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RED HOT CHILLI PEPPER

No identical dish cooked in Nepalese homes tastes the same. It could be mutton curry, chicken curry, fish curry; curry powder ingredients are the same - coriander, cumin, fenugreek and turmeric - added to a rich mix of deep fried onions, garlic, tomatoes. Meat is cooked in it and seasoned with ginger, cloves, nutmeg, mustard, fennel and black pepper. But the taste invariably is different from house to house. The X factor making the difference might be the magic hands of the hostess (or host in a few cases), perhaps the source of the heat, or the make of the pot. But there is one home I particularly know that makes the difference with a vengeance - by throwing in a full dollop of red hot chilli powder!

Field Marshall Rudra Shumsher and Commander-in-Chief Kiran Shumsher

Field Marshall Rudra Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana was exiled to Palpa, a consequence of court intrigue in Machiavellian Kathmandu of the Ranas. His mother was the second wife - Kanchi Maharani Tope Kumari - of his father Maharajah Bir Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana, prime minister of Nepal, 1885 - 1901 A.D. He and his brothers had been elevated to the prime ministerial line of succession by a special convening of the state council made up of the courtiers or Bhardars. Nobody had any problem with this arrangement since 1888 A.D. until Maharajah Juddha Shumsher became the Maharajah and prime minister and Rudra the Commander-in-chief of Nepal in 1932 A.D. There were junior aspirants to power who were impatiently waiting in the wings and whose interest it was to have this law changed. They prevailed upon Juddha to strike Rudra off the list and banish him to Palpa. After the Rana regime toppled in 1951 A.D., Rudra would be rewarded with the high honour of field marshall for leading an armed revolt against the Rana regime.

Nobody I know takes their food as hot as the family of Rudra Shumsher. After retiring from the army my father General Kiran Shumsher started a big game hunting company appropriately named "Nepal Shikar Pvt. Ltd. " During the hunting season from November to March big game hunters from America came to bag the Royal Bengal Tiger for trophies. Nepalese forests in Chitwan and Nawalpur, Banke and Bardia were teeming with wildlife in the sixties. It was in the winter of 1968, between two hunting camps that my father was a guest of the son of Field Marshall Rudra Shumsher in Butwal. Rudra's son Dhaira Shumsher was a nephew by relationship to my father, although he was older by age. He was making a living managing his estate and factories in the Terai, having moved south from his father's domain in Palpa.

I was excited to be joining them too as Dhairya Shumsher's son, who was in the army, was married to an elder sister, Geeta, of a school friend. After a few weeks in the jungle, it was a welcome change to be back in town. There would be shopping, the odd Hindi movie and good home cooked food. This is where the surprise was in store. Geeta was a lovely hostess and a great cook. I remember the first meal well, the usual daal-bhaat fare with tasty looking vegetables and mutton curry! Only when you took a spoonful of anything in your mouth would you realize that this was indeed extraordinary! For all its good taste the food was chili hot, burning hot, spicy hot, teary hot, so hot that it was perhaps insane. I must say we started to get used to it after a while.

Why would anyone eat such hot food? My only personal explanation is that Field Marshall Rudra, after being exiled from the power center of Kathmandu, must have decided to not succumb to ignominy, bide for time patiently, spring a surprise; and for this he must have taken more red hot chilli pepper than normal to sharpen his senses, to revitalize his body and soul.

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