The Prof. Barbra Naidu Prize for the Personal Essay 2019 – Voyaging the Kitchen

As a child, my fascination with food came from watching appa eat. His temples bobbed in and out, as if a small, writhing organism was inside. Often I’d put my index finger on his temple not knowing what to expect – sometimes I felt a soft, warm dot moving in and out, and sometimes there was just a dull throb.

After many days of watching him eat, I understood that the temple rebelled when he ate non veg, and didn’t when he ate veg.

He’d take a chicken bone and eat out all its meat before tapping it hard on the steel plate. Then he’d suck at the end of the bone and his temples would inhale – exhale.

‘Idu yenu gotta?’ he’d ask each time, and then proceed to explain regardless of whether I said yes or no – about what bone marrow was and how strong it made our body. He said this with purpose.

Liver, bone, marrow were all meant to be consumed – not for their taste or some such rubbish but because they were there on the plate and it made us strong. When Mouma, his vegetarian mother-in-law was around, he frowned when she covered her mouth and nose with the end of her pallu on days amma made fish.

He’d say to no one in particular but loudly enough for her to hear – “Your Sai Baba hides & eats one kilo of chicken, two kilos of mutton, and three kilos of fish every day. Kal nan maga (robber my son).” Mouma would say chee chee and walk out.

***
Years ago in Vaishnodevi, we came down the hill on horseback and appa collapsed out of exhaustion upon reaching the hotel. His sugar had gone very low and I ran to the hotel kitchen to get sweets. When I raced back up, amma was standing over him with a wet towel and he was lying down, his eyes barely open, both hands on the chest. When I walked in, he looked at me mournfully and said ‘If I am ever not around, you have to make sure you give fruits to everyone at home. You have to take care, okay?’

I didn’t find it odd at all because appa’s romance with fruits is legendary. I had once caught him standing next to a Guava plant on our terrace, eating its fruit. He wasn’t plucking it off – he wasn’t even using his hands. He was eating the Guava without touching it – standing on his toes, his hands tied at the back. When he heard me laughing, he turned around and I ran inside to fetch my phone to take his picture.
“Why are you laughing?” he asked me. This is how fruits are meant to be eaten. ‘Keelbardu’ – ‘shouldn’t be plucked’

***
From the very beginning, he was one of us – especially when we watched Tom & Jerry and he smiled like a child everytime Tom opened the fridge and out came cheese, roast chicken, turkey, and sausages. He was also one of us when Amma chased my sister and I around the house for having smuggled Bournvita and Horlicks pudi again. She would barge into the bedroom, only to find bits of horlicks stuck to appa’s moustache. We would roar with laughter and Amma would say Karma and leave us alone.

***
These are only some of the many things I have come to know food by. This is my story. What is yours? Do write and send to barbranaiduprize@gmail.com
Deadline – 31st Jan 2019.

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F.R.O.G.S

This piece was written over a stretch of the first few rainy evenings in September. On the first evening, I sat at the department computer, earphones plugged in — listening to YouTube audios of croaking frogs, crickets and other night sounds.

Mangalore and Goa are two of my favourite cities because the frogs here know me well. What began as a tribute to frogs became an inward journey  into the home that I spent my childhood in.

TVs had a volume of their own here and this was the most liberating thing about the house. It was always blaring loud no matter who was around. Back home in Bangalore, every time I sensed my father’s mood swings, I wished all the TV volumes in the world would mute. But in Mangalore, rules bent themselves so neatly that we sat on them and made paper boats.

***

In the afternoons, Goa and Mangalore have the same slumberworthy capacities. The heat becomes duller, settling on the eyelids — making it heavy with sleep. And if there are trees around, the occasional rustle of the wind sends the birds into disarrayed flapping of wings, causing many hypnic jerks. The short dreams are always about birds – flapping eyelashes instead of wings. And, of aeroplanes that fly dangerously close to huts.

Read more here.

Curd Rice with Sugar

My sister falls asleep when she eats food. It’s a rare, humiliating sickness. She’s thin as toothpick and my father says that her clothes wear her and that they look fuller on a hanger. Dinner is usually at 8:00 pm and we gather around the dining table. One by one, we finish and when we take leave, we all secretly look at her plate to take note of how much food there is, so that hours later, when we look again, we can decide how much she ate.

