Blog post by Anuradha Srinivasan
“Kousalya Supraja rama purva…”. The suprabhatham filtered through to my unwilling ears as I held on to the last dregs of sleep. “Wake up! The meeting is today. Don’t you have to prepare?!” shouted Amma as she went about her routine in a manic frenzy.
I grumbled “ Why do I need to prepare?!”. I didn’t really expect an answer, and wasn’t surprised when all I got was a vague mumbling in which words like “today’s kids”, “ impudence” and “good-for-nothing” were tossed about like sugar drowning in a tumbler of coffee.
My hand hovered over a coffee-coloured shirt as I contemplated rebellion, for about 2 seconds. “What will they think if they see you in modern clothes with hair left loose” had been the main course at yesterday’s dinner. “ No horrible black or brown, only an auspicious red or yellow” had been the garnishing on dessert, or in this case, “rose milk”.
Amma was nervous about meeting Mami and discussing the wedding preparations. The last conversation over phone had been quite tense. The all-important menu for each event had to be decided, and after much wringing of hands and consultation with family elders aged mostly 80 and more, the list of dishes to be served was almost complete. Almost!
Amma held out for crisp vazhakkai roast, while Mami stood firm on avial, the traditional side-dish which was apparently an essential drug for all her family elders. The battle lines had been drawn and neither was willing to cede an inch. “ Presentation is important. Dress well and look neat. If Mami thinks she can always get her way, then she has a surprise coming her way. Avial, instead of vazhakkai?! Everyone will complain about the food, and your father’s sister will never let me hear the end of it.” Clothes >= avial was an equation I hadn’t come across before, but who was I to question the infinite wisdom of mothers in wedding-mode? I chose a red kurta with full sleeves and a flowy dupatta. I looked and felt much like a cafe mocha topped with whipped cream and cherries.
“Food is on the table. Don’t make faces and eat whatever is there”, was shot out with a hiss and a clatter of ladles. I looked at the soggy upma and filter coffee, served with a not-to-do list. “Do not put yourself forward and talk too much like an adhigaprasangi”. “Do not stay silent like you don’t know anything”. “Do not mumble if you are asked to recite a shloka”. “Do not expound your modern views on wedding preparations like a mundhirikottai”. Don’t go to office and take off your bindi, wear it in the evening even if you do.” “ Don’t leave your hair loose”.
The words swirled around my head as I waded through the upma. The coffee seemed to have somehow escaped Amma’s wrath. The rich,strong aroma hit the septum and wafted all the way through to the medula oblongata. I tilted the tumbler and took a sip.
As the hot,strong liquid hit the palate, I waited for coffee nirvana – that moment when sight,sound, and smell become one, and the aroma of freshly ground coffee mingles with the taste of chicory, spiked with a few ladles of sugar, to hit the hippocampus and the gullet like Lakshmi bombs.
I finished my coffee and left hurriedly, with Amma shouting instructions till the last second.Time raced along as though it had binged on caffeine and before long, I was standing in the lobby to meet and greet my mother and Mami, my would-be-sister-in-law’s mother.
I couldn’t have missed them if I wanted to. Alone in a sea of pants,skirts, and l’Oreal Paris, stood an island of tradition, resplendent in light silk saris, kajal, powder and jasmine flowers. As they spotted me, Mami’s face was covered with a broad smile. My mother grinned wider. Soon we were all trying to split open our mouths, stretching them to maximum capacity. After about a minute, gravity made itself felt and mouths settled back to their usual faultlines. “Shall we sit down?” I offered. Two pairs of eyes were dragged away from the object of their affections – Maryam, the receptionist, in a tight short skirt and a sleeveless blouse. Mami and Amma shared a quick look that promised a good one hour’s discussion on today’s generation over a tumbler of hot filter coffee. Well, at least they would bond and maybe resolve the avial-vazhakkai tie, I thought.
