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An ode to the beloved picnic: The Way We Were by Poonam Saxena

I just finished re-reading one of my most well-thumbed books — food writer and actress Madhur Jaffrey’s beautiful memoir of her Delhi childhood in the 1930s and ’40s, Climbing the Mango Trees, published in 2005.

Among the many entrancing details she writes about are the family picnics in winter, when the entire clan — 30 people in all — would be stuffed into two gleaming cars, a Dodge and a Ford, to make their stately way to the Qutub Minar.

Once there, a large dhuree would be spread out, and on it a white sheet. Next to it would be an angeethi on which the family retainer made tea and heated the food that had been cooked that morning — potato curry, pooris, kheema kofta curry.

Energetic members of the picnic party would climb the narrow, winding staircase within the sandstone tower for a spectacular view of Delhi.

Incidentally, the Qutub Minar was the venue of a picnic in the 1963 film Tere Ghar Ke Samne too. The outing concludes with a dashing Dev Anand singing Dil Ka Bhanwar to a svelte Nutan as they walk down the spiral staircase.

In another captivating memoir, the recently published Off the Beaten Track: The Story Of My Unconventional Life by Saeeda Bano, the first woman Urdu newsreader at All India Radio (translated from the Urdu by Shahana Raza), the writer gives an evocative account of growing up in Bhopal in the early 20th century. This was a princely state ruled by women — the famous Begums of Bhopal — for over a century, from 1819 to 1926. Bano writes that women were constantly going on picnics (or “gote”, as they were called in Bhopal). They would set off for a spacious garden or hunting lodge, accompanied by their children, maids and a couple of male servants (who acted as guards), laden of course with a variety of appetising foods.

The tradition of picnics flourished onscreen for decades — Hindi films of the ’50s and ’60s, even the ’70s, are replete with picnic scenes, but instead of family, these picnics were with friends and involved a great deal of happy dancing and singing. Like in Tumsa Nahin Dekha (1957), where Shammi Kapoor sings Jawaniyan Yeh Mast Mast in a pretty garden as a group of boys and girls dance, play tug of war and take pictures of each other.

Even in An Evening in Paris, (Shammi Kapoor, Sharmila Tagore; 1967), there’s a picnic song, but in deference to the fact that this is Europe, the young men drive to the picnic spot on smart scooters, with their girlfriends perched behind them.

“Picnic spots” were everywhere through the ’80s and early ’90s too. Any place in India — particularly if it was a popular holiday destination, such as a hill station — offered a variety of “picnic spots”, usually a scenic place with a view, a flower-filled garden or a waterfall.

At a time when there were limited leisure opportunities and eating out was not very common (and probably not affordable for most families), a picnic was ideal. All you needed was a picturesque outdoor setting, home-cooked food, and the company of family or friends.

Though picnics were invariably depicted as occasions for fun and games, sometimes they were the settings for dramatic events. In the 1976 film Chitchor, Amol Palekar enthusiastically offers to cook the food on a stove at a picnic, then discovers that another man (Vijayendra) intends to marry the girl he loves (Zarina Wahab). He ends up forgetting to put salt in the daal or tomatoes in the sabzi. The picnic ends in disaster.

As the years went by, picnics began looking quite different — in the 1991 film Lamhe, Anil Kapoor announces they’ll go on a picnic, and where do they end up? At an amusement park in London!

The picnic spots didn’t go anywhere, but the outing changed. It became a day at the mall with a meal at a restaurant or food court and a movie at a multiplex. Right now, because of the threat of Covid-19, picnics are making a bit of a comeback as a leisure option, since it’s safer outdoors than indoors, but give it a few months…

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