In his memoirs of his early struggling years, Living to tell the Tale, Gabriel García Márquez affectionately mentions a friend. This friend, a colleague in small-town journalism, had a rather unusual pastime. He would ferret out errors, albeit rare, in standard dictionaries, even in the OED. As soon as he would spot a mistake, he would write to the publishers or editors, and receive grateful thanks for his help; monetary reward of an appreciable magnitude would also follow.
The human mind takes pride in such strange flights of fancy. Reasons underlying these forays are often unfathomable. In the case of García Márquez’s friend, his pastime earned him at least some extra centavos. There can however be other kinds of passion on the part of people, the pursuit of which yields no monetary compensation at all. Consider the extraordinary instance of a person one had met nearly 40 years ago in the Coffee House at Calcutta’s College Square. This individual was in his late thirties; his frail frame suggested a far-gone state of malnutrition. His apparel was both shabby and dirty. He would sit at evening time in a far corner of the Coffee House, nursing a cup of coffee for hours on end. He kept to himself; the boisterous goings-on around him — the clutter of crockery, raucous poetry sessions by up-and-coming geniuses, the sharp exchange of badinage between rival politicians, murmurings of ardour by closeted couples — meant nothing to him.
One evening he was drawn into a conversation. He was a reluctant joiner; the words had to be almost forced out of him. Here was clearly a scared person, who would prefer to sink into oblivion without sharing his secrets with anyone. Finally, after much persistence, with only spasmodic cooperation on his part, his story could be pieced together; it left his persuaders spellbound.
The man had a bachelor’s degree in science, but was without a job. He was an insignificant particle in a joint family which owned a dilapidated double-storey house in a run-down bylane of a major arterial road roughly at the centre of the city. Following a hurried early lunch, he would, for six days in the week, walk the distance of more than five miles to the National Library at Alipore. He would sit in the library every day at a stretch for four to five hours, taking copious notes from books and journals. As dusk approached, he walked back all the way to College Street to sip his evening cup of coffee. Barring water-logged days in the rainy season, this was his undeviating routine.
It was impossible not to be impressed by the regularity of this routine. But those who engaged him in conversation had a flabbergastingly greater surprise awaiting them. Queried about the areas of his interest and the nature of notes he took in the National Library, the man was initially laconic to the point of inanity: he was carrying on research on a subject dear to his heart. What was that' This time too, the response was a mumble difficult to decipher. With some further effort, the facts got revealed. The focus of his interest was on the history of gastronomy; he was doing research on 18th-century French cuisine. No, he was not registered with any university for a research degree. He was doing the research because 19th-century France and the haute cuisine of the country in that era fascinated him.
How would you sum up the situation' Here was a person who was obviously in strained financial circumstances. His family was hardly comfortably off; he himself had no visible source of income. He could have tried to earn some money by undertaking private tuition. According to his judgment though, his time was much too valuable for that kind of frivolity. Research for him was not just a passion, it was the centrepiece of his existence, he was prepared to undergo the worst forms of privation for its sake. What mattered to him was cuisine, French cuisine, 18th-century French cuisine; nothing else did.
This man had no money to buy decent clothes, the slippers on his feet were worn out, he was severely under-nourished, his trudging on foot ten to twelve miles every day did not help to improve his physical condition. But never mind, he knew the names of all the master chefs who succeeded one another in the royal palace at Versailles through the decades of the 18th century till the revolution. He knew the gastronomic preferences of each French emperor reigning in the century and of each French empress, including Marie Antoinette. He could narrate minutely the culinary intrigues in those decades within the corridors of French aristocracy. Which comtessa had in which year stolen which other comtessa’s chef, which master chef had in what particular year bribed a kitchen help of a rival chef and learned the recipe of a particular preparation of poultry, which wine would be the most acceptable accompaniment of which entrée: once you drew him out, such details would constitute the staple of his small talk.
As the Coffee House closed, this person would get up, wearily walk down the steps and disappear in the evening crowd. He became part of the vast anonymity which urban living is. Once back home, he would perhaps go to bed three-quarters hungry; his family without question could not afford to offer him more than a sparse meal.
Whatever the taxonomy deployed, how does one categorize such an individual' He did not dream of any particular future for himself. Even in his wildest dreams, he could not have imagined for himself the career of a best-selling author whose works go through 50 or 60 impressions in the course of a bare couple of years. Eighteenthcentury French cuisine was not more than an abstraction to him. And yet, that abstraction was his entire being. He memorized, avidly, names and descriptions important in the annals of culinary arts. He had mapped in his mind a very personal historiography of gastronomy. He would read about the developing sophistication of French cuisine over the centuries, and scribble furious notes. He acquainted himself with the complicated procedure of waiting and serving at the dinner table in royal households. He never had the opportunity in his life to taste even the most frugal of French food, or to have a furtive sip of any of the post-dinner liqueurs he read about. His ardour would nonetheless refuse to die.
Even assuming that, at the end of a dozen years’ toil, he succeeded in preparing a tolerably respectable manuscript, no academic laurels would have awaited him. He had not ever gone through the rigours of any research methodology; had he managed to prepare a manuscript and scraped together the money to have it typed, it would still be most haphazardly organized. No publishers in Calcutta — one can lay a wager — would be interested in his work. And a man who could barely manage to survive physically in Calcutta’s hellhole would hardly possess the energy and daring to get in touch with publishers in other parts of the country or in Europe or America.
Men such as this one still continue to exist in the scattered map of the country. They exist along with their futile, but gloriously textured, reveries. Their being around exemplifies that long established principle: while environment makes the man, man can yet transcend that environment.
As for the man in our story, one evening he was not seen in his regular corner of the Coffee House. Days passed, he did not return. Was he ill, or had some other calamity overtaken him, had he died of consumption' Nobody knew his address, none bothered to enquire at the National Library.
Nineteenth-century French cuisine rests in peace.