From Sundarama’s Kitchen

By Anita Rau Badami

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Always, always start with a clean pot. You might think, this Sundaramma is so fussy, what does it matter if the pot has one particle of rice stuck in a corner, who will notice that particle swimming in a sea of sambhar. Ahaha, you don't know what all I see! The smallest bead of oil will not escape my eyes. And believe me, that tiny piece of rice is what will spoil the whole sambhar!

See, the other day my cousin's wife, the one who lives in Arsikere taluk, she had a huge gathering to celebrate the birth of her first grandchild and she had cooked jack-fruit payasa. Not the ordinary kind with sugar and a few kaju-kishmish thrown in. No, no, for an auspicious event like the birth of a child and a male child that too, it has to be a royal payasa. So my cousin's wife decided on amrita-pradamana, nectar made in the kitchens of Lord Vishnu himself.

Now whatever else my cousin's wife is, and I will tell you about her some other time, she is not tight-fisted. So she made the payasa with the sweetest jackfruit in the garden, half a kilo of whole cashew, the best elakki pods that the Shetty had in his shop and jaggery straight from Mandya. She even paid the milkman two rupees extra to make sure he did not water the milk down. For jack-fruit payasa you need pure, thick milk, otherwise there is no point making it. But you know, nobody asked for a second helping and my cousin's wife, poor girl, had to throw the whole thing down the drain. I took one sip of the payasa and knew immediately that she had used a dirty pot—one in which she had cooked garlic sarru the previous day.

"But I cleaned it with my own two hands Sundaramma;" she wailed when I told her why nobody had touched more than two drops of payasa. "That pot, I myself polished first with ash and water, then with mud and then with lemons to make sure there was no smell left!"

"Not enough!" I told her, "Especially for payasa, you need a separate pot. Don't use it for anything except sweet dishes. And if you do have to wash, sometimes you cannot keep separate vessels for each dish, it is best to use besan flour. That is a secret from my greatgrandmother, she was the head cook in Sri-Sri Thirumalachar's kitchens long before yourtime, and if anybody knew anything about cooking it was she!"

I have a lot of little rules like that. Before making karela palya, soak the gourd in buttermilk. That way your guests won't go away with a bitter taste in their mouths. There will be a small bit of kaduva, but oh, it will be there only to enhance the flavour of fresh cumin and coriander. And remember what I say about the mustard garnish for sarrul Never, never, fry the mustard in the pot and then pour the dal in. That will most certainly cancel out all taste. After, the sarru has come to a rolling boil, add mustard which you have fried in a separate container. Then you will notice the special ruchi that makes my sarru famous.

Some people say that I have these rules just to establish my importance in the world, but who can stop idle tongues wagging? The discerning ones appreciate the trouble I take to do my work well. After all, being the cook in Toy Palace Krishnamoorti's house is no small thing. I have a tradition to uphold, a big house like this, important people come and go all the time. What kind of thoughts will they take away with them if the food is badly cooked and the corners of their bed-rooms not even touched by a broom-stick, tell me? We might just be the servants in this house, but it is our job to uphold the maryada of this family. Not that I am really a servant of course, don't mistake me. I belong to a good Brahmin family. My father's younger sister married Krishnamoorty's uncle's youngest son. It is because of his kindness that I got this place here when my no-good husband died. No doubt Krishnamoorty's wife Achamma had heard about my chutni-pudi and sambhar-pudi as well. I don't like telling the world about my own virtues, but it is true that in all ten towns this side and that of my own, there is no one who cooks better than I do. Ask Gopi the son of the house if my bisi-bele-bhaath isn't the most delicately spiced he has ever tasted. He has gone out of this little town and tasted food in big-big cities, he knows what from what. Of course you will say that Gopi is naturally kind, he will never hurt my feelings by criticising my art. He is kind, no doubt, just like his father. Otherwise why should he take such an interest in my son Seenu? He buys the boy pencils, books, all kinds of things.

"Swami, you are spoiling my son," I said to him again and again. "He will forget his station in life, he will get a big head and then I will have trouble!"

