Preetha Vasan | October 2022
Paatti has arrived. Unbidden. And she intends to stay till the end. Today’s act of “crime” (quote-unquote Paatti) is Maddie’s lasagna. To compete with which Paatti has entered the kitchen.
The fragrance of semolina, roasted and yellowed, lingers in the small kitchen now packed with Amma, Maddie, Appa and, of course, Paatti.
“Who eats a dish full of garlic and other forbidden things on the seventh day?”
Maddie’s muttered reply goes unheard. Paatti has moved on to the sugar syrup.
“Get the cashew nuts and the raisins.”
Paatti says this to no one in particular. No one moves. We are yet to openly declare whose side we are on in this age-old battle between Paatti and Maddie.
It all started with Ramu Chittappa divorcing his wife, who, unfortunately was Paatti’s brother’s daughter leading to Paatti’s complete disregard-more like deep seated malevolence- for Maddie. It turned out Chittappa, having always been in love with Maddie, was never keen on the marriage in the first place. That didn’t help matters. Paatti’s hatred grew, harder and unbreakable, unlike the cashew nuts she is pounding on the counter top.
“I like them whole” I snap, carefully ignoring Amma’s glares.
“It is for Ramu. Not you.” Paatti says in a voice so cold, even the heat emanating from the ghee, golden and transparent, fails to thaw it.
But I’m the one who must eat it. I almost retort. A searing pinch in the small of my back tells me Amma has moved from her corner since my last remark.
Like most daughters-in-law, Amma does not like her mother-in-law either. Not that Paatti is very likeable.
“Why has she come?” Amma hissed from the window, as the airport taxi zoomed into the driveway last evening. She left Maddie’s lemon tea, the one she had been eagerly cherishing, on the antique dresser in the guest room. It would turn bitter and chill approximating the tropospheric alterations Paatti brings in her wake.
Unlike Paatti and Thatha, Appa had not cut off ties with Chittappa, despite Paatti’s unceasing insistence that we do so. Maddie is what Appa had called “Anglo – Indian”. My happiness that Chittappa’s love interest is only half Indian was not initially because of the way this would open my career prospects. But more so because, summer holidays, after Chittappa’s “violation of the sanctities of Hindu marriage”, became super exciting.
Amma was a teacher in a far flung middle grade school. The long commute made idlis(that were somewhat dry and mostly brittle because the old Milton hot case had long outlived its heat retaining shelf life) our eternal and only breakfast. Chutneys were unheard of delicacies. We downed the idlis with Amma’s famed gun powder. If not anything else the spice would ensure we swallowed it quickly. Lunch was well mashed curd rice with some vegetables, fried or steamed, then seasoned. My all-time favourite was the crispy potato fries. I loved the way the aroma of the hing and the curry leaves hit me when I opened the clasps of my aluminum tiffin carrier. All the rare wonderments were for Sunday afternoons. But even those- Amma’s splendid ghee rice and aloo-gobi, for instance-did not add up to Chittappa and Maddie’s holiday bills of fare.
After that first summer holiday in their villa in the outskirts of Bangalore, I never wished to go to my grandparents’ sprawling mansion in Palakkad. Thus Maddie’s “evil ways of turning every person in the family against Paatti” continued.
It was Chittappa who taught me how to keep a recipe book to note down the tiniest details. I still have that diary. Its pages are yellowed, and the gold lettering on the green leather jacket which had once said 1992 is now almost gone. Chittappa and Maddie put together cuisines and dishes unheard of in my middle class Brahmin household.
The first entry in my diary reads “Spinach, Mushroom Casserole with Potato Puree”.
When we made this on Day One, I remember how effortlessly Maddie made the béchamel sauce while I mashed the steaming potatoes. I had to force myself not to taste the butter and potato mash as I used to. In the days following, we made many of the couple’s favourites: Chittappa’s famed paneer tikka dum biriyani, the 15th August-tri-coloured pasta, Maddie’s signature pineapple upside down cake, the couple’s singular dark and white coffee mousse, the somewhat messy Bombay grilled sandwich, and yesterday the indispensable Nutella and cheese cake-Chittappa’s favourite. Tired of my pestering, Maddie agreed to make lasagna on Day Seven.
Since then, I have noticed how all the recipes are about layers. But I did not anticipate the layers of hatred we would have to peel, before we forked our way through the sheets covering the marinara sauce melting in the parmesan.
The kesari is astoundingly good. Not surprising. We eat that first and then move on to Maddie’s lasagna. Not exactly the ideal combination, but the old war continues and Appa and Amma will not take sides. At thirty, neither can I. After all, Paatti had been my first guru.
Swara needs to be supervised even if she is a fancy chef in an upmarket restaurant, owned by a famous film star in Bombay. For some reason, never mind what, she has insisted she will cook all the meals the next few days. It’s absurd. She has no idea what’s in store. But anyone, other than that Christian in a Brahmin kitchen, in times such as these. Hence here is fancy Swara, the veritable prodigy whose dishes “score nothing less than the perfect ten”, as the Time Magazine brags.
Despite her flair for making unpronounceable not to mention inedible things, like the Christian does, Swara can still make the perfect Avial. No recipe books. No questions. Just perfectly cut pumpkins, yams, raw bananas, drumsticks and carrots simmering in the coconut, cumin and green chilli gravy. She has done away with the tamarind and added whipped curd for the sourness. I know the reason for the choice. The rasam, already sharp with the sourness of tomatoes and lime, would recompense.
