Locked In / Down / Up

It is tempting to play with words but when the difference conveyed is so full of meaning, it is better to be precise. This is a time of being in lockdown, when the word is understood by all the people of the world, whether they are otherwise ignorant or illiterate, or even plain non-English speaking.

It is more than two months now, but unlike many others I am not marking each day as it passes. My days have not been very different so I am not tempted to post memes or amateur dance videos, nor am I missing having to visit indifferent relatives. In fact for a solitary person like me, this lockdown has freed me from any obligations to socialise. Going back to the earlier normal will be sure to weigh me down again with having to say Hello when I would rather scurry past quickly, unseen and unheard.

I used to be a people pleaser once. Even now I find it hard not to give in to pressure and talk to people and try to “be nice” to those who I know do not care anything about me.

One of my earliest memories is of my father telling me the Marwari girls next door, who were a few years older than me, looked very pretty because they always had smiles on their faces. The implication was clear, so I tried to paste a smile on my face for a few days. But no one noticed or remarked anything, so I gave up, thinking a smile was too hard to hold if there was no one smiling back at you. I thought no more about trying to look pretty or being called pretty.

Quite frequently my parents would describe someone as being very pretty and I would be in awe of that person without ever having seen them. But one day I realised that all the people who were praised by my parents for their looks looked very ordinary in my eyes, and so stopped thinking about it.

When I was in my teens, I gave up trying to look good because it seemed to be a losing proposition every time I looked at my reflection in a mirror. So I spent a few years never looking in a mirror. I managed to put my bindi on my forehead anyhow, angling the mirror to show only my forehead, not caring too much about the shape of the liquid bindi. If I walked past a reflective shop window, I turned my face away, till I realised that I could recognise my reflection only by the colour of my clothes. My face had become that of a stranger.

I spent my middle years trying to do everything well, cooking, cleaning, washing, while keeping relatives happy by doing everything that was expected of me. Maybe it mattered and maybe it did not. The points and the medals always went to others.

It was not until my fifth and sixth decades that I began to see people as they were and not as I thought they would be. I have been told that I have changed and that I am not the person I used to be. It makes me happy that I no longer care what anybody thinks about me. I try to do my best now to follow my own standards of behaviour and be polite and straightforward – without playing games – but when it is clear that there is no equal response from others, it is time to let them be, and walk away. The last part used to be almost impossible once, but not now, when I know that everyone is alone in this world. We came into this world alone, and we will leave it alone.

This isolation imposed by the virus has made it clear even to the lucky people who are blessed with abundant wealth and friends and family, that it is only a matter of chance who will be with them in a time of need. To others not so blessed, it is very clear indeed that friends and family who are never around even in happier times are certainly not going to make their presence felt at other times. Decluttering the people in your life is as important as decluttering your wardrobe. Mary Kondo would say, Has this person ever been nice to you? Without being as ruthless, at my age I think I can safely keep away from those to whom I am invisible or at least, mind my own business.

There is a story about Yudhishtra being accompanied by a dog when he enters Heaven. Everyone has left him already and only the dog remains. He is told that it is Dharma in the form of the dog who has remained with him till the end. So people are not important enough that they must be pleased at any cost. Neither are they important enough to cause distress. If they are good people, the kind you want to keep, they will stay on. The other kind is not worth thinking about.

Never Live In A Cul de Sac

This is an intriguing enough title I think. I could expound on it as if it were a metaphor for a closed mind. I could treat it as a figurative way of exhorting someone to live in a wide open space where experiences assail one from all sides.

But, being a very uncomplicated person, I will confess that it means literally just what it says. Never live in a cul de sac especially if yours is the last house in the road.

For the first few months of our marriage, we lived in just such a house. Our flat was in the last building on the street and the main road was about a hundred meters from our gate. We led very boring lives all week long though newly married, with R leaving for work every morning and returning home early or late, being subject to the diktats of his much respected elder sister. He would be called to her home from work without “probable cause”. Never one to say No, he would rush to her home from work only to take part in aimless conversations. Any plans we had made to go shopping or go out to dinner would have to be postponed or cancelled. I would be left disappointed while R might feel apologetic, but the idea he could reject her invitation would never occur to him, and if I suggested it, would offend him deeply.

So that left only Saturday evenings and the whole of Sundays for us to plan to go out. Our desires were very modest and our outings mostly consisted of going to the beach or to the market, perhaps having an ice cream, or visiting an exhibition. I would be excited by the thought of going out, housebound as I was all week long. I would wear a favourite sari and having decided to eat out perhaps, we would go down two floors and R would start his scooter.

