Deepti looked at the kitchen counter in frustration!! It was in a complete mess ! There was a measuring cup, a rice container, a chopping board and some badly chopped vegetables littering it. The mixer and the gas stove, only signs of some modernity in this ancient kitchen seemed to stand by gazing apologetically!
It had all seemed so romantic six months ago in New York when Kalyan had told her about having inherited an ancestral house in Chennai. Deepti , an architect, had fallen in love with it after she saw the photographs sent in by the relater who was managing it. She had nagged Kalyan about moving back to Chennai where she could restore the house so they could live there.
As second generation Indians living abroad neither of them had any real experience of India. To them it was a place they went to for holidays, However the idea did not seem unappealing. So many of their American friends were restoring old houses and moving into them. To them as a young couple it seemed exactly what they should do – get in touch with their roots and draw nourishment from that again.
But two weeks into “Shobha” and Deepti was not so sure if it was the right decision. The process of settling into an old uninhabited house was a challenge that they were still dealing with. For starters, she was unable to find any domestic help. No one was willing to work in a house which they felt was too old and difficult to clean. And then there were rumors about it being haunted. Neighbors said that they sometimes saw smoke coming out of the chimney.
After a week of waiting for someone to come and work, Deepti had decided to take matters into her own hands. There was a limit to this!! She had bought a broom and learnt to sweep. And two weeks of eating out of restaurants and take outs had made her decide yesterday that she would start cooking. She had gone to the market at Mylapore to buy vessels, a stove and a mixer. This morning she had gone back there for some vegetables. The plan was to surprise Kalyan with lunch!! He had said he would be meeting a business associate for lunch and would get something packed for her. But she had grandly announced to him that he should bring his associate home for lunch!! Considering that her culinary skills did not go beyond packaged , ready to cook foods he was not sure if it was wise. However she felt very confident after she had scoured the internet for some traditional Tam Brahm recipes.
Unfortunately, reading about cooking something and actually cooking it were not exactly the same! She looked at the sliver of white pumpkin and wondered how to peel the skin without slicing off most of the pulp. The coconut was the next challenge. She had seen how the priests in the temples dashed it lightly against a stone to crack it open. But when she had tried it on the grinding stone in the back yard she had crushed her finger and had run inside crying. And there was this huge chunk of jaggery in front of her!! She was not sure why she had bought it. But it had seemed so enticing sitting on the shelf in the shop. She remembered all the “payasam” she had eaten as a child and had thought she might like to try it . And now she was stuck with two hard things that she could not break!
She felt that the neighbors must be laughing at her attempts and gossiping among themselves. As it is, the milk man gave her curious looks whenever she came downstairs in her pajamas to collect the milk.
The clock in the living room stuck ten! Only two hours more!!!
A delicious smell was wafting in from the neighbor’s kitchen. How she wished it were from her kitchen she thought as she attacked the yam with the knife. She struggled to get the knife through the vegetable. But the blade seemed to have got stuck somewhere in the middle. As she struggled with the blade she felt a sharp pain hit her hand.. she had sliced her palm instead of the vegetable! She let out a scream and ran to the tap in the wash area her eyes filling up with tears of self pity.
“What a fool I am ! How stupid of me to think I could manage this” she said aloud as she sobbed into the kitchen cloth.
“Now now don’t cry my child” said a kind voice.
Deepti started..! Who had spoken? Was her mind playing tricks on her now?
“ Put something on that wound. I would suggest ground turmeric but you only have turmeric power I think” said the voice again.
Deepti looked around her. The kitchen was empty except for her.
“Look here” said that voice . Deepti’s eyes followed it. There it was…. a silhouette of a form!
Was it a play of light she wondered. But no, the form was becoming clearer now. A translucent figure of an elderly lady!
“ I couldn’t bear to see you so unhappy” She said coming closer. Deepti moved back in fear.
“No, you don’t have to fear me. You are my great grand nephew’s wife. I am your Atta Pati” she said with a smile.
“What is your name?” asked Deepti trembling.
“ My name is Seetalakshmi but you can call me Lakshmi Pati” she said kindly.
“Kalyan’s great grand aunt. You mean you are a ghost?” asked Deepti doubtfully.
“Yes. I am an atma. I loved cooking so much that my entire life was spent inside this kitchen. So my soul is trapped here” she said by way of an explanation.
Deepti could see her clearly now. She was wearing a traditional nine yard sari. Her ears were glittering with diamond studs and both her nostrils too. Her silver hair was pulled back into a bun and on her forehead was a big red dot. But what was most attractive about her was the bright smile that lit up her face.
“ Tcha!! Is this the way to slice and chop vegetables ? ” she asked moving to the counter and looking at the mess.
“I have never cooked like this from scratch” said Deepti in a small voice
“But it is never too late to learn is it? After all you are young girl” said Lakshmi Pati as she started bustling around the kitchen taking out vessels.
“Did you know today is Thiruvartharai?. A celebration of Lord Shiva’s cosmic dance? It is a big festival in my husband’s place –Chidambaram”
Deepti stood back and watched as Pati removed an old aruvamanai from the loft and gave it to her to wash.
“Now get me some vessels filled with water so that we can put the cut vegetables into them” she said as she squatted down on the floor to slice the vegetables.
