Oh life is bigger
It’s bigger than you
And you are not me
– Michael Stipe, REM
Like a culinary sutradhar, my mother wields her art with fierce precision, skill, and unyielding aesthetics. All these years later, her prized Noritake China set that she bought with her hard-earned savings, still lies intact, not so much as a chip on the gravy boat. This has little to do with the luxuries of inherited crockery or generational irony. Rather, it is about a girl and her dreamscape.
I guess I should start, like Maria Von Trapp suggests, at the very beginning.
My maternal grandfather, Bangalore Venkata Balamurthy, came from a humble family in what would now be Telangana but was then undivided Andhra Pradesh; his mother tongue was Telugu. He had to support the family from a young age and could never avail a formal education. He married my grandmother Susheela, the daughter of a Tulu speaking school teacher from Brahmavar in Coastal Karnataka. Balamurthy ensured Susheela went to college and became a doctor. He ran an institute for immigrant youth in the city, teaching them kusti, yoga and other traditional physical forms. It was called Navajeevana Vyayamshala and stood next to my grandmother’s Navajeevana Clinic on Conservancy Road in Basavangudi, Bangalore. They had four daughters—my mother was the eldest—and a son. Each of these children married outside of caste or language. So Tamil, Hebbar Tamil, Marathi, Konkani, and Kannada entered the family that already communicated in Telugu, Tulu, and English. These years would have been the 1940s and after.
My paternal grandfather Bhagat Ram Kumar, was from Sindh, Punjab in erstwhile Pakistan and grew up in Quetta, Baluchistan. He was probably Kumhar by caste, but we have no way of knowing for sure, because he never mentioned it, and caste was treated as archaic in certain sections of India in those idealistic pre-independence days. Swept by the tide of nationalism, Annie Besant and the nascent Theosophical movement, Bhagat ended up in Banaras Hindu University. The girl who would be his future wife had also been sent to Banaras to study. But she had travelled to Banaras from the South. Thus, it was that Bhagat from Baluchistan ended up married to my grandmother, Jayalakshmi, daughter of one Arcot Ranganatha Mudaliar and living in Madras. They had three sons—my father was the youngest of them—and a daughter. Each of these, in turn, married willy-nilly who they wished to, outside caste and some, even nationality. My mother joined this tribe and so did an Australian, an Anglo Indian and a Chinese-Malaysian.
Flash forward to my parents’ little home on Nandidurga Road, Bangalore, where my brother and I grew up. The narrow, dark kitchen had a red oxide counter and cement sink. I recall sitting on the floor in the kitchen, while my mother made us hot chapatis dabbed with homemade ghee. It was the 1960s – the milkman dropped off glass bottles of milk with a foil seal, and the egg-man brought us fresh eggs in baskets that hung on a stick; he balanced the baskets on his shoulders. Sometimes the baskets would also contain quail. The sound of the ‘kainchi-chainchi’ man who cycled his stone wheel through neighbourhoods, to sharpen knives and scissors, was a familiar one.
On Sundays, my parents shopped at Russell Market and while my mother brought home vegetables and either meat or fish, my father would bring back a plastic packet of ornamental fish—tiger barbs, neon tetras, gouramis—that he would set free in that cement sink while preparing his fish tank for their transfer. In this kitchen, accompanied by a Sumeet mixie and a black tin stove-top oven, my mother never stopped cooking food that spelled home for the four of us, but also wove in the multiple histories of the rest of the family. She cooked all the food that was cooked in her own childhood home—the ragi mudde and mutton curry rich with sabakki soppu (fresh dill), radish, large chunks of potato and coconut milk that her father loved, the denji aajadhina (crab dry fry), yetti da gassi (prawn curry) and mackerel and sardines fried in coconut oil from her mother’s native Mangalore. But she also gave us eggs and buttered toast every single school day because that was the breakfast my England-educated father loved.
‘Whose egg is this?’ she would call from the kitchen.
‘The hen’s egg!’ my father would say and laugh uproariously at his own bad joke as we trooped in with our plates, ready to receive a fried egg straight from the pan.
She packed our school boxes with a frugal, healthy lunch of phulkas—beloved of her north Indian father-in-law—a dry vegetable (‘beetroot pallya? Yuck!’ said her ungrateful brats) and curd, while we sulked and whined and wanted ham sandwiches as in Enid Blyton books. On uninspired Saturdays, when she was working and we were home, she would cook and leave us red rice and a curry of dry shrimp with greens that I hated, but now, strangely, pine for.
She was an expert in the dessert marvels of the 70’s that one barely hears about these days – Peach Poach, with canned peaches on a bed of cake, custard and cream that resembled nothing more than a tray of poached eggs. An amazing apricot cream pie, reminiscent of qubaani ka meetha but with a Krackjack crust. Coffee creme mousse set in honey coloured bowls. Like a magpie, she picked up recipes from worlds that she only knew via work colleagues, friends who had travelled and a big blue cookbook whose name eludes me. Bolognese and gazpacho soup from a scientist returned from Europe, black forest cake sodden with rum in lieu of kirsch, pork chops with pineapple, crepes with cheese and mushrooms, a recipe for steamed pudding with grape sauce from her sister-in-law, Menaka. But above all, she would woo my father’s palate, my funny father who was not given to easy compliments. If she made a tomato soup, he craved a certain lemon rasam, should she make a fish bake, he spoke of ‘dal, rice and ghee’. While he liked her idlis and paniyarams, he wasn’t given to her akki rotis and dry fish chutney. If she cooked a gojju, he recalled a pulli kozhambu. But he swore by her beef mince stuffed bitter gourd fry. She even learned to enjoy Marmite—that initially made her gag—simply because this most British of condiments was enjoyed by her husband’s family in Madras.
