni’s house his son too came running after him. At times kids take less than a fraction of a second to become friends. Even before Arin could explain the purpose of his visit, his son had settled well with Saloni’s kids and their toys. Saloni and Suhas also welcomed them with open arms and warm smiles. And soon enough Arin was comfortably placed in their couch with a cup of tea, talking at length about his trial and error based culinary experiments.


In a few days this became almost a routine. Every time Arin attempted a new recipe, he went seeking Saloni’s advice. And each visit, though meant to be a quick question, ended up in lengthy discussions. Some of these discussions never moved away from the kitchen counter, where Saloni was busy preparing the next meal. With Suhas also helping her, the trio would continue their tête-à-tête.

Soon enough Avni also started joining them. Saloni and Suhas made her feel comfortable with their warm hospitality. Their no pretense, non-judgemental approach towards people and situations would put Avni at ease. She felt free to be herself, without becoming conscious of her shortcomings.


Every now and then Saloni and Arin would cook together. At times in Saloni’s kitchen, & then in Arin’s. Sometimes they shared the burden by each of them taking up one dish. While one focused on stuff palatable with kids, the other would work with aromas of spices. On some days they pooled ingredients from each house to prepare a perfect and complete serving. On other days they met unplanned, unprepared, just sharing the left-overs or fixing quick bites. When feeling energetic, they would prepare elaborate multi-course meals. Once in a while, they would share it with other neighboring families too. A couple of times they even packed some food and took the kids out for long drives, just as sort of a picnic. Food and its preparation had become a common point of interest, bringing them together. Learning, teaching, trying, and experimenting, at times succeeding, at other failing. Their love for cooking, and their food for their loved ones, was the magic behind this teamwork. Suhas and Avni too enjoyed these get-togethers. Each supporting with either taking care of kids or cleaning the place or doing the dishes. They all worked and worked well as a team.


But the actual soul-curry was usually prepared after kitchen lights went off. Putting kids to sleep, switching off the tv, mobile, and all other noisy appliances. Four of them would then settle for a quiet meal. At times it was just a bite of dessert or maybe even a cup of tea. But it was in these quiet hours of the night that their true rendezvous would start. Rendezvous with themselves, with each other, and with life overall.

It was unintentional and quite impromptu, but each one of them started pouring out their heart’s content. It started with sharing old stories, life anecdotes, and fond memories. Over time they were sharing secrets of their heart, without hesitations or boundaries of social civilities. From their most precious dreams to their worst nightmares. From guiding principles of life to life-changing decisions, they would talk, discuss, and debate.


Saloni would often talk about her plans for the café. She had many ideas around the cuisine, decor, and ambiance. She wants it to be a place for people to enjoy good food and good conversations. However, she acknowledged she hadn’t put much thought into the commercial or marketing aspects. These were indeed in Suhas’s focus. 

When Suhas mentioned his financial concerns and funding needs, Arin helped him chalk out an elaborate investment plan. Two of them would spend hours together evaluating and thrashing out the available financial options.

On another occasion, Avni confessed to being nervous and jittery in the presence of others. How her inability to express herself freely often made her feel suffocated. Avni also shared how Arin’s expertise in the kitchen gave her a sense of guilt. Social and familial pressure only added fuel to this fire. She felt that by cooking he was actually fulfilling her responsibilities, making her feel incapable and inefficient.


Arin also agreed how many times he had struggled to make her share her opinion. And how many times this had caused misunderstandings between the two. Yet Avni’s confession was only perceived as a mark of her maturity and inner strength by the rest. The support and morale uplift she received from all, gave her strength and encouragement to further break open her shell.

Kids, their well-being and upbringing were another topic of common interest. Their healthy food intake, need for adequate physical activity and educational learnings were often discussed in detail. Each child differs in his aptitude and interests. They also differ in their need for attention and care. As parents, they all wanted to provide a holistic growth opportunity for their kids, while also preparing them well for the life ahead.

All in all, their social network had become restricted to their neighborhood. While their family and friends were still around virtually, the neighbors were the primary means of a real-world connect. 


Life thus moved on happily for a few months. But as they say, the actual strength of any relationship is tested during difficult times. The same happened in this case too. Avni's work required her to visit the laboratory occasionally. Tragedy struck when she was infected with the notorious virus. As per the norm, she had to stay in complete isolation for at least the next two weeks.


As was expected, Arin took a leave from work to focus completely on supporting Avni through her isolation, while simultaneously managing the house and kid. But quite contrary to general practice in case of a contagious disease, Saloni and Suhas didn’t shy away from helping them. While abiding by all norms of social distancing, they ensured they brought all necessities to Arin’s doorstep. Saloni also insisted that Arin should only focus on ensuring Avni recuperates. She prepared three meals a day for the family, especially keeping in mind Avni's fragile state. Together they all hoped this would end soon.


But destiny had its own plans. Avni though out of the isolation was left weak and in need of complete rest and healing. It's not a surprise that Arin stood beside her in this time of need, supporting her both physically as well as emotionally. The lockdown had meant that Avni and Arin’s families could not come to their support. But this gap was filled by Saloni and Suhas, who constantly stood there providing their care and support, just as the family does. For the next three months, Saloni cooked all meals for the two households. Occasionally she would prepare an elaborate spread, in an attempt to make everyone feel pampered. Suhas helped Arin in other household work. Every now and then they would sit with Avni, talking to her in an attempt to cheer her spirits.


After three months when Avni stepped out of her room for the first time, she expressed a desire to visit Saloni and Suhas. Once in their house, she humbly proclaimed, “Every meal coming from this kitchen is made with love and is a blessing for those who eat it. I pray from the bottom of my heart, may your kitchen flourish, and may it feed thousands of people.”

 

As a child, I was introduced to the concept of ‘Sanjha Chulha’ by my grandmother. It referred to a shared large clay oven in the middle of a village, where all women would gather to make Rotis (bread). The venue, just like the village water well, was a common meeting ground. A place where women of the village could talk about a variety of things, sharing their joys and sorrows, while simultaneously cooking. Sharing something as basic as the need for food, it brought their hearts closer to each other. In these pandemic times, I see many neighboring families coming together to share food and, in the process, share a part of their lives. This sharing keeps our belief in humanity and human values alive.



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