The Jamvanu Club

It’s a Monday. Not any particular Monday; just a regular Monday at the beginning of the week in May where I happen to be back home in Thika, Kenya, visiting family. It’s approaching noon and I have just arrived at my aunt’s house with my son, my mother and grandmother. We are there for a family lunch involving three households – my father’s and his two cousin brothers’. Accustomed to such impromptu gatherings and luncheons, this particular gathering was only established 2 days ago when we found out that some old acquaintances were travelling from abroad to meet with the men in the family for work-related matters, and since everyone in Thika usually comes home for lunch, my aunt had volunteered to host this meal at her home. She hadn’t had the whole family over for about month and, therefore, she took the opportunity to invite us all for a ‘jamvanu’ – a celebratory meal or gathering for a meal, if you like.

We walk into the vast kitchen where one end opens to the veranda, the soft tapping of my grandmother’s walking stick on the tiled floor gently announcing our arrival.

Aavo,” my aunt greets us in Gujarati, a common greeting used to welcome one into the home. Her daughter and daughter-in-law emerge from one of the adjoining rooms.

We all exchange greetings and dive right into conversations as my son goes about hugging everyone, “Hi!”, “Hi!” his favourite word.

My mother places the mixed vegetable rice dish that she had prepared earlier on the grey granite countertop of the kitchen table next to several other dishes that are ready for service. A salad that is waiting to be dressed sits beside a tray filled with various homemade chutneys and condiments of all colours. Green and red chillies prepared in numerous ways – dried, stuffed, pickled and cooked in oil and spices – form a part of this vibrant display. A glass bowl in the middle of the arrangement catches my eye. On closer inspection, I see it is filled with ivy gourd that has been cut into small pieces and mixed with jaggery and spices. My mouth watering, I make a mental note to try that later.

On the far end, jugs of lassi – some plain, some laced with a spiced tadka and curry leaves – stand tall beside another carafe with cool water. I peak into the Tupperware container and find a peculiar dish with chunks of avocados that are mixed in with passionfruit juice. One of the dishes to finish off the meal no doubt.

A loud ‘bang’ of the cupboard draws my attention away and I find my toddler son peering inside the drawer, his quick fingers about to grab the nearest bowl. Hastily, I rush off to stop any calamity from occurring, running after him as he makes his escape. He runs towards the front door, and I look up to find my other aunt approaching with a bowl of fruit salad, her teenage son and older daughter in tow. Just minutes before, her mother-in-law – the ever-independent woman – had driven herself to the house and she now busies herself examining the food on display. Always early to arrive, her inquisitive manner curious to the happenings around her falls short when it involves the actual cooking or preparing of food.

At last, all the women of the three households are now present. As I chase after my son, I come across the hive of activities taking place around us. There are two large pots on the kitchen stove where the curries are simmering away. Every so often, my aunt lifts their lids to give them a quick stir, before continuing with overseeing other tasks. Both her daughter and daughter-in-law are putting the finishing touches to the table setting, making sure there are plenty of glasses and bowls set aside to hold the numerous dishes we are going to consume. The oval dining table is large enough to seat most of us all together. The remaining few will be required to help serve the food and drinks. Jane, an impeccably tall woman with an elegant gait is sitting on a chair overlooking the portable gas cooker. Her dark blue uniform is the same shade as the gas tank sitting securely beside her. My aunt comes over to test the hot oil in the kadai by dipping a morsel of the batter mix, watching it sizzle as it quickly rises to the surface. Satisfied, she instructs Jane to begin frying the bhajias.

My mother and younger aunt have positioned themselves in front of the two-cooker burner, chatting animatedly as they work together. I watch as my mum rolls out dough to create perfectly round puris, placing them into yet another small kadai with hot oil as her sister-in-law takes the stainless steel slotted ladle and fries the puris into fluffy round pillows, taking them off the heat at precisely the right moment, before they turn a shade too dark. Within a few minutes, there is a pile of puris sitting high over newspaper collecting the excess oil on a large plate, waiting to be later transferred into a serving platter.

Taking advantage of time, the ‘younger’ generation decides to sit down to eat, filling our plates with all the hot food as it is being prepared. We’ll have eaten by the time the men arrive and so we will be able to serve the lunch to the rest of the group.

