Lucy Aunty, as Lucy Fernandes was known and will be known forever, fed thousands of students at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. I was one of them. Besides students, her food was popular among the Goan community in that city.
Why wouldn’t it be, given that she cooked the best Goan food? From rice curry to fish fry, doce de grão to perard – there wasn’t a single Goan delicacy she did not serve to the denizens of Baroda. Christmas perhaps was the busiest time for her, with several Goan families depending on her culinary skills to keep traditions alive. Her food united a community and gave the community an identity.
I do not doubt that Lucy Aunty was synonymous with the Goan community. She was one of the prominent members of the community, and perhaps it would not be wrong to consider her the most popular Goan in Baroda. Until, that is, her sad and untimely demise due to a heart attack on April 22. She was 84.
Like me, the Goan community in Baroda will never forget the taste of the food she cooked almost all her life. Her beef cutlets were the best. After almost a decade, I still recall the cutlets fried to perfection as if it was yesterday, the crisp and crusty layer of semolina adding to the exquisite experience. But most importantly her fish curry was exactly like home, in a place that was a thousand kilometers away from my home.
A storm of vegetarianism
Baroda being an important railway hub, already had a sizeable Goan community. From the ’70s and ’80s, the MS University of Baroda was attracting many Goan students. Of course, this population was ever-hungry and craving Goan food, and there was no better person than Lucy Aunty to feed them.
At the insistence of some office-goers, Lucy Aunty started providing lunch, which is how her catering business began. I moved to Baroda in 2008 as an undergraduate student of archaeology. Getting used to the vegetarian food culture was an uphill task, made ever difficult by the poor quality of food served in the hostel mess. Urban Gujarat was not, and perhaps is not, a place for someone with robust meat- and fish-eating habits.
I somehow managed that academic year – many Goans whom I knew would mention Lucy Aunty’s food and that I should contact her. For some reason, I was reluctant. Besides, I was trying to adjust to the new place, and before I knew it, a year was already up.
In my second year of college, I finally decided to contact Lucy Aunty. She lived at the end of Fatehgunj, a more than a kilometre-long thoroughfare in the middle of the city. Her apartment building was part of the old town planning and had survived the modern construction activity all around it. It was a small place, and she lived on the first floor.
There was an old-world charm to the building; to reach her apartment, one had to climb a narrow and steep flight of wooden stairs. The first thing she said to me was, “Concanim zannai mure?” Do you speak Konkani? I was disconcerted that someone would ask me that question, and I quickly fumbled a “Yes.” After all, I was a fresh migrant from Goa, and it would be obvious that my Konkani would be fluent.
Years later, I realise that for Lucy Aunty Goan food and Konkani were intimately linked to her sense of home. Increasingly, Goans were losing touch with the food and the language, so it was perhaps reassuring that someone knew the language, if not how to cook Goan food.That very day, I arranged for a daily tiffin once every day. I told her that instead of monthly payments, I would pay her every week. This arrangement, I thought to myself, allowed me to stop the service should it not meet my expectations.
I am embarrassed to have thought that her food would not meet my expectations. Thus, every week I got to know her as a person bit by bit. She was a perfectionist. Not only did she cook her dishes perfectly, like the beef cutlets mentioned earlier, but she also wanted her utensils and appliances to be polished clean. She was often dissatisfied with the work quality of anyone she hired for assistance. Her need for perfection was so acute that she would rewash all the utensils after the help had left. As if that were not enough, she would insist that utensils be washed in hot water, spending more time and money heating the water.
She exuded grace and dignity that I think is characteristically Goan. It came from the culture and way of life of an older generation. Goa has increasingly lost such a culture with economic and political changes and the passing of such individuals as Lucy Aunty. One was expected to be sincere and honest in one’s dealings with others – which is why she never compromised on the quality of her food, even if it meant losses for her.
Those of us who were her regulars were often surprised by the amount of food we got for our money – often more than a baker’s dozen. I still recall the first time I tasted her food. It was relief more than anything else. In a storm of vegetarianism, someone had thrown me a line. Finally, I could find daily refuge in food that was delicious, healthy, nourishing, and, most importantly, had some meat in it.