We never had a cook, we never had full-time help. It was just my mother with a 9-5 job and her cosmopolitan yearnings. I remember the smells of her kitchen with such instant recall that even today the fragrance of basil will summon a certain evening in the late 70’s when she baked us pizza in that tiny oven and my best friend’s brother walked in from the rain. Yeasty dough, home-made tomato sauce, Amul cheese, crumbled sausage meat from The Bangalore Ham Shop and torn basil leaves. One Sunday a month, a lady we called Sayeeda-bee would come home with a large container of fresh iddiappams that my mother would purchase and serve us with sweetened coconut milk. If she wanted to cook appams, my father would be relegated to Toddy-tapper Muthu’s hut to procure a bottle of toddy. My two favourites though, were both sweet—gassgasse or poppyseed payasa with pooris—that gave us the best afternoon siesta with vivid opium-inspired dreams, and the homely, cozy kesari baath. The gassgasse payasa is a delicate and fragrant mix of ground poppyseeds, fresh coconut milk, jaggery and ground cardamom. Eaten with crisp maida pooris that you break into the payasa and then messily devour, it’s still my idea of culinary perfection.
But in our annual Calendar of Amma’s Cuisine, the fortnight before Deepavali was particularly intense: an equal ratio of unbearable excitement and mad greed. My mother would cook like a wild woman, filling dabbas with sweets—kajjaya, kobri mithai, gulab jamun—and savouries—kodbale, chakkuli, kara kaddi—and the best “mixture” with avalakki, fried garlic, red chilli, pieces of copra, raisins, cashews, and curry leaf. And then we’d be sworn, nay tortured, to keep our grubby paws off this bounty till after our oil baths and after she lit a lamp on Deepavali morning.
One particular food memory I hold on to for its unbearable lightness and romance is that of my parents buying Bangalore blues or fox grapes (vitis labrusca) in bulk and making wine. They would load a red plastic bathtub into their yellow and white Standard Herald and head out towards the vineyards near Nandi Hills and come back with a tub full of Bangalore blues. They would soak the grapes in the cement sink, then crush and load them into two large ceramic pickling jars to ferment. Come Christmas time, the wine would be decanted and served in little glasses.
If you should map this food sangam, you would see a stream flow from Quetta to Benares to Madras. Another stream from Hyderabad to Mangalore and then onward, to Bangalore. Then a third stream from Madras to Bangalore Cantonment. There would be seasonal visiting tributaries too, from Royapettah, Madras with its railway chicken curry and devil’s chutney. From Kuala Lumpur via the UK carrying tales of sea voyage, adventure and jam making skills. Another from Port Fairy, Australia that showed us how to make damper bread over coals and probably was the inspiration for the barbecue that my father fabricated and that my mother grilled sausages over. From Bombay we received stories of thalipeeth, srikhand and garlic shoot chutney, from Malleswaram, Iyengar style saarus and akki rotti cooked sans onions, with red chilli and hing. When my mother’s youngest sister immigrated to America, we received food news we only knew from the comics—Philadelphia cheesecake and brownies—that my mother recreated in her narrow kitchen with the cement sink.
Photo Credit – Avanija Reddy
It is far more than food we are talking about here. It is the post-Independence zeitgeist, yes, but it’s also about a food culture that dares to break the shackles of caste conservatism and its hegemonic purity and pollution theories. Sure, these days almost everyone in Indian metro cities has access to internationalism through multiple avenues, one such being the explosion of food services, but this remains within the framework of consumerism and other detritus of a globalised state. On the contrary, the radicalism of hands-on engagement with the materiality of unfamiliar ingredient and alien culinary process that is instigated by curiosity of the palate, received recipes and intra-familial traditions requires a heightened investment in the relationship shared by the maker, the food in question and the eater. Wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt won’t make one a revolutionary, right? Gotta pay your dues in blood, sweat and tears. Complicate this further with the politics of meat. Who has access to meat? Who eats what animal and further, what parts of the animal? My father’s parents were vegetarian, not by birth but by ideology. My mother’s family were meat eaters, but pork and beef were not known to their kitchen. Yet, when my mother and father married, their kitchen became the sum of so many parts. A kitchen that was free and open to the wonders of new experience in the way the country was newly free. A kitchen that could make choices.
In writing about cookbooks in contemporary India, anthropologist Arjun Appadurai says, ‘they reflect shifts in the boundaries of eligibility, the proprieties of the culinary process, the logic of meal, the exigencies of the household budget, the vagaries of the market and the structures of domestic ideologies.’ I would apply this to my mother and her cooking. Over the five decades of her marriage, she shifted her own boundaries and markers and steered her course towards a life and ideology of her making.
My father isn’t around to not compliment her on her food these days, but at 78, my mother still cooks as if she’s laying it out for him. ‘Papa liked to eat pizza on Fridays,’ she said the other day, ‘so, that was my baking day.’ The day she would innovate loaves of bread filled with sprouts or seeds or sweet potato, masala buns, Spanish orange and almond cake. When she knows I’m coming, she will make sure there’s some seafood at home for her pescatarian daughter. The other day I was over and here is what she set for me on her table:
Yetti da upkari – prawns cooked with chopped onion, garlic, and curry leaf with fresh coconut gratings
Touthae koddel – Mangalore cucumber curry to eat with hot rice
Lathane upkari – long beans stir fried with mustard seasoning, crushed garlic, and coconut gratings
Salad with tomato, cucumber, avocado, capsicum, shredded basil, sprouts, and a vinaigrette
And for breakfast she baked me cinnamon rolls with coffee.
You can listen to the essay in the voice of the author Kirtana Kumar here –