The Lunch Box

by Mathangi Krishnamurthy

On a plane ride to Mumbai last week, I bought oatmeal cookies. For a fleeting second, I thought about sharing them with my surly co-passenger, who had been looking straight ahead ever since occupying the middle seat right next to my windowed one. If I had a middle seat, I might be surly too. I thought the cookies would help. But then the thought remained just that, fleeting. In the sum total of a minute, I played in my head the awkwardness of first contact, the shaking of head by my equally awkward interlocutor, and then my consequent retreat into the “I told you so” shell. Having successfully pre-empted my unnecessary state of embarrassment in the world, I proceeded therefore to not offer him a cookie. And there in that one stroke, I become part of a world full of strangers shedding candy.

IMG_20150831_091556As children, my friends and I were taught to share food. Every morning, we set off from home groggy-eyed and heavy-footed with our variously colored backpacks stuffed with notebooks, pencils, and lunch bags with food, water, and sometimes, a lonely apple or banana. So armored, we set off to face the universe.By the time lunch-time came around, we were all in states of feverish excitement, trying to anticipate our own and others' lunch choices. Some of us were the steady kinds, bringing rice, vegetables, and dal. The others brought home and regional specificities; idlis and dosas, parathas, curd rice and lemon rice, gossamer thin rotis, once crisp puris but now soggy with the long wait for lunchtime, chutneys of various persuasions (coconut and mint and tomato), and those objects of much desire, bread rolls stuffed with spicy potato curry. The trendier homes sent sandwiches. In an age where our collective imagination was colonized by a rural Enid Blyton-esque England of wafer thin cucumber sandwiches and strawberry jam scones, this was definitely cosmopolitan. Small matter that I did not think jam was all that great. I nevertheless begged my hapless mother who was up at the crack of dawn to knead dough for the wonderful potato parathas I carried, to instead make me every other thing the other children brought. She did no such thing. So I scoffed down their sandwiches, and others ate my idlis and parathas.

All classroom politics and judgements solidified during lunchtime. Who shared with who, who did not, whose lunchbox was emptied the soonest, and whose was the humble steel tiffin as opposed to bright and matte-finished plastic ware. A few years ago, I espied the same steel tiffins many dollars marked up, at the Whole Foods mother ship in Austin, Texas, and guffawed. Sometimes, at lunchtime, we invited the teachers to come share food with us. A few always obliged. Sometimes I try and recall the delicious pleasure of having been able to bring about that coup; the breaking of borders between the classroom and the teachers' room. Many years later at our first job, my single friends and I, lived far from home, and were none of us industrious or brisk enough to make lunches. So we relied on the munificence of colleagues' parents, who generously sent extra food our way. Morsel by greedy morsel, we discovered other regional specialties; flaky sugared flatbread and jaggeried mangoes, delightfully puffy rice, and curries full of peanut powder. In the midst of deadlines, screaming bosses, and capricious clients, there was always lunchtime. In a recent movie titled The Lunchbox, the camera spends large amounts of time focused on the protagonist Irrfan Khan savoring each layer of his mistakenly delivered lunchbox; and proceeding to eat it all. In the midst of a deadening job and a morbidly quiet life, the lunchbox comes into his life with reminders of connection, and love, and flavor.

My favorite lunch boxes have been those we packed for travel; train journeys to be precise. The night before would emerge all our motley stainless steel boxes and thermos flasks. Washed and laid out on the dining table, they would gleam even as the family sat around making decisions on the food decisions which would carry us through the next twenty-four hours (or twenty six or twenty eight). One thermos of buttermilk, tart and bursting with cumin, coriander, and ginger; a box filled to the brim with small cut potatoes roasted in pepper, and salt; and finally one packed with idlis rolled in chili and coriander powder or gunpowder, held together with pungent Indian sesame oil. There was always the mandatory curd rice container with mango pickle.

IMG_20150831_091652Other small boxes held snacks, and what we called time-pass food; there was a lot of time to pass on the train. These were most often purloined from our snack cupboard of banana chips, potato chips, and biscuits. Excitedly the next morning, we'd all board the train with our own foods on offer even as we surveyed the compartment to look at our companions and their food bags. A twenty-four hour journey involved at least three meals, and every few hours, all the boxes came out and were circulated buffet-like.

As I write this, I also realize that I no longer ever make myself a lunchbox, to work, or for travel. Relying on wayside stores, packaged food, canteens, overpriced airport stalls, digestive medicines, and perhaps even a capacity to allay hunger, I leave home footloose and fancy free. I cannot, however, hold back an envious stare, when I see a competent co-passenger pull out Houdini-like from the innards of a tiny carry-on bag, gleaming steel tiffins and zip-locked treats. Nobody ever offers to share though.

For many long years, I used to view the world through nostalgia and what if's and continued to be absent. Now I gaze fondly at the past and look at old photographs in a way reminiscent of Faiz and old love, as necessary loss. Now I practise presence. Like the untidy nest built by the little bird on the ceiling of our tiled roof, it is a messy prospect. It asks one to let go, and to embrace the new world and its habits, and march forward, and yet maintain memory. But I like sharing food, and neat bento-box like lunch boxes, and magical travel treats. I do think I should try and make myself a lunch box today.