Bhaji

They broke the mold after they crafted him.

The other day, I saw pictures of a family on a picnic. The same afternoon I I found paper thin spring roll sheets in the Nilgiris supermarket. I don’t know if this was a coincidence, or a voice from the past.

It triggered a far and distant , long forgotten memory from the recesses of my dusty mind . A wrinkled and kindly face from the past. An ex-serviceman who stiffened to attention and clicked his heels when called. A faithful and loyal old friend we called Bhaji , Grandpa in Nepali.

We were blessed that he chose to live with us and shared our lives, atop the snow capped mountains of the Himalayas. He was a retired ex- serviceman from the Border Roads Task Force . The chief of BRTF, Mr. Sampathraj, a dear friend of ours, will be remembered in the annals of the family history, as the man who brought Bhaji into our lives.

When my kids were growing up, we had to make up all sorts of ways, of dressing up left over rice, when we lived in the Himalayas. Undoubtedly, mixed fried rice was a great favourite that appeared with predictable regularity on the table , in their lunch boxes and on picnics, when we took them down to the river with Bhaji in tow.

Unexpected guests arriving at high altitudes unannounced , when there were no supermarkets and no departmental stores, honed our cooking skills in putting together meals that stretched and served them with panache , something I could not have pulled off, without someone I will never forget as long as I live. Bhaji with time was in total synch with my crazy adventures, in a resource challenged kitchen and took his cue from the look on my face.

One afternoon , a top ranking Indian Engineer from the Hydel Project in Bhutan, dropped in unexpectedly just as we were sitting down to dinner. After years of Research and Development, I swung into Operation Stretch  . Wasting no time , I thinned the Chicken curry, added two boiled and quartered potatoes, salt and sprinkled a little more cilantro as I invited him to the table, where hot steam rose in rising swirls, from the bowl of freshly cooked Rice. He sat down , took one look at the bird floating in the gravy, looked up at me apologetically and said  Madam , I am a Vegetarian.

My jaw fell with a loud gasp and thud to the floor. I looked at Sam for help, but he was disintegrating rapidly into a heap of acute embarrassment at the other end of the table. Nonchalantly, I smiled as if I was used to vegetarians gawking in shock at the table, pretended as if this was only just the first of many courses , whisked the offending bird into the kitchen and out of sight and offered him the cold Channa from lunch dressed up as a tantalising Channa Chat, as a starter, while I cooked the second of many courses, even as he sat at lunch.

Ema Tashi , the traditional Bhutanese Cheese and Chilli dish was a favourite life saver, as we were never out of the three ingredients that went into it. Cheese, chilli and onions. It did not matter even if it was cooked in a tell-tale, loud, noisy, temperamental pressure cooker , that whistled off key in the kitchen, even as guests sat at the table, in the next room.

Bhaji, my partner in crime, meanwhile had swung silently to action, without a spoken word as he started kneading the dough for Spring roll wrappers. Deftly, he rolled them out into thin squares and filled them with small quantities of fried rice, that was left over from the kids lunch and fried them crisp on the old Aga Stove, that cooked our food and warmed the kitchen. We arranged the Spring rolls , radially like the face of a clock , on a white plate with a small bowl of Tomato sauce in the centre and I sashayed into the dining room with the curtain raiser.

After an entertaining meal , the polite CE rose from the table after several helpings of seconds, totally amused. He thanked us at the door and said that he had never tasted such crisp and tasty Spring rolls in all his field trips in the snow capped mountains. With a smile and a twinkle in his eye, he added, that these Spring rolls stuffed with fried rice, he chalked up as a first. He came back many times and he always let us know when he was coming and he always asked if I would be kind enough to put some fried rice in his Spring rolls.

A frequently used hack, that Bhaji and I used in dire straits , was spring rolls filled with left over fried rice. This was an all time favourite , served hot. The wrappers were homemade and rolled out they were a tad thicker than the factory minted crisp Spring roll sheets of today.

There is no need for a recipe. It’s simple.
1. Buy and thaw the Spring roll sheets.
2. Fill with small amounts of left over fried rice.
3. Deep fry in oil or in the air fryer.
4. Serve with sweet chilli sauce.
5. Enjoy the compliments.

When we left the Himalayas, Bhaji went to stay and brave the unfamiliar heat of the plains to look after my elderly parents, when they retired from Singapore and relocated to Madras. He spoke no Malay and my parents spoke no Hindi. They got by with sign language that they punctuated with audiovisuals. Once on holiday with them , when I pointed out that Bhaji doesn’t understand their mix of Tamil- Malayalam -Malay, my hearing challenged mother, merely dismissed it with an impatient He should have learned by now !  .

Bhaji stayed with my parents, till the end. When my Dad, who survived my Mum, left for the ICU for his last admission , he gave the keys of the house to Bhaji and said Bhaji, give the keys to Susie when she comes back from London. I won’t be coming back , All in my Dad”s broken Malay.

When my Dad passed away, as he predicted, I had to close an empty house, to return to the UK to continue my Dermatology Fellowship at St.John’s. A tired Bhaji, who had chosen sultry Madras over the cool Himalayas, had to reluctantly admit that it was time to hang up his apron. He left and we never saw him again.

It was the end of an era. A lifetime of loyal devotion. He left as he came . Silently and unobtrusively , taking our hearts full of love for him, with him.

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