I am Chaitali Dutt, the daughter of a well-known family of Mumbai. My parents were extremely well off and part of the elite of South Bombay. All their friends were just like them loaded with money and about appearances and impressions. Whenever they met, which was pretty often, if the men were all about their millions, the women were about their diamonds, designer bags and clothes. And together as a couple, they were about their children and their achievements. Everyone wanted to be one up on each other. They all lead fake lives, one for the world and one for themselves. Growing up in this environment was an extremely claustrophobic experience for me.
Right from childhood, my brother, Milind and I were expected to do everything that was considered right by our parents or if I may say so by the society of which we were a part. So we had to go to a particular school because that’s where all the children of our parents’ friends did. We had to be friends with only some children and not everyone in the class. The reason was obvious. Not all children had parents who were part of my parents’ circle. Our lives were pretty regimented. After school, we were supposed to go for our classes which included a sport, some form of music or dance and even things like art appreciation in which I had no interest.
So even if I hated dance in all its forms, I had to do it. Of course, my mom did give me a choice. I could choose between Indian classical and ballet, but to her horror, I hated both. But still, I had to go because all my mother’s friends daughters did that. This was a box that had to be ticked. Not only was I supposed to attend the best dance class in the city of Mumbai, but I had to be a quick learner to be able to perform in front of my parents’ friends. Again my will was of no consequence. I had to do it as it showed my parents and in particular my mother in a good light. It was her moment of pride. But sadly for me, there were far too many of such moments. Till date, I have never been able to understand why parents need to make their children recite poetry, play a piece of music or dance to a song of their choice in front of their friends. Who are they trying to impress?? Their so-called friends who are probably going back home to get after their children and couldn’t care less about the others. Or is it about proving or showing off their excellent parenting skills in front of others?? Do they ever think about the child?? No, they don’t!!
The thing was that I always hated these public displays of my so-called talent. I would either try to hide when we had people over or pretend to be unwell or even try and refuse. But of course, none of my tactics ever worked. And to add to my woes was my dear darling brother, the paragon of virtue who never said no. He was always more than ready to do what my parents wanted him to. So apart from everything else, there was this constant comparison at home. I don’t know how but my brother was the best in everything!! He did very well in academics and in extracurriculars too. My parents were always proud of his grades in school, whereas I gave them no such joy. I just about managed to scrape through and get from one class to the other. My results were always a nail-biting wait for my parents. And I never did anything to make it easier for them.
The thing was that I was a born rebel and always did the exact opposite of what I was told. So if I was told to study I didn’t if I was told to play only with Rhea, the Richie Rich Mrs Sharma’s daughter I made sure I didn’t, and if I was to behave myself in front of guests, I made sure I didn’t. And then horrors of horrors I started putting on unimaginable amounts of weight when I was around twelve. And you have guessed it!! It was because my mother had told me to watch what I ate and I decided not to.
So, as a result, my childhood was all about my run-ins with my parents for one reason or the other. And because my brother was so good to be true, I hated him. I had figured that he was a coward and could never stand up to anyone. And since to get into my mother’s good books he always spied on me and told tales about me I hated him even more. Till date, I don’t have a great equation with him.
As I grew up my run-ins with my parents and especially with my mother started to rise, and there wasn’t a single day when we didn’t argue with each other. Her biggest problem with me was my ever-increasing weight because my being fat meant that I would not be able to find a good guy to get married to. And you have guessed it! Finding a good guy was the raison d’ etre of my existence. I had to find a rich guy to get married to, no matter what.
And then after I finished school, I joined college, but because of the lack of academic ambition, I wasn’t able to finish college. Though by itself it wasn’t such a big deal when seen with my size, it made things look terrible from the matrimony point of view. My mother always stressed over it, friends and relatives made fun of me which bothered her a lot, but surprisingly it made no difference to me. I had developed a thick skin by then and all the jibes, all the comments slid off me like water over a duck’s back. But my mother’s back was not so accommodating. All the instances of my public humiliation made her even more determined to correct me, reform me but to no consequence. My stubbornness could put a mule to shame.
All her lectures about my weight fell on deaf years. I ate like there was no tomorrow. I now feel that it was a reaction to all the controls and restrictions. It was as though I wanted to break free, and any act of rebellion which gave me that feeling became a part of my life. She must have to put me on an innumerable number of diets consulting the best possible dieticians, but nothing worked. And that was because nothing was followed. I was put on a diet, and I cheated. I had chocolates, cookies, cakes, all the forbidden foods when no one was around, and my mother could never find out. All these goodies were hidden in the most unimaginable places. If the basket for towels in the bathroom had chocolates, then my cupboard had cookies hidden under piles of clothes.No matter how often she tried to check and take away all these things, I still found new places to hide them. The fact that I could defy her and get away gave me an immense amount of pleasure. Actually, if I look back, I feel it wasn’t about not wanting to lose weight; it was just about defiance.
