Yesterday, I nearly killed Appa. Or at any rate, I made a serious attempt to.
I won’t claim to be a domestic goddess, but like Appa tells me, you will get pass mark. My inherent mediocrity finds its way into all aspects of my life.
Some years ago, when we moved away from the joint family household, two things changed significantly. For one, we had to depend solely on Appa to provide for all of us, and the perils of being a single income household hit us hard. The other change was that Amma went on a training mode – to turn me into a woman and a human being.
As a teenager, with a mind of my own and erratic hormones, I didn’t take too well to this training. After a lot of resistance and deterioration in my mathematics marks, Amma decided to employ a maid to do the basic tasks.
But when it came to cooking, Amma would not have any of this outsourcing. And given that we could never afford a Samayal Maami, that was anyway not an option.
While I successfully resisted learning most of the domestic chores, but between Amma’s erratic pre-menopausal problems and Appa’s Brahminical sensibilities, I had no choice but to learn cooking.
I hold the large quantities of cooking that I needed to do, as the single biggest reason for the lack of academic brilliance in my life. The most tragic part of it was that, not only did I do badly in mathematics; I didn’t turn out to be such a great cook either.
Actually, I cook alright, but unfortunately, Amma is not a very flamboyant cook and I have learnt five recipes in all. Over the years, Amma churned the same five dishes across 365 days with utmost talent. We never really complained. Because we didn’t want to evoke the wrath of Amma, and mostly because nobody made these five dishes better than Amma did.
Amma wasn’t always like this. Before her wedding to Appa, she was apparently a multi-faceted cook. Trichy Paati had a Thanjavur gene and therefore more flair in her cooking. Trichy Thatha loved good food and was always open to his wife doing culinary experiments. And most importantly, there were no vegetables and fruits that were a taboo at Trichy Thatha’s house.
After marriage, Amma had to unlearn all the good work that Trichy Paati had managed to achieve and master the five essential dishes that appealed to the members of the Bharadwaja Gothram clan. In Trichy Thatha’s house everything was exotic, fried, high on carbs, high on spices, borrowed from other worlds and then fused with the Tamizh world.
In contrast, at Madras Paati’s house, the foods were cooked on a slow flame, high on Vitamins, low on carbs and fat, bland, soft, gooey and mildly flavoured.
Madras Paati tells us about an incident where Amma tried to kill all the men in the family over a Sunday morning brunch. Newly married, and with Periamma being down with a mild fever, Amma was in charge of the kitchen. In her attempt to show off her fine upbringing and Trichy Paati’s brilliant training, Amma decided to make Senai Kizhangu Fry. Fortunately for all the women of the house, the men ate first and it proved useful here. Barely two minutes into the first course of Sambhar Saadam, Madras Thatha threw up and Periappa began to develop an itch.
Amma got flustered and dragged the Periamma from her drug induced state. Periamma asked Amma if she had made something with Sepan Kizahnagu. No, Amma said relieved. On reaching the dining area, Periamma was shocked to see that Amma had made Senai Kizahngu.
She let out the loudest yell and Paati who was in the middle of her Ekadasai fast came running to check if her daughters-in-law were engaged in a cat-fight.
Dr Krishnan arrived and injected all the male folk with some anti-allergy drug.
That evening, Amma learnt her first lesson - if it is Kizhangu, we must avoid. And in all the Kizhangu crimes, Senai and/or Karunai Kizhangu was the biggest one to indulge in.
Every family has some quirks. My family has several urban legends. One of the most widely prevalent one is that – Kizhangus in one’s food intake must be kept to the minimum. There are two key reasons given in favour of this No Kizhangu Policy:
1. Kizhangu consumption dulls the brain. Therefore, if you have growing children, avoid Kizhangu. More so, if you have unrealistic expectations in the context of their academic achievements. Kill them with Vendakkai and Murungakkai Sambhar.
2. Many years back, Periappa Thatha developed a fascination for reading the Bhagavad Geetha. He learnt two important things in the process. One, every morning, before one eats, something needs to be offered to Lord Krishna as Neivedyam. Even if it is a glass of Horlicks, it is okay. Even if it made only with water, it is okay. Even if it is sugar free, it is okay. After all, it was god who created Horlicks and also gave Appa diabetes. The more important learning was that of going the path of Saatvik, the recommended path for god-like beings. While the men folk with their short fuses were not really suitable for the Saatvikness in the more important things, they adopted a Saatvik diet, which seemed easier to achieve. Root vegetables needed to be avoided, the women folk who married and came into the family were told so. No Kizhangu va, they asked bemusedly. But then, small price to pay when you are married to a god.