This was the moment of greatest tension. It was not about the scooter starting, though that was always a concern. While R kicked his scooter to start it, I would stare anxiously at the far end of the street. Quite often, the dreaded figures would materialise and there would be delighted cries of relief from them and groans of dismay from me. There was no escape, living as we were in a cul de sac. There we were, and there they were. We had been seen and we could not pretend we had not seen them. They were various members of R’s extended family.

There was No Escape.

I was then a novice at cooking, my repertoire being limited to a few staples, and our pantry was always meagre. We had to rely on a kerosene stove, not being lucky enough to have obtained LPG yet. We had neither a fridge nor a mixer grinder. To top it all, milk was always limited to morning supply in those days and it was never available during the rest of the day for love or money. It was rationed out by the government dairy against a card which was guarded jealously by those lucky enough to have obtained it somehow. It was like living in the Soviet Union as far as milk was concerned. And here were R’s relatives, waiting to be fed by me. Perhaps they believed in the mythical Akshaya Patra which we did not have. They were also callous enough to come calling empty-handed.

When I try to recall it all, I think I was traumatised enough to have blacked it out. But I gleefully do recall when one such set of relatives marched in to my dismay. R instructed me to “make something” for them. I found a packet of a dubious looking substance that we had bought at an exhibition the previous weekend, being taken in by a salesman. I dumped the contents of the packet into a pan and added some green chillies and salt and turned out a sizeable quantity of something that may have been edible but not very palatable and served it to my guests. They had claimed they and their children were very hungry and I was wondering why they couldn’t have fed their children at home before turning up without notice. I have forgotten to mention that there was no phone line in our houses in those days. Not that it would occur to them that they should let us know before dropping in.

Anyhow, I served what I had made. I don’t remember eating it myself because to me, it tasted like nothing on earth. But they ate it and if they commented on it, I didn’t hear it. But I hope that it kept them away from trying their luck at lunching in our home once again.

We moved to a different house soon enough. Many houses, I must say, and we had our share of guests, some welcome and others dreaded. Our kitchen grew to be a fully loaded one, and my reputation as a cook grew so that our guests knew they could rely on being fed well and many, even the elder sister, lauded my abilities in the kitchen.

In passing, our first house did not even have a lift, so that the minute we stepped out of the front door, we were in danger of bumping into unannounced guests, either on the stairs or in the street. There was No Escape.

Friends. Once Upon A Time.

We were three of us who made a tightly knit group in the Arts College. Our classmate who admired us openly would call us the National Integration group because we were a Hindu, Muslim and Christian. Religion never got in the way because politics was not a passion in those days as it seems to be now. Activism was a word that had not been invented yet.

We were just three girls who loved the English language and loved talking about everything. We laughed a lot and did not take life seriously, and found exhilarating freedom in just being out of the stifling atmosphere at home. We attended classes happily, and passed notes to each other when the lectures got too boring. We wrote poems about our professors and giggled over them. Occasionally we bunked our classes to explore the city and discover new food. Looking back, I can see that we were quite ignorant compared to our children at the same age.

My home was a place where laughter was frowned upon and attempted conversations ended in anger and tears. Being a girl then was to be unwanted or a burden. There were families which cherished their daughters, but mine was not one of those. In many households the youngest child was pampered, but my being the youngest didn’t win me any points. So I was just happy to go to college as an escape from home, and for the first time in my life, I received praise for my writing, and compliments from my friends and teachers. My class papers were even circulated in other classes by my teachers and strangers would come up to me and congratulate me. I was shocked and happy, and developed a little of the self-confidence that had been so lacking in me.

Our friendship continued down the years though we occasionally lost contact, but picked up where we had left off till just a few years ago.We met frequently or spoke to each other on the phone. We were all married by now and had families and the worries that beset all at our age. But it was still fun being girls when we were grown women and surprising our children by our giggles.

Unfortunately, my Muslim friend suddenly was overtaken by events in our country, to be charitable. She had been a very modern and confident young woman, but I suppose could not withstand the voices around her, and lost her way. She dropped out of our lives and though we mourned the loss, there was no desire to reach out to a friend who had become a stranger, because she was no longer the person we had loved and we were the object of her fierce hatred just for being who we were and always had been.

A few years later, my other friend called me to say she had breast cancer. One year of sharing her fear and emotional pain and trying to support her through it all, ended with her death, inevitably.

Thus ended our circle of friendship. It has been more than forty-five years since we met as young girls outside the English Department in the imposing Arts College building. One of us is lost, another is dead. I am the only one left.

Making friends anew is no longer possible because we grow more solitary as we age and it is now the time to withdraw into ourselves. Whatever the world had to teach us, we have learnt, or not, as much as we were able to. Now we can only observe, and draw upon what we have learnt, to carry us through the rest of our life. It is time to shed the leaves. Autumn is upon us.

