Friday, August 26, 2011

A Tribute to my Favourite Aunt

She was a wonderful person and I loved her. My world would be different without her in it. Not that i visited her often. Of late, me being away from kochin, and then my illness had prevented me from what i loved doing – looking up my aunts and uncles.

I regret it now. Intensely. Whenever we get a chance, we must visit them. Having not enough time should not be an excuse. For we’ll have all the time in the world for regrets when death , like a thief, snatches them away, without prior notice.

As it happened in the case of my ammai. To think that she’s no longer there when i feel like seeing her or talking to her – it’s painful. The knowledge that she has left my world for good – it’s difficult to digest.

She was my mother’s brother’s wife who inhabited my earliest memories very prominently. She was fun, great fun. Come vacation and she’d come home and take me to her home where i had female cousins around my age with whom i could have girlie talks and games. (i grew up among six boys. My sister, was already across the seven seas by the time i was six).

She used to spend lots of time with us, the small girl’s gang and make us laugh, and laugh at all our stupid stories and the silly things we said and did.

And she was a GREAT cook. The greatest I’ve met, I’d say. She’d announce the special dish she was planning to make and get us all highly excited.

“Today, we’ll make Kashmiri Biriyani”, she announced once.

I was excited. My mother made excellent Kerala biriyanis, and i didn’t know then (I was in high school), biriyani came in other forms too. I hung around her while she made it, and she explained to me at each stage – not the way the divas of the cookery shows do. She did it with so much earnestness and love, in a language that a teenager would understand - a sincere and earnest effort at grooming her niece.

How much garlic do you need, ammai? I’d ask.

The size of a lemon when ground.Ginger too, that much.

And the final product was simply awesome, the taste, the visual appeal and all. I am not exaggerating when i say I’ve never, ever tasted a better biriyani than the one Alekutty ammai made that day.

It’s going to be cashew sweets today, she announced another day.

After she cooked crushed cashew nuts in milk and sugar, she brought it to a consistency where it could be made into small balls, and then threw them into a tray in which she had mixed sugar and mild rose milk colour. My cousins and i sat across her and rolled them in the mixture so they’d come with a beautiful pink coating, and then pop them into our mouths.

Memories. Of the lovely days i spent in ammai’s house. Am getting overwhelmed by them. She was so full of love. So full of fun. So full of laughter.

And her narrative skills were simply incredible. She’d have us all agog with suspense one moment, then have us dissolve in uncontrollable laughter.

She was a unique person and i loved her.

My fondest memories go back to the days i went to boarding school in Pondicherry. She’d come home with a huge tuck box, full of my favourite snacks. Then she’d come into my room to see if she can help with packing. She’d give me bits and pieces of advice – things a growing adoloscent should know, in a light hearted way which’d make me smile but not miss the message.

And when i got married, she asked for the privilege of buying my wedding saree. I still treasure that beautiful piece in golden brocade.

I was her niece, but i have always felt that she loved me like her own daughter.
And it breaks my heart hat I’m so far away that I can’t be there to bid her the final good bye.

Mebbe it’s better that way. I’d rather remember her as my vivacious aunt with a heart full of fun and love, with that irresistible twinkle in her eye!

Monday, August 01, 2011

Oh, these veggies!

