My wife's kitchen in the palace

cooking Representational image

One comes across ‘Sita Maiyya ki rasoi’ at many places of pilgrimage where, it is believed, Sita Ji set up her kitchen while wandering over hill and dale for 14 years of ‘vanwas’ with Lord Ram. Sometimes I wonder whether the many places in which my dear wife has set up her kitchen and cooked for me and our children will ever get to be as famous. The one that most deserves such recognition is the one that she set up immediately after we got married.

I was posted in Patna in 1975 and, towards the end of that year, I took leave for a couple of weeks to get married. When I returned with my new bride, I learnt that I had been transferred to Darbhanga as commandant of an armed police battalion. My friends in Patna informed me that the commandant’s house was a large bungalow of the Darbhanga Raj, with a sprawling compound. It was common practice in the 1970s for officers living in such bungalows to let out the land for sharecropping to a ‘bataidar’ and earn a good amount from sale of the crop. But agriculture is hardly ever of great concern to newly married couples.

After an overnight train journey to Darbhanga, my wife and I drove to the commandant’s bungalow, which was indeed very large. But we were disappointed to learn that the family of my predecessor, Mr. Sinha, was still living in the house. My predecessor had left a message that they would stay in the house for some more time and that he had arranged for us to stay in the guest house of the local Postal Training Centre. So my wife and I proceeded to the Postal Training Centre, which we were delighted to find was housed in the Bela Palace of the Darbhanga Raj. 

This small palace had been constructed for a scion of the royal family and was acquired by the Postal Department sometime in the 1960s, along with all its fittings and furniture. The building was said to have been inspired by the palace in Versailles. It had similar intricate balustrades, sweeping staircases and fine Carrara marble flooring. The original master bedroom, with a huge bathroom, had been reserved as a guest room for visiting officers. We were escorted to this room, while two attendants followed with all our worldly possessions - three steel trunks, two suitcases, one holdall and one deal wood box containing the camp kitchen of my bachelor days.

The guest room was magnificent! It had heavy drapes and a regal four-poster bed with gossamer-thin mosquito curtains. There was what looked like a Chippendale writing bureau and two faux Loius XIV chairs, upholstered in slightly moth-eaten gingham.  But no other furniture! So, we arranged the steel trunks and suitcases on the floor, leaving sufficient space so as not to scuff the walls.  Notwithstanding its opulence, however, the bedroom alone could not be used as living quarters for an extended period because there was no kitchen. My wife looked at the huge expanse of immaculate marble and decided to set up the very first kitchen of our wedded life on the floor in a corner of the bedroom. I had to admit that the pots and pans and a ‘Janata’ brand kerosene stove, painted in garish red, green and yellow, did not much enhance the beauty of Bela Palace. 

Initially, there was a quaint novelty about the situation – a newly married couple, the wife lovingly preparing dinner and the devoted husband peeling potatoes, without even changing out of his police uniform on return from office! But the charm wore off very quickly. After all, how long can cooking utensils be washed in a queen-sized bathtub? Living out of a suitcase is fine for a day or two, but not much longer. And certainly not when one must wear a well-ironed uniform every day.  But Mr Sinha’s family showed no inclination to vacate the house that was now rightfully ours. I broached the matter politely with Mrs Sinha, who said that they would vacate the house as soon as their son’s examinations got over. A week passed. Nothing happened. I then telephoned Mr Sinha, who said that he needed a few more days because some delicate negotiations for his daughter’s marriage were to be concluded. Another week passed. Still, nothing happened.

Then one fine morning, the quartermaster Subedar of the battalion informed me that the house would be vacated that day. He requested me to visit the house after office to see if any repairs were needed. I asked him whether the child’s exams were over, and if any match had been finalised for the daughter. The Subedar coughed delicately and looked away without answering. I understood his reticence that evening when I visited the bungalow. The house looked quite different, and I wondered why. And then it struck me! The place was bare! The paddy that had been standing in the vast compound had been harvested!  Obviously, Mr. Sinha had not vacated the house as he was waiting for the crop to ripen. In fact, I would have gladly let him reap what he had sown if only he had mentioned the matter. Instead, my wife and I had to suffer the comforts of living in a magnificent palace.

But the experience was not a total waste because I got one lasting benefit. Over the past almost fifty years that we have been married, I have not been a paragon of virtue, nor the ideal husband. My wife has been annoyed, exasperated and just plain angry with me on more occasions than I care to remember. But whenever she complains that I do not value her enough or that I treat her as anything less than a queen, I gently remind her that after we got married, I had carried her away to live in a palace!

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