But that Gopi didn't even listen to a word I was saying, so fond of my child he was. Sometimes I get a little worried, you know. Too much of attention from big people isn't good for Seenu. Tomorrow we might be out in the world and he won't know how to look after himself or his old mother.

"Ayyo Sundaramma, why are you getting grey hair over the boy?" says Janaki the maid when I tell her my worries. "Look at that smile of his, look at his moon-like face. What else do you want? Toy Krishnamoorthy will arrange for a bride with a big dowry for him. Why I have heard that Revanna already has an eye on the boy. He has only one daughter and ten acres of wet land!"

Sometimes I even like Janaki, though I am never sure if she is teasing me or what. Certainly my Seenu has a smile like Lord Krishna's, even my mistress Achamma had remarked on it.

Today I am making pheni for Vani the daughter-in-law of the house. Though she has never said so, I know she loves my pheni. She is a quiet girl, too quiet. I agree that it suits agirl to be modest and soft, but not so soft that even her husband ignores her existence. And they have been married only two years. Now from what I have seen and heard, (of course my loafer husband was different but that is my tragedy), by the time a year is up, the man is like a moth near a lamp with his wife. Not our young master Gopi, it seems. He spends the whole day out in the fields and in the evening takes my Seenu away to the Small House, there near the coconutgrove, to teach him arithmetic. I am not happy about that I can tell you, it seems as if I am deliberately pushing my son between husband and wife. I have tried to make my Seenu understand, but he just smiles at me, the rascal, and says that Gopi will be angry if he doesn't go for reading and writing practice.

That Gopi is out to make my boy an engineer or doctor or something. And who am I to tell a grown man that instead of spending time with a child he should be spoiling his young wife! The poor girl sits at home like a bombey making miles of crotchet mats. What we will do with mats in this house I don't know. Sometimes she comes to the kitchen to help me though her mother-in-law isn't very pleased with that I can tell. Achamma is good at heart, but she spent two years finding the perfect bride for her only son, and what happens? Nothing, that's what. Instead of giggling and flirting like every other bride, Vani sits in the kitchen with me or in her room making table covers. I am not saying that Vani is less than perfect. She is a lovely girl, why just the other day, Rakhma Athhey was visiting us from Bangalore and she gave Vani a whole hundred rupee note.

"The girl's beauty is startling!" she exclaimed, pushing Vani's chin this way and that, checking her face for any imperfections and at the same time making sure that her ear-studs were pure diamonds. That is how Rakhma Athhey is. She never does anything without having two or more reasons for it.

"Well child," she continued, "When are we going to see little faces as pretty as yours in this house?"

Vani hung her head and didn't say a word, but her mother-in-law couldn't keep quiet.

"Ayyo, Rakhma," wailed Achamma banging her forehead with the flat of her hand. "What can I say, there must be something wrong with the girl. We have treated her like a queen, she couldn't have come to a better house. I even make sure she drinks two glasses of badaami-milk every day, but no sign of any good news!"

"Why do you straight away jump on the girl Achamma?" said Rakhma piously.

That is how she is. Stirs up the pot herself and then throws water to calm things down! She left her box near the entrance to the house and came straight towards the central courtyard where had put outshandigey to dry. I ran out of the kitchen to Mi move the shandigey trays that were on the bench there. I knew Rakhma Athey, she would just push them all to the ground and that would be the end of two days" work. Yes, it took me two whole days to make it. I can see you raise your eyebrows and say, "My goodness, the old woman is slow!" But let me tell you a secret about making subakki shandigey. It has to be spread out as thin as the skin of your hand otherwise the middle won't dry and when you fry it, you can eat only the edges. And if you think you can spread two hundred shandigey that thin in less than two days, not forgetting that you have to cook three meals and tiffin for the family as well, then maybe you are right and I am an old fool!

"Yenamma, Sundaramma?" said Rakhma fanning herself with her pallu. "Are you happy and healthy? How is that ulcer that was bothering you last time I was here? How is your son, Seenu, isn't that his name? Oh my memory is so bad, one of these days I will look at myself in the mirror and call myself god knows what. Can you ask your Seenu to put my box away inside and Sundaramma, maybe you could get me a glass of water?"

