6. How to eat your identity

Sengamalam


Oru eccha porukkiya love pannittu vandhirukka”, raged my mother, when I declared that I was in a relationship with someone and that I intended to marry him. He wasn’t a ‘vadakalai Iyengar’;[1] he wasn’t up to her ‘standard’. He wasn’t “at least” a thengalai,[2] “not even” an Iyer.[3] So, to her mind, he was fit only to pick up leftovers — her impure, saliva-ridden leftovers.

I had just returned from the funeral of my partner’s father, the news of which made my mother exclaim, “saavu veetla thinnuttu vandhuttu, andha kuppaiya yen thalai-la theikkariya?” (Returning from a meal at a funeral home, are you smearing that impurity on me?) The atrocity I had committed invited everyone in the family who had an opinion to bless me with it. Even the most liberal of my extended family — who thought my mother’s language was too dirty to be from a Brahmin woman’s mouth — were worried for my well being in a relationship with a meat-eater. “You won’t know it when you are in love. But once married, won’t the smell of meat in your kitchen make you hate him for the rest of your life?” they asked, with earnest concern. The politer ones gave environmental and animal-welfare arguments that I could use to ‘convert’ him for the betterment of both of us. If I protested, they’d say, “Well, you eat cake. So, you must be fine.”

In the following days, sprinkled with the choicest of casteist slurs, my mother argued that my partner was beneath me,  repeatedly bringing up the impurity of his eating habits. “Have you also become impure?” she asked. I stared blankly, uninterested in discussing with her my active sex life, but ready to throw it in her face if it came to that. After a dramatic pause, she asked, “Have you been eating things those people eat?” I said, “Of course not” which was true, though largely irrelevant to the discussion. She didn’t believe me. Either way, she declared, “I will not entertain anyone who eats meat, in my home”.

His eating habits and her disagreement with it was simply euphemism for caste supremacy. It’s not like she would be bubbling with love and acceptance, if he were a vegetarian Dalit. No one who is not nammadava (our kith and kin, often used to mean ‘our own’ within the Tamil Brahmin community), was allowed to enter our homes. Our house help, who washed our utensils and cleaned our floor, was never allowed to enter the kitchen. The utensils she washed were rinsed before being taken into the kitchen. Our food couldn’t be made impure by the touch of those who weren’t nammadava.

This was because home — and in specific the kitchen, which often also had a prayer enclosure — was our sacred space. Home was what you didn’t have to share with anyone outside your elite circle, home was where our purity — and its superiority — was preserved and restored, by disallowing all that was impure. Home was where we punished even our own impure selves from being included. Being on one’s menstrual period  was referred to as ‘aathula ille’, which literally translates to ‘not at home’.

As a six-year old, even before I could understand what having a period meant, I knew that married women got ‘impure’ three nights a month. The young innocent child, in ‘those’ days, I became one with my mother, joining her in her corner of the house — a 3ft by 3ft segregated area in the living room, where she had drawn around herself a lakshman rekha. Other than me, no one was allowed in, she didn’t allow herself out either. She was training me to get used to being restrained in a corner once in a while. I was learning to accept it as being right for me. The both of us sat on pillows all day, only getting up to use the rest room.

We dwelled in the inevitability and impurity of her period. We joined hands in cooking for ourselves. We cooked on a stove that was brought out from the kitchen to the living room corner we now occupied. We couldn’t afford a secondary kitchen, but could certainly afford a second set of utensils and cutlery to use in ‘those’ days. At the end of the three days, we put away all that was with us while we were impure, and purity restored, she returned to the kitchen to cook with better vessels.

In a couple of years, I had grown too old to dwell in her impurity with her. I was old enough to prepare a meal; she no longer had to cook during her period. It was almost always thakkaali rasam (tomato rasam) and urulai kilangu roast (potato fry). My cooking was her preferred way of expressing my loyalty towards her. Cleaning would mean I was loyal to my father — he cleaned obsessively — and that wasn’t acceptable to her. Cooking, during her period, was what bound us together — on other days, she did her own cooking. It made me more of her; it made her more a mother. Every month, my father observed that my rasam tasted just like my mother’s, which tasted just like my grandmother’s. It was our sense of community, family, or simply the same rasam powder. Who could tell for sure!

****

If my story so far has given you the impression that the idea of impurity is sexist, you must allow me to tell you more. I might not prove that it is not sexist, but I will perhaps convince you that it is equal opportunity discrimination. Allow me.