It’s not long before the kitchen countertop is full as completed dishes are added to the display, and a functioning system emerges. The well-trained eye will recognise that each dish has been precisely placed both for ease of serving as well as taking into account the pre-ordained approach to dining etiquette. It’s all in the details. For example, the condiments, salad, bhajias and curries will be served first, followed by the puris. Rice will not be served until the end, followed by the fruits. An important system to follow for any jamvanu to be deemed successful.

The honking of the cars at the gate signals the arrival of the men and all the ladies spring into action. The jamvanu begins.

Ever since I can remember, this is how it has always been in Thika, where I grew up. Jamvanus have been the norm in my family. They used to be a big part of my life too when I first moved to London, still a young girl enrolled in the education system. Back then, I relied on jamvanus to help satisfy my food cravings since boarding school and university provided me with limited choices. There was always a handful of families who regularly invited me into their homes to share meals with them, meals with other guests and meals to celebrate special occasions. I clearly recall the excitement of getting dressed for every jamvanu, and the feeling of being utterly satiated after gorging on the vast spread made generously for us. These wonderful hosts opened their homes and hearts to me. It was all done in enjoyment. For the love of getting people together. For the love of wanting to feed people. For the love of entertaining. Whether you were house proud or not, it did not appear to matter. What mattered was the ability to call people over and open your homes to them. An act of opening your home; thus, opening your heart. Out of generosity. A selfless act that brought so much joy to others.

This is where bonds were formed and forged, where memories were created. As a child, I learnt how to hold steady the tray with the chutneys as I made my way around the long table where diners were seated in a line patiently waiting for the food to be served, making sure not to spill any on myself or any on the diners opposite me. I took pride in being allowed to serve a dish (serve anything for that matter) as it felt like a privilege and felt like an important part of a ritual whereby everyone got involved. The excitement was evident on the eager faces of all the children as the ‘papad’ (or poppadom) dish was handed over to them – their initiation into the world of food service. It’s during jamvanus that I learnt the art of persuasion, whereby you convinced (read: coerced) the diner to take one more barfi, one more gulab jamun, a top up on shirkhand

“Ek chalse” (“One more will do”), I say.

“No, no”, as they wave away my hand.

“Khali plate che.” (Your plate is empty.”)

“Bow khailidhu.” (I’ve eaten too much”)

And so goes the conversation to and fro until an elder intervenes to take the laddu thali off me and dumps a piece right on the diner’s plate, insisting that they need it.

The best part of a jamvanu was that we got to eat like royalty; always spoilt for choice.  

In those days, I took the hospitality for granted. I never gave the jamvanus much thought and certainly didn’t give them the prominence they deserved. I had grown up believing ‘they’ would always be around.

And they were always around. Whenever there was a wedding, there was some form of (or several) jamvanus. Jamvanus in people’s homes; jamvanus in bigger venues. Whenever there was a religious event, there was a jamvanu. A puja at someone’s house was followed by a meal for all those attending. A ‘balmovara’ was followed by a jamvanu. Family visiting from overseas was an excuse to hold a jamvanu. A birthday always involved a celebratory meal at home. There was always an occasion suitable to have a jamvanu.

Today, after nearly 14 years of marriage, I feel lucky if we are invited over to someone’s house for a meal. Sure, there are the few people who definitely do love entertaining at home and who do invite us regularly. However, the numbers are few and it’s always the same people who volunteer. Over the years, the art of home entertaining has slowly but surely changed. Families have grown. Relationships have altered. Priorities have adjusted and adapted. The cost of living has increased. Labour is not as readily available. Helping hands to pitch in are scarce; for some it does not come as naturally to step in and help out. Houses are smaller. Not everyone can cook; not everyone enjoys cooking. Entertaining can also be tiresome and disheartening when an invitation is never reciprocated or extended back.

The very same people who used to host these elaborate jamvanus have grown older; they naturally cannot organise and manage as much. Their children (I consider myself as one of the ‘children’ and so these are my peers) see entertainment in a different light. Very few open their homes to entertain. Catching up with friends and families now involves more of dining out than in. Our lives appear to be busier. There is no time to always cook a meal from scratch, let alone feeding others outside the immediate family cohort. Life is tough and as much as possible, we try and make it easier where we can.

But in making life easier for ourselves, we have lost touch with truly connecting with people. Yet, this should not be the case.