"Ayyo, Athey!" I exclaimed with just as much noise and flourish as that drama-lady (she should have joined Prabhaat Players). "You come to Toy-Palace Krishnamoorthy's house and expect only a glass of water? What an insult that is to us!"

"No, no, I didn't mean any insult!" said Atthey, "It is just that after that dusty auto ride my throat yearns for water, that's all!"

"Sundaramma is just teasing you!" laughed Krishnamoorthy's wife. "But you must certainly have some mango panaka after you drink water. If you don't we will most certainly be offended. What do you say Vani?" She glanced at her daughter-in-law who hadn't opened her mouth and then sighed. "Courtesies like this should be performed by the younger people in the house. It is my karma that I still have to do them myself."

"She is still new to this household!" soothed Rakhma. "She will pick up by and by. It is hard for a bride. First she has to learn about the man who shares her bed, then about the family she has earned by marriage and finally the house that surrounds her. Come my dear, sit next to Aunt Rakhma and tell her all about your life here. And you Sundaramma, when you have finished listening to all our conversation, maybe you can call that boy of yours to carry my bag in?"

"Atthey, if you only gave me a chance to talk I would have told you that Seenu is out in the fields with the young master. So let your boxes remain there, when the milk-man comes in this afternoon he will carry it to your room!"

Seenu is my only child. That way I am lucky, quick throw a pinch of salt over your shoulder in case a bad spirit is listening, if I had more than one child, god knows how I would have managed. Also, may Sri Rama be praised, my boy has his father's looks but none of his bad habits. His nose especially, is like the stem of a jasmine flower. Again, I am not one to show off, but after all I am the child's mother, sometimes my pride bursts through, I am sure you will understand. Yes, my Seenu is a good boy, though some- | times I worry about how quiet he is. If silence in a woman is tolerable, it is not at all good for a boy. After all if he doesn't open his mouth at all how will people know who is the man of the house tell me? Of course in the case of the Big Master's son Gopi, it doesn't matter, for him his money speaks. See, without saying oon or aan he got a high-class bride from a rich family. Do you know, Vani has two sets of diamond earrings and a petti full of silver? But in the case of my boy, silence will get him a big round sonney that is all.

"You will have to support your old mother very soon, Seenu-raja!" I've told him, "You need to be more outgoing, otherwise nobody in the world will pay any attention to what you say."

He always smiles when I say that. "Don't worry Amma!" he says, the darling child. "I will be here for you always!"

It is in god's hands, that is all. I shouldn't be grumbling, because like I said he is a good boy, never hurts my feelings, is respectful to his elders and most important does his school-work without any problems. That, according to my cousin's husband Raghava who is a teacher in Chikkahalli High School, is what is most important.

"Sundaramma!" he said to me the other day, "You need a good education to get anywhere in this world these days!"

"What do I know about books and things, Raghava?" I said to him. "My life has been spent in the kitchen, I never learnt to read or write anything except my name, only god has looked after me and my child!"

"That is what I am saying Sundaramma, if only you would listen!" said Raghava helping himself to another piece of pathrodey. I admit I am not very fond of him, but he is kin after all, and a school teacher must know more things about the world than I do, so who am I to open my mouth?

"Raghava, I am listening to every word!" I said, passing him some fresh butter to put on the pathrodey. The leaves for pathrodey were from my own garden and the spices from my own money, otherwise I wouldn't have sat there quietly watching Raghava eat them all, one after another. I am an honest person, uneducated maybe, but I will never cheat my employers. Maybe Raghava thought that the pathrodey was from the Big House kitchen which was why he wouldn't stop eating.

"You must give my wife the recipe for this, Sundaramma," he said at last after wiping the final crumbs off his moustache.

"Yes, I will, after you give me some advice about my boy!" I said sharply.

"Ah yes, Seenu!" said Raghava. "I hear that young master Gopi is taking a special interest in his education!"

