Just out of the university I took a job with an international organization in Kolkata. We had a large corporate office on a busy corner and I found a pleasant Chinese restaurant two blocks down. Peiping became my favorite place for lunch.
It was a big restaurant, with many tables and cabins, but one large cabin was always reserved, barred for clients. Promptly at three in the afternoon a sign went up: the door was closed for fresh clients. Clients already dining could finish their meals at leisure, but they would no longer be served.
Peiping was a smaller restaurant then, but had quickly picked up a devoted clientele, for its prices were reasonable and the quality excellent. Eventually Madam bought the adjacent shop, expanded and renovated the restaurant, and established herself as a prime restaurateur on the city’s busiest and most prestigious corner.
I ate with knife and fork, as my father’s British friends and colleagues had modelled, but I was impressed by the elegance of the Chinese diners who wielded their chopsticks with incredible aplomb. On a less busy afternoon I approached Madam with trepidation and humbly begged to know the secret of chopstick sorcery.
She laughed. “No magic. Just practice.”
I persisted, “How do I learn? I want to do it well – like you.”
“Even grab rice like that?”
“Even a pea,” replied Madam.
When I left, she gave me two bamboo chopsticks to practice with and also two gold-rimmed chopsticks, she said with a twinkle of her eye, “for your girlfriend.”
I wanted to practice without being noticed. In the office I kept two long pencils, both held in my right hand in the Madam-approved manner, and kept practicing grabbing paper clips and binders, as I held the phone in my left hand and answered calls. Over weeks I improved steadily: I learned to grab the rice gently, not too softly to let it drop nor too hard to squish it.
Months later my tutelage came of some use when I acquired a Japanese girlfriend. Alas, she did not think much of my vaunted gold-rimmed chopsticks. Instead she got both of us a pair of ivory Japanese-style chopsticks. They were pointed, and she lovingly explained that the points were useful in piercing certain types of food. I did not have the heart to tell her that Madam would have considered ‘stabbing’ food an insult to the chef.
Last year I took a walk from Free School Street, now called Mirza Ghalib Street, where my office was, down Park Street toward the Chowringhee. There were some uninteresting shops, but there was no Peiping. There was only the memory of Madam and her stern but affectionate lessons in chopstick wizardry.