Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Niren Baruah, Artist

(Copyright Gowri Mohanakrishnan)

I was thinking of Baruah as I was baking biscuits yesterday. When Baruah was around, we got freshly baked rolls and bread. We got soufflés of every flavour and description. His tarts, biscuits, puddings and cakes stayed in our memories—and on my hips—long after we’d eaten them.

If Baruah had a sorrow, it was that we were vegetarians. Once he’d forgiven us for not eating any ‘real’ food, he used his ingenuity and substituted meat with soya, cottage cheese or vegetables and baked us savoury pies and rolls fit for a King’s table.

He was a great cook and a good man, Baruah.

We moved to a tea garden called Ambari early in 1996. We didn’t know what lay ahead. We were prepared for any kind of adventure. This would be the second garden my husband was taking over as Manager. We received a warm welcome there. The bungalow was pretty, though it didn’t look too much like a traditional tea garden structure. It had a happy feel about it, and with our two little girls aged eight and six years old, that mattered a lot to me.

We found the table laid for lunch and sat down to quite a nice meal soon enough. It was a carefully cooked meal, rather guesthouse style, not leaning too much in any direction. It was ‘standard’ tea garden fare. Whenever a new ‘Saab and Memsaab’ moved into a bungalow, the cook, or Bawarchi, would prepare a meal that didn’t reflect his real style of work. It would be dal, rice and vegetables cooked without a trace of imagination or a personal touch. It was a way of saying there was room to adapt to our preferences and also of saying we’d have convince our new Bawarchi that we deserved good food!

Living with a number of servants, or helpers, including a Bawarchi, bearers, ayahs and gardeners is a part of life on tea gardens. The bungalows and their surrounding grounds are large, and a number of hands are required to maintain them. There has never been a moment in my life in tea when I have been absolutely alone at home. Wherever we have lived, our helpers have become a part of our extended family. We accepted long ago that we didn’t have complete privacy. And after all, we shared our space with people who helped us and made our lives easier. It was also very important to get off to a good start with them whenever we moved to a new place.

A smiling bearer, Shamoo, served us lunch. The Bawarchi would report at five o’clock, we were told. His name was Niren Baruah. Immediately my husband and I exchanged a look. Niren Baruah. A Mugh cook!

Mugh cooks were rare in 1996 and I'd never dreamt I'd have one working for me.

They enjoyed a formidable reputation and were much sought after. They could ask for, and succeed in getting, a salary higher than other employee in the bungalow. They were experts at continental and English food. Anyone who’d succeeded in getting a Mugh cook to work for them would do anything to keep him, and to keep him happy. I’d once heard that if a Mugh cook were asked to make a paratha or a roti he might resign on the spot. That was not a job for a master chef.

The Mugh cooks originated from Chittagong and Sylhet Districts, both of which were once part of India, but went to Bangladesh after having been part of East Bengal, Assam and then East Pakistan till 1971. The word ‘Mugh’, it is believed, was once used to describe the people of Burma, and it is quite likely that these people were of Burmese origin.

I was frankly nervous about my first meeting with this Niren Baruah. At our first interview, I was sure, it was I who was going to be scrutinised, examined, summed up, and found lacking.

Baruah reported at five in the evening for our interview.

He was in his mid fifties, a round faced, balding man with fair skin, large eyes and a white moustache. He had a rotund figure and wore pyjamas and a shirt. In a suit he would have looked like a professor. His expression was serious. He was dignified.

I too tried to be very dignified. And all I told him was to carry on functioning as he’d been doing in the past. I said I would see how things worked here, and then if I wanted any changes I would let him know. I also told him we’d had a nice lunch. I needn’t have lied. He didn’t thaw.

We conducted daily meetings at five in the evening, when he would take orders for the evening’s dinner and our lunch the following day. It was during these early days that he found we were vegetarians. That damned us in his eyes, for a start. His spirits rose when my little oven was unpacked. Sadly, the bungalow hadn’t had an oven in the kitchen. Later I realized what a serious handicap that must have been for someone like Baruah.

Gradually, I succeeded in getting Baruah to treat us to his special cooking. He stopped churning out ‘standard fare’ soon enough and we found delightful new flavours in our food. Then he started preparing a sweet every other day. He made us superb desserts.

The oven had made him happy. He asked for yeast and started producing heavenly little dinner rolls, which filled the kitchen and dining room with a lovely aroma and melted in our mouths. Sometimes the rolls were stuffed with savoury fillings, which came as a delicious surprise. I began to eat a lot. We lavished praise on him. But he continued to be a little sticky – unlike his superb soufflé -- and aloof. He never let me enter his domain. The kitchen was firmly out of bounds to this Memsaab.

That was when I realized that it is as important for the bungalow staff to start trusting their new employers as it is for us to start trusting them. I’d never thought of it from that point of view earlier.

