Monday, May 22, 2023

Amma Commits A Murder by Ambai

This was my entry to the Mozhi translation prize. It was longlisted and received excellent feedback from the jury including "it was a great attempt" and "a very strong contender in the contest".

You can read the original in Tamil by the incomparable Ambai here

At the mere mention of ‘Amma’ just a few events come flashing and strike at my heart. My older sister Kalyani used to swoon quite regularly. I was not at an age when I could understand. Four years old.  

I wake up early in the morning. I hear something like a thumping. I go near the door to have a look. Kalyani has been made to sit on a wooden plank. A strange man stands in front of her with a bunch of leaves in his hand. My baby brother of a few months who I made laugh with my ‘AAA’s and ‘OOO’s is now in a cradle in the room with me. 

“Neerajatchi, go get it”, says someone. 

I look at Amma. 

I remember the dark black saree. She’s knotted her hair loose. She enters the small room adjacent to mine. She removes her saree top. She slowly squeezes milk from her breast into a small bowl in her hand. Her eyes water. 

Every day Amma wakes up in the darkness of early morning to stack firewood under the buried metal pot to heat water. 

One day I watch her. Amma’s hair falls free from the knot. Amma sits squatting. Half her hair spreads out over her cheek and the rest of it over her ears. Once the stove is lit, the fire’s red heat flashes on one side of Amma’s face as she bends down to check on it. That day, Amma is wearing a red saree as well. As I am absorbed in her she stands up suddenly. Her hair hangs down to her knees. 

From within the saree top that’s fallen away, beneath the blouse whose hooks have come undone, her breasts, creased with green nerves appear. Standing there she seems like a daughter of fire who’s flown in from afar. Is she Amma? Is she really Amma?

Why do I remember the mantra “Kali, Kali, Maga Kali, Badrakali namosthuthey”?


Amma turns her head to look.

“What are you doing here, dee?”

I am unable to speak. I break into a sweat.

There’s a homam at home. Perhaps it’s the crimson of her lips, perhaps it’s the ferocity of the vermillion, I see her reflected in the roaring flames.

Agniyee swaa-aa-aa-aahaa…” , they elongate the ‘swaha’ as they pour ghee into the fire. With each ‘swahaaa’, my sight goes to the fire and then to Amma.

Amma rubs oil in my hair to give me a bath. She hitches her saree high and tucks it into her waist. Her fair, smooth thigh shows. When she bends and rises, I can see nerves threading through it. 

“Amma, why are you alone so fair? And why am I so dark?”


“Go dee, who has your beauty though?”

These occasions were totally unconnected. Amma was their sole queen. She was the fire that burnt and cleansed filth. With just a smile, she could make a festoon of a million smiles dance across the heart. 

Creator absolute. When I rest my head on her lap, she’d run her long, slim cool fingers over and say something so pedestrian as, “I will teach you to dance. You have an ideal body”, or “what thick hair”. Yet my heart will burst into bloom. 

I cannot recall if Amma fed me these feelings about her or if I imagined them myself. Just as many beautiful things took root within me, I do not know what she established within herself. 

I was thirteen at that time. Long skirts had started to grow short. Amma would lengthen every one of them. 

One evening when I was resting my head on her lap, I suddenly recalled a line I’d read somewhere. 

“Amma, what does adolescence mean, Amma?”


A prolonged silence.

And suddenly she says,

“I suggest you stay just the way you are, letting your skirt sweep about, running around …” 

It seems cousin Radhu had a girl seeing ceremony. Amma went there. On that important day, Amma was not there. On Deepavali day, it was only Kalyani who rubbed oil and washed my hair. Skies which hadn’t yet shed their darkness could be seen from the bathroom window. 

“Kalloos…you’ve woken me up too early-dee, there’s no sound of firecrackers yet”

“Don’t I have to give you an oil bath and then have mine? You are thirteen. Still unable to have an oil bath yourself. Bend-dee

Kalyani has no patience. She rubs my head like she would peel husk from a coconut. 

