The chanting went on for a long time. It was so easy to look engrossed in the proceedings while secretly musing over what would be served for lunch. For everybody was more interested in the welcome sounds of cooks at work and the aromas wafting from the huge community kitchen, adjoining the hall, than in the puja. Men sat a distance away while women congregated in groups baring teeth in smiles that hardly reached the eyes.
After an interminable wait, it was time for lunch. Everybody sat in rows and banana leaves were spread in front of them. Ashok sat next to his daughter and both exchanged a conspiratorial whisper about her mother’s confusion regarding the correct placement of the banana leaf. She always found the direction of the leaf confusing till he told her the leaf needed to taper to the right. That was easy then. She made a quick mental note as she revised her lesson, yet again.
Ashok sprinkled water on his leaf, perfunctorily cleaned it, and waited as the boys clad in dhotis and no upper garments shivered in the cold. He smiled secretly as he recalled his wife giggling and passing certain frank remarks at the procession of shivering boys, during a ceremonial lunch in cold, wet weather. He had been scandalised by her candour and had looked about hastily to check if anybody had overheard, but people had been busy tucking into the puliyogre with relish. Nobody lost focus while eating, especially if the food was as good as the tart tamarind rice, laced with jaggery, red chillies and toasted sesame seeds, and garnished with fried peanuts and coconut.
Salt was placed at the top left hand corner of the leaf. She loved salt. Nothing was exempt from a good sprinkling of salt. Even curd rice. Even when she had these dizzy spells, brought on by sudden surges of blood pressure, she would add salt to her food, on the sly. She didn’t see any doctors. She didn’t care. Sometimes he found her attitude rather selfish. She needed to take better care of herself – for their sake, at least. He, on the other hand, would rush to the clinic even at the first sneeze that was brought on by a change in the weather. And the pickle she ate! Huge quantities! Like a serving of curry! Strange, nobody in her family would touch pickle – they all had a sweet tooth. He wondered which generation had passed on this anomaly to her. The next boy brought the pickle. Finely sliced mango-flavoured ginger and lemon with a medley of green chillies. Oh she loved pickles alright! She made pickles by the jars, dozens of varieties and gave them away to every visitor. In fact, she shamelessly asked for a bottle of pickle when she visited a friend or relative. If they ran out of pickle, she had no qualms about buying pickle from stores; Premier pickles were her favourite, especially, the mango avakaya.
The next items to be put on the leaves were the kosambaris – fresh, delicious salads. Giving concession to modern times, he allowed his daughter to choose corn, carrot and coconut as the base for one and sprouts, pomegranate and coconut as the other. The mother approved. She was always an advocate of salads and greens. If only she didn’t overdo the salt!
The dry curries followed. Boiled and seasoned potatoes and beans with cabbage, both heavily sprinkled with coconut. All her favourite vegetables. She always had her way. She cooked everything that he bought from the market, but she reached out for these first. At the market, she would stand and look at him indulgently or irritably, depending on her mood, while he haggled over the price of tomatoes or brinjals. She never bargained, never even asked for the price. She never got her hands dirty. She left the nit-picking to him.
She made the creamiest of kheer. No, she did not use Milkmaid condensed milk. She would just boil the milk and reduce it, then add the rice and let it cook in the milk, add sugar after she switched off the burner, and then add cardamom. And her creamy kheer was unrivalled. Everybody who tasted it said they could just die and go to heaven. The kheer the boy ladled onto the leaf was not a patch on the kheer he was accustomed to. But it was her favourite sweet anyway and today was her day. Her fiftieth birthday!
Vangibath made with capsicum and green peas was served and he grimaced looking at the vegetables, gleaming, precious jewels on a bed of glistening rice. His mother would save used oil in which their favourite fritters – bajjis, bondas and pakodas – had been fried and add that oil to the rice. His wife however gave a new twist to the dish cutting down on oil and using the juice of lemons to give it a fresh flavour. Fried papads and rice crispies were balanced precariously on the vangibath. He recalled how she looked forward to summer for she could then mix rice flour in boiling hot water and make rice papads. She would put them out to dry in the sun and when they were totally dry, store them in airtight tins. She fried them on Sundays when she was too busy to make a special curry. Then it was just tempered dal, pickle, curd rice and papads. Pineapple gojju – a spicy sweet and sour dish – was next, followed by hot steaming rice in a mound in the centre of the leaf. A little bland dal with green chillies and coriander was ladled onto the rice and a boy generously added dollops of ghee over the rice and kheer. Everybody sprinkled water around the heavily laden banana leaves and muttered a prayer. It was time to partake of the sumptuous spread.
Hot, thick, steaming sambar with a host of vegetables like gourds, beans, pumpkin and peanuts was followed by the light peppery rasam. He loved the rasam she made. His mother complained about the excess black pepper and cumin, but she never heeded her words. She never retaliated. She kept quiet, held it all in. He wished she would vent her feelings more often. Her silences were more difficult to bear. He worried about the pain she suppressed. It wasn’t natural. All that pressure, just waiting to explode…
Coconut-stuffed holige was next and then green chilli fritters were served. He had a little badam milk poured over his puran poli and refused the ghee that was offered. The boys went around serving rice and the accompaniments till everyone was full.
He felt his wife was right, as usual: there was so much served that they could not really relish anything after some time. Only days or weeks later he would crave the special sambar that would be served at such celebrations. She tried to replicate the recipe but it wasn’t the same. She added extra coriander seeds and fenugreek to her homemade spice powder. It was better than before but not as good as the version made by the cooks. Then she would say with a grin, “Trade secrets!” She chatted up the cooks in the kitchen at every function they attended. Everybody knew her. There would be a couple of parcels of packed sweets and savouries with the compliments of the cook after every meal.
It was time for rice and curd. He only had curd at home. She spoilt him that way always. She set the most perfect curd, fresh and thick. Again he watched her many times as she patiently boiled milk till it reduced sufficiently. After it had cooled to room temperature, she added one drop of curd and stored it in a warm place till it set. She learnt this from a friend’s father at a meal she had been invited to. That had been the first time she had thick curd and she fell in love with the consistency. She had lingered at the kitchen door to ask him how it was possible. He laughingly explained it to her, as one would do a scientific experiment, and she never forgot. That was her problem, she never ever forgot. Sometimes it is a blessing to be able to forget. The mind can take only that much. Anyway, into the fridge would the set curd go and sit snugly on the shelf till it was demolished. The family had got used to eating curd with rice rather than rice with curd.
After the meal, Ashok got up unsteadily and turned to her. She smiled at him radiantly and his heart skipped a beat. Instinctively, he smiled back. He passed her by and she continued to smile at everybody who looked her way. She continued to smile when somebody adjusted the garland around her photograph. She smiled with so much joy, for the feast had been a celebration of her life.