He wasn’t above letting me down, either. We called a couple of friends over for dinner. That was it, just a couple. He made a dal, one vegetable and a paneer dish with parathas and rice. I made ‘avial’, a South Indian speciality, because I wanted the meal to have a personal touch, and a ‘home’ feel. The avail was the hit of the evening. Little wonder, as Baruah – due to some quirk of temperament—had made ghastly, over spiced, soulless food. I felt wretched with every mouthful. And it wasn’t as if the dessert was any compensation, either. It was equally soulless.

I wondered what had gone wrong. There was more to come. Upon inspection of stores the following day, I saw that three fourths of a litre of oil had been used to prepare the disastrous spread of the previous evening. Seven hundred and fifty ml of oil for TWO extra heads, I asked Baruah, amazed. With that much of oil, I told him, we could have catered for a small party. Party! He scoffed. For a party, he said, he would need two to three litres of oil. I was miserable. I couldn’t yell at this man. We were new to each other, and this was a first offence. I couldn’t allow him to make a second, though, and I hoped my silence conveyed my displeasure. I resolved not to invite any more people until this headstrong and surly man who was newly ruling my life became manageable – if at all.

I can never forget another of his disasters. This time, luckily, only the family was subjected to it! I’d ordered a continental lunch, a savoury cheese soufflé and and a salad to go with it. We’d got lots of healthy looking spinach, so I said, ‘Make it spinach.’ Baruah stopped to check if he’d heard right, then he shrugged and walked away. The girls and I came home from school, starving, and I couldn’t wait for the lovely meal I’d ordered. Strangely, we got rice and roti with dal and subzi. Funny, maybe Baruah had forgotten what had been ordered. I was too hungry to care. When we got up from the table, the bearer asked us to wait for the sweet. Oh great, he’d done us a sweet; we were thrilled.

Out came a glass bowl with a quivering, creamy concoction in bright green. It was a soufflé, flavoured, just as I’d instructed, with spinach. The girls collapsed with laughter. They were hooting; they had a legitimate excuse to make fun of Mamma! They insisted on my tasting a spoonful of the beautiful looking dish. I can’t forget the taste in a hurry. It has remained an unsolved mystery with us. Why did Baruah goof up like that? Was he being cussed? Or was it a genuine mistake?

He started liking us eventually. Who wouldn’t, when he had praise heaped upon him after every creation of his had been had been demolished? He went so far as to allow me to enter the kitchen and initiate him into ‘Idli’ ‘Dosai’ and ‘Vadai’ making. In no time, he’d mastered these, our favourite South Indian breakfast dishes. His ‘Rava Dosais’ were light as lace doilies, buttery and crisp.

I had to indulge a number of his quirks, but I found it a small price to pay for the privilege of employing such a craftsman. He was like an artist, really, in his approach to his cooking. So I didn’t grumble when he scoffed at home made or shop bought cottage cheese and insisted he’d only use the tinned variety. Or when he dictated the lists of masalas I had to buy separately for the preparation of each dish. Or even when he turned up his nose at ‘Desi’ or local vegetables. Only English vegetables like cauliflower, cabbage, peas, carrots and beans were good enough for him.

He became quite friendly in his manner, first because I went to work as a teacher at the girls’ school and therefore stayed out his way, and secondly, because even though we were vegetarians, we liked to try out different kinds of cuisine. And then I never questioned him about his shopping expenses. He was uncrowned king of the kitchen! Baruah allowed me to play the role of helper once in a while. He permitted me to beat up cake mixes. He was actually giving me little lessons. He even taught me how to grease and flour a cake tin thoroughly.

This was quite something, because the old Bawarchis were a crafty lot who didn’t want to train youngsters but guarded their secrets jealously They wouldn’t show anyone their special techniques. On days when they had their ‘hafta chhutties’ or weekly day off, the family would be subjected to what fare the second in command could churn out. Not one of the other hands in the bungalow could ever replicate a dish from the Bawarchi’s repertoire. It was interesting how their sons, probably the only people they’d have been willing to teach, never wanted to train as cooks.

Baruah stopped looking grave and serious at our evening meetings. He’d roll in looking jolly and grin at me. These meetings had turned into regular chat sessions from the earlier crisp passing on of orders. He would look very happy when he saw me sitting with big piles of books. He thought I was a great reader and writer. He couldn’t read or write at all. I now marvel at how he remembered every recipe with no aids such as books. He’d ask how my day had been, and that was a signal for me to make an appreciative remark about the lunch or the little tea time treat he’d prepared and left carefully covered for me as a surprise when I arrived home from school.

He would twinkle at me and ask me if I really liked what he’d made, as if I were a little child whom he was indulging. Then he’d tell me what he planned to make for the next ‘treat’. He behaved like an elderly uncle and not like an employee. On Sunday mornings, if we lolled about delaying our breakfast, he would come out of his kitchen and thunder, ‘If Sahib and Memsaab take so long to come to eat I will get ulcers!’ We would be at the table, quiet as children, as soon as we heard him.

