Remembering Panditji, who turned a cook into a chef and taught a human to respect those of all faith

The outpouring of grief on the passing of Panditji, my family’s Brahmin cook, has been nothing short of extraordinary. He died peacefully on June 10 at the age of 91 in his village near Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. He touched the lives of countless others and left all with delicious memories of rich indulgence and simple pleasures. He blessed our home with the watchful eyes of a caring elder and gave family and friends the taste of an era long past.

My earliest memories are of my parents, grandparents, Panditji and Baba. Devi Prasad Pandey (Panditji) and Uday Raj (Baba) were part of my paternal grandmother’s household. They raised my aunt and my father, and then my mother became a part of the household, too. Baba passed away before I left for the US at age 20, and Panditji, who’d retired decades ago and returned to his village, turned around and came to enjoy retired life at our home in Delhi instead.

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A stern man, always composed and correct, impeccably dressed in starched white dhotis and kurtas, Panditji’s circumspection seemed grounded in ancestral grace.

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His elder brother, Thakur was part of my grandmother’s household, and on his arriving, Panditji, then aged 11, at her side. He learned his storied cooking at my dadi’s side and under the tutelage from her mother’s household chef. It was from dadi that he learned hacks and tricks that made his cookery way ahead of others.

He also gave credit to her parents’ home in Kurwar in UP for having learned how to manage large parties, expectations of a household bustling with family members, and an ever-evolving list of last-minute guests. When fatigue and worries would show on others’ faces and might sour the experience of the guests at the table, Panditji’s was a warm welcome and happy hospitality while he dealt with issues as they unfurled.

My cousin Vikram said, “Panditji was regal in his mannerism. He was almost like the Buddha in the third act of Hermann Hesse’s (novel) Siddhartha (1922). He’d found a way to give away his worldly possessions and was living a lighter, uncluttered and uncomplicated life while others were struggling with the mess of materialism. Whenever I visited India from San Francisco, he’d greet me at the door with a big smile and rather promptly with a delicious glassful of the tastiest nimbu paani, and a gentle, knowing look on his face.”

It’s crazy how many memories of my life are rooted in the same fertile ground from which Panditji came. His life shaded mine with comfort and safety, food and knowledge. He connected me to my family’s history, lore and legend, however insignificant it might have been in the larger picture. He painted it with such color that it brought pride and reverence to me as a young boy.

Panditji gets full credit for giving me the training and stamina necessary to find the patience and perseverance that turns a cook into a chef, and a chef into a finer cuisinier still. His cooking was deeply entrenched in tradition, layered with sophistry, executed with devoted passion. He cooked for the gods and served with love to humans, linking family lore, human tradition and mindful thinking, always aware of food’s healing powers and mind-altering abilities. It was these lessons I learned by watching him intently for the better part of a dozen-plus years that made my everyday cooking in Manhattan as a student seem like gourmet treasures to classmates and food critics alike. Bereft of shortcuts, redolent with rich flavours, fresh, deliciously light, full of textures. My cooking — which basically was the home cooking Panditji taught — charmed all with its simplicity and clarity of flavours, laden with gustatory pleasure and delectability. My first cookbook begins with my acknowledgment of Panditji my teacher, and today I still find myself in awe of him, even as I mourn his passing.

My earliest memories connect me to food and prayer — both link me to him. Every afternoon of my childhood, Panditji would rest in his room for a few hours, whose timing was precisely maintained like clockwork. No one, not even dadi or mom, could disturb him any sooner than he was ready to make it down into the kitchen again. But for me, the door was always open. I would sneak into his room and disturb him gently; he would wake up and ask me if I’d read the Ramayana with him.

We’d pick up from where we’d left the day before, and carry on into the hefty and deep meanderings of the poetically versed religious text. He taught me to sing, with impeccable care given to punctuation and poetic meters, the three distinct styles of verses found in this holy text. Years later, I can still sing the chaupayees, chhand and soraths as they are meant to be sung, all because of Panditji’s tutelage. Before and after our Ramayana readings, he’d feed my hungry, young mind with tales in painterly details, rich descriptions, interesting metaphors and allegorical layers. It kept me excited, inspired and connected to my family’s past and India’s rich, syncretic history.

Our family table, life, and gatherings — none shall be the same with him gone. An era has now passed, a chapter or even a book has been read and digested. Now, the time is to celebrate its story, teachings and the narrator. Panditji lives on in my mind, he instructs my brain every time. I put my chef hat on, or cry for someone, especially for one deems the “other” by society and the world’s majority.

Panditji had modest beginnings, he lived a big and welcoming life, and left behind a huge legacy. His three children, their children, my mother and siblings, my nephew and in-laws and everyone who has ever visited our family home or read my books or dined with any of us have all been touched by Panditji’s majesty. It is this man, who was born to the only Brahmin family in a small Muslim-majority Indian village, and who with his delicious food, teachings of his Hindu faith and deep love and affection for those of other beliefs, lives immortly today and shall forever. To him I shall always bow, when entering a kitchen, cooking up recipes in my head, or singing songs of devotion and harmonious peace.


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