I first heard about Veena ben when I came to Singapore post marriage in December 2003. Sushil had referred to her in passing as “the lady who supplies the daily dubba to all the bachelors in Sun Microsystems” She was just a name to me then and I was much too preoccupied being “married” to delve into the nitty gritties of who Veena Ben was. It didn’t matter in any case since I would be sending Sushil his lunchbox henceforth. I could already see Veena Ben become a name in the distant past as I became the official “cook” as far as my husband was concerned. It is only now that I realize my folly in overestimating my own capabilities, underestimating her’s and dismissing the importance of the role she played in the lives of so many young men.
Veena ben is an elderly lady most probably in her fifties now. It is not an unknown fact that Indian men are brought up to become accustomed to Indian food (among other things) and it is especially difficult for them (especially the vegetarians) to adapt to local food available in predominantly meat loving countries such as Singapore. As such, Veena ben has always been the lifeline supporting the helpless Indian bachelors working in the Chai Chee area, providing them with their daily spread and making them feel at home in a foreign country.
Being a traditional Gujarati lady, her food has the distinct Gujju touch which makes it extremely delicious and an instant hit among people from all parts of India. Not that she can’t cook north or south Indian food-but her Gujarati dishes are par excellence. And she has always made it a point to treat her loyal followers to a special surprise treat every Friday. True enough even Sush has always refused to take a home cooked meal to office on Fridays because he did not want to miss out on the special Friday treat. There came a time when I began wonder why Sush would rave so much about another woman’s cooking when his own wife was fast becoming such a good cook (attempting not to boast). The answer came to me one day when I fell ill and couldn’t bring myself to cook. When Sushil suggested that he ask Veena ben for an extra lunch box for me, I must admit I was relieved at the prospect of not having to cook and I hastily agreed. The lunchbox arrived promptly and I opened it only to be amazed by the plethora of foodstuffs that were made to fit into the little Styrofoam box. There were three chapattis, a heap of rice, a bowl of dal, subji in one small compartment, salad in the other, papad in a plastic bag and a tiny little container filled with lemon pickle-all neatly packed in and reeking of experience and many years of refining the art of cooking. Of course once I tasted the food, it became clear why these men were so loyal to Veena ben. The food in one word could be described as DELICIOUS. And at SGD4/box, it was well worth it. Also, the fact that it was a complete meal, only cemented the undying loyalty. So much so that all the men, married or unmarried never stopped buying lunch from her to the best of my knowledge. In fact one guy I know has moved home twice just to be around Veena ben, when she had to move home too. He recently went to India and brought back a wonderful wife who is Veena Ben’s latest fan. She “hangs” with her often and cannot stop talking about the person, her genuine concern for her “boys” and her artistic culinary talents.
Another thing that has always struck me about Veena Ben is her penchant for kind words and goodwill. I am personally not close to her, but she has never failed to keep in touch or ask after my health when I have been ill. In all my five years of knowing her and her faithful maid, I have found her to be the epitome of stability-someone to be relied upon and someone who is never short of kind words and selfless behaviour.
She recently called a couple of her most loyal troupe home (including me and Sush) for dinner and that’s where I met her wonderful family. Her two sons, one of whom possesses the same artistic tendency which he uses in his work as a furniture designer-and her husband who turned out to be one of the most jovial, experienced and bubbly personalities I have met. Plus he is a trader by profession which got me talking to him easily about the steel and iron ore trade-something that I deal with on a day to day basis. Added to that was Ajit uncle’s "Bangali" characteristics which he picked up during his long stint in West Bengal. His Bengali is easily more fluent than my own, and the common ground did get us comfortably chatting with each other like pals of old.
Of course the good conversation and pleasant ambience was just a precursor to the awesome multi course dinner that Veena ben had prepared. Pooris, aamras, Gujarati kadhi, rice, baingal aaloo subji, cauliflower subji, mouth watering methi wadis, four kinds of pickles and a beautifully done up salad. Apparently she had prepared Chaat as a starter, but we missed it on account of our late arrival. I had promised myself that I would go easy but suffice it to say that by the time we went home, we were so stuffed that we could barely walk.
I have often thought to myself what makes Veena ben’s food so good and so sought after. Sure experience accounts since years of cooking has honed her skills. And one cannot discount the latent artistic tendency that she obviously possesses in abundance. But come to think of it, that is never enough to obtain the results she gets. She cooks to please-both herself and the hungry mouths she feeds. And it’s not a daily grind for her-she thoroughly enjoys what she does. Most importantly-she cares. And isn’t that the most coveted ingredient of all?
------- Shreyasi M.