Tribal Lunch at Aarey: Food for the Soul

tribal lunch at goregaon

Tribal lunch at Goregaon.

Of all the days of the week, I pity Sunday the most. Everyone has their hopes pinned on this one day. All expectations of recreation, relaxation, unwinding and undoing are weighed on the last of the week. A full seven-day routine is carried out with the hope that Sunday will be the balm over all the aches and pains. I do the same all too often – each approaching Sunday is a mental softboard with many notes and promises pinned on it.

Rustic Warli art that adorns the tribal homes

Sometimes, the promises are fulfilled, sometimes they aren’t. They are postponed for the next Sunday. And sometimes, the day decides to surprise me by turning out to be something altogether different from how I planned it to be. One such was the Sunday I attended a tribal lunch at Goregaon east in Aarey. It went beyond just a lunch outing. It was a good four hours spent in a tribal village amidst the green environs of Aarey, traipsing through their settlements, interacting with their women and children, appreciating their lives and their hospitality.

The We Will Help (WWH) Charitable Foundation, based in Goregaon east, works closely with the 30-odd tribal villages in Aarey, trying to empower the locals towards self-sustainance and employment. The attempt is to “bridge the divide between those who have access to opportunities and those who are being increasingly marginalised”. The hosting of the sit-down tribal lunch at Goregaon in the Aarey villages is one such exercise that creates a platform for interaction between the more privileged and the marginalised.

Eugene Das, one of the founding members and now a trustee of the foundation, has played a key role in strengthening the skill sets of these tribals. After having visited Aarey several times, he realised the need to act and do something to reach out and help the local people retain their land, progress in terms of grass-roots training, education and skill sets – all to obtain some leverage at a socio-economic and socio-cultural level.

Cassandra Nazareth, or Cassy, a project manager, was at the helm of affairs on the day of the tribal lunch at Goregaon, the eighth one so far. She works closely with the women and children, teaching them communication skills, understanding their needs, abilities and ambitions and assimilating all this for mutual benefit of the lunch hosts and the guests.

Khambacha Pada hamlet in Aarey

After a long-ish drive in the rain within the Aarey colony area, beyond the famed Picnic Spot, I have to turn around a buffalo shed to reach Khambacha Pada. This little hamlet, home to about 80 adivasi families, was hosting the lunch today. A short uphill walk led to the main village area, a sort of square that was the scene of a raucous cricket match. On one side, in a covered concrete shed, was a quaint flea market. Organically grown green vegetables, mangoes and bananas were displayed. Tej patta and ginger-garlic paste, all made and preserved in bottles were also up for sale. The much-in-demand product on sale was the Mirchi Thetcha, a dry chutney made with ground red chillies. There were also some beautifully made cloth bags and bookmarks being sold here.

A young and adept crab catcher

I noticed little children with WWH badges – one with a platter of flowers (welcome gifts for every guest), some at the flea market and some as guides for the visitors. ‘I have started training these kids to learn to interact with people. So they now are my little volunteers who show their village to the visitors on such days,’ says Cassy. My group of eight was guided by Dinesh, a boy of 12.

He took us around the homes, via patches of fields and rivulets. Most of the homes and other built structures were of brick and concrete, adorned with Warli paintings in varied colours. We spotted a pumpkin plantation, crossed a few rivulets and generally traipsed around, all wide-eyed at the coveted share of greenery the village had. Most remarkable of all was the crab-catching experience. Dinesh had this amazing agility, digging through the mud flats and catching little crabs, releasing them into the water afterwards. I don’t think I manage to locate anything in my writing desk drawers that easily!

On our way back, we noticed the smoke from the house which was the designated kitchen for the afternoon. Wood-fire stoves bore huge vessels of steaming hot food, freshly prepared by the Pada ladies. Through the smoke were visible their joy and satisfaction, having seeing our eagerness to savour their food. All that walking around sure had whet our appetites, what with the weather playing catalyst for a warm homemade meal. Soon enough, we were taken to the lunch area.

Organic produce from the Aarey villages

 

Under a canopy of evergreens, within a space of ten square metres, chatais were laid out for our sit-down tribal lunch. A long table on one side was laid out with an extremely generous variety of preparations, all being warmly ladled out by the local ladies. It was no trim, straightforward meal, this one. Starters, mains, salad, dessert and drink – all found their place in the menu for the day. The amply spiced fried bombil served as a perfect starter.  Next came baby brinjals stuffed with onions, a simple gawar phalli and aloo preparation and a mild yellow dal. A perfect home-style chicken curry – where pieces of succulent meat partnered in spice with diced potatoes – was my favourite part of the meal. Dunking the rice and jawar bhakris in this spicy gravy, I was lost to the world for those moments. The sukkha jhinga fry went down well with the dal and rice, especially if you added mirchi thetcha to it!

As though all of this wasn’t enough, rice kheer came to calm the spiced palettes. And a confectioner’s pink sol kadhi was the termination to this wondrous meal. I couldn’t remember the last time I had such an ambiance, such hosts and such a delicious lunch. And I am sure the other 50-odd people who were my company that afternoon would agree with me. Something magical had come our way that day – not in an unreal way that seems other-worldly – but in a very real and palpable manner.

Tribal Tadka lunch laid out

Far from our fully-furnished homes, fancy state-of-the-art kitchens, maids and cooks – we were all in a moment that illustrated how little of all this we really needed to enjoy a holiday. How simplicity and clarity of heart and mind can be such resuscitation for the soul. And how under all our individual achievements, preferences and quirks, we are all really the same. It was a precious experience, a lesson no Sunday school could have taught better. Such is this exquisite tribal lunch at Goregaon.

I managed to steal a few minutes of Das’ time to convey my appreciation for his work and talk about future plans that he had in mind. I returned humbled by the dedication he and his team has, to simply help those in need.

There are many more such tribal lunches being planned, of course. You will find updates of it here, on GHP. One is on today, in fact. It will make you love your Sunday, for sure.

Do also spare some time to check out the WWH website and understand the importance of its work. “Think global, act local” can’t be executed any better. For those of us who can volunteer and join hands for the sake of the Aarey Padas, please do. Get in touch with the team and widen your horizons. The satisfaction will be far more than that of a meal, beyond what a belly can hold.


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