Of course, among all these Kizhangu, Senai was the vilest and alleged to lead the fine men of the clan to near death like situation. Sometimes when I accompanied Amma during her vegetable shopping trips, in a rare moment of candour, she would admit that, she missed the Senai Fry and Varuvval that her Amma lovingly made. When I would suspiciously look at that brown-black, oddly shaped and coated with mud vegetable and tentatively reach for it, Amma would sternly ask me to put it away and negotiate on the best price for the Vendakkai.
I first ate Senai Kizhangu Kola at Poongothai’s place. I didn’t like it very much, but I didn’t die. That got me suspicious. Were the men folk in my family truly allergic to Senai? Was this one of those myths created, just for fun? Was it created to make Madras Thatha feel less bad about his allergy to the vegetable? Did the lack of Senai in the diet lead to pre-mature balding of all the young men of the clan?
This anti Senai sentiment was widely prevalent across the extended family. So much so that, when weddings were fixed and negotiations were to happen, we didn’t ask for Arusuvai Natarjan or Chellapa to supply the food. No Senia Varuval and no Senai in the Avial please, is all that we humbly demanded.
Inspite of repeatedly impressing upon to the caterer that Senai was to be avoided, the women folk remained suspicious. The Periamma, Maamis, Chittis, Atthais and random Maamis formed a formidable Anti Senai Squad. They would spread themselves all over the mandapam and dining hall. They would jump on hapless boys from the clan, when they were heading towards the saapadu place and would tell them rather enthusiastically, don’t eat the Avial, for it has Senai.
Not having enough trust in the other members of the Maami Squad, every one of them would tell the boys to stay away from certain dishes. If there was no Senai, it was triumphantly announced to the men folk and they needed to feel grateful to the Maami who came bearing the good news.
Inspite of this rather foolproof method, some male member would end up not getting this message and even as one of the Mamais would spot him and dramatically run towards him shrieking to stop eating the Avial right then, it would be too late. Often, the men folk would come in an auto and leave in an ambulance.
The only good thing that came out of all of this was that, the women got to eat first.
I and S had always wondered what would happen if Appa and T Anna actually ate a little bit of Senai. Surely they wouldn’t die, would they?
Trichy Thatha had once told me, all of this was psychological and just like god created Horlicks he had also created Senai. And my Appa’s clan was merely hyperventilating. I must admit, I liked this theory.
And so when I got control of the house and the kitchen, I bought a Senai. While chopping, it did itch and irritate, but then, nothing that seemed life threatening. Indira Maami obliged me with her secret recipe and that and half a litre of oil later, the vegetable was done. I tasted it, was rather nice.
Appa was pre-occupied that morning. Some boy’s family wrote back saying that their son’s wedding got fixed. The boy’s Appa was in the Indian Railways and Appa was hoping that my marriage into that family would ensure that Amma got lower berths for the rest of her life. May be, that is why he didn’t notice the Senai that I liberally put in his plate. Some two minutes into eating, he threw up and his face turned red and began to grow to a monstrous size. I watched him horrified. I was thinking of Section 302 of the IPC. After a lot of drama and huge yelling that I got from Periamma and Periappa, Appa was taken to the hospital. He was sent back home after being given an injection. He was so sedated that, he immediately went to sleep. I decided that I would play nurse for the day and skip work.
Later that night, at the designated hour, Appa, I and S crowded around the computer to Skype with Amma. We had worked out a deal that, we will not report to Amma about the Senai mishap. Amma was informed about the loss of an Indian Railways father-in-law. She didn’t seem as heart-broken because she was brimming with the excitement of her own news. It seemed that some of my cousins had come home over the weekend before and Amma had dazzled them and made them her slaves forever by giving them Manoharam (that was broken and mildly flavoured with the naphthalene balls in her suitcase). And of course, her world renowned rasam.
We all made appreciative noises and logged off after fixing our next designated call’s date and time.
Appa looked tired and said he wanted to sleep. I was a little worried. He had been unusually silent the whole evening. It could be the drugs, but I wasn’t sure. I forced S to sleep and when I was sure she was asleep, I went to check on Appa. I was guilty. I was feeling stupid. And I was mostly scared. Sometimes, when he stopped snoring, I would tip-toe closer, to check if he was still breathing. And I didn’t feel anything like the twenty-four year old grown up woman. I was a child and my Appa was unwell. It was unfamiliar and unsettling. I wanted my Amma back. And I wanted to have Murungakka Sambhar and the other four dishes that she made, for the rest of my life. Really.
By morning, Appa was better and I woke up to the music of BBC World that Appa was watching. It annoyed me, like it always does.
I woke up a bewildered S violently and told her that, I didn’t need to marry a boy whose father was in the Indian Railways. But I needed to marry someone, who was not allergic to any Kizhangus, not even Senai.
S walked up to the Rani Muthu calendar and peeled away the earlier date. And then she said rather heavily, Amma is not back for another eighty-one days.