Mother mixes sugar in everything she gives her hoping my sister will eat fast. We’ve made many innovative dishes. Upma with sugar; rice sambar with sugar; rice, fried onion, milk and sugar; dosa, milk and sugar; chapatti, milk and sugar; and the ubiquitous curd rice, also with sugar. One night, she made history.

We started dinner at 8 and finished at 8:30. Titanic was playing on Sony Max so some of us hurried to the living room, leaving my sister behind. Titanic began and we sailed on, Jack and Rose fell in love, ran, did it in the car, the ship sank, Jack died, Rose cried. Three and a half hours later, we switched the lights off and went to the dining room to see my sister fallen asleep on the table, her right hand still in the plate, her palm dotted with dried bits of curd rice, a pool of saliva slowly collecting on one side of her cheek.

Ma started beating her chest — strangely without making noise, dad sat down next to her in all seriousness, observing my sister’s calm, sullen face. They were afraid to startle her. He woke her gently almost expecting her to wake up in horror and scream. She stood up suddenly and looked taken aback at my mother’s obscenity and then took one long, pitiful look at the clock. As if setting her mind to prepare for an exam, she sat at the table again with renewed motivation and took a heavy morsel of curd rice, and dumped it into her mouth.

Swallowing it must’ve been hard considering dad who continued to look at her with all the sympathy in the world while ma was still beating her chest, now with both hands and muttering something about therapy – for her or my sister, I don’t know.

Walking

Pondicherry

Day Two – 10/10/16

Google Maps is more reliable in strange towns. In my own town, it is an enemy. Surviving day 2 became easier only because of the GPS. I stepped outside my room nursing feel -good thoughts about coming back only in the night, and my anxiety from the previous evening dimmed slowly. I left to Cafe Des Arts at 9, found the same corner seat from the day before and spent most of my morning reading Kundera. It is an old french home with big windows and tiny doors. The furniture is a dark brown wood, the walls are painted white but have chipped and gathered themselves in dusty little corners. It is a very quiet place mostly because of the free WiFi. They have good breakfast, strong coffee and an assortment of mixed fruit juices.

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Cafe Des Arts

Rannvijay Singh walked in with his crew at one point and I was amazed by how much his voice sounded the same off screen.

Lunch was a tall LIIT, fish moilee, masala fried prawn, and rice at Villa Shanthi. For a while, I wondered if my restlessness had anything to do with the food and how much I was not looking forward to it. This was a definite dampener in an otherwise obnoxiously high spirited holiday.

Two years ago, when I traveled alone for the first time, it was hard to stop myself from feeling anxious everytime people left their tables. There would be no conversation with anyone, not even eye contact but their departure seemed personal to me in more ways than one. Their voices and conversations were comforting, like a background to resist feeling suddenly lonely.

My first dinner here was at Blueline, where I called ahead and made reservations. When I got there, the restaurant was empty. There were no strangers at the tables around me. I was left alone to read and it seemed strange that it should feel brutal.

I got over some part of this nonsense while I walked around the city today. After lunch, I walked to Zuka – the chocolate shop that apparently gives you chocolate cups that you can eat after you drink from it.

There were all manner of chocolate pastries, cakes and candies. I stood at the counter ogling at them all and sipping on a tiny cup of hot chocolate. Of course the cup wasn’t made of chocolate. The spoon was. Travel allows one to see how spoons become cups in stories.

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Hot Chocolate. And The Spoon.

I walked back to Le Club for dinner and found on the way– old, semi demolished houses with broken white pillars in the courtyard. There was a particularly old one with a large, carved wooden door at the front and a black, old-school sewing machine in the corner. The floors were all red oxide and a slab was cut out in the other side for people to sit.

I stood watching this for a while and forgot about taking a picture. The rest of the walk was spent fantasizing about old and forgotten houses. Fallen ones, ones still standing tall, the black house in Mangalore where ma grew up, the small one in chikkodi with purple walls and the two windows at the front that dad is so fond of. And the quiet, crumbling house with an exploding mango tree above it, that stands meekly on the main road towards Kammanahalli. Slowly I came around to the fact that I’ve never lived in a house with a courtyard or a nalukettu.