"Sri Rama in heaven be blessed!" I said. "My boy is indeed fortunate. The young master spends hours teaching the child math and reading big-big books!"

"Yes, that is good, maybe he will pay for a college education too!" said Raghava. "You should put in a word about college fees and such things in Krishnamoorthy sahib's ear straight away. Right now Gopi is taking an interest in your son's life. But remember, he is a married man and tomorrow he will have a son of his own, and then who will even throw a glance toward the cook's boy?"

Well to tell you the truth, I am torn between my Seenu's life and the mistress" happiness. These days poor Achamma goes about the house with a big face, and when her face looks like that, not even my badaami-kheer will bring a smile. It is a year since she brought Vani into this auspicious house, filled her arms from wrist to elbow with green bangles from Srirangam, and still there is no sign of a grand-child. The other day she was so happy when the girl did not have her monthly flow, she offered ten coconuts to the Amman temple. But it was only late and Achamma's forehead darkened again. My heart is full for Vani also. Like I said, she is a nice girl, always stops to tell me how fine my pheni is, never forgets to bring a piece of prasada home for me from the temple.

"You talk to her Sundaramma!" said Achamma a few weeks ago. "She seems to like you, maybe she is scared to say anything to me, I am her mother-in-law after all!"

See what I mean by being torn? On the one hand it is good for my son if Vani doesn't have a child, her Gopi might even think of adopting my boy. That will be a burden off my shoulders. But chhee what an evil thought! I have eaten the salt of this house for fourteen years, how can I wish ill on it, tell me? So the other day, as soon as Vani came out of the bath to the courtyard to dry her hair, I decided to talkto her. But first I told Janaki the maid whose nose is as long as my middle finger, to go to the market to buy brinjal. She was being as quiet as a mouse, but I knew she was sweeping the rooms on the far side of the courtyard. My kitchen is a good place to be in, I can see straight into every room, except when the doors are closed of course.

"Vani, child!" I said taking the towel from her hands and pushing her down on the bench where I dry appala and shandigey. "Sit, sit, let Sundaramma dry your hair today. We mustn't let this hair get spoilt, eh? What will our Gopi say?"

The girl just bent her head and didn't utter a word.

"You are not angry with me for teasing you?" I said anxiously. The girl was so silent I didn't even know, after two years of seeing her, what went on inside her head.

"After all a bride needs to be teased to keep the colour in her cheeks and the sparkle in her eye, eh?"

"I want to go home to my parents!" said Vani all of a sudden. My heart stopped beating completely, I am tellingyou. Why did Achamma tell me to talk to this girl? I am an old fool, who knew what had dropped out of my illiterate mouth?

"Akka, I am sorry if I said something to offend you, old Sunda-ramma babbles sometimes, she doesn't mean anything bad," I said.

"I want to go home," said the girl again and burst into tears.

"Akka, what have I done, rama-rama. Don't cry, I'll make you some hot tea with ginger, that will make you feel better. Tell old Sundaramma what is wrong. See if I won't make things alright!" I babbled, really frightened now.

Like I said, though I am not a servant, I am a dependent and it isn't good to upset the daughter-in-law of the house. Tomorrow Achamma, may swami give her a hundred years, will close her eyes and this girl will be the mistress.

"I don't want to stay in a house where nobody likes me!" sobbed the girl.

My head was whirling, what was she talking about. Had anybody ever done anything but pamper the girl? Why Achamma had never even raised her voice to her. As for her father-in-law, every time he went to Bangalore city he brought back the latest Canjeevaram sari with pure jari border. And didn't I always make special dishes for her alone, thinking, the child is missing her home, she needs to be fed properly as if she is in her mother's house? I even got my Seenu to get her the sweetest tender-coconut straight from the tree. It is good for the bowels you know. True the boy grumbled, but he is a child doesn't like doing work about the house, that is all. Why even that witch of a maid Janaki brings a string of fresh jasmine for Vani Akka every morning.

"Akka, akka, what are you saying? You are like our own daughter. We treat you like a rani, after all you are Gopi's wife!" I said quite irritated by her unreasonable words.

