I was jauntily planning to host a dinner party at our home before the summer holidays set in. This is not as uncomplicated and easy as it sounds. Food being a really sensitive issue these days, my menu was giving me sleepless nights and getting rather restricted. So many of my favourite dishes fell under the list of banned food items. And the list was getting longer and longer. Even items that did not feature on the list were generating a great deal of heat. But, like any good host, I wanted to make my guests feel entirely comfortable. Now there was a catch to this little endeavour as well. For example, I desperately wanted to invite a man I have had the biggest fangirl crush on for years — Girish Karnad. But he'd defiantly gone and eaten beef in public! Naughty, naughty! I was not sure whether he'd be arrested and fined if he came to our home — what if there were particles of undigested beef still in his system? Would we also face a jail term for indirect possession of beef on our premises?
I would have loved to include my neighbours, who are god-fearing Maharashtrians — they do love dahi missal and ussal as much as I do, but they prefer kothimbeer vada to vada pav, as they find the former less lethal in terms of calories. However, by saying so they didn't want to attract the ire of… of… never mind. I decided to serve poha — it's pretty inoffensive and neutral. I have fantastic Gujarati friends who wondered whether or not to bring a batch of homecooked theplas and dhoklas with them. They are checking the official gazette and looking for the latest government notifications on the subject. My Punjabi friends are totally unconcerned about all these issues and have told me samosas are universally loved snacks which are still being sold at multiplex theatres. They counted the number of multiplexes — Mumbai has 20, and there are another 90 across Maharashtra . That's a whole lot of samosas being consumed in Maharashtra. They also told me it's safe to offer samosas to guests, along with other locally approved snacks, like tacos and pizzas. I am not at all convinced. But don't know whom to check with. Try phoning the Mantralaya — someone or the other will answer the phone eventually, my friends suggested. It's always better to be extra-cautious… you never know who's peeping into your dustbin to check what you've been eating.
Next, I called my friends from Kerala and asked whether they'd be free to join us, even if the menu was likely to be really, really restricted. They jumped at the offer, since their cook had left in a huff after he was told he couldn't cook his speciality any longer — the sukka poterchi (dry beef), which along with appam and ishtew, were house specialities. Oh-Oh. I figured a handi of Hyderabadi biryani would be the perfect delicacy to serve, but a well-meaning friend discouraged me, saying it might be better to cook vaangi masaley bhaat instead. "One must celebrate local cuisine and encourage others to do the same. Unless we support our own specialities and display our culinary pride openly, our recipes will vanish and our food won't get the notice it deserves, despite being the best. Just like our movies." Point taken.
We had a little chat with Anil, our cook-in-residence, and asked him for alternatives. Being a Bengali from Kolkata, he didn't feel terribly confident about last-minute experimentation. He asked in all seriousness whether maach has also been banned in Maharashtra. We assured him that wasn't the case, and told him it was annoying to see how this great and good state of ours was being defamed by outsiders jealous of Maharashtra's success. Anil cheered up (if you want to cheer up any true-blue Bengali, all you have to do is mention that magic word — maach!). "What about mangsho?" he asked. He had heard in his locality that mutton was likely to be banned soon. "Rumours. Nasty rumours. It's just rival states attempting to get our goat (s), that's all!" we told him. I announced with a big smile, "And you know what? Eggs are still allowed. So why not make a spicy anda curry?" Anil looked witheringly at me: "Anda curry? At a party? Never!"
Suddenly, I had a brainwave. Personally speaking, I love vegetarian food. Why not a strictly vegetarian dinner? There were anxious faces around me as someone said, "There is a potential risk. We have to respect local sentiment and not serve anything that could lead to a law and order situation." I assured my family there was zero risk involved in offering shuddh desi shakahaari khaana. Someone rushed to check the latest on it and we began our elimination rounds. Kaddu? Passed. Bhindi? Passed. Pyaaz… umm… please call it kaanda. Passed. Aloo? You mean batata, right? Passed. So, we now had a few veggies to work with, and that was most encouraging. No sambar or avial, please — just stick to amti, I muttered under my breath. And do not refer to 'puris' as 'luchis'. As for dessert (just or otherwise), our best bet was apoos amba. Non-controversial, in season and Maharashtra's pride to boot. What? Weren't the mango crops damaged this year? Err, yes. No farmer suicides over mangoes, right? After much heartburn and heartache, and hours of soul searching, we reluctantly decided to cancel the party. Our friends were most disappointed. But we told them, we must sacrifice something for the sake of the State. Like I have done. Read my lips: No more popcorn.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author's own.