Amma had sewn a satin long skirt in aubergine-flower purple for Deepavali. My heart was smitten as it slid down from the sewing machine as it was being sewn. On that occasion, Amma had taken my measurements before sewing the long skirt. 

“I need to measure you, come here-dee…you’ve grown tall”, she says looking up from measuring. 

“This girl has grown two inches”

The aubergine-flower purple long skirt is not short like other skirts. It glides down to reach the floor. 

Kalyani shakes me awake and dries my hair. I run into the altar room wearing my inner vest. Appa reaches into the pile of new clothes on the wooden plank to give me mine. 

“Here you go, darkie…”, says Appa typically. 

Sometimes when Appa calls me that, I stand in front of the wide, hanging mirror in the lounge. It was as if I could hear Amma whisper “How beautiful are you”.

Like the fish in the glass box in Sarala’s house, my skirt keeps slipping. Velvet blouse. I wear a pottu on my forehead and go stand in front of Appa. 

“Not bad!”, remarks Appa. 

I take the firecrackers to the front room and run to climb the magnolia tree. Every morning, I am tasked with plucking flowers from the magnolia tree. Fill the flower basket with flowers and take it to Amma and she’d remark wide eyed “what a loot of flowers” as she caressed them. Her fingers would disappear.  

The satin skirt slips. I am unable to climb the tip of the branch. It’s dark still. As I climb down, bang goes a firework in someone’s house. Shivering I jump down from the tree. Run straight into the house. Breathless. 

I calm down and run to the front room and burst my share of fireworks. That’s when I remember the flower basket. Dawn has broken. I lift my skirt and bend down to retrieve the flower basket lying at the bottom of the tree. Flowers have scattered. When I bend down properly to pick them, my skirt spreads on the ground. The new skirt is stained here and there. Is it from climbing the tree?

“Kalloos…”, I call out as I come in and stand in front of her to ask, “my skirt is all dirty. Will Amma scold me?”. Kalyani stares at me for a minute and leaves yelling “Appa”.

Everything from Kalyani’s look and her running inside without even taking the flower basket from me make feel like there’s a caterpillar squiggling inside my heart. I look at the satin skirt. I run my hand on the velvet blouse. Nothing has happened, has it?

Dear God, has anything happened to me? I ask myself. But even as I do that, I know that something has happened. I hear fireworks going off everywhere. Holding the flower basket in hand, I stand there breathing fast, my body shaking, my lips trembling. I want to cry out loud. 

I want to see Amma. I want to press my head deep against her chinnalam silk clad shoulder. “I am so scared”, I want to cry unabashedly. Amma will stroke my head. Something horrible has befallen me…

From somewhere, Kalyani has managed to get the tonsured old woman who makes fried snacks. The old woman comes close.

“Girl, why are you crying-dee? What has happened now? What has happened that’s not happened elsewhere?”

I understand nothing of what the old woman says. However, my instinct had a chilling understanding of something, but my head grasped nothing of it. From deep within my heart, like an unquenchable thirst erupts a single entreaty…” Amma…”

Once again, I recall the time when I got lost once when I was five years old.  In a big park without realising the deep darkness seeping around me, I walk. Suddenly the darkness, the trees, the sounds and the silence create fear within my heart. It was Appa who searched and found me. But it was when I saw Amma that I broke down howling. 

Amma lays me down next to her. She strokes me. “Nothing has happened. Everything is okay,” she whispers gently. With her ruby lips blazing like a flicker of fire, she rests her face on mine. 

Yet again, my heart hammers as if I am lost somewhere. I sit down, rest my head on my knees and cry. It feels like something has come to an end. Like walking out of the cinema after ‘The End’ card appears on screen, I feel I have left something behind. Right now, I sense that I’m the only one in the entire history of the world to have been beset with such a tragedy. I cry as if I am carrying all the misfortune on my slender, velvet blouse-clad shoulders.  

