Other people have exotic things on their bucket lists. Paragliding, going to Kailash Mansarovar, learning to do the Time of my Life dance routine. (Well, the last is possibly just my husband.) Mine has always been simple: preside over a cooking competition as one of those powerful judges, and, as sweaty and serious contestants swan about, presenting a series of beautifully-plated dishes, make pithy statements that range from the poetic to the withering. What’s not to like?
Last year, a week before shashthi, the beginning of the Durga Puja, my best friend Gee called me up in high excitement. “Guess what I have just been asked to do?” Before I can curdle her joy by saying something cutting, she said, “I have been asked to judge a neighbourhood block’s Anandamela competition.”
For the uninitiated, a word about the Anandamela. This is an old Durga Puja tradition that has been updated to include a competition. In its pristine form, women would cook their signature family dishes on shashthi afternoon (sometimes, these highly-classified recipes are handed down within clans over blood oaths to not disclose secret ingredients to outsiders) and then sell these items near the mandap, under the loving gaze of the goddess. (I am certain the goddess is shocked at the prices the ladies routinely list for their fish fries and peethe-pulis. But let’s not go there.)
I sourly congratulated Gee at the judgeship and hung up.
Cut to this year. Exactly a week before shashthi, Gee calls me. “Listen, the Anandamela people are looking for another judge. Shall I suggest your name?” I want to whoop with delight but hold myself back. “I shall check my schedule and get back to you,” I tell her. “Well,” replies Gee testily, “I have already confirmed on your behalf. Do you know how coveted this position is? One can’t wait around.” I promptly crumble off my high horse in gratitude and spend the next few days in a state of excitement, trying to brush up my culinary vocabulary by dipping into the (frankly, far too) many cookbooks I own, and expansively promising my father-in-law, who’s visiting us, that as an all-powerful judge, I shall probably get to return with quantities of good old Bong food for him.
On D-Day, Gee arrives to pick me up. “Try not to lose your dignity,” my husband tells us as he bids us goodbye.
When we arrive at the designated area in the mela grounds, some of our sense of entitlement subsides. It is that sweet spot of post-lunch siesta time, between anjali in the morning and Bangla band in the evening, when the Bong populace of CR Park is grabbing some shut-eye. There are many empty wooden tables lined up, but, strikingly, candidates are missing. So are the organisers.
Meanwhile, Gee has been trying to get the organisers on phone and failing. “Let’s go sit at the long table there,” she tells me decisively. “There, below the stage. That’s where the judges sit.” Soon, a thin stream of people exiting the pandal make their way up to us and ask where the loo is, who is performing this evening, if a lost dog has been reported, and so on. Patiently, we tell everyone that much as we would have liked to, we are not the Reception, and, consequently, cannot help. Also, there is no Reception. This is a para pandal not a hotel, calm down, bye. It’s all quite humiliating.
About half an hour later, the participants begin to trickle in. Soon, an announcement is made by a balding man in an electric-blue kurta: “This is a women’s only event. All men accompanying the ladies please leave the Anandamela area.” A happy-faced man, who had been devotedly helping his wife unload her Moradabadi biriyani, comes up to us post this announcement: “I hope you know that the Anandamela is a very empowering exercise. Women earn some pocket money by selling things. Then they don’t have to ask their husbands for petty cash. It’s all about feminism. Haw haw.”
Thankfully, at this point the organisers arrive — a band of Bengali aunties in beautiful Puja-special saris and matching handbags. If you are not familiar with the type, then you don’t know what terror they can strike with their mere entry. They quickly dispatch the friendly man on some errand, serve us minuscule cups of lebu chaa, spirit the other judges out of thin air, and bossily divide us up into categories. In all this reshuffling, Gee and I are tragically separated.
It appears I am to judge “Regional Cuisine”, on taste, presentation, originality and value-for-money. Also, since I am the only judge in my category, I am ordered to be extra careful. A clipboard is thrust in my face, along with a pencil, an eraser and a sharpener. Next to me, I find a nice lady, a retired teacher of mathematics, who has been judging the event for two decades now. She and her friend are judging “Vegetarian”.
The Anandamela is now declared open to the public by the announcer. One of the organisers gallops to him and declares that this is a grave mistake. The stalls should be made open to the public only after the food has been presented to the judges. Otherwise, the ladies will become more interested in the commercial aspect. The man shrugs: “This eating business has to get over before the band comes. You came late. People are hungry.”
This last, of course, is true. Hungry hordes have broken through the (non-existent) velvet ropes and the Anandamela is now in rocking form. Luchis are flying in the air. Golgappas are vanishing in front of our eyes. Women are busy plating their stuff and counting notes without as much as a glance as us. The atmosphere is frenetic. The only downside is that very few participants seem that interested in the competition. It feels weird to sit grandly with a clipboard and nothing to judge. Eventually, a few contenders are rounded up. I scan the motley queue heading towards us with beady eyes: “Regional? regional? regional?” I want to call out, in the manner of salesmen in Gariahat, “Edike, edike, edike (This way, this way!).” Most participants, though, seem to be heading past me, past my friend the math teacher and her comrade, to booth no. 2. What category is that, I wonder jealously.
Finally, I get my first submission: Italian soufflé, that was deemed fit for “Regional” by the organisers. I gobble it up since, by now, I have been in this Anandamela for more than three hours and am light-headed with hunger. Then, I invent some marks for it and scribble detailed notes about texture and the interplay of flavours.
Gee comes over to chat. “You won’t believe what happened!” she reports unhappily, “You know how I was so excited to be judging the non-vegetarian category? Then these two randos came and said they both had diabetes and couldn’t judge ‘Indian desserts’. So the organisers demoted me to Sweets. Now these conniving women, who I am sure have no diabetes whatsoever, are scarfing all the mutton-chicken-fish. It’s so unfair.” Gee gives me a bit of sandesh from her lot, grumbles a little more and returns to her seat.
My next two submissions arrive simultaneously. Afghani chicken with roti — delicious! — and rice with Andhra prawn curry and Kashmiri mutton stew — not bad. While both fare well on taste, I have to mark them down on value for money since the portions are teeny. I eat a bit of both and, then, with great magnanimity, walk up to Gee and hand her the leftovers. She eats these gratefully.
The next hour passes in a rush. I am torn between giving the first prize to Parsi keema pao (a simple and delicious plate of buns and keema, priced reasonably) and “Bird’s Nest”, a highly original creation that might not taste the best but looks stunning. Soon, there is dust rising in puffs and a bunch of people are rushing at our table with cameras and mikes. The local MP is here.
Later that night, Gee and I ride back in silence. We have no free food to take home and we are feeling exhausted and a bit foolish. Just before she drops me off, Gee says, “Next time, I am going to give them in writing that I am diabetic. Then they can’t shunt me to ‘Sweets’.”
“How was it?” the husband asks, opening the door. “Here’s my dignity,” I reply, handing him the keema pao I’d bought from the winning participant, “Intact.”
Devapriya Roy is a Delhi-based writer.