I was in the car with my friend and her sister last Saturday, driving back from a clothes exhibition we had all attended together, when I let my inhibitions loose. Despite the initial excitement of visiting and seeing what’s on display, none of us bought anything, lamenting on the fact that we have nowhere to go to wear all these beautiful Indian clothes. This prompted a discussion on jamvanus. The jovial self-sympathy continued, followed by a feeling of self-importance as we joked with exaggeration about how nobody extends any invitations anymore and how the last time we might have seen the inside of certain family members’ houses would have been years ago.  

We were all in agreement about how we like to have people over, or want to have people over more often, but never manage to get round to it as much as we would like to. How we wished to host more jamvanus and make use of our homes and gardens; yet how we have found to struggle to get the help we need to make such a jamvanu run smoothly. Falling gracefully from my self-assured high horse, I soon realised the idiocy of all our comments. There was simply no reasonable excuse not to go ahead and make forth a jamvanu. We could just as easily have it on a smaller scale, a more manageable scale or even a paid scale. Where there is a will, there is a way.

And so, that day we came to an important conclusion. We formed the highly elusive, originally named ‘Jamvanu Club’. A club that celebrates what the tin says. At present, its members comprise of us three families and there are a few stipulations that must be followed. First, we each must host a jamvanu at home and this will be rolled over to the next member to host every 2 months. To ease the burden and pressures that come with entertaining, the host can choose to keep it as simple or as elaborate as they desire. The finer details still require some attention, such as if and when we get new members, would they automatically be bumped up the pecking order to host the next jamvanu? Would take outs and catering be acceptable as long as the gathering is at ‘home’? This is all relative and can be accommodated as we go along.

For now, this club is my vision to bring back that childhood excitement and joy. To rely on forging stronger relations and a sense of togetherness. For my son to experience the same camaraderie and learn as much as I did. For him to be able to spend time regularly in other people’s homes, getting to know them well and forming a strong memorable bond with the other children in the group. For him to know of the happiness that comes with a full house when guests come over to ours. For him to share food and ‘break bread’ and be treated as an equal at the dining table.

(As I planned to write this, my cousin assured me that there are indeed still a large number of people who enjoy entertaining at home. They – my cousin and her husband – have a group of friends who always entertain at home. There is obviously the one anomaly within the group who manages to avoid the situation whenever it is their ‘turn’, but for most, it works well. They have found their cohort; their Jamvanu Club. It’s now high time I find mine.)


We walk through the door to be greeted by a smiling lady, dressed in all black.

“Do you have a reservation?” she asks. We can barely hear her over the loud racket coming from behind her.

“Yes. For 7.30 p.m., under Chaand. We’re a few minutes late,” my husband answers as I quickly scan the room to see if I recognise anyone. It’s unsurprisingly busy for a weeknight as it’s a popular eatery with regulars. We had to secure a booking a few weeks back.

She hesitates… “There doesn’t seem to be one under that name.”

“For eight people, maybe under Jay?”

She hesitates some more, with the first signs of frown lines beginning to appear on her forehead. “We have one under Sandra?”

“Ah yes, that’s us!” Of course, the PA had made the reservation.

We walk across the entire length of the restaurant to be shown to our table and that’s when we first notice the other three couples already seated at the table. Pausing their conversation mid-sentence as they see us approaching, they stand up to greet us.

“Hello, I’m Sita”, I introduce myself to an exceptionally tall man with a firm handshake, whilst consciously making the effort to return it with a firm grip. I wouldn’t want him to think of me as delicate.

“Hi. Sita”, as I repeat to his wife standing next to him. I note that she is fairly tall too as she bends slightly to shake my hand. I’m used to being the shortest in the crowd. It has never fazed me. I turn to the other four members around the table, smiling as I return hugs and exchange quick hellos and ask about the family, having met each other on several occasions. Some I know relatively well; others through fleeting moments whilst chatting with their spouses.

Introductions over, they shuffle positions to make space for us and inevitably create the standard seating layout around the oval table; men on one side, ladies on the other side. Supposedly because we’ll have more in common to talk about in this position. It’s a business dinner after all, with the men doing business together, and the other halves joining them for a meal. I scoot down the L-shaped seat resisting the urge to brush off crumbs left by the previous patrons to occupy the space and join the ladies-end of the table, inwardly sighing. Once I’m settled into the dark green velvet seat that matches my trousers, with my coat and scarf piled high over my handbag snug beside me, the awkward fumbling for conversation fodder begins. Small talk – the bane of most conversations. A necessity of sorts, unavoidable in such an intimate dinner setting, and a few minutes pass by as so.