Swara is like that. She knows. Unlike her mother, my daughter-in-law, who, despite years of cooking asks, “Amma do you think the salt is right? Is the sambar powder too peppery?”
Fool! We never add pepper to the sambar powder.
Swara is different. She reminds one of a well-orchestrated symphony. Before she commences she ensures everything she needs are accessible. Like a conductor ensuring the performers’ instruments are tuned and ready. Again, not like my daughter-in-law, who discovered the lack of curd halfway through the making of morekuzhambu.
Watching my prodigy is a pleasure. She spreads out newspapers all over the counter top before she begins the chopping, and washes her hands every few minutes exactly as I have trained her. And just like that she is done; less than an hour for making a simple lunch. I know who is responsible for this skill set. I smile at her proudly. She smirks.
The kitchen is a shining example of my tutelage. The countertop gleams a brilliant white, the occasional gold and silver chips in the marble sparkling like a sudden smile. Swara hangs the Christian’s apron on the hook behind the door of the pantry.
“ Paatti…” she commences.
I know what this is about.
I have ensured the Christian cannot make all those things: I have hidden the garlic andthe onions. And those terrible white things, slowly turning a mouldy black in thermocol boxes, are in the wet waste.
“You need not have thrown all those mushrooms. Maddie was planning to make quiche for Chittappa.”
I receive this in silence.
We have already gone over what can and cannot be made in such times. But neither the Christian nor my celebrity chef granddaughter seem to get it. She continues, “After all Maddie is only making what Chittappa…”
“It is not like that.”
“It is exactly like that. Didn’t you say that we only offer what…?”
“Ramu liked my dishes too. He loved my kesari, my milk sweets. Why, he would not even eat outside unlike your father who, after his marriage, was always running off to a restaurant. Not surprising, considering what your mother made at home.”
The last was unwarranted; I was hoping she would take the bait and steer clear of the layered topic of Maddie. She knows me too well; the decoy remains untouched.
“This is Maddie’s kitchen. You cannot invade it and dictate terms. Not after all these years. Not now. Not ever.”
“Maddie is a Christian. Christians don’t know our ways.”
“And quite obviously you have never accepted Chittappa’s ways”
Nine is a transitional state, the passage through which we traverse to reach the dreaded ten and then be embraced by the hereafter.
Today I made Chittappa’s long forgotten favourite, mambazhapulisseri. Maybe, because it’s me who cooked it, Maddie made nothing to counteract it.
Taking over the kitchen, this time, has been more political and less professional. After Paatti offers the sweet and sour dish at the lamp, which has been burning unabated like grief, I test it for salt. It is perfect.
A perfect ten.
The irony rises like a coiled up snake in my stomach. It loops all around my innards, almost squeezing out what I have managed to control. I push it down because Maddie is rummaging through the larder behind me.
The coconut oil is at the right temperature. The air is viscous with its smell. I know what Paatti thinks of my cooking. I drop the pappadam into the oil’s frothing glory.It and my ego swellup.
“Tomorrow we don’t need to cook for Ramu”, Paatti announces the obvious.
Maddie, still unfamiliar with our ways, interjects,“Why? I was going to make paneer fritters and …”
Paatti smacks her forehead with thepalm of her handand scowls at me. Does she expect me to elucidate to Maddie?
Amma should. Not me. I’m so much younger.
How am I to explain to the aching Maddie that, after nine days of offering the dead person his favourite food, on the tenth day we offer his soul a strange sustenance? Sustenance without the most essential ingredient – salt.
“Because then the soul gets angry, offended. It is a custom, Swara.”
“It is a stupid custom.”
I’m patient. Swara was my younger son’s favourite. And she, I think, was closer to them than her parents.
“The custom abets the soul join its forefathers. It helps it to….How do you people say it? Move on?”
“And how does it help Maddie move on?”
As a matter of fact it should, in most cases.
The priests have spread out the saltless idlis, and other savouries on large, round steel plates. They lay out a white dhoti in front of the lamp which is where we will offer Ramu the saltless diet, to drive him away from his earthly ties.
The custom, I remember my mother explaining in the days following my husband’s funeral, helps spouses come to terms with the loss. I grimace. All our tears could do zilch. The food remained in its perfect, tenth day state: flat and saltless.
Enraged with the banal offering the dead severed ties with us, the undead, forever. That’s when most of us always broke down.
The Christian, I know, will not.
I never imagined Paatti could be this cruel. She is. She loudly declared a while ago that the ritual would be wasted on Maddie who would not cry anyway.
“After all men never…”
She is interrupted by Maddie’s racking sobs, as he bends down to offer the first and last insipid meal to his partner, with whom, for years, he had dished up the tastiest cuisines.
*** Tamil for grandmother  Tamil for mother  Tamil for father  Tamil for Uncle, father’s younger brother  A South Indian steamed savoury  Asafoetida  Rice seasoned with ghee and other dry spices , served with a potato and cauliflower gravy.  A South Indian sweet made of semolina and sugar syrup.  Once again a South Indian savoury mad with different vegetables cooked in a coconut and curd/ tamarind gravy.  A mildly flavoured liquid usually served in between two courses in a South Indian meal.  A buttermilk based gravy.  A delectable sweet , sour and spicy dish made of ripe mangoes ,coconut , curd and spices.
Preetha Vasan is a Bangalore based writer. Her short stories, flash fiction and poems have been published in many electronic and paperback journals and magazines. Her Y.A. mythological novella ,The Chronicles of the Crimson One, was recently published and has received some good reviews.
Photo via Unsplash
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