Shaunak’s eyes glazed at the response of the people sitting in front of him. He drifted off to those sweet and sour memories of childhood. Those were the days when he would keenly observe his mother rustling up her specialties in the kitchen. He would carefully note the way she would chop, grind, and season to add that special touch to her dishes, which was her unique trademark. He admired the way she would multi-task swiftly with her nimble fingers, whipping up wonders in a very short time. The whistle of the pressure cooker, the pestle pounding spices on the stone mortar and the sizzle of the tempering that wafted out of the kitchen were like music to his ears. The whiff of aromas lured him to the kitchen where his Ma would be methodically churning out delicious sagas.
As a ten year old, his fascination for cooking was an unusual trait for a boy who came from a typically orthodox Indian background. It did not go down well with his family who were quite rigid in their outlook on certain topics. According to them, cooking was purely a woman’s domain. An odd man who ventured into the kitchen was pardoned for doing so, to make a cup of tea for himself at the most and no more, that too in the rare absence of the women of the household. And that act would also evoke feelings of guilt in a woman for having left him to fend for himself. It was routine for the men of the family, his dad, his uncles and grandpa to lounge around in the living room watching television, while the women of the household, his Ma and aunts, sweated it out in the kitchen churning out wholesome meals for the entire family, catering to each male member’s whims and fancies. When the meal would be ready, it was the men of the household who would be served the piping hot food first. Women would have it after the men had finished. At times, the men would consume more without a thought for the women who still were waiting to have their meals after them. And then, the ladies would have to manage with whatever was leftover. Also, nobody would serve them the meal the way they had served it to the men. Shaunak found this practice ridiculously unfair. After slogging so hard in the kitchen for hours together without any help from the men, didn't these nurturing women deserve to sit with the family and share their meals with them as equals?
The fact that he was drawn to culinary arts was evident from as early as his toddler days. The toys he enjoyed playing most with were an empty wok and ladle, that he would stir sitting on the floor, placing them on a make-believe gas stove. Back then, the family members found it cute and cooed at him fondly when he would serve them with imaginary delicacies that he had prepared during his play time. But as he grew older, when he expressed his desire to help his Ma in the kitchen, he was shooed away by the women, who told him it was his sister who needed to learn cooking and not him. His being obese also worked against his interest in food. People assumed that he was only interested in eating good food and cooking was just an excuse to eat some more good food.
His sister who was two years younger than him was never interested in cooking and would look for ways to escape the women who tried to get her involved in the kitchen activities. She would be taunted and manipulated till the time she would relent and grudgingly join them in the kitchen. How he wished he was in her shoes! At least, he would have got the privilege of being exposed to something he so badly wanted learn.
But well, he still did manage. He would observe his Ma on the sly when she would be cooking. Carefully noting the proportions, techniques and recognizing the ingredients. And on days when he would get a chance to be alone at home, he would sneak into the kitchen and try these recipes, sometimes modifying them to add his own creative touch to them. He would cautiously clean everything, wiping off all the traces of his culinary adventures, putting things back in place after he had eaten what he had dished out, so that his Ma would not notice anything amiss in the kitchen. Sometimes, his sister was a partner in his crime, but she would only comply in helping him eat what he had prepared. She was in awe of his passion for cooking. She admired the way he would meticulously chop the veggies in a precise size and come up with the most delicious concoctions that were far more superior in taste to what the women in the family cooked.
When Shaunak cleared his high school and it was time for him to pick the course that he would specialize in for his graduation. Without doubt his preference was to do a course in Hotel Management. When he expressed this desire to his family members, he was met with stiff resistance. Pa gave him a piece of his mind asking him to decide on an occupation that was more manly and professional, like medicine or maybe engineering. When Shaunak showed no signs of relenting, Pa accused Ma for not having curbed her son’s interest in cooking at an early age, and that they were bearing the brunt of that, as a result. The other men in the family scorned him for supposedly turning out to be a sissy guy. They also attributed his greed for pigging on good food to be the cause for his interest in cooking.
Looking at his Ma’s sorry state after all the accusations thrown at her, Shaunak reluctantly agreed to select some other field and finally ended up taking up a course in Engineering. Since he hadn't scored enough in high school, it was difficult for him to grab a seat in a good college on merit. So, his father paid a hefty donation to get him a seat in one of the most prestigious Engineering colleges of the country. But unfortunately, a lack of interest in the subject made him perform poorly in the first year of college. At the end of that year, he had made up his mind that he would discontinue with the course that did not inspire him to pursue it at all. In the meantime, he researched on the Hotel Management institutes in the country and started applying for an admission there. When he bagged a seat in a well known institute, he conveyed his decision to switch his field to his parents. Of course, he was met with stiff resistance yet again. He was faced with a lot of emotional blackmail too, since his dad had paid through his nose for the donation for the Engineering course. But Shaunak would have none of it. He went ahead and joined the Hotel Management course. And in a few years, he passed it with flying colors.
In a round of campus interviews, he was lucky enough to be selected as an executive chef for a reputed chain of luxury five star hotels. There was no looking back for him after that. He steadily climbed the ladder of success and fame, with sheer dedication, passion and hard work. In no time, he had established a successful chain of gourmet restaurants of his own that got him immense popularity. He also authored a couple of best selling recipe books. And today, he had finished shooting for the first episode of his cookery show for a popular international channel on television.
Sitting in the audience of the show were his Pa and Ma, beaming in pride at the thunder of applause that came from the audience on the sets. Never in the wildest of their dreams had they ever imagined their little Shaunak who used to potter with woks and ladles as a child, to reach such heights, with a passion for something as conservative and old school as cooking. Shaunak had proved a point. Talent in any form is God’s gift, which should be nurtured with complete passion, irrespective of the challenges one faces due to petty social norms and mind blocks.