And then there was my elder brother who had done phenomenally well academically, had finished school winning accolades, joined a much-coveted college and found a good looking girl from a much-approved family. God!!! How much I hated him. As we grew and as he continued to shine the comparisons between us became more frequent and more demeaning for me. My parents would keep throwing his achievements at me, making me angry and more stubborn. I realize now that they did all that to motivate me also to try hard, but it had the opposite effect. I remember my mother would walk into the room, and I would walk out. Somewhere I had started believing that the moment she opened her mouth, she would begin lecturing or sermonising and I didn’t want any of that. I started avoiding my family. The times when I couldn’t do that were when we had our meals. So I started wearing my headphones during those times to avoid listening to anyone.
My teenage years were my worst. I had this set of friends who my parents absolutely hated and I got into drinking in a major way. Luckily for everyone, I didn’t get the opportunity to do drugs. I am sure I would have If I had got the chance. I got in and out of relationships with boys at the drop of a hat. This was something that continued until I was in my thirties. I think I was always looking for a friend, for a companion but could never find one. They all wanted the same thing, and once they got it, they moved on. The thing was that since I was fat, I was quite complexed. And whenever anyone paid even a little bit of attention to me, it did wonders to me, and I just fell into the guy’s arms. He could be anyone from anywhere. It just didn’t matter to me. And if his background was different from ours, it only added to the attraction. What a nightmare I must have been for my family!!
Anyways life moved on. I remember my twenty-fifth birthday. My mother had thrown a grand party to celebrate it. She had invited a lot of people, especially those with young sons, to get me hooked onto someone. You see, I could have been a disaster, but my parents had a lot of money. And they felt that if not for my looks, at least for my money, some boy would agree to marry me. But it never worked. Because even if the boy agreed, I refused because I couldn’t connect with most of them. I wanted someone with whom I could relate, but unfortunately, I could never find someone like that. By now, most of my friends had got married, some had children too, which added to my parents’ stress levels.
Since most of my friends had families of their own by now, I had no company left. I couldn’t relate to most of them. They loved talking about husbands, homes, in-laws, children and I had nothing to contribute. Some well-meaning ones even tried to set me up with their husband’s friends or relatives, but nothing worked.
Surprisingly though I had no career, no ambition, no boyfriend/husband, no friends, no future in the conventional sense I wasn’t unduly bothered. I would wake up at a leisurely hour, have breakfast, watch TV, read sometimes and then have lunch. In the evenings I would go out either by self or with my parents. If by my self then I would hang around in a bar till the wee hours and then stumble back home, sleep, to begin another similar day. But things could not have remained like that forever. It was at one such bar that I ran into Nikhil, who turned out to be a true friend.
I had known Nikhil since my childhood as he lived in the same building, and so was part of my parents’ social circle. We had interacted a lot as children but had never been great friends. But then when he was fifteen, his parents sent him to the US to study[another one of those image-related decisions], and he never came back. I feel he had found a way to stay away from his parents. Anyways one night as I was sitting in a bar I heard this familiar voice. I was kind of half-drunk, and though the voice rang a bell, the brain was too fogged to register. But Nikhil being Nikhil, he walked up to me, thumped me on my back and greeted me once again in his sing-song voice. And that’s when I recognized him. We spent the next two hours drinking and catching up. I learnt that he now lived in New York, handled a part of his dad’s business and was gay, something his parents obviously didn’t know. I had nothing much to tell, but one good thing came out of this accidental meeting.
I found a friend and a friend for life. A friend who was happy to accept me the way I was, didn’t judge me and let me be me. That night and then practically every other night till the time he was in town, we hung out together. He would pick me up; we would go out and drink till the early hours. Somewhere both sets of parents had started believing that we were moving towards a future together, so they approved of this friendship. Yes, we did foresee a future but not the kinds they imagined. We just wanted to be friends and have each other’s back.
It was Nikhil who opened my eyes to the wasteful existence that I was leading. He made me look at myself and realize how useless I had become. His influence made me realize that the desire to defy and rebel had made me waste my life. He told me to rise above all the insecurities, all the complexes and think about doing something productive in life. His encouragement and support made me think hard about my future. That was the time that I for the first time in life regretted not having a college degree. But he advised me to rise above everything and look ahead. He made me see that even without a degree, I could do many things. He made me sit down and take stock of my strengths and weaknesses based on which he gave me an idea. The idea was that since I loved food, I could start a business in that space with help from my father. He spent hours trying to convince me and make me believe in me. All his hard work paid off, and I was ready. But there was a glitch. I needed the courage to walk up to my parents and tell them about what I wanted to do. I had to ask them for money, but there was too much pride in me to do that. He however pushed and pushed me till I agreed.