My Books Are Not For Lending

After putting down the title I wonder if anything more needs to be said. The title is self-explanatory, after reading which any one with any desire to borrow my books will gulp down his words and change the topic.

However, if it is worth saying once, it is worth repeating, and hence I shall proceed. I am not one of those generous souls who offers to lend their books to anyone who wants to read them. I am certain no one’s generosity extends that far. I will lend my books to my children who have been brought up to treat their books well and that too because I love them dearly. They can have my jewellery, my sarees, and my books, in that order. No one else can bank on my generosity unless I am about to get rid of a book I no longer intend to keep.

I am not ashamed of being stingy with my books either. I have gone to a great deal of expense and effort collecting them, and intend to finish reading most of them before I exit the world. The would-be borrowers would not spend half as much to acquire these books but are only too happy to ask to read them at others’ expense. I wonder if they would find it just as easy to ask to borrow my jewellery or silk saris. I suspect some of them, like our erstwhile neighbour in Bombay, would. As an aside, we still fume at the neighbour who told us our acquisition of an aluminium ladder was a very good investment and proceeded to borrow it whenever he needed, and even lent it to his friends. In hindsight we realise he meant it was a good investment for his use.

The other day, a couple living in our building paid us a courtesy call. They are very nice people and I have nothing against them. R took the lady on a tour of the house. I have no objection to that either, as the house was not messy and I had nothing to be ashamed of. However, he threw open my cupboards and shelves for the lady’s inspection without my permission, which I would never have given, and she saw that they contained my collection of books. I keep my books in closed cupboards for a reason. As I was not in the room, he came out and told me she had seen the very books she had wanted to read in my possession. I stared at him, wondering if he expected me to offer them to her. He wanted to be benevolent at my expense, but I just laughed and did not oblige him. Then she asked me if I had a particular book which she wanted to read. I, being me, said I did, and lent it to her.

That was over a month ago. She has now left on a visit to her daughter who lives abroad. The day before she left, R said he would get my book back and asked her if she had finished reading it. She, as expected, said she had hardly touched it and offered to return it as she was going to be away for two months. Before I could say anything, her husband said she should just take it with her to while away her time in her daughter’s house. Feeling unable to be churlish, I told her it was a good idea. The book is now on foreign shores.

I did not fail to give R a good piece of my mind but he is not a booklover and as they say, we are not on the same page on this, or to put it more clearly, he cannot understand my feelings in this matter. One, that my shelves are my personal property and are not his for him to display their contents to a stranger. Two, my books are mine, and are not for lending.

The next day, I moved all my books to my wardrobe, without his knowledge, and if ever there is any further attempt to borrow books, I will steel myself and lie that all the books have been put away and cannot be accessed, I am so sorry.

Maybe I should put a lock on my cupboards because R cannot be trusted not to fling them open and say, “Why, here they are!”.

Bowing Out

The day my father retired, he began to clear the decks for his death. In his mind the next step after retiring from work was death.

It never occurred to him that after forty seven years of working in a dull government office, he would be master of his own life at last and would not need to do anyone’s bidding. He could wake up whenever he pleased, eat a leisurely breakfast, go out and explore the city where he had lived for nearly fifty years or even go to the market to pleasurably haggle over the price of vegetables.

Instead he set out to clear the accumulation of half a century as he saw it. He looked around at the rooms which had only bare necessities to furnish them, at the few cupboards that were half empty and contained very little by way of books and clothes. He decided much of it had to go.

There was a traditional swing in the verandah on which I had spent most of my teenage years. He took down the swing and sold the iron chains by weight. My mother refused to part with the wooden swing itself as it had been gifted by her father. So a carpenter was asked to fashion a divan out of it which made a useful bed in the other room.

My father decided the teak sofa set had no more place in his house. A cousin who had been eyeing it for years was only too happy to get hold of it very cheaply, considering its pristine condition.

My mother was instructed to get rid of various pots and pans in the kitchen and make do with whatever was left. She grumbled but obeyed.

On one of my visits back home I found the house to be nearly empty. If Mary Kondo had visited she would have asked them to fill it up rather than declutter.

We – my children and I – asked him to buy a washing machine and a fridge because they make life easier and my mother could stop asking the Nairs at the back to store our milk in their fridge. But my father refused, trotting out various reasons such as electricity bills shooting up and frequent power failures that would either cause equipment to malfunction or render them useless. But the real reason was his belief that his life was over and it made no sense to him to spend on what seemed to him to be luxuries.

He retired at fifty-eight. His expectations were not met. The house was emptied of possessions but my widowed brother moved back in with a toddler and some of his own possessions including a television and a fridge. He was not one to acquire any kind of stuff, and was happy enough to live a pared-down life.

My father lived to be eighty-seven.

