Monthly Archives: June 2011

one _____(5) too many

“Too many ________ (5) spoil the broth (22 Across)”

Jagannath thought hard. This is the last one, he told himself, this will finally complete it. For the last two years that he has been in the city, he has religiously tried to complete the grid every day. Two years is not a short period but he has got better with time. It is strange how he got hooked to a crossword. It gets published in the newspaper every day. Most people do not even acknowledge its existence. They keep themselves busy either with the political turmoil or the changing fortunes of the Indian cricket team. And if they did neither, they simply bought the newspaper to openly ogle at the skimpily clothed starlets who provide the much needed excitement in their otherwise boring sex life.

Jagannath however had a reason that dated back to the day he first landed in the city from a small town in Mayurbhanj district of Odisha. He had just come out of the general compartment of the East Coast express, having been almost crushed to death and was hungry. He barely had a place to stand in the crowded compartment and with all the heat and the merciless pushing around he had nothing to eat for the last sixteen hours. He noticed a small boy selling curd rice wrapped in a newspaper. He was a little hesitant as the curd rice looked stale but the boy was giving it for cheap. Overpowered by hunger, he indulged himself by shelling out 12 rupees for the curd rice. With his hunger satiated and with no immediate place to go to, he sat down in the platform contemplating how he would make a living in this city.  It was during this period, that he noticed that the newspaper from which he just had his curd rice had a strange square, subdivided into smaller squares  – some white and some black. A few of them had a number in very small font at the top on the left. It looked like a distorted chess board which has regular white and black squares each following the other. He had never liked chess. It is too methodical and has a lot of rules, something that he never liked since childhood. The irregularity in this square intrigued him.

He looked further down. With whatever knowledge of English he had, he read the first sentence following the grid. It read

“Home is where the _____ (5) is (1 Across)”

He did not know the answer; neither did he know what to do with it even if he figured it out. In all likelihood he would have thrown the newspaper away at this. He had more pressing problems to look into. However for some unknown reason, he did not. Instead he tucked the paper in his inner pocket, a pocket built on the inner side of the pant to keep your valuables from being pick-pocketed when you are travelling in the general compartment of the train, hoping to find some time in future to figure it out. For now, he had to attend to the other pressing problems – to find a shelter and a permanent income being the ones with the top most priority. Like every poor Indian, there were countless others that followed these two but first things first.

Jagannath was a cook. Back home, he was a cook of great repute. He was lovingly called ‘Bhaina’, odia for an elder brother and was also treated like one. He worked for a small event management company that typically arranged marriages. In a country obsessed with marriages he had no shortage of work. And he relished his job. He had handled marriages as big as five thousand people on the guest list and administered over five other cooks. Together they were the reason for many happy weddings. Dressed in a lungi and often bare bodied, he never dared to venture out and ask people if they liked his food but he did stand behind the glittering drapes and peeped through the crevices, where the stitch had come off, as people gorged on the food that he had prepared. He loved the contented expression on their face in those times.

His father had been a great cook too and he had learnt the ropes of the trade from him. People say that he was even invited to cook for Lord Jagannath, the presiding deity of Odisha in Puri, one of the four holy places for a Hindu. He had declined the offer because of two reasons – first he had to cook the same food everyday and he did not enjoy doing that and second he was not allowed to cook non vegetarian dishes that he was so good at. Most weddings in Odisha are not over till people have relished and appreciated the non vegetarian dish. In case they did not find it good enough, it was as good as not having a marriage at all. So a lot depended on the cook who handled the non vegetarian dish and Jagannath’s dad was a true architect at that. To pay off for his sins that he had accumulated for refusing the offer to cook for the lord himself, he had named his son as Jagannath.

However deep within, Jagannath knew that there was yet another reason why his father did not want to go to Puri to cook for the Lord. It would be very difficult for you to comprehend that reason unless you are a cook yourself. When you cook for the lord, that food is beheld by the people as Prasad and no matter how well you cook people will always appreciate you for the fear of the Lord and not for the quality of the food. Somehow, that is an insult to a great cook. On the other hand, people at weddings openly criticize the food, if it is bad and also genuinely appreciate it, if it is good. That kind of appreciation means a lot to a cook; in fact to every artist in his own little way.

However, times changed and Jagannath slowly learned, as he married and started a family of his own, that there is very little to earn in his home town, that he has to move out and look for greener pastures if he wanted to do something more than what his father did, that money mattered a lot more than appreciation in life and with more and more weddings being catered by professional restaurants, opportunities had considerably reduced. Jagannath knew he was a good cook and would be able to make his mark in almost any kind of kitchen. With this confidence, he bade good bye to his life at the small town and with dreams of making it big landed in the city, known for its rich exotic preparations and lavish, expensive dishes.

The city was a strange place, as Jagannath realized very quickly. Even a cook of his expertise hardly managed to find a job. He had to go through many channels, bribe people and accept many rejections before he got the job of a waiter in a restaurant that was finding it difficult to maintain a staff because of lack of business. Jagannath Mohapatra, became Jaggu as he ran errands – taking orders and collecting the plates. He was strictly instructed not to try his hand at cooking, even though he pleaded for a chance, as the customers liked the preparations of the present cook and having already lost a considerable amount of customers to the posh restaurants that had come up in vicinity, the restaurant manager was in no mood to experiment.

Jagannath did not complain. He understood the manager’s constraints and respected him for giving him a job when everyone else had refused him. His manager was also the one who told him that the messed up chess board, Jagannath carried with himself, is called a crossword and that he needs to figure out the answers to the question given below it and then fill them up in the white squares provided – one letter at a time. ‘Across’ stood for a horizontal line and ‘Down’ for a vertical one. The small number at the top left said where your answer should go in and the number in brackets told the count of the letters that the answer contained.