As expected, my idea was immediately shot down by my parents, who just looked at it as a whim, a passing fancy. In fact, the look of ridicule in my brother and his wife’s eyes [ Yes, he was married by now] nearly killed my confidence. But Nikhil did not let me give up. He kept encouraging me to convince my dad. And ultimately my effort paid off. The thing was that it wasn’t money that was the problem. The problem was my parents’ belief, their confidence in me. But when my father realized that I was dead serious, he agreed to help me out. By now, Nikhil had gone back, but he continued to help me. Somewhere my parents still harboured the hope of the two of us tying the knot.
So between my dad, Nikhil and I, we decided that my passion for food could be carried forward and I could start a catering business. The only two people who had no faith in me and considered the entire exercise to be a waste of money were my brother and sister-in-law. But I took no notice of them and decided to follow my dream. For once I had a dream, I believed in it, and so I was going to pursue it.
My thoughts turned into words, followed by action. Suddenly to my surprise and to everyone else’s too I had a goal, a direction in life.
That sense of purpose changed my life. Gone was the Chaitali whose day began at 12 in the afternoon. I now woke up at six to discuss ideas and plans with my father. Since I wasn’t so confident we decided to start on a small scale by supplying the tried and tested Indian food to people who lived around. I made sure that I had the best possible chefs; I sourced my ingredients from the best places, and scouted the internet, recipe books for the best recipes. I wanted this to be a success and did not want to leave any stone unturned. And so if I had to go buy fresh vegetables in the morning, I did that. If I a South Bombay girl had to take a cab for that I did that; If I had to walk to get somewhere, I wasn’t unwilling to do that. I went about in the neighbourhood to distribute fliers and pamphlets. And in the process, if I had to put up with snide remarks and people taking pity on me, I did that too. This venture was my baby, and I was going to make sure that it was a success. Though surprised at this transformation in their daughter, my parents did everything they could to support me. My mother could not stop talking about it and promoting it in her friends’ circle. It warmed my heart to see her doing this and Nikhil, of course, was always there.
And then came the day when I got my first order. It was my dad’s closest friends who placed the order, but it was a beginning. I personally supervised the cooking, tasted every dish before sending it off and then waited with bated breath for the verdict. And you can imagine my joy, my relief when my uncle called up to say that he and his family had loved the food and would now be my regular clients. And what is more, the uncle told me to do the catering for a party for a hundred people in his house the following weekend. I was jumping with joy, and so was my dad. I quickly called Nikhil though being in New York, he was fast asleep, but I had to share the news with him!! There was no way that I couldn’t! He was so happy, in fact, happier than me. All three of us, my parents and I went out for a drink to celebrate my success.
But now I had to make sure that the food for the party was equally good if not better. Though a little stressed, I decided to put all worries behind and focus on the task ahead, I did that, and the party was a resounding success. This ensured that now I had more orders than I could handle, but thanks to my dad, I could hire more staff, put more money into the business. Within six months, I had become one of the best-known caterers in south Bombay. And on Nikhil and my dad’s suggestion, I had expanded my menu to include other kinds of cuisine as well. So from Indian to Chinese, to Italian, to Thai, I had it all.
I expanded my business to other parts of Mumbai, and in between, I also decided to enter the kitchen and not only depend on the chefs. I discovered that I had this creative side which came out in the way I could quickly rustle up a dish by mixing various ingredients. I loved experimenting, and most of my experiments lead to newer dishes which were mouth-wateringly delicious!!
This business and the independence that it brought into my life changed me completely. I was a confident, self-assured person who made her own money. I could look my brother in the eye and give him a piece of advice on how to run a business and that too independently.!! What a kick I got out of it!!
But the fact that I was earning my own money and was successful did not mean that my parents had given up hopes on getting me married. My mom had been hoping that I would get married to Nikhil at some point, but I could not let her go on believing this forever. So one day over a cup of our favourite coffee at our favourite café I told my mother why I couldn’t marry Nikhil. And much to my amazement, she was quite cool about it. I had expected her to rave, rant, blame me as she had done in the past when I had not been able to get married to the boy of her choice. She did none of that, and then to my further shock, she told me that it wasn’t necessary for me to get married. I almost scalded myself with the coffee!!! What did she mean??? Hadn’t that been the whole purpose of my existence? Wasn’t it mandatory for a girl to get married??
And my mother dear said,’ No Chaitali. Times have changed now. You don’t have to get married. If you are happy being single, it is perfectly all right.”