I wonder why Amma never told me about it on evenings when it was just the two of us. My heart is occupied by just fear. It is not the common fear that hits when in new circumstances, or with new people. It’s the frightful scream at the sight of a snake that renders one speechless in terror. Even in the far corners of my mind tendrils of fear hang like a spider’s web. 

As pale lips lie split open, I recall a figure. A skull smashes on a rock. A pale pink bald head walking ahead of me suddenly becomes a cave mouth from which splutters black-red blood. In an instant, blood pours over the head. I stare at the blood. Its red appears to have spread everywhere and it flows leaping into my eyes. My mind is agog again and again. “Aiyo so much blood, so much blood” but no sound originates from my mouth. A bed of blood. The old man opened his mouth, the eyes stared vacant, the heart burst forth. 

How fearsome is blood…lips go pale…limbs inert… 

I need Amma. My heart years for Amma to rescue me from this fear the way she embraces and consoles me when I’m scared of the dark. Couldn’t Amma be here to touch me on my shoulder with her cold fingers to say, “this is beautiful, too.”?   

“Get up-dee, please…how long will you cry-dee?”, pleads Kalyani as she joins me in tears. 


“Amma herself is coming next week. I have just sent her a letter about it. She’ll be here once Radhu’s girl-seeing ceremony is over. You now get up-dee. You’re a right pain the head.” Kalyani is starting to get angry.

“What has happened to me-dee?”

“Your skull head has happened to you, how many times do I have to repeat?”

“Can I not climb tree again?”

Kalyani raps me sharply on the head sharply with her knuckles. 

“You thicko! I’ve been pleading with you for the past half an hour to get up and get changed out of your skirt. You’re asking me questions on top? She’s being such a bother, Appa!”, says Kalyani calling out to Appa. 

Appa says, “You musn’t be silly. You must listen to Kalyani.”

The fried-snack-making tonsured old woman adds helpfully when Appa is out of earshot, “Why is she being difficult? This is a fate that befalls everyone”. 

Seven days. Seven more days until Amma returns. After Radhu’s girl seeing ceremony is over. Seven days of stumbling around in the dark. The maami5 from next door and the maami from across the street all land up one day. 

“Aren’t you making her wear a half-saree dee, Kalyani?”

“Everything will be after Amma returns, mami**. This one is an uncontrollable devil. It only listens to Amma.”

“From now on she will calm down. From now on she will be disciplined and obedient.”

“Why? What will happen from now on?”

Why should I wear a half-saree? Didn’t Amma say ‘stay just the way you are, letting your skirt sweep about…’? Why should I change? No one explains why.  

They sit me down like a doll and talk around me. When Appa appears, they whisper beneath their saree tops. 

On the fifth day, Kalyani hands me a bowl of hot oil saying “You rub the oil yourself.”

I weep as I struggle with my waist-length hair, then stand in front of the mirror in the lounge wearing my inner vest. 

“From now you should get dressed in the bathroom, understood?”, says Appa. 

I shut the door once Appa leaves. I remove my inner vest. The mirror reflects my dark body. I run my hands along shoulders, hands, chest, waist, smooth thighs which are only slightly less dark than my face. Am I not the same girl? What will Amma say?

I wear my school uniform. Kalyani enters once the door opens. 

“What will you say when they ask you why you’ve been absent-dee?”

I stare at Kalyani. Like a bird that had been freed I was getting ready for school joyfully, but now my pace falter. 

“You needn’t say anything. Just be quiet.”

I was unable to play at games lesson that day. I hide behind a wide tree. Once before I have abstained from playing. The next morning Miss Leela Menon asked in class, “who were the fools who didn’t play yesterday?”. I didn’t stand up. 

“Why did you not stand up?”, she asked. 

“I’m not a fool, Miss”, I replied. She noted that I was ‘impertinent’ in the progress report. 

