It’s been a longish day, unusually hot for Bangalore. Mother is at home, fussing over a piece of furniture that hasn’t been cleaned properly. This is how the routine goes when she’s staying over and I return from work: Hi how was your day was it ok are you tired do you want juice what do you want for dinner will you be cooking or should I? On most days, I end up picking the knife and ladle but today, she volunteers.
The heat has me sapped and confused so I head to the balcony to catch some breeze.
“We’ll make koftas. I have lauki at home”, is what I think I hear over the wind.
“Did you just say we’ll make koftas?”
“Yes, you don’t want?”
“No, no, just the extra effort is what I am thinking”
“It’s ok, I’ll make most of it.”
Which means I’ll be involved in it a lot more than I bargained for. It has always been.
This is a thing we have, the both of us. My father and I have words and egos to throw at each other. Mother and I have cooking time. It is a time where both of us are more relaxed than usual and we talk and trade stories. Often the same ones. Us storytellers practising the craft.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you, the photo guys finally sent the courier. They’ve restored it very well, am really impressed. Thank you!”
I had sent a few pictures my father had taken in the early and late 70s to clean up dust and get fresh prints.
“Anyway, you want to help me out a bit? I’ll manage the rest.”
She points out the photograph in my hand.
“He was being such a baby on that trip. Always complaining about something and never enjoying much of it. See his face.”
It appears so. My father, who usually has a smile that is either a centimetre wide or lips scrunched together in disinterest (his son takes after this), seems angry. My mother on the other hand is all smiles.
“It’s the Arc de Triomphe in the background, the least he could do was pretend to be interested”, she adds.
“Am telling you, for all his intelligence and resourcefulness, he’s a baby, like most men.”
The onion chopping duty falls to me. Two large ones that need to be diced as finely as possible, almost a puree, but not quite. I’ve always been proud of my knife skills and today doubly so, because the onions induce many more tears than usual.
The onions are put to the side as I turn towards the tomatoes. 3 medium sized ones need to be blanched and pureed, but first the skin is scored so that it can be peeled off easily. After about 30 sec in hot water, I take them out to cool. She’s peeling 6 cloves of garlic which she smashes into a rough paste. A small cube of ginger is also given the same treatment. The holy quartet of a gravy — onions, tomatoes, ginger and garlic — the ones that give the body and heft and strength.
In the photo pile, I pick out one that I suspect she’ll recognise instantly.
“Is that a view of Chakri’s house from our verandah?”
She grew up mostly poor under a very hardened, strict mother and a father who wanted to be as hands off with his children as possible, preferring the mute company of ointments and tablets that were nearing expiry in the pharmacy he ran. From her home in Chengalavaryan St, she walked every day to the Lady Wellindgon school, taking the longer route in the morning via Singarachari St and past the Parthasarthy Kovil simply because she liked the smell of the sakkara pongal that is distributed in the mornings.
“Evenings, I always came back by TP Kovil street because at that Ganapathy St corner, one old thatha would sit and fry up vadai and appalams. Sometimes I would just watch and he would give me one for free.” She never tires of telling this story. I’ve heard it for more thirty years and yet everytime I hear it, there is something new in it. The way she cocks her head back, a faint smile that sometimes is wider and sometimes narrower. Hopeful and wistful.
The hardest part of making the kofta is grating the lauki. You skin and quarter the vegetable, then take out the box grater and run the quarters through it like no tomorrow. There will be a heap of lauki by time you finish. It is messy and can get watery. Which it does become this time.
“What’s with the sloppy work, huh?”, she asks.
Her dream of attending college shattered when her father passed away when she was eighteen.
“For me, that moment was when all illusions of what I wanted in my life disappeared. Quaid-E-Milleth went out of the window, a history degree, a few more years of carefree fantasy, all gone.”
With four more siblings to feed, shelter and take care and her own mother illiterate and unable to do much, she and her elder brother went off in search of work. The first few months were hard, there was no work to be found for a young girl with halting, hesitant speech and anger and resentment for having being denied choices in life she so desperately wanted to make. With only one sibling making money, she and her brothers and sisters survived on one meal a day.
Sometimes a few relatives would drop by with a kilo of rice and veggies. Sometimes they would come to sneer because her father had unpaid debt. She eventually found work in a stationary shop on Patters Road. “The job didn’t pay well, but it was reasonably fun. I at least had the chance to get out the house. I needed to do that desperately.” To save and give everything back to her mother to run the house, she walked to work everyday. “I think I saved 20 paisa everyday by not taking the bus. I think. It’s been so long that I don’t remember the exact amount, but yeah something like that.”