My God!!! Times had changed, and so had my mother!! As I went along tasting success after success in my work, I made another discovery. There was another change taking place. You see by now it had almost been eight years since I had started my business. What I figured was that my gang of friends who in their twenties had been raising children and had become busy with their homes had now become free, now that we were approaching our forties. Their husbands were too busy at work, children had their own lives and so these women now all of a sudden had all the time in the world. In fact, I who had always been a loser, a someone who was overweight, did poorly in class, had no boyfriend and then no husband or family now had something which none of the others had!! I had a career. I had independence in every sense of the word. I was my own person not answerable to anyone and earning my bucks!! This feeling ensured that my self-esteem skyrocketed to reach outer space!!
It was good to have a set of friends back into my life. It was good to hang around with them. It was during this time that I started thinking of moving out of my parents’ house, but my parents didn’t want me to do that. They were growing old, and they wanted me to be around. I agreed because I also loved having them around. My father was my business partner and the person who I turned to whenever I had business issues. My business was, of course, doing phenomenally well. What I had done to keep it alive was to rise above the run of the mill catering. While I did this on a regular basis, and that was the mainstay of the business, I continuously tried to innovate and do newer things. Apart from being able to do all kinds of cuisines, I had diversified into baking, doing cookery shows and classes. I had collaborated with a TV channel, to begin with, to do cooking shows on their channel. And then I had branched out to recording videos and sharing them on social media. As a result, not only did I become well known, but it brought more business as well. I had even started my blog, where I shared recipes, wrote about my experiences in the culinary space. The experiences ranged from my earlier days to my efforts at sourcing ingredients, to stories behind my recipes, to how I got the best chefs to a whole lot of other stuff. By doing this, people could relate to me in a big way. I was a real person who had had a real journey, and that journey I discovered was a huge inspiration. That was a revelation for me.
And then came my fortieth birthday. And my mother decided to throw a lovely party for me pretty much like the one she had thrown for my twenty-fifth. But there was a difference. That one had been thrown to market me, so to say as a marriage prospect and this one was where she just wanted to celebrate me, my life. What a transformation! What a change! And she actually said that in her speech which she gave to mark my birthday. It brought tears into my eyes. I could not thank my parents enough for what they had done for me. I hadn’t been an easy child. I had had my reasons for being difficult, my issues, but I could now see what a nightmare I must have been for them. It wasn’t a wonder that my mother had constantly been tearing her hair apart dealing with me. I did feel sorry for that. I knew I couldn’t turn the clock back, but I could at least now make up and be there for them.
This feeling made me firmer than before in my resolve to not move out. I stayed with them, and we had some wonderful times together. We would go on vacations, watch plays, go out for meals and have a lot of fun together. My brother, who also lived in the same house, was there but yet not there. His wife was a big influence on him and controlled him to a large extent. And because he had always listened to others as a child, now that he was a grown-up man, he still needed a guiding hand. He needed someone to tell him what to do, which now was his wife. So while he loved us and we loved him and his children, his actions were governed by his wife. So he couldn’t always be there with us or for us.
Life moved on and then just after my mom’s seventieth birthday, she had a heart attack, and she died. She had been quite hale and hearty, and in fact, we had had a good evening together, and she had gone off to sleep at the usual time. But she never woke up the next morning. It was a huge shock. The suddenness had added to it. My father was heartbroken, but I was there stuck to his side. I took over my mother’s role in caring for him, his routine, his schedule. But somewhere he couldn’t recover from my mom’s going away. He felt cheated because, in his head, he should have gone first as there was a ten-year gap between them. And no matter how hard I tried to convince him otherwise, he would just not agree. So two years after my mom, my dad also left us. It was a huge blow. It felt as though I had no one with me. I was all alone, desolate and bereft. But gradually I picked myself up, and life started getting normal. My friends took care of me, and if course there was my work. I had no financial issues as I had my own money; my parents also had left a lot for me. Nikhil once again rose up to the occasion. He flew down to spend time with me and was there for almost two months. Even my brother became a lot nicer and approachable.
It is a Sunday evening. I am sitting here by the French window in my parents home looking at the lights on Marine Drive. Yes, my parents left it for me. I lead a quieter life now. In a couple of weeks, I will be turning fifty, and this time it is Nikhil, my brother and my friends who have decided to carry forward my mother’s tradition of celebrating my milestone birthday. I am looking forward to the celebration. My life is quiet but full. My business is still doing very well but now more or less on autopilot. I didn’t get married and still have no one I would like to get married to. I have had my share of relationships and am still not opposed to the idea. My friends still try to matchmake for me because somewhere they feel that I need to have a man in life. But strangely, I don’t think that way. While I am not opposed to the idea of having a companion, I am not waiting for it to happen. My life is full with my business, my friends, my hobbies and interests. Somewhere I also feel that I am too set in my ways to change myself for someone. I cherish my freedom, my independence far too much and don’t want to give it up.
So, therefore, I never got married!!!