***

At Le Club, it begins to drizzle a little and the people around me stop their conversations midway and look up smiling. Some look nervous because the only table with a canopy is occupied. Some carry on with their lives, convinced there won’t be any rain. Le Club is huge. I am noticing details that I’d noticed the first time I came here years ago and then I’m not sure if I really did come here and wonder if it was perhaps another place.

It rains. They show me to the reception with big and dusty sofas, I sit with my feet up and look around. A couple is perusing the menu and debating ordering steak. They are wondering if they can both share one.

I let my wine sit in its glass for over 2 hours. The waiters get restless and keep asking me if I want anything else. I wait for the rain to stop, finish the novel and leave. My walk to the room isn’t made as dramatic by Kundera as I’d wished. I am taken by the quiet I feel everytime I finish reading his novels. I am unsettled by how well he knows his women characters, and both charmed and annoyed by his assumptions but then I always forgive him.

Ruzena’s uncertainty, Kamila’s insecurity and their eventual freedoms were both very reassuring to read. It is quite possible to fall in love with people in a matter of seconds, just as it is possible to fall out of love with them overnight. After a long day of walking, this is the most comforting thing to think of in bed.

 

Other Beef Things

Bornagain Titus and I met in my final year of M.A. I took a liking to him immediately because he was slightly mad. He is my only best friend today who doesn’t know any of my secrets. In 2015, I come to learn that that’s how one keeps best friends; by not sharing secrets. I also like him because he reminds me of actor Dhanush. His relationship with his mother is the funniest thing ever. On Mother’s day, Titus decided to wish his mother after having annoyed her by missing Church one Sunday morning. When he giggled and wished his mother, she threw a glass of water on him and told him to get lost.

One day, Titus fought with his neighbour because the neighbours’ toilet exhaust fan was right in front of Titus’ bedroom. When they were fighting, the man called Titus a ‘third class’ fellow. Later that evening, when Titus’ mother asked him what he wanted for dinner and Titus said ‘Beef fry’, his mother whacked him on his head and told him not to say it loudly because beef was why people thought they were third class.

This reminded me of my Brahmin friends who intimidated me then and make me giggle now. They would jump four benches away on days that I brought chicken curry and eight when I brought fish. They stopped talking to me once for repeatedly saying ‘Chicken – mutton – fish – Kolla Puchi’. I don’t know what Kolla Puchi means but my father would say that to irritate all the vegetarians in my family. My mother, for instance, who had became a vegetarian only because of an oath she had taken to save my new born Jaundice-ridden brother’s life.

I was 7 when I watched my Mother perform Madastana. That morning, we woke early and I saw that my mother was wearing a saree. She usually wears churidhars so I was mildly surprised. I don’t remember the color of her saree but it may have been cream or even white. Madastana is when lower- caste women roll on the temple floor, on the leftovers of Brahmins’ food. I saw crumpled banyan leaves along with grains of rice and drumsticks that were chewed until all the juice had been squeezed out, stuck to the sides of mother’s saree.

My father stood close to her, bending now and then to make sure that her pallu sat tightly around her chest. I know there must have been another elder person there with us, keeping watch over me, as I ran helter-skelter through the courtyard and came back panting to catch up with my parents. I stopped only once because mother had started to cry. I was afraid because my father looked more upset than I have ever seen him.

Now when I gather what had passed that day between them, my father hated that mother was being stubborn and wanted to do the Madastana. They stopped talking to each other for a while after that and resumed only after my brother regained his health, which is why the Madastana had happened in the first place.

When a friend took me home for the third time, his sister asked me which god we worshipped at home. I didn’t know and it didn’t matter because what she actually wanted to know was my caste. When I told her I was Korama and that I didn’t know much about it, she told me not to mention it to any of the other people at her home. It seemed like she knew a lot more about Korama than I did.

Crab Story

The spicy crab meat soup yesterday was an oval red in a white ceramic bowl with a blue border.

When I was 9, I ate crab and my lips swelled up like a big balloon.

When I was 24, I ate crab again and didn’t care because its meat brought the sea to my mouth and I grew more and more carnivorous with every piece of shell I cracked.

