Once upon a time at Cambridge…

Four decades ago, I won a journalism fellowship at the ­Cambridge University in the UK. It was for just three months, for what they call the Michaelmas Term there. The college was ­Wolfson and it had a couple of Pakistani civil servants too. They were from the ­Pakistani equivalent of our own IAS. My wife and I arrived there at the end of September and by the first week of October the two Pakistanis of our age and we had struck up a nice friendship. One of them was a Pathan and a devout Muslim but the other one was less fussy.

Both of them were starved for South Asian food. So once in a while they’d land up with some chicken or mutton and ask my wife to make something ‘Indian’ — which she did with the help of a curry paste called Pathak’s paste. They’d also bring the naans and the salad leaves, grapes, apples, plums and pears, not to mention some wine too.

Once I asked them why they spent so much on the food and offered to pay our share but they refused to take the money. “It’s better than eating a toad-in-the-hole,” they said. The toad was the weekend dish in the dining room and truly horrible. It consisted of a sausage in thick, fat-soaked batter made of flour. It was so heavy on the stomach that even in my early 30s I couldn’t finish it. So whenever this ghastly dish was on offer, the Pakistanis would turn up. Soon some Indians also started coming whenever the toad was on offer. They brought desserts and so on. It was great fun.

But in mid-November my wife returned to India leaving us to the mercies of the toad. The Pakistanis were most unhappy till, in late November, one of them came up with a brilliant idea. There was a Punjabi lady running a shop where she sold samosas and other South Asian pastes and masalas, snacks and sweets. She once told my wife to find a girl for her son just like her. My wife was so pleased that the lady tripled her sales to us.

Anyway, the Pakistanis and I went to her and asked if she would prepare some dal-roti for us on the toad days. She very kindly agreed, little knowing that dal-roti in Pakistan meant mutton in the dal, and chicken as a side dish. But she cooked everything without complaining. We compensated her well.

To escape the toad-in-the-hole, the Pakistanis would land up with some chicken or mutton and ask my wife to make something ‘Indian’.

Thus the rest of that term passed off in relative contentment. In fact, far from dreading the toad, we actually started looking forward to it. It was, if you like, our version of a response to Marie Antoinette asking the people to eat cake if there was no bread.

The old British universities also have this tradition of weekly dinners for ‘Members’, meaning teaching staff. Plenty of sherry and port were supplied at these dinners. I was a permanent invitee, as was my wife.  But the Pakistanis weren’t. That annoyed them hugely because they were ‘members’ of an elite Pakistani service and I was just a lowly journalist. They never got used to the idea of exclusion from those weekly dinners.

When the Pathan asked me why this was so, I told him jokingly in ­Punjabi that the dinners were for ­shareef (civilised) people. He didn’t speak to me till the next time he had to ask my wife to cook. Even then he was in a sulk and I don’t think he would have forgiven the Brits.

All good things must end and I came back to India at the end of the term. The Pakistanis were there for two more terms. I wonder how they fared. Nice guys stuck with the weekend toad because as luck would have it, the samosa lady also left in December to look for a nice girl for her son.

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