When I see the same tendency in others to clear out the house and not acquire anything that might actually be useful, or we might enjoy having, I wonder. The reasoning that valuable things will have to be literally thrown away after our deaths has to be faced and accepted. Their real value lies in our having used them and enjoyed them during our lifetimes. Beyond that it is better not to worry.


Where do I belong? There is no answer to this question. First I have to determine who I am and convince myself of the truth of it. So far I have never been able to convincingly answer this question even in my own mind, which is why I find myself hesitating when asked, until the questioner wonders if I am being truthful. In fact, faced with this difficult question, R and I often pipe up with two different answers thereby confusing the enquirer no end.

R replies that we belong to Chennai which I find hard to second. I was born there but he was not, and we only lived there for for four years after we were married. We could say we are natives of Tanjore district (which has a certain cachet to it) although he says we are natives of Kumbakonam town, which we are not, though he was born in Kumbakonam. We could simply say we are natives of Tamil Nadu, but that doesn’t occur to him. When he informs people that “we” belong to Chennai and then I say that I was brought up in Hyderabad, they assume that I am a Telugu person. My hesitation in replying stems from my inability to deviate from the truth at any time. When I am asked the price of something, I always give the exact rupees and paise, rather than round it off to the nearest hundred as most people generally do, especially if it is an expensive saree or piece of jewelry.

I was born in one city and grew up in another. I am a native Tamil speaker but was brought up in the city of Hyderabad. After marriage I moved to my city of birth but did not have much affinity for it. Till this point things are quite clear. But then came the brief interlude in the heartland of Hindi. From the Nizam country to the land of Nawabi culture, we moved to the cosmopolitan city and financial capital of the country, Bombay, when it was not Mumbai yet.

Bombay became a part of me and I found my true home there metaphorically. The number of houses we moved into while in Bombay were many, but it was home always wherever we lived. I found myself as an individual and an adult, and learned to assert myself. With R being away on long tours frequently, I was in charge and I loved it because it was not necessary to defer to the lord and master! I could do anything. I was not the meek little woman anymore.

After thirty years, in a sudden moment of dissatisfaction with our life we began to seek change and found ourselves, impelled by fate almost , in a South Indian city I had never seen before. Our new home still finds us waking up surprised each day, wondering how we got here, and why. I still do not know why we moved though how we did it, is clear. The process was long and hard, a challenge no less.

When I look back, it is obvious that we were bored with the sameness of life, and feeling marginalized, old and ignored as we were. All the exciting things that were happening in other people’s lives were passing us by. Apart from going to banks and government offices to keep up with payments, and waiting for telephone calls from the few callers that bothered with us, and being unable to go anywhere within the city due to the traffic conditions and parking problems, all we did each day was mundane to the extreme. Moving to a different city was an exciting idea that took hold of me at first but did not appeal to R at all. But fate took over, and suddenly everything happened without our planning for it. We moved.

But I cannot help feeling homesick for Mumbai and read the Mumbai news each day. When I realize that it is now my past and the future now lies in a smaller town in the deep South, it still shocks me but I suppose that slowly I will get used to our new life and rejoice in it some day.

Now at least, I can be quite unambiguous about belonging to the state of Tamil Nadu since I am going to be living there. From now on, answering the question of Who Am I will have to be an esoteric exercise in finding the real me, which is the quest of a Hindu in search of Moksha.

How We Got Them Home

I found myself looking at the variety of infant needs being catered to in the children’s section of John Lewis, chief of them being the pram and the baby cot. They also sold fitted sheets, bibs, comfort blankets, pacifiers, mittens and caps among other things, all of which came in blue and pink, and in white and a neutral beige which probably has a fancier name than I know. I wonder if the babies know there is so much to choose from and so many things they need before they can be taken out for a walk. The weather of course is a good reason for the light jacket, the heavy jacket, the woolen cap and the lighter summer cap, the indoor socks and the outdoor ones, and then there are the blankets, the warmer ones and the cellular others. Being an Indian, “cellular” reminds me always of the cellular jails of the Andamans where the British dumped the Indian political prisoners. That has no connection at all with these light blankets that let in air and keep the little ones from getting too hot.

Every one of these is designed and marketed with the parents in mind. I don’t expect the baby gets to pick and choose anything, or even much cares if it is dressed in a hot pink onesie being a boy, or a blue set of clothes though a girl. As long as it is not too cold or too hot or hungry or sleepy or just feeling upset, knowing how to make its complaint heard, it just does not care what the parents do with it. But it is they who get wildly upset if they have a pink outfit on their hands when they have a boy in the pram and would not dream of dressing the baby in the pink dress, probably because it would traumatize the little darling. They may not be too wrong in the prevailing atmosphere in this country where a child of three can say he is a girl when he is clearly not and some NGO starts counseling the child on gender change without the parents’ knowledge.

