Understanding the different shades of tears

Musings on everyday life


Suresh Pattali

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Published: Fri 27 Oct 2023, 6:39 PM

It’s a given that for most humans on the planet, the mum is the best cook. Except in some families who keep the debate on a simmer for reason unbeknownst to anyone, like mine where children would bring it to a boil at dinner time with pointed comments like, “But mum can never stand up to dad’s signature butter chicken”. Dishes would not be washed that night, and breakfast would be delayed.

Such modern mise en scène in the long play called life was unthinkable back in the day because I grew up at the fag end of patriarchy when cooking was done mainly to satiate the male tastebuds. Women ate the leftover, while kids never mattered.

“Didn’t we say a hundred times we don’t like tapioca?” my cousin and I would protest, pushing the staple food of the penurious days across the floor where nine little scalawags of the joint family sat in Padmasana, the basic lotus pose in yoga. So acrimonious used to be our protest, my cries would reverberate across the neighbourhood, while my cousin would snatch a matchet from the kitchen and cut down a couple of banana trees in the back garden. But united we lost.

That “little demon”, as the women folk cursed my cousin, is now a commerce professor with a doctorate honorific and grows banana trees as penance during retirement.

After the joint family disintegrated, things got no better. In fact, it was worse. With dad forced to shut down business and returned from Ceylon, mum the housewife struggled to run the show. The entire family laboured in the ancestral farmland, planting all that’s edible. Amma, as I called her, had a chicken farm and grew banana, tapioca, beans, okra, brinjal, arrowroot, yam and purple yam, Chinese potato, taro root, bitter gourd, melons of different hues, spinach, drumstick et al. I hated whatever she grew and cooked.

Amma cast my arch enemies — okra, brinjal and bitter gourd — in multiple roles for the consecutive breakfast, lunch and dinner shows. The okra fry, okra curry, okra sundried, okra masala and okra curd curry all looked like exotic actors in a Chinese opera. I burped out my angst and agony with a deluge drowning my cheeks.

“I don’t want this.”

“Eat it or leave it.”

Amma wiped tears as she disappeared into the frightening darkness lurking behind the sooty, rickety kitchen door. What made me a good person in my own right is such agonising tableaus that make up my childhood memories.

It took several years of political reformatting of life during my campus days, and my tormenting days in Mumbai to understand the several shades of tears. A bioptic investigation of Amma’s tears started to pain me. I always thought she cried because of the internal conflict between a housewife and a loving mother. One half of her might want to give her only son the best food in the world while the other half was probably thinking about the means to serve the next meal.

The possibility of her prognosis that she could not depend on her only son — her only hope in life — to find a better life for her four daughters could be what agonised her, spread inside me like a self-healing cancer. It purified my soul, debugged my cognitive system and made me a better human.

It opened my eyes to the value of vegetables bought from the crowded King's Circle market in Mumbai to feed 15 hungry stomachs in our bachelor’s den. As I stand aghast today at the high prices of organic food in Dubai supermarkets, I realise the value of what Amma served in those struggling days. All what she dished out was not just organic but curry-flavoured with love and affection.

Today I end up buying more of okra, more of brinjal, more of bitter gourd. More of everything that this “little ol’ ruffian” once hated. No matter how they taste, no matter how they measure in calories, no matter how they weigh in lipides, I know they are rich in Vitamin L. Today, my favourite dish is Bhindi Do Pyaza.

As I chew on the last morsel of memories tonight — garden-grown spinach cooked with spiced lentil dal, here’s a bouquet — er, a basket — full of fruits and vegetables in memory of a woman who left no grain of sand or mud unturned to ensure three square meals for her kids and more. Thank you, Amma.


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