The crazy girl whipped her hair out of my hands. "Tell me Sundaramma!" she said leaning close to me, "what is wrong with me?"

"What is wrong with you?"l said, frightened at this new roopa the daughter-in-law had assumed.

"Am I cross-eyed? Or ugly? Or do I smell?"

"Akka, if you were any of those things, would you have come to this house as a bride?" I said quietly. The girl was definitely unwell. Tomorrow I would make her a special kashaya with milk and turmeric and black-pepper. Maybe I would whisper a few words in Achamma's ear about performing a homa at Thirupathi temple.

"Then why doesn't your Gopi come near me?" shouted Vani. I didn't know which way to look I tell you. I have eyes in my head and the kitchen is right across from Gopi's room and I can smell that things are not alright between husband and wife. And of course, that long-nosed maid Janaki had also been whispering things about the sleeping arrangements in that room, but to hear the daughter-in-law herself fling it at me? I was shocked. I thought she was such a quiet girl.

I was so upset for the rest of the day that I even snapped at my Seenu. These days I hardly see him in our own house. Whole day he goes to school, in the evening he goes off with Gopi to study and I am sitting all alone watching a plate of food go cold.

"Don't start getting big ideas about yourself my fine peacock!" I scolded when he finally came home. Though to tell you honestly, the boy looked so beautiful, I was melting with pride. But it is not right to give young people too high an opinion of themselves, they slip away from your hands then.

"It isn't right for you to take up so much of Gopi's time. After all he is a family man now, and doesn't want a young nai-mari hanging around his ankles!" I said.

The cheeky boy didn't even reply, just gave me a look, such a funny look it was too, I cannot even describe it. If he wasn't my boy, the child I had brought up in the beneficient shade of the Toy Krishnamoorthy house, I would have thought it was a cunning look. But no, but no, if he was up to something, I would have heard about it by now. In a small town everybody knows everything, and I know everybody.

So I just ignored that look and continued, "You come home straightfrom now on, understand? As it is Vani Akka is angry with me. No, I shouldn't say that, she is angry with the whole world and for what? I don't know. She doesn't deserve such kind in-laws!"

"She is stupid!" said my Seenu, just like that, without even warning me. He never opens his mouth and when he does, it is to drop out gems like this! Everything was going wrong today.

"She doesn't even know two plus two!" continued the piece of coal I had borne from my belly. He had taken after his no-good father after all.

"Has some wicked spirit stolen your brain?" I said, "You owe your life to this family remember that!"

For sure tomorrow I would have to make some Neem kashayaforthe boy. Someone had cast the evil eye on him, otherwise had anyone ever heard him talk disrespectfully like that? Maybe it was my own fond eyes that had touched him. It happens you know. Yes, I will make kashaya for him and perhaps feed two Brahmins at the temple. It isn't right for the son of a cook to talk too much. Tomorrow people will say, she is an ambitious one that cook in Krishnamoorthy's house. She is pushing her son forward, taking advantage of their kindness. Maybe that is why Vani Akka was angry with me. She thinks my boy is stealing her Gopi's time away from her. But Seenu is only a child, what does he know of the delicate strings that weave a relationship between a man and his wife?

"Seenu!" I said to the witless boy, "from tomorrow you will let Gopi come straight home to his wife. Enough math sums and all that nonsense stuff that you bother him with. You listen to your mother understand?"

This time the boy did not say anything, he just smiled at me again. He is beginning to puzzle me, but isn't that how every mother feels about her growing child? Yes tomorrow I will have to make two kashayas—one for my boy and the other for the daughter-in-law of the house. You must have heard of Sundaramma's kashayas ? They always work. I got the recipes from my great-great grandmother who was known this side and that of the Nilgiri Hills for her cooking.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
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Anita Rau Badami
Anita Rau Badami is a journalist who moved from India to Canada in 1991. She has published fiction in Boundless Alberta, The Toronto Review of Contemporary Writing, The Malahat Review, Dandelion and Filling Station.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
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