We always tend to crave for things that we don’t have or do things that we aren’t supposed to do irrespective of age. And in childhood, the fascination is in doing what is termed as ‘grown up’ stuff. During our summer holidays in Madikeri, us cousins used to make sure that we did all those things that were normally not allowed back home. At the beginning of the holidays, as soon as we crossed those huge iron gates of Dodammi’s house, it was as if a switch was turned on and all of us turned into the wild versions of ourselves. Thinking back now, I believe that it’s because we had the firm assurance in our minds that Dodammi* would stop our mothers from punishing us for our bad behaviour. Of course, our mothers were one step ahead and would take note of every bad behaviour, compile it, decide the appropriate dose of punishment and as soon as the opportunity struck, would dole out the ‘behind the closed door/ in the bathroom‘ treatment.
So, playing dress up in Sarees that almost drowned us, playing house games in makeshift bedsheet tents, have our hair styled in the latest fashion of Bollywood celebrities as seen in Filmfare or Woman’s Era or Tharanga/ Sudha* magazines by our resident hairstylist Sharmila Dodamma, gardening with Dodammi (where we were more of a nuisance than a help) or the once a week cooking night, where, us children, prepared dinner from scratch were our holiday rituals every summer. Now that we are all grown up, I can say with conviction, at least for myself, that the fascination has waned a lot (Of course I was never enthusiastic about wearing Sarees, not then and definitely not now!)
Our once a week dinner preparation was something that all of us looked forward to the whole week, not because we were good at it like today’s young MasterChefs, but because it was a change from our daily holiday routine. And also, am I the only one who feel absolutely useless and doubt every one of my capabilities when I see little kids whipping up, forget complex recipes, but perfectly cooked Omelettes on Tv? When I try to make an Omelette, the egg goes, ‘Hmm, let me see, am I in the mood to turn into an overcooked or an undercooked Omelette today or be absolutely wicked and stick to the pan like FeviKwik‘ (mind you, FeviKwik not Fevistik). But yeah, this weekly arrangement didn’t come easily as we had to cajole our mothers a lot to gain access to the kitchen, something I don’t understand even today as to why our mothers’ permission was required when it was Dodammi’s kitchen!
Today, I may not remember the exact recipe of Egg curry that was taught to us then (also, that and Chapatis were the only items that we were granted permission to cook) but I do remember 1 lesson that I would like to share here in case someone doesn’t know this yet. Pay attention Ladies and Gentlemen, the lesson is ‘Unless you are interested in seeing Goddess Kali come to life in your mother, NEVER, I repeat, NEVER use the tawa/the cooking pan meant for Dosas to cook Chapatis!’ Somehow, we forgot this every time and it would come to light only the next morning when the Dosas would get stuck and refuse to rise from the pan. Let me tell you, what followed was never pleasant! Now, the Egg curry that’s prepared in our home requires addition of coconut milk and quite a lengthy and a complicated process (which you can make out as coconut milk is the only ingredient that I can remember aside from eggs of course!) and you might be thinking that we must be pretty good if we were allowed to cook that, but our only job in preparing the Egg curry was to fetch eggs from the fridge (Sukruth and Sambramakka were never assigned this as they were both butterfingers) and stand next to Sharmila Dodamma as she cooked the curry.
But, we would make Chapatis from scratch. Kruthiakka used to handle the mixing of flour, water and salt and the rest of us would do our best in kneading the dough. After cooking them on the pan (most frequently on the Dosa tawa or every time on the Dosa tawa if my mother had a say in this!) we would proudly parade our Chapatis in front of our mothers before sitting down at the dining table. There wasn’t a single time when those Chapatis didn’t taste like sawdust or weren’t as hard as rocks. But did we complain? Of course not! It was a matter of our prestige and there were always a lot of fake oohs and aahs as we ate them. The only good thing used to be the Egg curry, as we had no hand in preparing them, and hence we used to soak our Chapatis nicely in the curry hoping to make them at least a little bearable to eat.
During dinner, Kruthiakka would always have this serious expression on her face, not looking at anyone, and forcefully willing her mouth to chew and swallow, while Hithu didn’t discriminate against those poor Chapatis, as no matter what she was eating or how bad the taste was, she always held the food in her mouth for a minimum of 15 minutes before swallowing, no mean feat! Sambramakka used to do the oohing and aahing the most as she enjoyed those cooking nights the most and didn’t want our mothers to put an end to it if they realised as to just how bad those Chapatis were! (I believe that they did know, but enjoyed watching us squirm to put an end to it) Me? my only thoughts while eating were ‘I won’t vomit, do not vomit, don’t you dare vomit!’, gross, I know, and hence used to do the multiplication tables in my head just to distract from my taste buds screaming profanities at me.
But, there was always a mystery surrounding how Sukruth always managed to be the first one to finish those Granite hard Chapatis! If there was something he liked, like Jelly or fruit juice, he had this habit of waiting till everyone finished and then open the wrapper of his Jelly and eat them slowly making eye contact with everyone while doing so! Those Chapatis were not fit to be consumed by humans, so of course he wouldn’t wait till the end to relish them, but the question was how was he able to finish eating them first? And the mystery was solved one night when Amma had sent me to the backyard to collect the clothes drying on the clothing line. Hearing some noise in the cowshed, I went to investigate excitedly as I was high on ‘Famous Five‘ and ‘Nancy Drew’ books back then, when I saw Sukruth with a cloth tied around the lower part of his face, feeding those Chapatis to our cow Nandini. There was a grim expression on her face as she was chewing, but regardless, she didn’t hesitate when Sukruth offered her the next bite.
He had smuggled those Chapatis in his pant pockets and seems to have taken ‘Chapatis not fit for humans’ to mean they were fit for cows! But to be fair, not that I am an expert at deciphering a cow’s expression, Nandini didn’t look that unhappy either, so win-win for everyone. Why the cloth around his face you ask? Well, in childhood, he was very sensitive to smell and also to all slimy creatures like snails and snakes. Whenever he caught sight of them, as snakes were quite frequently seen during summers in Madikeri, or was exposed to an unpleasant smell, he got nausea and had to lie down holding a scent bottle to his nose. One can imagine how bad those Chapatis must have been if he was willing to brave the smell of the cowshed just to feed them to the cows! And it’s with a smug smile that I remember now, how we used that secret of Sukruth to blackmail him that whole summer, like less video game time for him, no choice in selecting the Tv programs, sharing his fruit juice with us all and less batting time while playing cricket! Poor boy never attempted feeding those Chapatis to Nandini again.
Despite all of this, every week we looked forward to our cooking night and every time we were just as disappointed! But our enthusiasm never faltered. Looking back now, I realise that it’s a smile and not a frown that those memories bring me, because just like a Chapati dough, those memories are kneaded with plenty of laughs when one got covered in flour, grave expressions on our faces as we huddled in front of the stove and contemplated if the Chapati was cooked or not, beaming smiles on our faces as we transferred them to the serving plate and unspoken solidarity amongst us as we bravely ate them. So what if the end product turned out to be rock hard Chapatis, if the time involved in making them is as enriching as it was then, I am willing to eat those Chapatis even today!
Dodammi- our maternal grandmother
Tharanga/ Sudha- weekly Kannada magazines