Varanasi - Dinner at Sunil's




In Varanasi we volunteered at a little hostel where we painted walls and ceilings with murals, and took care of the hostel's newly adopted street dog and her litter of puppies, in return for bed and food. One afternoon Angus disappeared into the city on the back of a motorbike to help one of the hostel workers, Sunil, with a mysterious favour. At lunchtime on every day of our stay, Sunil sought us out from wherever we were in the hostel, to share his lunch with us. We'd bring food to share but he was always insistent that we eat more than him, to the point where, despite us giving the tiffin tins back to him with enough left inside for him (hoping not to offend him, stumbling our way around Indian selflessness), it began to seem like his wife was making a delicious lunch every day just for Angus and I. Over a tiffin tin of spicy peas and chapatis he told us that Monday night we were to go to his home for dinner, to meet his wife, his mother, his father, his brother, his sister, his grandma, his grandpa, all of his uncles, their wives and their children. His wife would cook for us, some rice, chapati, vegetables and dhal… We spent the week looking forward to it.



Monday evening came and we took an auto rickshaw across Varanasi with Sunil's uncle Muhesh, who also worked at the hostel. In the Varanasi 'suburbs' he led us through a concrete maze of alleyways and homes. Up a dark, outdoor stairwell we met Sunil's mother crouched at a small fire assisted by an old computer fan, cooking. Sunil, bouncing with excitement, swept us into a room, his parent's bedroom. There was a bed without pillows or blankets, a small shrine in one corner, a pair of jeans and a jacket hanging on a hook, and some shutters which opened to a glass-less window out to the street. In the middle of the room, taking up most of the space, was a big concrete block which housed the extraction unit for the room below. Walls, ceilings and surfaces were that pista blue. We all sat on the bed. Including the tuk-tuk driver. Sunil's mother came in quietly with halva and water. As the last piece of halva was swallowed, she brought chai and biscuits. Then we were up and off for the tour. Three small bedrooms were centred around a middle space with a sink in it. In one bedroom we found Sunil's beautiful, (newly pregnant, Sunil whispered) wife. This was their room, with a bed with everything they owned arranged around it, under it and on top of it.

Uncle Muhesh, and 5 of his 8 brothers, lived 100m down the alleyway with their wives and children and the grandparents. In the home of the many uncle's, we met brothers with beautiful wives, and small children who touched our feet, and, trying to copy what they see the dads do, went to shake our hands but instead wiggled their entire little arms. The colourful, full, rooms, one room for each family, were lit up around a wet courtyard. The children had wet hair, blacker than black. Muhesh's contagious smile and fluffy, purple sleeveless jumper led us to each of the rooms where we sat with the family on their bed and drunk chai. Curtains instead of doors. Upstairs in a tiny room we met the grandparents, in bed with the blanket pulled up to their chins, grinning, and on to the bed we climbed with them, along with Sunil, uncle Muhesh, and the tuktuk driver. More chai, with cumin and chilli popadoms, fresh from Muhesh's wife. Not allowed to leave before we finish all the popadoms. Sunil said that his grandpa has brain problems and his grandma has leg problems. The grandpa had a retirement pension of 3x Sunil's wage, he'd had a good government job. He gave us a toothless smile. Sunil later told us that his grandpa drinks two bhang lassis a day and that he taught Sunil all the English he knows. Back to Sunil's home and the parent's bed where Sunil, Angus, the tuk-tuk driver and I were served a wonderful thali. Sunil was worried we were too hot so he poked the loose wires leading to a standing fan into the socket of an extension lead which made a huge spark and exploded in his hand. The mother, sister and brother stood in a huddle, Muhesh told us they were asking about our culture and whether we are married. Our thali bowls refilled. We wondered when and where Sunil's wife would eat.

Having had a totally overwhelming evening, the food being absolutely delicious, wanting to engage somehow with the women, and 'thank you' and 'the food is delicious' being some of the few words we knew in Hindi, we probably said both far too many times.


Sunil on the left, with his brother, sister, wife and mother.

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