Of ‘hunger fasts’, exams and the important things in life!

“Abbey, ek aur plate biryani la, na? Aur is baar pieces aur hone do”! (hey, bring me another plate of biryani and this time get more ‘pieces’ – – mutton chunks!), floats a voice in from the road, just outside my bedroom window.

I am supposed to be (supposed being the operative word here!) studying for my public exams. It is May in Hyderabad and everyone knows just how hot that can be – the thermometer climbs to over 43C on an everyday basis! Airconditioners are almost unknown except in the houses of the very, very rich (like the Birlas or Tatas!). Aircoolers are just appearing on the scene but not yet in our home. We make do with fans and when the power fails – as it does often, we have more baths and fan ourselves with the ‘vistaraaku’ – palm leaf fans which have existed in India from the days of the proto-Dravidian man, I think! Am sure if you stay quiet enough, you’ll catch an occasional simian ancestor of ours – fanning themselves with these!

The temperature has been hovering at 44C and studying in the daytime is impossible so I decide to sleep – waking up at eleven in the night to the realisation that the exam is barely hours away and I still have some eight chapters to get through – even if I leave out four in “choice”! This funda of choice – something every kid who’s been through the examination system in this country is very familiar with – actually is a great outfitter for life itself!

It works like this – we have, say, twenty chapters to study for the exam which is just hours away (if you are one of those nerds who starts preparing two months earlier, please go away! This is not meant for you – you are ill-prepared for life – our life at least!).

So, unlike today, where you have a zillion multiple-choice questions to get through, you had the either/or questions for some twenty marks each or you had the “answer any three of the following five questions” thingy. Now anyone who’s done class 2 level maths will figure out that if you have five chapters, you need study only three to max the exam (whatever your level of max-ing is, that is!), presuming that only one question will be asked from each of those chapters. Thus saving valuable time to cater to the really important things in life – of which there were two -listening to cricket commentaries and Binaca Geet Mala – on the radio!

The real trick here was to figure out, if you had twenty chapters and only six questions in the exam to answer, which to leave out in         ‘choice’! It took real intelligence to do this! Hubby interjects here – objection he says! Everytime he left out stuff in ‘choice’, he says, eighty percent of the questions would be from the chapters he left out! Having had exactly the opposite experience, but feeling too sorry for him to let him down, I can only nod (the Hyderabadi shake of the head which to the rest of the world means ‘no’ but in our unique land, means ‘yes’ and ‘no’ or ‘whatever’ – all at the same time!) pityingly- he’s proving my point! And that, my dear, is how we figure out the really important things in life – by leaving out stuff in ‘choice’!

But I have digressed much from my original biryani story. There is a Youth Congress dharna going on and since our house is at the junction of three roads, they pitch their tent right outside our window. The dharna is in the form of a ‘hunger fast’! The ‘leader’, fashionably dressed in an embroidered yellow shirt, bell-bottomed jeans and a denim jacket (Youth Congress – he has to make a statement!), sits receiving his ‘chelas’ during the day, when he fasts and other chelas during the night – secretly feasting on mutton biryani – with many ‘pieces’! Of course, the dharna was a success!

Did I mention earlier – hum aiseech hain! Aur aise hee khayenge bi! Tere ku kya hua?

(We are like this only.We will eat like this only. What’s it to you?!!)

We are unique…like this dish of ours…a one-pot wonder..


  • Basmati rice – worth buying the very best quality) – 2 cups, wash well and soak in 4 cups water for half an hour
  • Bay leaves – 2
  • Star anise – 2
  • Chana dal – 3/4 cup – wash and soak for half an hour. Cook on a high flame till done but still separate (you should be able to squash it between your fingers). Strain and reserve the liquid.
  • One large onion – finely sliced
  • Ginger paste – 1 tbsp
  • Garlic paste – 1 tbsp
  • Green chilies – 2-3
  • Red chili powder – 1/2 tsp
  • Turmeric – 1 pinch – optional
  • Caramelised onions – 3 tbsp
  • Biryani masala – available everywhere! – 1 tsp
  • Yogurt – 1 cup
  • Oil and ghee mixture – 3 tbsp (half and half)
  • Saffron – a few strands – soaked in 2 tbsp milk
  • Salt
  • Chopped mint and coriander leaves – 1/2 cup each

Heat the oil-ghee in a saucepan. Add the onions and salt, fry till golden.

Add the ginger – garlic pastes and continue to saute till brown.

Add the tumeric, red chili powder, green chilies and chana dal. Mix well.

Add the beaten yogurt and continue to cook, stirring frequently till the yogurt is incorporated well and drying up.

Sprinkle the biryani masala and the herbs on top.

Cook the rice (preferably in a rice cooker or a large saucepan with a lid) with a couple of bay leaves and star anise till almost but not quite done. Strain. Put back in pan.

Drizzle the saffron milk on top. Spread the chana dal mixture on top of the rice.

Cook for about five minutes more till done.

Sprinkle the caramelised onions (and fried cashew nuts if you like) on top.

Serve with a raita.

n.b – you can replace the chana with boiled chickpeas.

(This is a layered biryani in the original but at 44 c? Seriously??!!)

I just went through the recipe and realsied I’ve left out the water we used for the dal – well, use it in something else!)