To the grated lauki she adds a few spoons of besan, one finely cut green chilli, a pinch of red chilli powder, a bit of roasted jeera powder, some turmeric powder, some garam masala, teeny bit of asafoetida and salt. She mixes everything well and starts forming small balls of kofta to fry. The trick here is to add as much besan as to keep things a bit dry and to hold the watery lauki together. Too much and the kofta becomes a shot-putter’s object, too little, it’ll disintegrate.
“Your father basically rescued me and my family, but you know that”, she says. They’d known each other for a while because he’d stayed at her house for a few months completing his M.Sc. They’d grown fond of each other during that time but never made any attempt to take matters further. He got busy with a Ph.D and she carried on selling notebooks. When the time did eventually come, her mother found that the stars and signs did align. He came down from England, in the middle of a post-doc, married and whisked her away.
The oil in the wok is heating up well. She drops the sticky kofta balls into the wok slowly and one by one.
“How long do you think we should fry them?”
“Oh, I don’t know? 2-3 minutes. I don’t like it when it’s too brown.”
England was hard for her initially. She was 22, with only a few words of English and absolutely no clue about how most things work.
“To his credit, your father did help me a lot in those first few days. Showed me the place, practiced English daily, made me write etc. etc.”
She started working at a garment factory, initially sewing buttons onto cardigans, moving onto cutting collars and pockets before ending up as a typist/secretary.
“The worst part of the whole thing was the train ride in the cold and rain. The skinheads near the station would taunt me daily. I was afraid if I told your father, he’d come and there would be fight and then it’ll get ugly, so I just took it. I was sending back the money I was making. That was the most important thing, so I couldn’t let anything happen to it.”
Her brothers and sisters, now managers and school principles and entrepreneurs went to school because she and her husband sent back generously.
I ask her about her generosity in those days and how it seems to have dwindled with her ageing. “Oh, I don’t know. Age and cynicism, I suppose.” Maybe, but not quite. For all her caring, she’s always been a selfish person. She’ll do certain things only for her immediate gain and then abandon it when it no longer suits her. That she always has and still does look for accolades when she’s done a good deed.
The koftas are crisp on the outside and soft inside. A beautiful, medium brown. Into another big wok with ghee, I add some jeera, let it splutter and then add the finely chopped onions. After a couple of minutes of browning, half the garlic and half the ginger go in. This now needs to sweat until the onions are soft, but not caramelised. At this point, the rest of the garlic, ginger and tomato puree goes in.
She returned from England to deliver me. My brother followed a few years later and we moved to Bangalore. Bringing up two raucous boys mostly on her own initially must not have been easy, but from this point onwards, the stories and recollections trail off. They have always. Like all storytellers, she’s built a myth and person around the key things in her life that has made her who she is. In her case, the struggles of her early years. These are stories she loves telling. These are the stories that seem to change subtly over the years, often revealing a glint of something new. The later stories, the ones that involve bringing up my brother and I, the ones that involve her struggles with my father’s struggle with his identity and purpose, the ones that involve briefly living in near penury in my teens, these we’ve hardly talked about or heard.
I ask her why this is so.
“The onions and tomatoes are good now. Add the masala now, please?” So in go the turmeric powder, coriander powder, chilli powder, a pinch of jeera powder, a few flakes of kasuri methi and a bit of roasted saunf. This needs to be sweated again, until the oil separates from the onion and tomato.
“Why are you being so combative today? I thought we would have fun and it would be nice.”
So I do what I have always done when I’ve brought up these questions and she has refused to answer them. Back down. My questions – about how she allowed her husband’s weak shadow to loom oversized above us, about how her dominant, combative personality wilted in that shadow, about how she’s never forgiven the world for taking away her college years – have to wait for another day.
The onion tomato base has browned and reddened beautifully. To this thick, luscious paste, I add a good measure of water and stir everything vigorously so that no clumps are formed and remain. The fried koftas are gently put into this gravy and the whole thing is brought to a gentle boil.
I suppose all of us, especially storytellers, guard our secrets carefully. Never revealing things too early in the tale for that might do grave damage to the arc and plot we want to construct. To hold back until the last possible moment is a good story telling tactic. I am hoping that she is still constructing the one she wants to tell in a few years time. But as her first listener, it seems unfair that I have to wait.
Sprinkle some freshly chopped coriander over the koftas and gravy. Serve hot with rotis.