That day my mind was not even afraid of being scolded by Miss Leela Menon. I sense that nothing could ever bother me more than what’s happened to me now. I no longer sit under the tree and read Enid Blyton like I used to. I ask the ripe leaves that have keep falling in the dug-up ditch. “What the hell has happened to me?”

Like an accused in the dock watching the judge’s mouth, my heart awaits Amma’s word alone. Would she look at me with her eyes lowered and say, “this thing that has happened to you is also beautiful”? With just a scorching ember of her smile, she would cast aside that intimidating fried-snack old lady, Kalyani and all others. Amma is different. Where she stands, everything superfluous is destroyed and only beauty reigns. For her everything is beautiful. 

Amma feels very necessary. Something must be explained. Look, I break into a sweaty shiver at the mere thought of the aubergine-flower purple satin skirt. Why, my tongue thickens to a wooden block and falls flat in my mouth. It’s as if darkness envelops suddenly and before I know it, I hear a ringing sound, blood flows over and a stiffened body seems to appear in the darkness. Someone should explain this with gentle words to me. 

I feel as if there’s no one there. After the gardener wakes me up, I leave for home slowly. 

“Why are you so late-dee? Where have you been?”

“I didn’t go anywhere…was sitting under the tree”



“Still think you’re a little girl-dee? What if something had happened?”

I fling the school bag. My face becomes hot. I shut my ears with my hands and scream out loud.  

“I will sit as I please. Nothing has happened to me”

I elongate and emphasise every single word as I scream with mad shriek. Appa and Kalyani stand dumbfounded. I get angry and go up to sit on the terrace. I can remain there in the scent of the magnolia tree. Kalyani and Appa are not allowed here. Just me and the scent of magnolia tree. This unspeaking, untouching scent seems closer to me than the people in the house. Wouldn’t it be nicer if they didn’t speak? A wide-eyed smile like Amma’s. 

When Amma looks (at me) like that something happens within me. I would want to laugh out loud. Would want to sing. Amma is a creator. With a mere turn of her head and a smile, she conjures joy, energy, and beauty into existence. 

Kalyani comes upstairs.

“Come for food-dee, your little Queenship, Amma has spoilt you by indulging in you.”

I purse my lips casually and rise. 

The next morning Amma arrives. Opening the taxi door, in a dark green creased saree, she enters the house. 

“What happened?”, asks Appa. 

“Apparently, she’s too dark to be a bride. He turned her down, the wretched fellow!”

“What does your sister say?”

“She feels bad, poor thing.” 

“We’ve also got a daughter who’s dark”

I stand in front of Amma without any preamble. I think I should explain it to her myself in more detail than Kalyani’s letter. Gently, in the crease of her neck, with trembling lips, in a soft voice I want to wail about it all. I am raring to share the fears that are slithering in my heart. 

Like some sort of a mystery - like a feeling that blocks the throat when you lie down at night, the struggle of not recognising my own body – I keep looking at Amma expecting her to explain it to me gently. She’s going to embrace me with the long banana stem of her hands. And I am going to cry loudly. I am going to bore my fingers into Amma’s hair and with big gasping wails, I am going to cry.    

Amma looks at me. I don’t know if I’ve become Radhu in her eyes. 

“Why did you have to rush into this misery-dee? We now have to bear this burden as well”

Who is she accusing?

Soundless wails blockade my heart. 

Amma’s lips, her nose, the vermillion on her forehead, her nose ring and her eyes appear to spit blood red flames. In the fire, the divine form that had cloaked her unravels and she appears naked as a human mother. Her heartless words rise like a sharpened knife and blindly hack away all the beauties that had sprouted earlier. Interminable fears cling to the heart like a black painting. 

Agniye swaa-aa-aahaa…it wasn’t just the filth that was burnt. Buds and flowers were scorched too. 