My culinary expert father is also a coffee-addict. On any given day, he’d drink more than 7–8 cups of coffee, several of them at home. While he did gulp piping hot coffee before you knew it, he savoured every drop of it. He loved the warmth of his ‘ever-silver[4]’ cup on his lower lip. He loved the dried froth of his coffee touch his teeth. He enjoyed the process of touching, seeing, smelling, drinking and savouring the bitter aftertaste of coffee.

My mother despised it. She thought it was impure. She wanted him to drink his coffee the way she did — pour the drink down his throat without touching his lips to it. That way, others could reuse the glass without it having been defiled by his lips. While he insisted that he drink his way, she came to a compromise. She gave him a plastic cup — one of those cups that came free with Complan or Horlicks — that he was allowed to touch to  his lips. Her ever-silverware wasn’t for him.

****

Growing up in a caste-up-my-sleeve Iyengar family — who believed they were living their aaranya kaandam[5] in Hosur and later Bangalore, and would return to bhoologa vaigundam[6] when Lord Ranganatha[7] wants them back — food defined us. What we ate, rather what we didn’t eat, is what made us who we are. My maternal grandmother, who had since joined us and relieved me of my mother’s-period-time-cooking duties, now ran the kitchen. She did not let NB (shorthand for non-Brahmin) things in the kitchen — no onions, no garlic, no beetroots, not even the thought of eggs or meat.

When we complained about the blandness of home-food, we children (the kanni school-going girl[8] and her no-poonal-yet younger brother[9]) were allowed the luxury of outside food. We ate ‘chaat’, ‘north-Indian food’, and ‘schezwan noodles’ from time to time. In fact, on good days, my grandmother herself brought home parcels of masala puri[10] for us, on her way back, with her dinner — prasaadham[11] from a nearby temple. She wasn’t happy about our food indiscretions, but she wouldn’t come in our way.

Of all the blasphemy she allowed us, the only one she approved of was eating snacks bought from bonda mama[12]. A few times a week, she made for dinner, mildly seasoned arisi upma, which could use side-dish, of bonda and molaga bajji (fried snacks) from bonda mama. My mother,  who was more orthodox and less forgiving than my grandmother,  also approved of him.

Bonda mama was a grumpy man, who set his large vessel of boiling oil along the stairs of a stationary store, making and selling bonda, bajji and vadai between 6 and 8 ‘o clock every evening. He sat there, baring his potbelly and poonal, deep-frying snacks that my mother wasn’t embarrassed to be associated with. He was nammadava.

Legend has it that one day my mother was waiting in the queue — there was always a queue, always competition, often even fights to get the last snack available. A man in front of her brought two bondas and ate one, standing there. He looked at the second one and changed his mind. He put it back in the tray and proceeded to pick up a vadai instead. Bonda mama, who was slicing chillies for the bajji until then, picked up the returning bonda and threw it on the road in utter rage. He said in Kannada, “nin enjil ella illi vaapas haakbeda” (don’t put your impure leftovers back in tray). His no-returns policy won my mother’s enthusiastic approval; his poonal had only got her grudging acceptance so far.

****

Having moved to Bangalore and to high school at the same time, I came upon new friends, those my mother didn’t have the chance to profile. One Sunday morning, I took my cycle and dashed off to Subha’s home, where I was to spend the morning listening to Backstreet Boys and watching MTV. In a couple of hours, her mother came into the room and asked if I’d like to eat something. I surprisedly agreed — my mother never offered food to any of my friends, in fact, I don’t even remember bringing friends home during those days. Even friendly conversations ended at the door.

We ate a hearty meal, spent more time with Backstreet Boys and I returned home happy and full. My mother was waiting for me at the door, in visible anger. I had promised to return in an hour, I had taken five. Trembling, I parked my cycle and stood there with a puppy face. “Saaptiya?” (have you eaten?), she roared. The tone of her voice didn’t seem to match the general concern in that question. I confusedly nodded in the affirmative. That seemed to have ticked something off in her. She yelled, “You have no shame to eat in meat-eaters’ houses? Did they spoil you with meat?” she exploded. Not everyone is nammadava. Not all food is pure.

****

After years of eating at home, or in foster homes like MTR and the infamous Iyengar bakery, I left for Manipal, the place that was to open my eyes to the ‘world’. I remember several conversations from those days that began with an earnest ‘are you vegetarian?’ question. I’d say “yes” and hurriedly add, “by choice”. Though in those days, it wasn’t so much by choice. It was simply conditioning. And I was conditioned not to admit it.