Like all old people, I am at this point entitled to recall the past as long as I confine myself to my blog and do not inflict it on a perennially bored and angry younger generation.

The color association is not very prevalent in India except among the urban affluent and was unheard of when we became parents. Sundry aunts would turn up with badly stitched clothes in riotous colors and prints and we would gratefully accept them. Sometimes we were forced to accept them for fear of giving offense as we were all very polite people in our time. We still are. Now we defer politely to the younger people.

Coming home from the hospital with a new baby is a momentous event. Today and in the western world, it requires a car seat and a carry cot, which require great effort and time to fix in the car. Back home I am sure a car seat for an infant or toddler is non-existent even now. I belong to a country where there are people who hold their infants in the front seat and do not belt up. A baby here may not be sent home without a car seat and simply carrying a swaddled baby home in the parent’s arms is not allowed generally.

We took A home as a week old baby in a cycle rickshaw. I sat in the rickshaw and held her and the rickshaw puller was told to go carefully across the potholes. Even so it was a bumpy ride home. D had a better time going home because taxis were available in the city of Madras and the road was a proper cement road.

When S was born, R hired a whole tempo which was actually a large phat-phati similar to a large auto which carried eight persons. It was a new tempo, as the owner proudly told us, and it was the first ride for both the tempo and for S. It was certainly a noisy ride because tempos are designed to make a lot of noise.

I did not have to travel during the first few days of my life because I was born at home in my grandparents’ house. I would have been the first hospital birth and could have boasted about it if my mother had not developed cold feet at the last minute and refused to go into hospital. She was only twenty one at the time and could have been excused but I am not sure that she had thought things through. Did she imagine she had the option of canceling the delivery, I wonder? Anyhow they had to send for the midwife in a hurry and fortunately the woman did not object to having been overlooked earlier in favor of hospital delivery and turned up but only just in time. By then I had decided to come out without waiting for help and she managed to finish what I had started.

The midwife seems to have been surprised by my size though, and remarked that I was as big as a rat. This nugget was overheard by a neighborhood child who went home and reported to her mother that a rat had been born in our house. The first comment on my appearance was not very complimentary but luckily I did not either hear or understand it, though it was repeated to me often enough later.

What I Learnt

I was traveling from what was then known as Calcutta to what is still known as Secunderabad on the slow train. The train was called East Coast Express, but in those days Indian express trains were still slow. This was more than twenty five years ago. R was on an official trip to Calcutta, and having visited him briefly with a whirlwind tour of the city thrown in, I was put on the train to rejoin my children who were in Secunderabad with my parents during their summer vacation.

It was hot weather and the vast Howrah station was crowded and noisy with traveling families who had excited children and heavy bags in tow. I got into my cattle class – the second class sleeper to the uninitiated – as the AC sleeper class was neither too prevalent nor affordable at that time. Maybe it was even non-existent then. I had a window seat but R kept my suitcases under the seat opposite though I thought it would be better to keep them under my seat, foreseeing objections from the occupant who had not yet arrived. But R in his usual way brushed aside my feeble objections and did what he does best – have his way. Expectedly two women got in and began to fight with us for having kept our boxes under their seat though R said the space beneath my seat was empty and they were welcome to it. As inducement he even said this would help them to keep an eye on their belongings. But they refused to listen to his voice of reason and claimed their space which they felt belonged to them. We were sitting in an unfriendly silence when a middle-aged man entered with a porter carrying large boxes. He asked the porter to move out the boxes belonging to the women because they were occupying the space under the third seat which apparently was to be occupied by a member of his family. The women were unwilling to give up though they might be thought to be the interlopers now but the newcomer was loud and rather obnoxious and won his point by brute force, leaving them to scramble to find a new place for their box. Let us say I was petty enough to snigger inwardly but maintained my calm and watched the goings-on. A few minutes later the man’s wife and teenaged daughter got into the compartment and hurriedly said their goodbyes to him as he got off and the train was on its unhurried way to Hyderabad. The latest women to board, who looked prosperous and well-cared for, turned to the rest of us, and smiled and asked, in the time-honored manner of travelers, if we were all going to Hyderabad, only to be greeted by stony looks. Even those of us who had not been in the direct line of fire of the uncouth and unpleasant person, now absent, were simmering in the angry aftermath of such behavior.