A delivery mixed-up
Actually, the story of how I first tasted her food is a funny one. When I started the tiffin service, we agreed that Lucy Aunty would provide lunch. The first time the delivery guy, an unreliable fellow obviously, messed up. Instead of delivering to #27 M.A Hall (Maharshi Arvind Hall), he delivered it to MM Hall (Manubhai Mehta Hall). The rogue residents of #27 M. M. Hall had polished every single morsel by the time I had figured out what had happened. I had to wait until the next day.
I made sure that the unreliable delivery guy understood where exactly he had to leave the food. That afternoon, I rushed back to my room in the scorching hot afternoon. The bag was right next to the door. I rushed to make sure that the contents were safe too. Ah! That first bite. Happily, I polished everything in those containers. It is quite tragic that I do not remember what exactly I ate. If there were Instagram and smartphones, I would have posted a picture for posterity (#bestthinginBaroda).
But the important thing that I remember was the relief and happiness that had washed over me as I had attacked the food, as if I had been hungry for months.And so it happened that on Mondays I would eat Goan fish curry, on Tuesdays I ate the delicious and oily mutton kheema with large chunks of potato in it. Sometimes on Wednesdays, there was fried fish, Thursdays fried chicken. Sometimes I would be surprised with some pork; other times, I would savor a beef curry.
There was always a dish made of vegetables with some chapatis (which I ate dutifully). Seeing the “gourmet” food I ate daily prompted a friend to remark that I feast every day.
A few months after I had had my first bite, Lucy Aunty stopped her tiffin service after several decades – perhaps four. Apart from some personal problems she was facing, the financial side of her enterprise was proving to be increasingly unviable. For a large part, it was to do with the fact that students often defaulted on the payments– a problem she faced right from the beginning.
I also had felt that she charged less for her food (or a few rupees more than the production cost), making only marginal profits. She would never compromise on the ingredients, and her costs of production would rise because everyone got the very best. It was also clear that she did not do it for profit; she could earn just enough, and she loved to cook.
Her stoppage of the tiffin service created problems for me. Naturally, I feared I might starve to death eating the vegetarian food of the university hostel. I requested her to continue feeding me. I told her that I would come over every evening. As she agreed – only for me (I think she liked me!) I would visit her precisely at 6.45 pm.
There were two reasons for it. One, she had asked me to show up at 7, and I like to arrive before time. The other reason was that she enjoyed watching Hindi soaps, and her favorite ended at 7. But because I was 15 minutes early, she would make me sit with her in her living room and explain the plot as it unfolded on the screen until the program ended. I did not need an explanation of the extremely soapy and overly dramatic plots. I understood Hindi and did not need a Konkani commentary.
But it was one of those little things that I came to enjoy. At exactly 7, she would say, “Chol, tuka vaddtam.” Let me serve you dinner.We would walk to the kitchen and talk a bit about this and that as I ate at her table. It was at this time that I learned all about her difficulties with managing her business. She would sometimes share the problems she faced in her personal life. I listened, for I got the sense that she wanted someone just to listen.
Racing against time
It is hard to summarise a person’s long life and quiet strength in a few words or even a few lines. What can be said of a person who liked to cook, fed generations of young students, went through so many personal troubles, gave a community a sense of identity other than noting her strength, patience, and incredibly refined culinary skills? It is impossible to encapsulate the lives of such people as Lucy Aunty because although they lived very ordinary lives, their deaths create an extraordinary absence.
Perhaps, one extremely quotidian incident sums her life the best. As usual, I had shown up for dinner one evening. Lucy Aunty was glued to the TV. As I sat down for a few minutes of soapy drama, she suddenly remembered that a Nepali gentleman had ordered some fish fry. The order was due in 15 minutes. Lucy Aunty had the fish cut into pieces, but she had forgotten to marinate it. She told me that she would race against time and that I would have to wait a bit for my dinner.
She had abandoned her favorite soap opera midway. Swinging into action, she quickly marinated the fish, heated the pan, and literally juggled everything to perfection. It felt like all the pots and pans in her tiny kitchen had come to life. She was in command, no doubt. The job was done two minutes before the Nepali gentleman showed up. She was overjoyed because she had delivered the goods on time. After she handed the fish fry and Nepali gentleman had left, she turned to me, beaming ear to ear, and said, “Hanv jikli.” I won.
Dale Luis Menezes is a PhD student in the history programme at Georgetown University.
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