****

After six years of living together (in Bangalore) and a couple of years of being married, my partner and I moved to Chennai recently, making the pleasurable acquaintance of people who reminded me so much of my now estranged mother.

Neenga Brahmin-a?” (Are you Brahmin?) a woman asked on the phone, while I was calling to enquire about a house she had advertised as being available for rent.

Yen kekkaringa?” (Why do you ask?)

“At least vegetarian-a?” (Are you “at least” vegetarian?)

We had seen over a dozen houses, and called over twice as many in 10 days looking to find a place to stay. Almost everyone had this question, put in some way or the other. The ones that looked educated and worked in an MNC started with “are you vegetarian?” The elderly ones didn’t have any such hypocrisy.

Some even apologized profusely, reassuring that it was not their preference, but the apartment complex was a vegetarian-only one and the association doesn’t allow anyone else. If it were their choice, they don’t mind anyone eating anything, though “enga aathula veg mattum thaan” (only vegetarian in our home).

After having seen several houses, exhausted in the heat of the city and the coldness of its homeowners, standing in the dining area of a house that seemed perfect in every other way, my partner said, “I won’t cook meat in our home, darling. That should make this simpler”.

Standing there hopelessly, it occurred to me, rather inconveniently, that my mother and I had one thing in common — we both believed that ‘home’ was a special space. For me, with the public sphere in my pocket, and my private life lived on the Internet, home is the fort that protects me. Home is where I don’t have to watch myself — I can cook what I want, and eat what I want, with whoever I want. Home was where I can  be exactly and entirely who I am.

****

In another couple of weeks, my husband and I were moving into our delightful new home in the same neighbourhood. Our housewarming was ‘parcel’ from Aasife biriyani. Our breakfasts came from an avaiyambika mess, run by someone I hear could be this neighbourhood’s own bonda mama, though, I haven’t met him myself. On others, we settled for Maggi instant noodles or make-do mac and cheese.

Then, as Pongal approached, my landlady ‘harvested’ the banana plant from her garden and distributed it among us unassuming tenants and neighbours. Serendipitously, I got the banana stem — the one thing that served as an edible bond between my grandmother and I. My mother hated it; so did my brother. So, I got served the lion’s share of vaazhaithandu morkottu, a yoghurt based preparation of tender banana stem.

So, when my landlady handed it to me, I hesitated. It is complicated to cook something you cherished in your girlhood — if it wasn’t prepared well, it would leave a bad taste in my tongue and my heart. If it was, then it would bring back a rush of memories I wasn’t sure I wanted to have.

After much contemplation, half the recipe from memory and the rest from the Internet, motivated only by my distaste to see things go waste, I made my own vaazhaithandu morkoottu. It tasted just like my grandmother’s — or I liked to believe it did. I served myself a large helping, took a picture and Instagrammed it. The revolution in my mind couldn’t have been Instagrammed, but the struggle with my identity was on my plate for anyone to see.

 

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[1] A sub-sect of the Tamil Brahmin Iyengar caste, who often consider themselves the most superior.

[2] Another sub-sect among Iyengars.

[3] A Tamil Brahmin caste.

[4] Indian-ese for stainless steel.

[5] Thirteen years of Lord Ram’s exile in the jungle, as in the Ramayana.

[6] Term used to refer to the temple town of Srirangam in Southern Tamil Nadu, where my family hails from. It means the earthly home of Lord Vishnu.

[7] The god in the primary shrine of the temple in Srirangam.

[8] Literally means virgin in Tamil. A kanni ponnu (virgin girl) is seen as beyond impurities. I was allowed indiscretions like eating before bathing, for instance — which was otherwise deemed impure — because of my kanni status.

[9] Poonal is the sacred thread worn by Brahmin males, which marks their upanayanam, a coming of age ritual.

[10] A south Indian adaption of a north Indian chaat, often sold by hawkers in road-side stalls.

[11] A small serving of food offered to deities in temples.

[12] ‘Mama’ is used to refer to an elderly gentleman, often Brahmin.

 

Sengamalam is a writer living and working in Chennai, India. Sengamalam is a pseudonym.

Illustrations by Sunoj D.

Sunoj is an artist living and working in Bengaluru, India. His works are available at http://sunojd.wordpress.com. Sunoj is one of the founding editors of The Forager.