Deepti watched in fascination as the vegetables began to take on the shape and form that one saw in the curries.
“We will make some Kali and Kootu today” said Lakshmi Pati as she finished up the chopping.
“Now measure out the rice into this vessel and roast it ” she instructed Deepti.
Deepti had no clue what roasting rice involved. So she stood next to the burner wondering what to do.
“Here, you stir the rice until it turns a golden brown. Make sure you don’t burn it ” said Pati as she went back to the vegetables, rinsing them in the wash area.
The roasting rice had a nice aroma.
“Ah that is enough. Now we have to grind it” said Pati.
Deepti plugged on the mixer and ground the rice feeling useful for the first time in the last half an hour.
“Aha, what a wonderful invention!!. Wish it had been there during my days” said Lakshmi Pati looking at the mixer in awe.
Feeling more confident, Deepti asked her “Pati you said your husband was from Chidambaram, have you been to the temple there”
“ I lived there for five years my dear. Our lives revolved around the temple. But unfortunately I had to come back to my brother’s house after that” she said her eyes misting over.
“Pati, please why are you crying…? What happened?” asked Deepti trying to hold her hand.
“My inlaws sent me back because I could not bear a child. They said they did not want a barren daughter in law” she said wiping her eyes with the end of her sari pallu.
“ After coming here I tried to make myself useful to my brother’s family. My sister in law was constantly ill. So kitchen duties fell on me. And that is how I perfected my cooking” she said with a smile.
“Okay now come on. We can’t waste time chatting. Let us get the Kali made. We can do the Kootu after that” said Pati.
Deepti watched as Pati broke the coconut effortlessly and taught her to scrape it in the old scarper. The Jaggery seemed like child’s play in Pati’s hands. Deepti stood near the stove, slowly stirring the syrup.
“ We will need some ghee. And where are the cashews and cardamoms” asked Pati bustling around.
“I will run across and get it from the shop down the road” said Deepti going towards the front door
“Make sure you get cow’s ghee” called out Pati from the kitchen.
As Deepti was coming back she felt proud when a neighbor stopped and asked her “ Thiruvatirai kootu smells really good. You must give me the recipe”
Deepti nodded and went inside. The Kali was almost ready. The Kootu was simmering on the other burner. The copper vessels on the stove were gleaming.
“Ah there you are ..!. Now go to the back yard and cut some fresh plantain leaves for the lunch” said Pati.
Deepti could not believe her eyes when she laid the table. It looked like something out of an old illustrated historical novel. She looked at Pati with gratitude.
“Oh Pati, I don’t know how to thank you”.. she said in a voice filled with emotion.
“Don’t be silly. You do not thank a teacher. Cooking is just a skill. You have practice it enough to hone it. Since you are going to be here restoring our house and kitchen to its past glory isn’t it my duty to ensure that the food that is served here is close to what it used to be ? And before you think I will be doing all the cooking let me clarify, I am here only to teach and transfer the skill. It is more than a house that I want transferred to my descendents. What I would like to pass on is the tradition.” She said pinching Deepti’s cheek playfully.
A girl who had lost her mother very early in life, Deepti had never known her love. She realized now what she had missed.
“Now don’t stand here crying. Do you want to greet your husband and the guest looking tiered and sweaty? Go and change into something nice” she said pushing Deepti out of the kitchen.
“Tomorrow I will teach you to make Pavakkai Pitlai” called out Pati from inside the kitchen.
Lunch at 12.30 PM
Kalyan was very nervous when he helped Mr. Ananthakrishnan out of the car. He had not realized that he had once been a resident in this area and had known his grand uncle. He had been full of memories about times spent here in the house with his friend. He wished he had persuaded Deepti to allow him to bring in food from some traditional Brahmin caterer. Much as he loved his wife he was not sure about her culinary abilities. He was tempted to go through the back door and warn his wife about the arrival of the visitor. He was sure there must have been some disaster out there.
But he need not have worried. The woman in the blue pattu sari with flowers in her hair who opened the door for them was his Deepti.
“Please come in” she said greeting Mr. Ananthakrishnan with folded palms.
“Aha..!! What a nice girl” he said nodding with approval as he took off his shoes.
“Please wash your hands, Lunch is ready” she said moving towards the dining room.
Kalyan was trying to desperately catch his wife’s eye. The table was set beautifully like something out of a culinary magazine.
“Psst where did you get the food from” he whispered to her as the guest went to wash his hands in the backyard.
“It was cooked here” she said with a wink.
Mr. Ananthakrishnan was impatient to start eating. AS he settled down on the chair and took his first mouthful his eyes closed in bliss.
“You know there was only one other person in this world who could make Kali and Kootu like this.” He remarked opening his eyes and looking at Deepti.
“Yes, I know.. Lakshmi Pati. This is her recipe” said Deepti with a smile.
Kalyan continued to stare at his wife puzzled. But she seemed to be looking beyond her husband at the end of the room. And visible only to Deepti was an elderly lady in a nine yard sari flashing a smile brighter than the diamonds on her ears and nose!
( Though not much by way of a cook or even a foodie, I feel sad about the way traditional recipes are getting lost over generations. Kali and Kootu are my favorite dishes and bring to mind my childhood in my grandparent’s house. This is a tribute to that generation of women to whom cooking was a sacred duty)