When I slide my index under its shelly stomach, the meat yields and polishes my fingernail, like cutex.

There’s Mangalore Pearl and Carnival De Goa and Fishland. I also have a Souza Lobo on my crab list now.

In Souza Lobo, they gave me a black pot with the biggest crab I had ever seen. It took me an hour to finish it.

I am all hands, fingers, mouth, hair, and cheeks when I eat crab. Sometimes, I think crab is flavorless, lost now and then in overpowering enthralls of coconut, spices, and garlic butter.

But I eat it anyway. Hands, fingers, mouth, hair, and cheeks.

Yauatcha

Photo Courtesy Zomato
      Photo Courtesy Zomato

When I called them, the automated voice of a lady asked me to dial 1 if I wanted Yauatcha London, 2 if I wanted Yauatcha Bangalore, and 3 for Yauatcha Delhi. I was stumped at London so I had to redial to get to Bangalore. Eventually when I made the reservation and got there, I had the wrong place. You don’t want to go to Lido, where there is a life size poster of Yauatcha with their sticky rice, and their various colourful sauces in little black ceramic bowls because Yauatcha isn’t there. It is 2 buildings away on the fifth floor in One MG Road Mall, sharing luxurious space with a couple of other restaurants.

Upon entering, I was delighted to find a busy and steaming open kitchen on my right, and parallel lines of tables on my left. It was like being on a train, long and neatly lined.

Seats were taken, sly glances were thrown across the shiny plates on other people’s tables, and Dim sums were ordered. A Pork Charsui bun and a Pork &Prawn Shui Mai. And throughout the evening I was left struggling with the words Sui mui Sui mui bubbling like soap in my head. I liked the Pork & Prawn Shui Mai. The roll looked like cotton dipped in water. It looked translucent enough for the prawn and pork inside it to become shameless teasers. I am going to borrow the cotton comparison for the rest of this piece. The Pork Charsui bun was the lightest bun I ever ate. It looked like white sponge, only better. I expected it to crumble in my hands and leave its white after colours on my fingers but it would apparently only break smoothly in my mouth. The pork inside was sweet, the sauce smooth.

The Sugarcane chicken roll was probably an over-kill although I continue to wonder how sugarcane and chicken could possibly come together in the most laughable combo. It was chicken pakoda with peas and chillies wrapped delicately around a juicy sugarcane toothpick. This was serious food and absolutely un-laughable. I decided I had seen everything in the world and that now I should retire and pass quietly, rubbing hands on my tummy.

But I shouldn’t hurry because the Sticky Chicken Fried Rice with egg and the Spicy Wild Prawn Curry are now coming with the modest Wrapped chicken with black pepper. I noticed with struggling demeanour how the waiter scooped the sticky rice with a Chinese soup spoon and shook it down on my plate. It’s out of deep respect for the waiter, and the people at my table that I sometimes manage to resist diving into my food the minute it leaves the ladle. Even when I do that, I am contemplating how little food there is on the table compared to how hungry I am and how tasty the food is going to be.

When I am lingering on the first seven bites, I am still strongly of the opinion that there is very little food on the table. By the time I have reached the 14th morsel, I begin to devilishly look about what’s left in the bowl and how soon my stomach seems to be filling.

The sticky rice was sticky. The Prawn in the curry outdid everything else I had had so far; well everything except the dim sum. There were 6 massive chunks of prawn in a mustard-yellow curry. I was more smitten with the sticky rice and wrapped chicken with black pepper so I dutifully ignored the yellow curry and carried on. The prawn had spent just enough time with its curry to not be bored by it, while having absorbed its spice; it had retained enough to spurt some in my mouth.

The Wrapped chicken with black pepper was simple although it looked anything but simple when it arrived at the table, literally wrapped in an oil paper, all hugged out with the black pepper.

The Raspberry Delice which was Raspberry dark chocolate mousse, hazelnut brownie, and raspberry ice cream was a little sour for my palate after it had been massaged by the pork and prawn predecessors.

I had anticipated the bill to puncture the table and it did, albeit a little too loudly. But I left with my faint heart full of promises to return and my belly aching with fullness.