Monday, January 17, 2022

“Bread and jam, please!” – An anecdote and some reflections

“Just give me two days”, was my father’s polite request to me.  On my two-month trip to India in the summer of 2007 – I had quit my job, to start my MBA that Fall - Dad asked that I accompany him to temples in and around Madurai and Trichy.  He said that he wanted me to take two full days out of my trip, travel time included, for this journey where he probably hoped that my piety levels would go beyond chanting ‘Saraswati nabasthubyam’ at every temple regardless of the deity in front of me.  The temple trip itself came a few weeks into my sojourn in Chennai.  By that time, I had indulged myself in a variety of south Indian and north Indian delicacies, both at home and at restaurants.  And a gamut of savory and sweet items had been entertained by my generous palate.  Upon landing in Madurai, the breakfast at the hotel was no different.  I don't remember the menu in too much detail.  All I can say is that lunch felt superfluous.

Oh, I forgot to tell you that I imposed a ‘condition’ - why is that word inextricably linked to Visu and S. Ve. Sekhar?! - on my Dad.  I told him that for the two days in Madurai and Trichy, that I needed breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner at proper times.  You would think that I could take that for granted.  But past trips of this sort had taught me one thing.  When traveling with religious people, their fierce desire to ensure no missed darshans (“thera poatruku” pronouncements were usually as solemn as a dirge) meant that hunger and thirst fell by the wayside.  Not for me.  I need(ed) my calorie intake at regular intervals to prevent me from getting cranky.  On this trip, both Dad and I stuck to our respective promises.  I got my meals on time.  He got His Holiness Yours Truly to ‘religiously’, uncomplainingly follow him to every temple. 

On the second day of the trip, we were to visit the Kasim-Babu brothers, a nadhaswaram-playing duo who lived in Trichy.  Dad was on the phone with them the evening prior to coordinate plans for the next morning.  Mr. Kasim must have apparently shared their menu for brunch.  Because Dad responded, “Oh, idly, dosai, poori, potato.  All this is plenty!”  He stole a glance at me when I said, “Appa, I just want bread and jam, please!”  My rationale was that I had indulged in rich foods all my trip that I wanted a simple breakfast for a change.  But my Dad, whose snicker was effortlessly relayed from Madurai to Trichy over the phone, said to Mr. Kasim, “Oh, my son is saying that he won’t eat all that.  He only wants bread and jam!”  After he kept the phone down, I wondered how it would have been received at the other end.  I always tried extra hard to ensure that people back home would not get the sense that my time away from India had made me the stereotypical, snobbish 'US return' that we have all seen in the movies.  But I thought to myself, “Great!  They are probably wondering, ‘Look at this guy who passes on poori and potato and comes all the way to Trichy to eat bread and jam!’”  That evening, I was sulking endlessly, telling my Dad that he should have offered at least half an explanation for the bread and jam request!  He alternated between laughing it off and assuring me that they would not mistake me. 

The next morning when we went to their house, Mr. Kasim, upon greeting me, said, “Bread jam vaangi vechutom, Pa.  Don’t worry!”  My face turned as red as strawberry jam.  I took great pains to explain myself.  He smiled and said, “Hey, I am just pulling your leg.”  We excused ourselves after a very pleasant couple of hours in their company.  Three years later, I saw him at the upanayanam function of my cousin.  My chief concern was that he shouldn’t remember me as Mr. Bread Jam.  He thankfully didn’t, and just spoke fondly of the nice time that we had at their place. 

Reminiscing about this incident also brought back a spate of emotions and memories of visiting people - especially those older than me - back home.  People whose smiles reached their eye, whose warmth radiated from within their inner core and touched my heart.  I found it enormously touching whenever they would request me to encapsulate the highlights of my life in the intervening years, in a few minutes.  I learned over time that, to them, the gaps between my trips to India were akin to simple ellipses separating two phrases.  And during my time with them, it was their sincere desire to fill in the gaps so that they could feel caught up.  (Sure, technological advances have made the process of keeping in touch easier.  But it is hard to beat the charm of an in-person visit, is it not?)  As I recollect some of the elderly folks who are no longer alive, my heart brims with gratitude for their generosity and thoughtfulness.  The visits themselves may have been short.  But the aftertaste of their generosity lingered for much longer than did the sweetness of the strawberry jam that I sometimes demanded!


Zola said...

Laughed my guts out! .... and choked up on the nostalgia.

I have fond memories of Madurai. My best holiday was spent there in the 8th grade - the first time I travelled alone by train.

Lovle, enjoyable piece Ram!

Ram Murali said...

Thank you, Zola, for the kind words of encouragement. The towns outside of Chennai led to some of the best memories, illa!

Anu Warrier said...

to them, the gaps between my trips to India were akin to simple ellipses separating two phrases.

What a lovely, lovely line, Ram! I wish I'd written that!!

(Always love your personal pieces. You have a natural gift for telling very personal stories.)

Ram Murali said...

Thank you so much, Anu. I am so glad that you liked the line and the write-up. Truly grateful for your encouragement.

Anonymous said...

It is very good Ram that you are recording these events
Like u rightly said so many people are no longer there when we go to Chennai
When u record it and show it to them when they are alive it gives them great happiness

Ram Murali said...

Anonymous - thank you so much for your response. I totally agree about the happiness that we give the elderly folks by sharing.