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.)