When my husband first mentioned this dinner a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t contain my excitement. It would be the second time in 18 months that we would leave our son at home whilst we go out to dinner together. We would be meeting up with adults, having adult conversations that do not involve current age-appropriate baby-related talk. I imagined a night out at a swanky restaurant in London, an enviable wine list – no, I prefer martinis – and I immediately started making a mental list of possible babysitters. I would wear the pink dress I bought from my last trip to Kenya. The stripes of the dress will match the new shoes; still unworn and sitting delightfully on the shelf, waiting to be taken out. Two whole weeks went by in this eagerness. Then one evening, my husband announces that the other members of the party prefer to keep it local, instantly dissolving all the excitement that was threatening to spill over. Dejected, I resigned to the fact that at least we have a dinner together to look forward to with the hope of reviving my sleepy brain awake.

With pleasantries aside and drinks to the rescue then, “So, what do you do, Sita?” asks the tall lady.

I pause for a second, because I’ve anticipated this question. Should I start off with ‘I’m a housewife’ or ‘I’m at home, looking after our son’?

I settle for, “I’m writing a book. Well, trying to anyway. I don’t work; I’m at home looking after my son. He’s not in nursery yet.”

These simple few revelations create a short-lived rising interest in the fact that I am writing a book, followed by a disinterest in little more as I explain that I am in fact not a writer and do not have any published material to my name. I am just at the very beginning of writing a book. Disinterest because I am essentially a housewife living in a modern world.

That’s the problem I have with segregating seating by gender; I find that I don’t have enough small talk and flamboyant exaggerations to discuss professions, motherhood and silly tales in my arsenal of dialogue necessary to engage with people of just the same sex. I subtly turn away from the three ladies who are now animatedly mid-discussion, having found several mutual interests as they share professions and have much older kids to mine, and move on to listening in on the conversations of the men around the table. They oblige by the sudden show of interest and in an effort to make me feel included, every so often they make eye contact whilst they carry on. Of course there is the usual and predictable chat involving sports and cars, but they also seem to discuss more and have more of – dare I say – intelligent talk. You’d expect that from a business dinner.

I’m looking for an opening to join in. I’d done my research on the profile of the tall man, our host for the evening, sitting diagonally opposite to me. I knew a little about the company he worked for and so I direct my questions at him. This evidently generates an interest from all parties around the table and finally it feels like we are all at the same dinner table, having one conversation.

Towards the end of the dinner, the atmosphere is more lighthearted. We have spent a fair amount of time by now together, sharing naans and digging into various paneer dishes, so naturally we steer towards personal references and, understandably, an openness that comes with it. I’m surrounded by accountants, bankers and pharmacists. Everyone appears to have a strong identity about themselves, confident in what they do and sure of who they are. They all have titles attached to their professions. Whilst everyone is exchanging anecdotes about their various professions, I wonder if I should mention that I have a Masters degree in Biomedical Engineering. This thinking comes from my intention to be taken a little more seriously. A contender fit for the company around me. I quickly dispel the thought. Even though I loved it and am undoubtedly proud for it, I graduated in 2006 and have never actually made any direct use of my degree henceforth. It did not feel the right time to be bringing it up this way. So then, should I tell them about the time I used to be a Production Editor for a scientific publishing house? It was my first ever job but, somehow, I do not think that this too would add any value to the conversation around me. Should I mention that I worked with my husband in pharmaceuticals? Relevant, yes. Yet again, I choose to not reveal. It wasn’t that exciting a time for me, and pharmaceuticals do not interest me much. Should I mention that I had my own online fashion platform? The banker and his wife might be intrigued, as I’ve noticed their choice of attire includes a skull head lapel pin and a white blouse with pops of brightly coloured buttons and a separate gold-embroidered black collar worn on top to complete the look, respectively. (The collar reminds me of one of mine that I love to wear over tops to jazz up an ensemble.) It could generate interest as there is lots to say about those years – some of the best years of my life – both on a professional and personal level. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out and we closed the business down.

I move on.