It had rained that night. Jagannath was woken up by the cool breeze pregnant with the smell of the just wet earth. He stared at the rains for a long time as they lashed the summer stricken earth with all their might setting off puffs of dust. It had almost been three months since he had come to the city and had hardly been in touch with his wife back home. The rains made him nostalgic. During this time at home, they would sow paddy in the nursery beds and worship the local deity, at the end of the village, hoping for a good harvest. He drew out the crossword from his inner pocket and read the first clue again.

“Home is where the _____ (5) is (1 Across)”

He hesitated for a moment. He only had a pen and if he wrote a wrong answer he would have no way to erase it. After much consideration he decided it has to begin someday. With his best hand-writing he wrote H-E-A-R-T in the first five squares and then stared at the answer for quite some time. It looked perfect. He kept looking at it, till the cool breeze had the better of him and he fell asleep.

From then on, he had spent every waking hour figuring out the responses to the questions in the crossword making sure that he filled the answers only when he was very certain. In between taking orders, serving food, collecting the used plates and sometimes helping the urchin who cleaned them, he devoted all his free time to the crossword. Even his lunch-breaks and the time before he went to sleep were spent with the crossword. In a way, the crossword helped him settle down into the new city. Ironically, it would also be the reason why he would decide to leave the same.

With every answer that he figured out, he grew more and more confident. Initially he was filling completely isolated words. Then came the time when the words started mingling with each other. There was a great symphony in the way they mingled. First one letter would pop up as a part of the answer to some other question, then a couple more would follow in a similar fashion and then Jagannath would use all his mental faculty and his experience to come up with the other three or four letters that would perfectly fit into the blanks created by the first three letters and together they would then form the complete word. Once they do so, it is very difficult to figure out who came first. They all made the crossword become a little complete every day. They all made the crossword what it was. Together.

The happiness that he got with each word of the crossword getting filled was marred by the success he got in his professional life. True, he was still making more money than what he did by being a cook back home but the job of a waiter was leading him nowhere. The restaurant had lost more of its business and so the chances of him being a cook had gone for a toss. No other restaurant wanted him as a cook as he did not have any experience in being one and no other restaurant wanted him as a waiter because he was not very good at it. To be a cook he needed experience and to have experience he needed to be a cook. Jagannath had the same thought as the day he began solving his crossword – ‘It has to begin somewhere’ – but no one was interested in buying that idea of his. So he had little choices but to continue with his current disappointing life. In all this mess, it is the crossword that kept him going. With every bit of success that he had in figuring out the words he derived pleasure in small packets. Sometimes, that is all that you need to keep yourself going.

And today he stared at finishing the crossword -one short of a dream that he had chased for the last two years. He looked at the question carefully

“Too many ________ (5) spoil the broth (22 Across)”

Jagannath thought hard. For once he considered that the answer could be C-O-O-K-S. Cooks prepare broth and in all likelihood have the chance of spoiling it. It also has five characters as has been mentioned in the question. But as a cook, who was renowned in his own little way till a few years back, his heart did not agree. He had worked with five other cooks and together they had prepared many a mouth-watering and finger-licking dishes without ever spoiling any of them. Of course they had never tried their hands at preparing broth, but how different could that be?

The cooks in his village were nothing like their city counterparts. They did not wear suites, they did not respond to orders in PDAs, they did not speak fluent English, they did not know how to cook with a microwave nor did they use an apron but irrespective of all these they did what they were expected to do the best. They cooked. Unlike the business-minded people in the city, cooking to them was an art not a science. They did not take any extra effort to sell their food. People devoured their preparations in delight. They did not put neon colored lights to lure people to taste their preparations. People eagerly waited for them.

That was what cooking was, Jagannath thought, in the good old days. That was when the charm was in cooking. That was before business took over it. That was before real cooks were made waiters without giving them a chance. That was before those apron-clad crooks took over the kitchens and declared themselves as cooks.

Wait, there it was! Jagannath’s face beamed. He went over the question again

“Too many ________ (5) spoil the broth (22 Across)”

And then went over his last train of thought. “That was before those apron-clad crooks took over the kitchens and declared themselves as cooks.”

A faint smile fleeted across his face. He picked up the pen and started writing the answer C-R-O-O-K-S. The answer did not fit. He concluded that the number in the brackets was wrong. The answer had one letter too many. Most well read readers of my blog may not agree to Jagannath’s answer but it was his crossword and he had decided that the answer had one letter too many.

The next day, he dropped a post-card to the newspaper stating the error he had found in the crossword dated as the date on the newspaper fragment that he carried in his inner pockets. After that he threw the fragment away – it had served its purpose – and booked his ticket back home. The last question had been an eye opener. He found no work in a city of crooks and he did not regret that. He needs to go back to the small town where he is revered as a cook. That’s where his true calling lies.

As for the newspaper company, they never bothered to reply back to Jagannath’s stupid letter. It was one letter too many for them!

  1. I really do not approve of ‘Brain Drain’ as a problem. But I do think ‘Migration’ is one, though it has never received enough attention. I somehow do not like the concept of over crowded cities and sparsely populated villages – as my village looks now with hardly any 20 year olds around.
  2. There are many waiters in Hyderabad who are Odia. This story is partly inspired from my conversations with a few of them. However, this does not belong to any one in particular.
  3. Crosswords are a beautiful part of the daily newspaper. I am not very good at them but I really admire the people who prepare them and the ones who cannot sleep without completing them every day. You should look at their eyes when they successfully finish one. They look so endearingly contented.