Instantly, the mother turned to her daughter and asked, “Did Papa say something?” and the daughter replied, “I am sure he must have”. How I wish the father and husband had been present to hear that! A telling commentary indeed. Then the mother began to apologize for her husband’s behavior and she was so pleasant that everyone effectively forgave her for his boorishness, after which the journey was very pleasant and companionable. The thirty six hours passed without a moment of boredom with everyone sharing food and conversation. Did I say that it was a women’s compartment? It was, and though diverse, the group chattered away happily, discussing family matters and public affairs alike without reservation. Seeing that I had brought no food with me and in the absence of anything being available on the train, the other passengers were concerned and offered to share what they had brought, but I wriggled out of that by claiming to be fasting. But a Bengali girl traveling alone would have none of that and persuaded me to eat some Sandesh at least. My reluctance to eat strange food on trains is a tale to be told on another day.

The Bengali girl came home with me at the end of the journey, which is another story. She was in her late twenties, and seemed an ingenue. On her way to an interview for a teacher’s job in Hyderabad, she was banking on finding dormitory accommodation in the railway station which I knew would be quite impossible. Her only alternative was to stay in a cheap lodge outside the the station, which made me fearful for her safety. She was naive and did not seem to realize the dangers facing her in a strange city late at night in the seedy area around the railway station. She had never been outside Bengal I think, or even outside Calcutta. In all conscience I could not leave her to it and walk away, so she came home with me trustingly that night. I was appalled that she was innocent enough even to trust me, a stranger. She spent the next two days in our house and I learnt that she and her widowed mother had been abandoned to their own devices by her married elder brother, and were both living in genteel poverty on her small salary as a teacher. I still worry about her, truth to tell, and can only hope that somehow things went right for her later.

S, who was only six at the time, happily came running out to greet me, and ran back in just as quickly, shocked that a strange woman got out of the auto-rickshaw instead of me. He was too shocked to look inside the rickshaw as I waited to get out.

To go back to the title, what I learnt on that journey was that rudeness can poison the well of relationships and I vowed that I would never be rude to anyone. It is all right to argue, even fight, because then you are both on equal terms, but when you are rude, you are belittling a person, who will have no answer.

My Kitchen Misadventures

I could have titled this as just ‘Kitchen Misadventures’ and included others in this shared fellowship. But nobody likes to own up to their failures and as a peace loving person, I do not want to face any artillery after having published this. It is barely comforting that no one is likely to read this post, but I believe it is safer not to have potentially troublemaking posts floating around in the cloud. I was never an aspiring chef but was thrust into the kitchen by my mother who preferred visiting her birth family frequently and took the train to Chennai quite often, leaving us to fend for ourselves. “We” were my father, my older brother and myself. I was about twelve at the time, and my brother was three years older. My brother had no inclination to step into the kitchen at all, but to his credit, would eat anything we told him was food. He would not complain and he would not waste. I had a more sensitive palate and more demanding tastes. My father, alas, was one of those patriarchal people who always knew what was wrong with any dish but had no skill in actually cooking anything. I stepped into the kitchen at twelve because I realized I would be condemned to eating rice with extremely watery and tasteless rasam for ever, along with burnt cabbage, unless I started participating in the murky processes in the kitchen. I had only my own tastebuds to guide me, living in such a family. My mother, I must add, would go to great lengths to cook a large number of dishes, especially during festivals, but since she did not enjoy eating, her cooking always seemed to me to be a little off-target. (I am convinced only a person who likes eating and cooks for himself can be an outstanding cook.) My mother’s cooking was a little like the curate’s egg – good in parts. I remember making upma at her bidding with no guidance from her except the most minimal, only for her to scream at me that the onion was too raw and smelt terrible and that I was no good at all. As a person, as a cook, as a daughter? I could not figure it out. But when I tasted the upma, it was quite good and the onions had the right amount of crunch. I suppose she did not like it because she did not like to eat onions anyway. I was barely thirteen then and had never been taught to cook. Anyway, once my mother was on her usual trips to Madras, and we had moved to our own house by then. My father ambitiously declared that “we” would make vatha kuzhambu, a Brahmin special which had few ingredients and required an experienced cook. By that he meant that he had a general idea of what went into the dish but not how to proceed. Following his directions faithfully, I ended up staring at a thin liquid bubbling on the stove which did not seem to be what “we” were aiming to make. My father told me to add more red chilli powder and more oil, following the principle that more spice and oil adds taste. We tasted it and the heat of the chili powder left us with burning mouth and tongue. He said it probably needed to cook till it thickened but matters were not improved. I suppose we must have eaten our rice with that concoction of chilli powder and water, not to mention the oil floating on it, because my parents would never allow us to throw away any food. I am sure I longed for the days when we were living in a rented house and it was a simple matter to go to a nearby hotel with a large steel tiffin box and order two vadas and sambhar to go with it. The cook would fill up the container with sambhar to the brim – those were the days when the waiter and the cook would understand that we were there for the sambhar really . But the vadas were wonderfully hot and crisp and the sambhar could never be replicated at home. The two vadas would be divided among the three of us and their disappearance from our plates left us – my brother and I – wishing we could have one vada each. We were too poor to expect to eat two each and would have been happy with just one. The aroma of that “hotel” sambhar was heavenly. Over the years, I became a better cook by virtue of necessity and was able to manage the kitchen on my own. I learned to experiment, and eating and sharing food with friends in college led to an abiding interest in cooking. But my brother never developed any culinary skills even as an adult. If somebody cooked and fed him, he ate well. If nobody was around, he did not mind living on biscuits. Even if he was starving he did not complain. His forced kitchen adventures were often disastrous. Once he lived for fifteen days on rice and rasam, unaware that he had mistaken turmeric powder for rasam powder, and ate what he presumed was rasam. It was water boiled with salt and turmeric powder. Perhaps the mustard tempering made it taste better. My mother returned home and wondered why the turmeric powder jar was empty and why the utensils were so yellow, until I got to the bottom of the affair. My late brother-in-law’s late wife told me that when she was newly married she had ambitiously set out to make mysore pak. But several cups of sugar and a jugful of pure ghee later, she was forced to pour the mixture down the drain in a secret operation for fear of being found out. Knowing my grim-faced brother-in-law I thought she had done the right thing.