“Shall we have a cup of coffee?” asked Mami predictably. I looked around at the shiny chrome and leather decor in the reception of my office, and then at the Mysore Silk Sari models. I had a vision of Amma and Mami holding espresso shots, animatedly discussing 7 suthu vs 9 suthu murukkus, and the exact height and volume of paruppu thengai, while Maryam, the guard, and random colleagues of both genders milled about. It was like a free ticket to a Ram Gopal Varma or S.J.Surya movie. This could only end in disaster.
Some quick-thinking saved the day, and I suggested the nearby coffee shop. It would be more comfortable, and quieter, I explained. And they could sit as long as they wanted without any problem. Both Mami and Amma quite understood that unfortunately, I wouldn’t be able to leave office right away and so would miss out on the finer points of sweets, seer and side-dishes. I promised I would join them later.
“Well-played, girl!” I congratulated myself as I headed straight to the coffee vending machine and made myself a strong cappuccino with three spoons of sugar.
I was tilting the cup, trying to lap up the last couple of drops, when I saw Mami and Amma. They were back. Early. And they didn’t look happy at all. It couldn’t mean anything good.
I sighed, and walked upto them. Before I could open my mouth, my mother shot at me “ People think they can get away with anything these days. There are no morals, no sense of right or wrong.” “ Ummm aren’t you over- reacting? Its just food after all”. My feeble attempt to cool down tempers was met with a contemptuous look that is the preserve of mothers. “ Only food? We work hard and do everything for food. Annam Brahma, haven’t I taught you this?”. I gave up and cringed, as I waited for a stinging retort from Mami. To my shock, Mami nodded her head.
“After waiting for 20 minutes, all we get is lukewarm milky liquid, in big cups! Not even decent tumblers in the hotel.”
“We complained that the coffee was so light. That ammanji server just said this is how all kappu chinnos are made. Kappu or Lalli, only fancy names. Coffee sahikkalai ! And they charged 75 rupees for that!” fumed my mother, her face flushed with the injustice of the whole thing. “I can get better coffee at the roadside stall! This is outright swindling!”
Mami declared, “I will ask Mama to write a letter to the Hindu!”. Amma nodded agreement.
I couldn’t see them, but I was sure that thirty-three crore devas shouted “Attagirls!” as they showered invisible flowers on the foes-turned-friends. Good or bad, coffee had saved the day!
- Suprabhatham – Morning song for the Gods, and played loud enough to wake them up
- Amma – The one important ingredient in any Indian movie, without which tickets
don’t sell. Mother!
- Mami – Any middle-aged lady, usually a nosy neighbour or relative
- Vazhakkai – The poor cousin of potatoes, which tastes almost as good, aka raw banana.
- Avial – A assortment of vegetables, coconut and buttermilk. Prime favourite of all
Keralites, including the non-Malayali ones, and usually avoided by their tamarind and
red chilly-loving cousins to the east.
- Upma – Lifesaver for many mothers, pet hate of most kids, and much like its Western
- Adhigaprasangi – A polite nomer for over-enthusiastic meddler,locally referred to as
- Shloka – That thing Tambrams do in the seclusion of their homes once darkness
descends . Yep. Prayer.
- Mundhirikottai- Brother of Adhigaprasangi.
- Seer – Those wedding thingies that everyone talks about in hushed tones and are the
subject of group discussions and lengthy debates among silver-haired women from
the groom and the bride’s side. Usually food items, but sometimes include other
miscellaneous things such as cots,cars and chains.
- Kaapi – Tamil version of coffee
- Ammanji – literally your mother’s brother’s son, metaphorically any old fool
- Paruppu Thengai – a conical dish made of all things sweet and yummy and bad for
health. It has to be made by experienced grandmothers or wedding cooks and is
usually not found in any sweet shop. “Death by Paruppu Thengai” doesn’t have quite
the same éclat as the chocolate version.
- Murukku – a crunchy salty oily snack designed to please the tongue, not the heart. 7
Suthu or 9 suthu refer to the number of rings or the size of each murukku.
- Annam Brahma – Food is God. Totally agree.
- Sahikkalai – Can only be translated by the local slang “Its the very worsht. Thu!”