If you ever asked Ruchita and Sharath what they had in common, you would find none of the usual suspects in terms of common backgrounds, shared hobbies, or synergistic traits. Ruchita is a Marwari, Sharath a Malayali. Ruchita is a vegetarian, frowning upon even the consumption of egg; when Sharath heard of the beef ban, he began to consider emigrating from India. Ruchita has no head for business or taste for numbers; she’s a painter. Sharath, the son of chefs, is a financial analyst.
So what brought them together, you might ask, and rightly so.
Ask them, and they will give you a surprising answer. Onam Sadhya!
The first time Ruchita and Sharath met was at an Onam Sadhya, or feast, at Sharath’s place. Ruchita was 15 years old, Sharath 16. His family had just moved to Chembur from Kerala, and since this was their first Onam away from their extended family and friends, Sharath’s mother had invited their entire building to the Onam Sadhya at their place. It was Swastik Society’s first introduction to the delectable delights of Kerala food, and it led to two long-term consequences for our protagonists: It inculcated a life-long love for Kerala food in Ruchita, who could not imagine what her life had been before she had sampled those heavenly dishes.
It heralded the start of two sets of beautiful friendships – between Ruchita’s Maa and Sharath’s Mom, and, of course, between Ruchita and Sharath!
When Sharath saw Ruchita licking her fingers after the feast, he immediately fell in love with the North Indian who could show so much love for what he believed was the best food in the world. He approached her boldly and started explaining the name of each dish, the history and significance of everything, and even the recipes involved in preparing them. Ruchita found herself getting impressed by the breadth and depth of his knowledge about food, as well as his apparent passion when he spoke about it.
The rest, as they say, is history… till the time their relationship almost became history.
They began to meet outside school, made trips to different Kerala restaurants each week, then graduated to bunking school in order to meet, and finally found themselves in the same college for their graduation. Even after he went away to Hyderabad for his CFA and she left for UK to study painting at the Royal College of Art, they made it a point to return to Swastik Society in Chembur for Onam, for the legendary Sadhya at Sharath’s home, feasting their hearts along with the entire building.
After their studies got over, they began to work in Mumbai, and their weekly meetings over Kerala food continued seamlessly, as if it had never been interrupted by life.
Ruchita was 25 years old when Sharath first proposed marriage to her. They’d been working for a year and going steady for exactly a decade. There was no reason at all for Ruchita to refuse, but still she demurred; she needed more time, she said.
Sharath proposed again the next year, but the response was the same. Ruchita tried to explain to Sharath that it was too big a commitment and she did not feel brave enough to take the leap. Not yet. He seemed to understand, but slowly, he started drifting away.
Ruchita shared everything with her Maa, especially every detail about this relationship that was so important for her. One evening, unable to see her daughter moping around the house any longer, Ruchita’s Maa took her hand in her own, and asked, ‘What’s it, beta?’ The love and concern in her mother’s voice was just what Ruchita needed at that moment. She had never felt this helpless, this clueless in her life. Sobbing copiously on her mother’s shoulder, she saw the prospect of a beautiful relationship going sour due to her own cowardice. Her Maa did not say anything; quietly, lovingly, she patted her daughter’s head, as if saying, don’t worry, it’ll work out for the best.
Onam was just four weeks away when Sharath got an unexpected call in the middle of the day. ‘Meet me at “Just Kerala” tonight. 8 p.m.’ Ruchita’s tone was insistent, not giving him the opportunity to refuse. Sharath was confused. They hadn’t met for almost two months, but her call had rekindled the lovely memories of the times they had spent in each other’s company, talking primarily about food, but more importantly, just being comfortable around each other.
Sharath reached the restaurant at 8 p.m. to find it empty and dark. Surprised, he tried the door and was relieved to find that it opened easily. Maybe they were opening late, or perhaps saving on costs because of demonetization, thought the financial analyst.
As he walked into the darkened interiors, a section of the restaurant suddenly lit up. Spread before him on the long table was the most amazing Kerala feast that he had ever set eyes on, outside his own home that is. As he started walking towards it, Ruchita stepped out from behind a door, looking like a vision from heaven. Sharath froze in his tracks.
‘I cannot imagine a life without Kerala food,’ Ruchita said, softly. ‘But every time I bite into an appam, or dip into vegetable ishtew, I am reminded of you. Every time I try to eat Carrot & Beans Thoran, I can feel your hands feeding it to me for the first time. Without you, Kerala food has started turning into dust in my mouth, and I have realized this. It was never the food. It was always you! So will you be the food for my soul, for my life, for now and forever?’
Finding himself unable to speak, Sharath just nodded.
‘But I have only one request,’ Ruchita continued. ‘Can we please get married before Onam this year?’
After 12 years of courtship, Ruchita and Sharath finally married a day before Onam. It was almost midnight by the time the long drawn-out ceremonies got over and they could retire to their room.
It was then that, over a glass of wine, Sharath finally gathered sufficient courage. ‘I am never one to look a gift horse in the mouth,’ he said, ‘but can I ask you one thing? Why did you insist on getting married before Onam?’
Ruchita seemed embarrassed at this query and tried to avoid it, but Sharath was insistent and she had to give in. ‘Actually, umm…, Maa said that your Mom has declared that from this year, only your… umm… your immediate family would be invited for the Onam Sadhya at your place,’ she finished in a rush. Sharath’s face went blank , but Ruchita didn’t seem to notice. Her eyes were still focused on the ground, as if searching it for something she had lost. ‘Ma said your Mom is getting old and cannot cook for so many people now.’
Ruchita finished speaking and finally looked up into Sharath’s eyes. There was a twinkle in her eyes, which slowly spread to her face. ‘And no commitment phobia can keep me away from my Onam Sadhya!’
As she watched, Sharath’s expressions changed from surprise to shock to disbelief… and then, his eyes lit up and he exclaimed, ‘Oh, these women!’ His body shook in a strange manner, as if he were having a seizure. Ruchita grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him wildly. ‘Sharath! What happened?’ She saw the tears flowing down his face, and as she looked up into his eyes, even more alarmed, she saw something that she had never seen this always-serious financial analyst do – he was laughing uncontrollably.
Sharath took a moment to collect himself. ‘Do you realize that we are together tonight only because of those two wily women? Your Maa and my Mom.’
Sharath broke into laughter again. ‘Because my Maa has never cooked the Onam Sadhya for Swastik Society; it was always I who prepared the feast!’
Anurag Bakhshi turned 40 last year, and experienced a mid-life awakening of sorts. After having worked for 14 long years in the Media & Entertainment industry, he decided to exit the corporate world and enter the world of words by becoming a full-time writer. He writes a short story a day at https://jagahdilmein.wordpress.com/