Friday, December 10, 2021


இதுக்கெல்லாம் நேரம் காலம் பார்க்க முடியுமா? வீட்டுல எல்லாரும் தூங்குற நேரம் தான் நல்ல நேரம். என்ன செய்யவேண்டும் என்று ராஜி ஏற்கனவே நுணுக்கமாக திட்ட மிட்டிருந்தாள். எந்த கத்திரிக்கோல் இந்த காரியத்துக்கு உதவும், எங்கே போய் இதை செய்தால் குறைந்த தடயம் இருக்கும் என்றெல்லாம் ஏற்கனவே யோசித்து வைத்திருந்தாள். 

அன்று பரிட்சை முடிந்த கடைசி நாள், அரை நாள் தான் பள்ளிக்கூடம். பிரண்ட்ஸ் எல்லோருக்கும் டாடா சொல்லிவிட்டு, வீட்டுக்கு வந்து, பாட்டி செஞ்சி வெச்சிருந்த சாம்பார் சாதத்தை அவசர அவசரமாய் அள்ளி போட்டுக்கொண்டு, பாட்டியையும், அம்மாவையும், சித்தியையும் "ஏன் இன்னும் தூங்க போகலை?" என்று மறுபடியும்-மறுபடியும் நச்சரித்து, வீடு மொத்தமும் ஒரு வழியாக ஓய்ந்து அடங்கி, மதிய மயக்கம் அடைந்ததும், ராஜி அவசர-அவசரமாக தையல் பெட்டியில் இருந்த கத்திரிக்கோலை ஓசைப்படாமல் எடுத்து, பாவாடையில் ஒளித்து மொட்டை மாடிக்கு கொண்டு வந்தாள். 

கயிறு போல் தொங்கிய இரட்டைப்பின்னலை கையால் வருடி நீளம் கணக்கிட்டாள். பின் மெல்ல கத்திரியால் ரிப்பன் கட்டிய நுனியை வெட்டினாள். 'சருக்-சருக்' என்ற சத்தம் ஏனோ அவளுக்கு இனிமையாகப்பட்டது. சுட்டெரிக்கும் வெய்யில் ஏனோ சட்டென இதமாகப்பட்டது. 

இனி வரும் காலத்தில் "நீ அம்மாபாளையா? பொம்பளையா?" என்றெல்லாம் கிண்டல் அடிப்பார்கள். அதெல்லாம் அப்புறம், இன்று ராஜி மெல்ல மெல்ல தான் யார் என்ற தேடலை தொடங்கினாள்.  

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Running On Tough Girl

Our new house backs onto a national woodlands and for the past weeks I have got back to lacing up and jogging through the winding, tree laden roads which lead to the ancient reserve. Im all these years it has never occurred to me to listen to something while running. On the odd occasion when I tried listening to music, I found the device too fiddly, the headphones too unwieldy, the music too intrusive to my thoughts and so gave it up to instead jog to the rhythm of my own footfall and to whatever song was looping around in my head. This time however, when I discovered my decade-old iPod - a gift for one of my birthdays from my thirties - I decided to give it a whirl.

Headphone designs have significantly improved since I last tried them and I was delighted to find a pair that fit snugly in my ears. When I finally worked out how to find my way around the extremely clunky iTunes (why is so user unfriendly?), I realised that I'd downloaded a some podcasts earlier. Among them was one called Tough Girls. So one morning a couple of weeks ago, I slipped into my shoes, stuck on the iPod and got jogging. What followed was an hour of gripping story telling by women who have gone on to achieve the most unimaginable feats known to humans.

Sure, there are stories of endurance runs and biking through hostile terrain and much more. But the ones that strike me are the ones with unlikely heroes who overcome demons that lurk within. Of the ones that I have listened to so far, the podcast that stands out the most is the one about Paula McGuire.

Paula suffered from severe anxiety and had tried and failed various therapies to overcome her crippling condition after years of living with it. Until one day, a switch went off and she decided to believe in herself and in true hero-redemption route, set herself a challenge of trying every Olympic sport in a space of two years. Never mind if she did not how to cycle and never mind if she was aqua phobic. In the podcast, Paula documents her trials and tribulations throughout her attempts at various sports. How she felt when she rode a bicycle for the first time or how she completed a triathlon while wearing a float, each experience reinforced Paula's belief in what she was capable of doing.