He once told me he’d stopped wanting to work as a Bawarchi when he’d been questioned too closely about kitchen accounts and leftovers by some people in the past. It hadn’t been any fun cooking for them. In real sorrow he told me some of them actually made him stand at the storeroom and measured out ingredients before handing them over to him for the day’s cooking, as if he’d been a novice. He said sadly that everyone hadn’t been like me. What did he mean by that? He searched for words to make his meaning clear, and came out with, ‘Gentleman type.’ I grinned hugely like him when he said that!

I could never bring myself to question Baruah too closely about expenses in the kitchen. He had stature. I always felt things would go smoothly if I trusted him and left the management of the kitchen entirely to him. Maybe I’d save forty or fifty rupees in a month if I breathed down his neck over purchases. I didn’t think it was worth the trouble. I couldn’t function without complete faith in the people who worked for me.

He enjoyed talking about the old days. During the Second World War, he’d worked for the Army. The British officers were good to him. He said that he had many tales to tell me, if I would listen to him and write his stories for people to read. We never had the time to get down to story telling and writing.

I was interested in whatever he could tell me about his community. He had a cousin who had worked for Indira Gandhi, and became so exclusive and superior that he never spoke to Baruah or any other members of the family.

He mentioned how their numbers were dwindling. His son ran a shop, and had never wanted to work as a Bawarchi. Baruah himself had left one of the gardens in a huff and sat at the shop for a year until he’d been tracked down and coaxed to join here in Ambari by one of the erstwhile Bara Memsaabs. She’d moved into Ambari and painstakingly brought the bungalow and its flower and vegetable garden to standards of excellence that had, alas, fallen by the time I moved in.

Fortunately, the owners of the garden really appreciated Baruah and his skills and treated him with affectionate indulgence. They cut maintenance costs everywhere, but Baruah continued to enjoy the special privileges with which he’d been tempted here in the first place, one of which was a job for his son! Baruah served his maliks faithfully. He worked overtime without grumbling when they came to stay – at alarmingly frequent intervals – and prepared all their favourite items for the table. He had even invented an eggless variety of soufflé for them, because they were vegetarians.

It wasn’t Baruah who left us. It was quite the other way around. My husband had a good offer and was asked to join a garden nearby as soon as he could. So before we had stayed even ten months at Ambari, we were packing. We’d been so happy here. The house had proved true to its promise. Our younger daughter wept loudly and clung to her ayah who kissed and hugged both the children with tears streaming down her face. It broke my heart. We were all wearing huge garlands of flowers. We said goodbye and all the servants promised to visit us at our new garden.

I never expected Baruah would come around visiting, but he did. We welcomed him very happily. He approved of our new garden, the bungalow and its compound. We asked him to have lunch. He laughed and blushed a little, and agreed. After lunch he was ready to chat. He’d wanted to come and work for us. He wanted a change, and I could tell he hadn’t been too happy. He didn’t let on, though. He told me, in his inimitable way, that he approved of the cook who was working for us. He’d liked the food he’d been served. Then Baruah said his bye byes and left.

We didn’t hear of him for a long time. Then we heard he hadn’t been keeping well. He went away to Hashimara, the town where his son ran a shop. Someone who had no connection with Ambari told me when he died, and it was a complete shock to us. I wonder when the people who’d worked so happily with him in Ambari came to know about his death. I wonder if they could go and pay their respects to him or whether poor Baruah died far away from the people with whom he’d spent so many years.

Had they told us on time, we would have tried to be there for Baruah.

I remember the promise I’d once made him — that I would write the stories he never did get down to telling me.


Eliza said...

Is there a picture to go with this well written article? Even if it is redundant, what with the words describing him so well

Kamini said...

Fantastic! We are eagerly looking forward to more!

Meenakshi said...


You know I can almost picture Niren Baruah in my mind's eye. I remember a similar "pandit ji" from my Delhi days who was the family mali-caretaker-Nepali news provider all rolled into one. I wonder where he is......

heckler said...

Seven hundred and fifty ml of oil for TWO extra heads, I asked Baruah, amazed. With that much of oil, I told him, we could have catered for a small party. Party! He scoffed. For a party, he said, he would need two to three litres of oil.


Venitha said...

It's always interesting to think about the people who come into and then out of your life at certain times - and why.

Shalini mehra said...

Niren Baruah the artist is such an apt description a breed, rare these days. i too have had the luxury to have some such artists in my long tea life, a bearer who now can arrange flowers better than me, an old cook whose hands shake, bp goes high, yet he still produces the mouthwatering hot buns.
dear Gardenia, in eulogizing Niren, you have paid tribute to a class that often goes unsung.
waiting for your next.....this is another thing we have in common, i too leave these people on their on and in return i am richer for comfort and their trust...

Anonymous said...

I miss you Ma'am..:-(
I so wish I could go back to my god old school days and take classes on Shakespeare from u once again......
and yess...By the way...Ive been to your place so many times and remember the time we had that Dosa at your place with Anurag ....was that prepared by Mr Baruah? :-)
It was yummy ! :-)

Anonymous said...

Oops ! sorry , by the way....its Avik , just in case u've failed to recognize me ...:-) love u Ma'am...am so proud of you :-)