There was the time when my father and I, as joint cooks, made a vegetable curry, sambhar and rasam, and along with my brother sat down to eat, but… where was the rice? We had forgotten to cook the rice.

Among my misadventures (notice the plural) I remember making rice balls to cook in a sweet dish called pal kozhukkattai. This was years later, when I was in my thirties. The balls turned out to be too hard and I decided to feed them to the crows. But when I dropped them a few at a time on the window shade, a matter of five feet, for the crows to eat, many of them bounced like little table tennis balls and jumped right off the shade to the ground below. I was afraid they would hit somebody and cause injuries. But to my everlasting humiliation, the crows that turned up to eat the rice balls, pecked at them from different sides, then lifted up their heads and looked at them, and – flew away.

Kitchen Baubles

It is a standing joke in our family that I am a collector of pots and pans. I have been told that I am crazy or that I am a hoarder. “Crazy” is a favorite word that R likes to use. I have been asked what will happen to my collection after me. I have been accused of having lakhs of rupees worth of kitchen utensils and pans – money that could have been put to better use. The number of pressure cookers I own has been counted and recounted and an exaggerated figure has been arrived at, in an attempt to shame me. (R peeked at this and said the word was “dissuade”. No, it is “shame”.)

In my defense, I submit that it is all an exaggeration. Everything I have acquired was at a discounted rate from the cheaper shops over the years. I have never spent more than a few hundreds on anything and then only if it was a guilt-free acquisition. Some of them are gadgets seen in any modern kitchen like a food processor or a mini-chopper, electric items that other people generally ruin and either replace or throw out. It is not my fault that I take good care of whatever I have and my decades old machines are still going strong. My mixer blender is thirty years old. My oven is the same age. The other items were replaced because they broke down at some point, being electronic, or because R wanted an upgrade even when I had not made a demand. Like the washing machine which R had replaced because he thought it went with the furniture upgrade. The kitchen stuff costs less than the monster sofa set I am sure.

There are also gadgets and some pots and equipment acquired from the West on trips abroad or supplied gleefully by D on her visits home, or with disapproval by A, and with nonchalance by S who would say “You want them, you get them”. They satisfied the thirst in me for the “foreign” things that every Indian born before the eighties has and others of that generation will remember. (To clarify, A believes in minimalism, D loves shopping for anyone, and S thinks “Each to his own”.)

Before the new millennium, only a fortunate few could and did flaunt possessions gifted by generous relatives living abroad. The rest of us whose relatives were stingy, had to be content with the limited choice in the market because our country was too poor to be able to import goods and what we had was functional sans variety and sans glamour. My rich classmates generally wore Favre Leuba watches on their wrists while I wore the HMT Sujata which my father had bought after a six month wait and had originally intended for my mother. This was a tiny-faced watch with a brown double-thread strap. The only other ladies’ watch made by HMT was called Nutan and was slightly larger. Everything was made in India and was of shoddy quality in those days. Except the HMT watches which ran for ever without breaking down.

So for a decade of foreign visits and trips home by our children, I acquired differently-shaped pans and kitchen gadgets and exotic – to me – cast iron Lodge products. My family was bemused by my fascination. Of course R. was more than bemused. He was enraged, but my children heeded my pleas either happily or reluctantly. I boldly stood up to R and asked him why I should not buy what pleased me when he could get himself shoes and track pants and T-shirts. His reply was always the same – that he was not stopping me from buying myself shoes and track pants too, knowing very well that I did not want them.

Now thankfully I am over this hunger.