Having done the first challenge she set for herself, Paula then attempted to swim around Britain. But when her old fears returned and it got too much, she had to give the attempt up and turned her attention instead to other experiences. She has since gone on to write about her in a book called (what else?) Paula Must Try Harder.

Tough Girl podcast follows an interview format with the host Sarah Williams (herself an adventurer) asking intelligent questions steering the conversation with a firm but friendly hand. These days, despite the colder weather and the shorter days, I eagerly look forward to going on runs with the rickety old iPod. The other day, without intending to, I ran a comfortable 23 kilometres fuelled entirely by the podcasts. I'm not about to start running the Sahara any time soon, it is enough that I can experience it vicariously.

Listen to the Tough Girl podcast here.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

After The After

Years ago, when I was a member of the Rajeshwari Lending Library on Kutcheri Road in what was then still called Madras, I would pick up Mad magazines and one such edition had a series called After The After. There would be an image titled 'Before' followed by an image titled 'After' and a third image titled 'After The After'. Typically, the images would be like this - a large woman in the first, a thin woman in the second and a larger woman in the third. The whole series would roughly follow the same pattern where the 'After The After' would be significantly worse than the 'Before'. Bald man - full head of hair - balder man with no eyebrows, and so on.

I was reminded of this series following the several 'coming out' stories of historical sexual assault in India. It must feel terribly empowering to all the women and men who have shared their own stories in public, both anonymously and while fully disclosing their identities. How must it feel to have the oppressive weight of their own secrets finally set free into the sunlit world of the living! Fly away truth! You no longer hold the power to pin me down and suffocate me! The disclosers may even feel a moment of hope and freedom and believe that fairness and righteousness will prevail after all. They may even want to chastise themselves for holding their tongues for so long. Why had I not spoken up earlier? What had I feared? How could I have not trusted this kind and supportive world? How could I have feared demons around the corners which only hold friends?

The disclosers will be hailed as 'brave', 'truth seekers' and 'path breakers'. Their stories will be held up as shining examples for all to follow. There will be meaningless words like 'closure' bandied about. They may as well call it 'band aid'. As if, speaking up aloud is going to be some kind of retribution and payment for all the suffering. As if we could burst into applause, draw some curtains around it and disperse while noisily analysing the movie. 

But once the initial burst of excitement following the disclosure dies down, the fangs begin to come out. Don't expect support or kudos from those closest to the situation. There will be a lot of scepticism, lot more denial and incessant doubting. What took you so long? What did you do to provoke? What proof have you got? I cannot believe this happened in such a respectable family as yours. Are you sure you are not imagining it? (True! The last from a classmate.) You may be prepared for bile and rancour of the sourest sort but what will surprise you is the silence. Stone cold betrayals and helpless shrugs from those whose support you had banked on. 

Following my own disclosure, I sought my father's assistance to see if there was any legal recourse that I could seek. But his reaction was one of cowardice. He did not wish to be drawn into it (I see him cowering behind his hands begging to be left out of it). My mother may have shown more anger if a stranger had reported a lost handbag. "Why did you not say anything then?", she demanded," "your father would have hit him with slippers." No Amma, even if I had found words to describe my ordeal as I did 32 years after the incident, Appa would have done nothing about it. 

No, After The After is often not the rosy picture we believe it to be. It is sometimes a lot worse than the Before. But wait, there is an After The After The After where eventually, once the debris from the disclosure and the ugliness that spurts in the immediate aftermath has cleared up and the heady rush has given way to a kinder way of dealing with things. There are no hushed conversations or embarrassed euphemisms - a friend who found her way to my blog once remarked, 'you know, your incident' to which I asked, 'which one? The one about my sexual assault?'. 