So what do I have to show? An engineering background from a long time ago. A couple of random career paths, and now I am on to writing. I’ve written one non-fiction book that I am very proud of. However, all thirteen agents that I sent it to practically rejected it (if you also count the ones who did not respond). Still, I believed that I had potential. I then sought the help of a writing coach who alluded to the idea that I could turn it into a novel. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense and the more excited I felt to get stuck right in. This was in May last year, and as of only January this year, have I managed to sit down to do anything about it. I’ve been busy being a housewife and a mother. I still am (busy being a housewife and a mother), but I’ve now got a little help with childcare so that I can make a start on my writing. Now when someone asks, I can also say that I am ‘working’, albeit it’s not paid and completely feels like a hobby for the time being.

How do I explain all this succinctly so that I am reassured that I too, am considered as a worthy contender at such a business dinner table?

Each of us are holding onto our dessert spoons whilst ras malais, mango kulfis and cheesecakes are being passed around the table for all to have a taste, and I’m distracted from my thoughts as one of the other mothers mentions how she had recently switched careers to become a teacher. Holding up a spoonful of ras malai to her mouth, her tawny brown manicured nails cut short, she goes on to explain how both motherhood and livelihood were the causes for this change. A change in profession that she is happy for and seems content with, but she is quick to point out that she is obviously overqualified for the job.

This comment alerts me because, like me, she feels the need to address her intelligence.

Do we feel the need to justify and hold on to our past because we need to still feel identified? We want recognition, yes? It was part of our identity back then but, does it really matter now that I am 38 years old, that I graduated with an engineering degree when I was 22?

Evidently it still does. Recently, a friend looking to move jobs with a better offering than he currently holds sent out his updated CV to a recruitment agency. The recruitment consultant came back to ask for his A’ Level results and University degree enrolment and qualification to have on file. Needless to say, my friend was shocked. Apparently, employers still ask for such information. Approaching 40 and it’s not what you are today and what you have managed to accomplish thus far, but what you achieved 20 years ago that still matters.

Somehow, this does not add up. In an age where fame and fortune depend on how viral you become, where you must show up each time and cannot simply rely on qualifications printed on beige official documents, what you are now is who you are. Good or bad. Your past or the future you are versions of yourself. Like right now is another version of yourself. Perhaps they are all one identity. Perhaps they are all entirely separate entities.

Undoubtedly, the one thing most, if not all, individuals strive for is identity. An identity that we carve out for ourselves. Something of substance. An identity that we can identify with. An identity so that we can be identified by others. At 38 years old, I am still seeking my identity.

Who am I?

I’m Sita. A wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister. I’m me. Woman.

What do I do?

This is where I seem to stumble. I’m a housewife, a full-time mother but I’m trying to write a book whilst taking care of our son. (Pretty long-winded if you ask me. It would be nice to be able to keep it short. Like: Writer.)

At the dinner, I decided not to reveal about my past. It did not feel right to bring it up, in this setting, amongst these people amidst such chatter. Maybe in a different setting, a different turn of conversation, possibly yes. Here, bringing up old achievements would have felt like I was seeking attention. And that’s the wrong kind of attention I was seeking. I chose this career path by myself after all. The different offshoots and explorations are all my doing.

A phrase that my writing coach repeatedly mentioned to me whilst combing through my book came to mind. She said, “Show, don’t tell”. If writing is to be powerful, you must show the scene, the character, the theme, the mood. The reader must feel like they are witnessing it and are a part of it. They must be able to relate to the feeling you wish to portray. You should not simply tell it; it’s not a list.

‘Show, don’t tell’. I have this phrase written on a post-it-note stuck on my computer screen to remind me of its power whilst I begin working on my novel. And just like that, I decide that it is not necessary to dwell on my past studies and career achievements just to prove my intelligence. Intelligence cannot be proven; it shows. It shows in the type of conversation you engage in. It shows in what you speak of. It shows in the topics that interest you. It shows in the skills of being able to communicate with all ages, professions and genders. It shows in not being awed by other individuals – you are just as deserving. It shows in your outlook and thinking. It shows in your clarity and conviction of self. A’ Level results, a university degree, career path … these are all a part of the process of instilling knowledge. They do not define you. What matters is what you are today. What you are doing today.

So here is my today. I’m making a start on my writing with this blog post, with the intention to spur me on to writing my novel. These posts will be my practice runs, helping me find my style of voice and hone my writing skills. A writer-in-the-making.