My husband’s (Sunny) friend and his wife dropped in once without notice. Sunny had gone out, and so i was left entertaining them. That was the first time i was meeting them. As i got up to make tea for them, his wife said to me.
“Mrs. Joseph, we are vegetarians. We don’t eat eggs too’
“OK”, i said sweetly. I had no intention of giving them any snacks but since she announced her expectations, i quickly pulled out ready to fry small samosas I’d stored in the freezer, and deep fried them and served.
“You sure it’s fully vegetarian?” asked the lady anxiously.
“absolutely’, i said with the sweetest smile i could plaster around my lips, hoping it’d sufficiently conceal my irritation.
The husband, Mr. A was obviously embarrassed by his wife’s obsession with vegetarianism. With an apologetic smile he explained how they once found some non veg stuff in the food served as vegetarian, and ever since his wife’s was paranoid.
And then he related a story.
“Two years back, i went to Paris. The European countries do not provide for veggies. As the official dinner was flagged off, two waiters walked into the banquet hall carrying a huge sizzler tray with a piglet sizzling. The creature was complete with the head tuned towards its right. They carried the tray and placed it in one corner of the buffet table. Then, i heard another sizzling sound, and turning around, saw another piglet sizzling in another tray, but its head turned towards its left. It was placed at the other end of the table.
The buffet started and i went around. There was nothing i could eat. So i walked up to the bearer and asked him what there was for vegetarians. He pointed to a table. I found leaves of different hues and shapes arranged high in fancy dishes.’
‘Do they think we vegetarians are cows, to eat grass?” he asked indignantly.
I repeated this tale to Sunny who had a good laugh and said.
“That story was for the benefit of his wife. I’ve seen him hogging non veg. Am sure he must have been the one to have had the largest helping of the sizzling pig!”
I have seen many many vegetarians who claim that label for the benefit of their parents, spouses and communities. Understandable duplicity. I have nothing against them. But i do have something against those hardcore vegetarians who behave as though we non vegetarians are still in the rhesus stage of evolution while they are in the ninth incarnation.
Many years ago, the doorbell of my flat rang and i opened it to find my neighbour – she was a Jain – with a steel plate in her hand. My heart skipped a beat 'cos i love some of the Guajarati dishes, and i invited her in. Before she entered she asked me, “Have you cooked non-veg in the house?”
I stared blankly at her. Who the hell is she to ask me whether i cook non-veg in MY house? After all, it is a free country.
Seeing my puzzlement she explained, “Today was ----- pooja in our house, and this is Prasad. We can’t give it to you if you have cooked non-veg in the house”.
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!????????????????? grrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
“Mrs. X, i am in fact cooking beef right now”.
The lady bolted, Prasad and all!
Actually it was lent period and it was the week we had decided to be complete vegetarians.
I find that the veggies have a habit of cribbing. We went for a trip to Italy in a group of forty. More than half were veggies. The breakfast at Marriott was on the house, and always there was a fantastic spread. Different types of breads, cheese, butter, fruits, fruit juices, veg salad, boiled vegetables etc. Along with this there was ham and sausage and omelette. Though the veggies could have a real sumptuous breakfast, they crib and crib and crib about how they are always ignored by the hotel caterers. A sort of dog in the manger attitude. Fed up of listening to the cribbing i ventured to say, “but there’s enough vegetarian stuff for a grand breakfast”.
“but you have more’, one irate lady squealed, a little hysterically, i thought.
“and yours and our package is the same. It’s not as though you pay more’, butted in another grumpy veggie.
The most exciting part of our trip was at the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The travel operators arranged to have typical homemade Italian food at a restaurant run by an Italian family just a stone throw from the tower. The restaurant was originally their home. I was quite excited, ‘cos that was the first time that we were having Italian food. Throughout the trip, the veggies in our group insisted on Indian restaurants whichever part of Italy we were in ‘cos ‘Europe doesn’t cater to vegetarians’. And i was quite annoyed. Imagine coming all the way to Italy and having roti and pulao and makhani and kofta! But then, often in crowds such as these, we non vegetarians find ourselves feeling apologetic for our very existences – like inhabitants of planet of apes who are stuck like aliens among superior humans! So we maintained our peace.
To come back to the Leaning Tower, the members of the family that owned the restaurant themselves served us. All the men looked like Robert de Niro. The younger ones looked like him in his youth, the older ones as he is now. One of them made an announcement that the vegetarians and non vegetarians must sit separate. Immediatelty, all the vegetarian ladies went up in arms. They wanted to sit with the usual group. Some could not be separate from their husbands who was vegetarian “but ate chicken, fish and egg”. So they sat together.
Soup began to be served. I saw that the family was having some problem identifying the vegetarians from the mixed group. We started our Italian soup. I was beginning to have it with great relish when a piercing scream rent the air. A vegetarian lady was up on her feet at the table next to mine, looking agitated, gesticulating wildly.
“there’s fish in my soup, there’s fish in my soup”, she screamed at the top of her shrilly voice.
The father of the family came charging to her table, took away her soup with profuse apologies, and literally ran towards the kitchen with it. The charming son came to the table with his mother and told the lady another bowl will be served.
“make sure it has no fish pieces in it”, she said unpleasantly.
I was furious and embarrassed about my compatriot. I turned to the lady and very politely told her. “This is why they wanted to separate vegetarians from non vegetarians”.
“so they put fish into my soup because we didn’t do as they said?” she asked me angrily.
Sunny asked to not to interfere. But it really spoilt the only Italian meal we had.
I wish someone would convince these veggies that though they may be at an advanced stage of evolution we are not evolutionary dropouts because we eat non vegetarian food.