After The After The After, there are only loud acknowledgments and hearty, bold stories of strength. From the bitterness that once clogged the mind now flows a gentler, calmer spring. Where there was once heaviness, now a briskness. A vivid, thrilling anger that knows what it can achieve. An anger that singes and can burn if it wants to. It knows its power and it is within.

Click on image to watch a short animated video I worked to document my own sexual assault.

Also you can read the 'Voicing Silence' series of blog posts here

Monday, August 13, 2018

Serving Erissery To Germans 2

With the owner and the co-worker who helped
make salads and taught me the most
"Excuse me" the customer called out to me. "You have forgotten to clean my table," she said pointing to the food that had spilt on the table that needed a good wipe. "Sure," I said "but let me put the plates back in the kitchen first." As I wiped down the surface, I could not but wonder what a remarkable turn of events had lead to that very moment. How all of my grand-standing ambition and my lofty plans for a decorated career had gradually whittled away to that very precise second when all that was expected of me was a clean table.

A few months earlier, I had walked into the small, vegetarian cafe and got myself a job cooking Indian food once-a-week. Tired of being at home alone all day and being unable to go much further in my limited German I had yearned for some work, any work. And this was the one that was available to me. The pay was low but the experience would make me rich, so I signed up. Some people who came to know of my decision were surprised by it. They could not understand why I would do something low-paid like cooking when I could spend my time gallery-hopping or at the spa or going skiing during the week. Why would I put myself through such rigorous work for such little returns? I couldn't come up with a convincing enough answer, so I stopped trying to convey to them how it was so much more than what I was making (peanuts, since you wonder) and how much I was growing personally when faced with challenges of the sort I had never encountered up until then.

You see, cooks at our cafe did not just cook. We served, cleaned and manned the till as well. So every week I cooked a soup and a main course for forty customers till noon and spent the afternoon serving them. It was physically demanding work and I would return home barely able to muster enough energy to string two words together. But it gave me an opportunity to try something I had not done before - cook for a paying crowd that would often be merciless in its criticism. So I stuck with it. Here are some things I learnt along the way:

- I realised that how you feel on the day somehow feeds into the food. If I was nervous about getting the recipe right, it would reflect seamlessly on the plates. If I was particularly relaxed on the day, I would see the customers smiling, chatting and complimenting me on the food. I taught myself to relax (I would sing along to whatever was playing and that would have an instant effect) and to enjoy and savour the experience. As the months went on, I grew a steady clientele who would turn up Friday lunch time for their curry fix.

- It is important to experiment but more crucial to deliver. The small cafe had a regular clientele who came there for good, honest homespun food. They did not expect Michelin star, instagram-styled food. They did not care for the little drizzles or the fancy decorations on the plate. So long as it tasted delicious and looked half-decent, the cook could take her fancy garnishing elsewhere. The crowd came to be fed so they can then return to work, they did not give two hoots for swirls of this or droplets of that.

- Plan ahead but also be flexible enough to throw it out of the window. The cafe was mainly there to use up the veg that the owner could not sell in her organic veg shop because they were mangled and a bit sorry-looking. With that in mind, any recipe should be adaptable enough to accommodate whatever veg was there, lying unsold. Some weeks I have been met with a glut of pumpkins past their prime, waiting to be used up for me. I had to be inventive and quick to come up with a recipe. To my credit I don't think any German cafe has ever served Erissery before.

- Don't take it personally. This was a hard one for me to accept and one that I have to constantly remind myself of. When an old German lady tells you that yes, she is there to pay, but no, she will not hand over the money to you, don't take it personally. When a very pregnant customer shouts at you for not feeding her quickly or feeding her enough for the money that she is paying, don't take it personally. When in your eagerness to get it right precisely, you've let things burn and now it is beyond redemption and there are eight orders pending and the owner is apoplectic, do apologise profusely but don't take it personally.

- Savour the experience. To be given a chance to feed people and watch them tuck into something that you have worked to create and have them thank you for their lunch, what a priceless honour it is! It is tempting to reduce value of everything to monetary returns and to wonder if all the effort was worth the few paltry quid at the end of the day. But I find it vital to recall that it is a privilege accorded to few and one worth cherishing.

