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A house full of cooks

An impressive array, each of a kind, in and out of the aunt’s kitchen.

For as long as I can remember, there was always a cook in my aunt’s household — even though she never really wanted one.

To cope with the heavy workload in the sizeable family, she did employ help to do the washing and cleaning. Kitchen work, however, was different. Being a lady of the old mould, she wanted to do the cooking all by herself, a job that had to be done with care and everything had to be clean, spick and span. Thus she was ever stuck to the kitchen, either cooking breakfast, lunch or dinner or preparing tea, coffee or tiffin. But once her recently widowed daughter came with her little son, Babu, to live with the family, she unwillingly accepted to have a cook. So much so, the next day saw my uncle at Mylapore Mada Street where cooks thronged to have informal meetings for exchange of information.

His trip proved successful, for the same evening, the first cook arrived! He was Kuppuswamy, of fair-complexion and of average height and build. He was talkative, describing in detail, the household where he had served the last five years and how he had to leave them because “Mama”, an IAS officer was transferred to Patna and that he did not want to go so far away even though “Mami” had insisted! My aunt cut him short. She crisply briefed him about the routine, the preferences of the family members and their eating habits. No wasteful way was tolerated while handling vegetables, groceries, food and even water, she ruled.

Surprisingly, Kuppuswamy got the hang of the whole routine fairly quickly and adhered to the various practices of the household. He could not prepare tasty meals though, but my aunt hoped to teach him slowly. Willingly, he would take Babu, her grandson to school and bring him back, sit and chat with my uncle during nights on the terrace gazing at the stars above and discussing Astrology. Everything was going on fine but that period of bliss was short-lived. Kuppuswamy’s aged mother in the village had a fall and had broken her hipbone and so he had to go. We were hoping that he would return soon but a letter came instead — he would not be able to resume duties for a long while.

The search for a cook began again, and with some difficulty this time my uncle brought Narasimhan. He was a brawny young fellow hailing from the villages. All the work in the household was a mere trifle for him. In addition to carting Babu to school and back he played with him and kept him occupied. Cricket was his major weakness and we, the youngsters in the house often pulled him out from the kitchen as he could bowl very fast. We nicknamed him Andy Roberts. My aunt, however, did not like his playful and distracted temperament in the kitchen, where sometimes the cricket ball would land! She loathed cricket more than Narasimhan. She had even prohibited us from listening to the ‘running commentary’, and because of this irrational aversion of hers to the game, Narasimhan was bowled out of the kitchen and Purushothaman entered.

He was a thin chap and looked elderly. He cooked superbly but the cause for Purushothaman’s departure was my aunt’s fetish for water. The only source of water for the house was from a municipal supply for an hour early in the morning. At this unearthly hour, she would rush the entire household, guests and family members alike, to finish their ablutions, water the garden and fill up an assortment of buckets, utensils and drums. Poor Purushothaman’s first day in this routine left him gasping for breath. He left us on the sixth day, quite hydrophobic!

His successor, Krishna Iyer, was a good judge of quality but sadly not of quantity. He often cooked more food than was necessary forcing refrigeration and recycling the same the next day. On such occasions my uncle would comment, “Is it ancient history or modern?” Krishna Iyer’s demise was immediate!

Quite a galaxy of cooks came and went and the time each served formed a diminishing series, as mathematicians would term it. Then there was the “Duck-billed Platypus”. She was so nicknamed because she had a pressed-down nose and squeaked rather than talked. She was an arguing type and my aunt had a tough time with her. I vividly remember one day when my aunt silenced her squeaks with one shout, in Tamil, of Porum Niruthu (Enough! Stop!). That was her swan song in the kitchen.

Raghupathy, who came next, sang very well and his favourite song was D.K. Pattamal’s Eppadi Paadinaro. Being quite vain, he began quizzing everyone in music. He had the audacity to quiz my aunt once, and that was the end of him. He sang his mangalam and quit.

There was then an old Telugu-speaking lady who had two prominent protruding teeth in her upper jaw and was promptly nicknamed Walrus Mami. She was a good cook but unfortunately, died of old age.

The last to serve, in my knowledge, was Padmanabhan, who cooked in the morning and went out for work during the day and returned late at night to have his dinner prepared by my aunt. This made her lament, “I have a cook but I cook for him!”

Well, that was my aunt’s luck with cooks. The poor lady was happiest when she cooked herself!

ganapathi1929@gmail.com

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 12:14:08 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/A-house-full-of-cooks/article17083927.ece

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