I do have a few pressure cookers in my kitchen but I refuse to count them. They are also of different sizes and materials and are for different uses. Certainly they have been well-cared for, and certainly they do not touch double digits as R is fond of complaining to any friend or stranger. When it comes to my kitchen he displays no reluctance in shaming me and it is always a matter of resentment for me. I wonder what a counsellor would make of it. Would he say I have a right to acquire what I like within limits? And who sets the limits? Is it for a husband to give permission to his wife when she is not actually bankrupting the finances of the home? Is it for him to decide what comes into the house , which the husband generally thinks of as “his” house ? Which leaves me wondering what my status is in the house.

But my true love in the kitchen is my collection of eeya chombus and vengala panais – which are for the aficionados really. For those who do not know, they translate into silver-white pots for making the delicate South Indian rasam and the bell-metal pots for cooking rice and rice dishes like upma and payasam, not forgetting the heavenly sarkkarai pongal (which is actually made with jaggery , not sugar or sarkkarai). It would not taste the same made in stainless steel pans. There are also the Kerala urulis made of a heavy bronze and used for making payasam and vegetable dishes. All of these are expensive no doubt but no more expensive than the skin creams or the lingerie of the modern women or their itty bitty clothes where the design costs more than the material used. I never spend money on those. All the things I buy for my wardrobe are cheap and functional.

Spending much of my day in the kitchen, all the things I have acquired over the years make each day more fun than it would be otherwise. I like to experiment and I also like to cook the way my grandmother did, making food that tastes authentic and divine, in more ways than one. Food is “annam” which is offered up or presented to the gods as Naivedyam before we eat it. Cooking must be done after a bath with pure ingredients in a clean kitchen using traditional, sometimes modern, pots and pans. It should be eaten with reverence because we are what we eat. Families should eat together at the same time. Food should, in short, be cooked with love and eaten with love.

I know that what I have said will be a subject for ridicule or counter-arguments. But books that say food should be eaten with “mindfulness’ fly off the counters. To quote an Indian proverb – ghar ki murghi daal baraabar. I do not like bringing a chicken into this discussion – being a strict vegetarian – but this proverb is very apropos. What our parents or grandparents have always said – about eating food – is now being reiterated by many self-professed Buddhist proponents in the West and is being lapped up by our people at home.

In my grandparents’ home, when called to dinner, everybody sat down at their plates or banana leaves at the same time. Food was never served till all had taken their places. It was served in the same order to all and no talking was permitted. No books were allowed. After we had finished eating we either washed our plates or rolled up the banana leaves and put them in the garbage bin for the cows and crows. Then the floor would be cleaned because we always sat on the floor to eat. No cutlery was used and we ate with our fingers. The food was hot and was served with love by mothers and grandmothers who ate immediately after. No food was allowed to be wasted.

That was mindful eating.

It was my generation that started the rot. Dining tables became de rigueur. It began with a proclamation of having “arrived” and became a matter of convenience. Books were allowed at the table because the father thought he needed to read the newspaper and naturally the children wanted to be allowed to read books. The ubiquitous TV was kept turned on because it was a matter of catching up with the day’s happenings or with the serials where the heroines wailed loudly blaming themselves for everything that had ever happened and villainous females cursed the heroine and her family and called down all the plagues upon them. From the book we moved on to the cell phone. Then the children stopped coming to the table because they were busy with their laptops or phones in their bedrooms. The food was plated and delivered in their rooms where it was never eaten hot. The parents moved to the sofa before the TV with their own plates because there was no one to eat with. The next thing was for the food to be left in the kitchen for the children to help themselves if they were hungry and when they felt the need to eat. The parents ate anyway because the father thought of the cost of providing the food and the mother wanted to taste the food she had cooked with so much labor. It was not till the next morning that she knew whether the night’s dinner had been eaten. Then she threw away whatever had gone bad and heated up what she could for her lunch.

Now every Indian home has a dining table in the hall with six chairs. It has one or two bowls on it overflowing with keys and bills and wallets and loose change. Sometimes a bag of groceries and fruits sits on it waiting to be put away. Bags of wafers and chivda – opened and unopened – lie on it for anyone to pick up when they want something to munch on. Now and then, all these are pushed to one side, and the dining table is used as an ironing table. The chairs are never used unless a large group of relatives are visiting and then they are pulled out as seats.

I agree that I may have a lot more in my kitchen than I may ever use, but it is the one place in the house where I can be myself and please myself in cooking and enjoy the feeling of being in my own skin. The other rooms are where I have to please the rest of the family and where I am not at home. The kitchen belongs to me. I own it.

Before I forget, I remember the day when an old neighbor admired my kitchen and said “Oh, I have more cookers than these. Whenever I see a differently-shaped one I buy it!” I repeated it to R” with glee.