Half way through, he sipped a little water and sampled the payasam, for relief. The master looked at me and I acknowledged the lesson.
I was at a family wedding in Adyar a few days ago. It was one of those routine affairs that smell strongly of domesticity. In fact, it was so very routine – delayed departure, minor argument on route, crisp disciplining of opportunistic child, parking woes, realisation that we weren’t that late after all, finding the one other person you know, grumbling contentedly and waiting until it is time to hit the dining hall.
Like a good boy, I plastered a smile on my face and turned my neck so that my glasses pointed at the stage where bride and groom racked their memories for relatives’ names and tried not to let the effort show. One guest couple, though, was different. The husband and wife seemed to evoke instant recognition in everyone. Especially the man.
He was dressed in a glazed-brown kurta and silk veshti. A full, bespectacled, round face, which posed and smiled effortlessly. The groom’s parents fawned over him and the marital couple themselves were engaged in a furious mental debate, over the necessity for and timing of, prostration. But the gracious guest put all at ease, spoke some kind words, quickly left the stage so the next batch of relatives/friends could come and mark their attendance photographically. He exuded personality. Pressure on me now.
I was sure I was supposed to know him. Who could I ask without the risk of coming off as an ignoramus? I remembered I was in a relationship that bestows that particular adjective by default setting. “Hey, who’s that man…” I began, as I turned to my right. Empty seat. Wife had left on social rounds. With what I can legally refer to only as ‘consideration’, she left the child behind to keep me company. He occupied my thoughts, my phone and my hair for the next half hour. The personality was temporarily forgotten.
Dinner time. To save time, I climbed up two floors carrying my three-year-old on my shoulders. Was I in time for this pandhi? Yes I was. There was just one row left to be filled, with an army of hungry wedding-goers trundling up the stairs. Only two people got to the row before I did, having arrived with an earlier batch. It was the personality and his wife!
I led my flock to the manna and seated myself beside the gentleman and greeted him with a charming ‘Vanakkam sir!’ He beamed a smile at me and returned the greeting in a rich, sonorous voice. I really must know who he is. As I turned to my right again with the question, I got no further than “Hey” before she growled, “Maharajapurammmm.” The extra ‘m’s obviously stand for “You idiot.”
One takes such things in one’s stride. I recovered quickly and turned back to my esteemed dinner companion and smiled broadly and nodded another greeting. He must have caught the exchange, because he was chuckling now. He returned my greeting. Then he tore his banana leaf.
Cleaning your leaf before a meal is clearly a superfluous procedure. I’ve found the water simply makes an invisible paste of the grit sticking to the leaf. Not everyone shares the theory, naturally. Some douse the leaf with half their ration of water and then slosh it all in three directions. Others vigorously try to rub the specks of black and brown off the green. Maharajapuram Ramachandran must have begun a similarly vigorous manoeuvre, when the poor leaf ripped. He neatly folded it and asked one of the servers (it’s an apt word, you must admit) for another leaf. “This one is torn,” he declared, in that voice of his. Instant recognition. Where until that moment we were in a neglected corner, a torn leaf put us in the spotlight. The chutneys, sweet lumps and sundry side-dishes were served at lightning speed. Maharajapuram began to hum and look over his now-bountiful leaf. Wow. I was having dinner with Maharajapuram Ramachandran. Fancy that. If I don’t dwell on the circumstances of the meal, I might even get people to believe he visited us, or that I was invited to his home! As these preposterous but nevertheless fun thoughts floated around in my mind, I felt my right ear freeze from the effects of a cold stare.
Priya, dressed to kill in a blue and gold silk sari, looked divine, bless her. Unfortunately for me, I had neglected my duties. The tyke was my responsibility on days when silk saris are worn. I could see why. He was crumpling every available square centimetre of fabric by his stretching and incessant squirming. It didn’t help the mood. “No problem, give him to me,” I declared loudly. She found it hard to comprehend that statement at first, since taking care of the toddler form that point on wasn’t a matter of choice. Then realisation dawned. Maharajapuram was beside her husband and he was, well, being a good husband. She overcooked the “Thank you so much. This is such a relief.” I decided to have a word with her about the detriments of sarcasm later.
Puri had arrived. And Maharajapuram pinched off a piece, collected some fruit pachchadi with it and popped it in. That was a wonderful innovation! “That looks good, sir. I’d never have thought of it,” I said. He was delighted. “Oh, it definitely is a good combination. Puri goes really well with the fruit. There are many more (combinations),” he said. “I’m a willing learner, sir,” said I. he laughed a great big one and motioned me to observe the process. For the next five minutes, I ate exactly as Maharajapuram ate; the pace, the size of the morsels, the combinations, everything. We had finished a couple of rounds of puri, polished off the little scoop of vegetable biryani of questionable flavour, with some of the channa meant for puris, kept the undercooked cabbage away and sampled a little piece of the appalam. This man was an artist. No mess; clean eating, with a clear plan in mind. He approved of the bisibelebhath that was served next.
An over-enthusiastic waiter was quickly taught not to interrupt. “Do you want some rice, sir?” he asked when we’d just begun. “Well, this is rice, isn’t it?” Maharajapuram shot back. Oops. “Sorry sir, please take your time.”
Back to the banana leaf. The poor cabbage found salvation in the bisibelebhath. He used the appalam sparingly. Half way through, he sipped a little water and sampled the payasam, for relief. The master looked at me and I acknowledged the lesson. I was pulling off quite a stunt here. While taking a lesson in culinary art, I also managed to feed my son half a gulab jamoon. He wasn’t even complaining. Things were going well. There were still two courses to go and then a dessert tutorial to assimilate. Alas, digestion blew my plans to the wind.
My tummy was fine, the boy’s was not. After a rumble that jarred my knees, I jumped out of my chair and collected him in my arms. Maharajapuram raised his brows and threw me a question mark. “Uhm, minor emergency, sir,” I said, pointing to the little one. On cue, little one announced to the dining hall, “Appa, aai varudhu paaa (Appa, I need to go to the bathroom).” Gotta love kids. Maharajapuram laughed heartily and said, “Children are like that. Hurry now. It’s ok.” Before I had passed the row, he had asked for curd rice.
When I came back to my half-eaten portion, he was gone. Half his leaf, the business half, was clean; not a grain of rice or curry leaf. The other half had a discarded bit of appalam, some untouched pickle and a puddle of pungent raitha.
(Anand Venkateswaran is fascinated with people and with words. So he writes about people. Even when he's writing about food, film or formaldehyde. Fatten his ego or spit in his punch, at firstname.lastname@example.org)