If I were to plot my personal growth on a chart over the past two years, it would show a vertiginous incline. What I have learnt about myself and what I am capable of is not something I could have imagined just two years ago. And to be accorded the opportunity to learn as an adult is a precious thing and I am enormously grateful for it.

In a few short weeks my family and I return to our old life and last week was my last working day at the cafe. A few customers shook my hand, took photos with me, handed me handwritten good luck cards and hoped that I would return one day to the cafe to cook for them. Now, I don't know about you but this is not something I can ever put a price on and charge at the till.

Serving Erissery To Germans - part 1 here 

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Life On An Eversilver Plate

I feel a bit of a fraud, actually. It is not as if I was commissioned by someone to write a book or slaved endless hours in front of a typewriter and bled words. It was nothing as exotic as that. It was something rather more prosaic. My brother-in-law self-published a book and introduced me to the company that published it for him. You must give them a try, he insisted and I succumbed only too eagerly. I wrote some words, signed a cheque and a contract with the company and pressed send. That's it.

They proofed it, laid it out and with a few suggestions from me, designed a cover and published it.  And so here it is, my first ever printed book (a fraud, a charlatan, a fake, I hear the voice in my head say and it rings louder with each passing second). But here it is, irrevocable as the day.

It started here, on this blog and look where it has lead to. If you are reading this post, know for sure that you had a role to play in it. Thank you!

(look, they even made a fancy video for it)

Here are some links to where it can be purchased:

Available Listing
Print Book India
Available Listing
Available Listing
Available Listing
International Print Books
Available Listing
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Available Listing

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Sports-Loving, Naturally

On my last visit to Madras, when we went around looking for a flat for my in-laws, I heard the current owner describe with great enthusiasm how the flat was close to this madam and that kovil. She regaled us how it would be ideal for a septuagenarian couple as they would not have to go far for their daily dose of religion. What if, I later wondered to my sister-in-law, the average pensioner looking to buy the property were more interested in a night of partying than a day of prasadams. We both laughed at the unlikely image such an elderly person conjured up and made our way to see the next flat.

The conversation came back to mind a few days ago when a friend shared an article with me in which an Indian man talks about what it was like growing up with a sports-obsessed mother. Clearly, the man thought that it was an anomaly for a woman of a certain age to have anything other a passing interest in sports. He, like most others, had reduced most women to being overtly obsessed with food and children and once the children had consumed the aforementioned food and flown the nest, then religion. Evidently, he thought his mother who followed cricket and football and taught herself the complicated scoring pattern of tennis by religiously following Wimbledon, was somewhat of an (affectionate) aberration and therefore, merited a mention. He clearly had not looked around.

A few days ago, on our weekly conversation, my mother-in-law commiserated us on Germany's loss in Russia a few days earlier. She lamented how a country that gave the world the likes of Beckenbauer had fallen to such dismal standards. Germany to not get past the group stage at the World Cup! Unheard of! She reckoned that the gecko that had been predicting a victory for an Asian country may be right after all. South Korea had been playing rather well and (at the time of speaking) Japan had thrown a couple of surprises.
From a F1 race we saw recently. One of the few sports my
sports-loving mother-in-law cannot understand.
My mother-in-law is not alone in her fondness for sport. There was once an aunt who would set an alarm to watch Olympic Games in a distant land and would fight with her children to be the first to read the fortnightly Sportstar magazine that you would be forgiven for thinking it was Vikatan or Kumudam.

It annoys me no end when Indian women in their sixties and beyond are routinely reduced to a limited palette of characters - hard-working, selfless, god-fearing, kind and sweet. In other words, dull and harmless. As if all the vibrancy of their youth would give way to a plain, bland version once they cross a certain age.

The next round of World Cup football matches are scheduled for this weekend I have yet to ask my mother-in-law for her predictions. I am certain she has already studied the fixtures and has picked her favourites.