Saturday, March 10, 2018

Warmly Served

Summer of 1993 – I was still a year away from entering my teens.  My Aunt (who passed away in 2016) and Uncle had moved temporarily to an apartment building just two streets away from where my grandparents lived.  Technically, I did not ‘live’ at my grandparents’ place.  But…well, you get the idea!  The tradition must have been in place before I was born because for as long as I can remember, my grandma, my Mom and my Aunt always made vengaya sambar (sautéed shallots mixed with lentils) and potato curry every Sunday for lunch. 

My Aunt loved to have the cake and eat it too!  My Mom offers the cake, while my grandma admiringly watches on.  There I am, with my eye on the cake.  They say that you can tell the foodies early!
During the period that my Aunt had moved close by – thank heavens that the construction of their house took a long time! – I would go to their place every Sunday for lunch.  She was a fabulous cook.  Funnily enough, she would invariably make tasty curries, delectable side dishes but make a bit of a mess of…of all things, rice!  I once remember that when she offered my Uncle water during a meal, he joked, “Don’t bother!  The rice is watery enough!” (Poor thing, she must have turned off the pressure cooker a tad early!)  But as I have mentioned elsewhere, she was a sport.  So, she would laugh off her own clumsiness.  Her smiling countenance was the usher to an enjoyable hour during which she would, at times, gently rib me for my lack of work ethic.  As I think about it, it was not so gentle!  Nevertheless, she enjoyed taking that privilege with me.  Sometimes I would bristle, at other times I would turn a deaf ear.  (Neither reaction, I suppose, was very mature!) 

She and my Uncle then moved into their house which was farther from our place.  Somehow my Sunday routine was broken.  I never thought much of that until I was revisiting some of those moments in my mind, after she left us.  My memories of 1993 taught me an important life lesson that food is a matter of comfort more than taste.  Of course, as was her wont, she never said this to me.  As I reflect on my interactions with others, I can safely say that not everyone has stacked up to her in this respect.  I don’t expect them to but some of my negative experiences have taught me to be more appreciative of welcoming, hospitable folks.  Even among my near and dear, while I take privileges, I try to not be insensitive.  This is one area where I strive to emulate my father - he never fails to acknowledge and thank the cook in question for every meal of his, even if prepared by my Mom, grandma or my wife.  It might sound like overkill but as I emulate him, I just look at it as giving people their due for the time and effort put into preparing a meal.

My Aunt's daughter - clearly, enjoyment of food runs in the family! (This pic is from Dec 2012)
An incident that happened in my late teens which I find impossibly hard to erase from my memory was a visit to an acquaintance’s place.  I was not invited for a meal.  But as we struck up a conversation – I may have had some blind spots here, to be abundantly honest – I thought that everybody was having a fun time.  One of the members of the host family urged that I stay for lunch while another made a long face…that I noticed.  But instead of politely refusing the offer and leaving right then, I inexplicably stayed back.  And trust me, hunger or a rapacious appetite were not the reasons I stayed back.  I just did not have the sureness of foot to act decisively and leave in an unfussy manner.  Some delicious items were on offer at the table – heck, the rice was very well cooked here! - but even now as I think of that incident, I want to eject every morsel that went into my system that day.  Since then, I have been exposed to all permutations and combinations (good meal / unfriendly host, tasteless meal / delightful host, and so on) and I have come to the natural conclusion that the vibes matter the most.  The taste of the food is a nice-to-have. (For the record, during this incident, the person that made the face did not have to cook a thing; the meal was ready and was made by someone else.  And, the family were very wealthy and had good support staff - no paucity of food issues there either!)  

On the other hand, I have grown more sensitive to the fact that there are times when meals for guests are imposed on a member of the household by a spouse, a parent or even a child.  That especially if only one person is preparing a meal for others, that it is utterly unreasonable for me as a guest to expect them to not look harried or overworked.  I try my best to avoid putting people in that situation.  Thanks to the aforementioned incident, I dine at a person’s place only when I trust them to the hilt.  When I am unsure, I visit people outside of typical meal times so that I can leave before someone even broaches a conversation about a meal.
Of course, I have close, trustworthy friends and extended family members who have made me feel welcome.  And my blind spots too have thankfully dwindled in size.  They say that hindsight is 20:20.  But I have realized that heightened awareness can be also be a reliable pair of lenses to view this world through.  It is my sincere desire to act sensitively, decisively and empathetically when I visit people.  And as a host, I hope that I am able to make people feel loved, welcomed and valued when they visit me.  Those vibes that they hopefully experience, more than the aroma of the chai that I make, are what will make my Aunt smile from up above and know that the lessons ‘taught’ in 1993 have been indelibly imprinted in my mind.  The mind that bottles the scents of my memories of her.  Scents that extend far beyond those that wafted from her vengaya sambar.  


Zola said...

Ha Ha Ram ! What ya topic to write on ") I have oodles to share on this - some not so complimentary and its been an education and eye opener in some ways but I'd have NEVER dared to WRITE on this.

Thankfully you've done it and may I say very diplomatically :)

Mattravai next comment-il.

Or better person !

Anu Warrier said...

l agree that food is first and foremost a comfort thing, rather than a matter of taste. For me, like a lot of other Indians (I think), food is also the way we show our love and affection. While I have attended many potluck dinners here and have had no issue taking my contribution along, it's a matter of principle that I never host a potluck dinner at home. If I invite someone, it is because I like their company. And because of that, I will make the food - from scratch. I will ask their likes and dislikes, their allergies/food preferences and, as far as possible, try to meet them. There will always be place at my table for anyone who drops in - come, share my food, whatever it is.

Now that I have successfully hijacked your post - let me say that I love your personal essays. As opposed to the self-improvement ones. [tongue poked out at you] Seriously, I can really visualise your aunt or your grandfather or anyone else you write about, and there's so much love and affection - and humour - in your posts that I always look forward to reading them.

Ram Murali said...

Ravishanker - Nandri pala. Mattravai (comment-ilo ner-ilo) kaetka aavaludan kaathirukiren!

Anu - thanks for your prompt response.
" I will ask their likes and dislikes, their allergies/food preferences and, as far as possible, try to meet them."
--> I can totally vouch for that quality of yours :)

Re: personal essays vs. self-improvement posts, LOL! I shall blur the lines moving forward! Plus, I enjoy writing more about these loved ones anyway!