Notes to Madras things: Thayir Sadam
Dear Thayir Sadam,
I remember the day we first met. It was my second visit to Madras, this time for a PhD interview at IMSc.* My train was late that day. I was dripping with sweat when I landed at Central and made my way hurriedly to the Park Town station. I remember I asked a girl called Mahi for directions at the station. Even though I don’t remember what she looked like I somehow remember her name from the brief conversation that followed until the train arrived. I managed to reach IMSc and finished the interview just before lunch time. I was told I could have lunch at the canteen and that it was free and that I would also be able to collect my reimbursement for travel the same day. I went to the canteen and piled up everything in the menu on my plate. You were the last one I saw along the row of rice, roti/dosa, sabzi, sambhar, rasam, and my eyes brightened at the sight of you. You were pristine white with a generous helping of grapes and other fruits mixed with rice. I immediately filled the emptiness in a corner of my plate with your sublime glow. I ate for a long time, finished everything on the plate, and saved you for the end. By then I was hungry no more, but I figured I could always make space for you in some corner of my bloated belly. That first time we came together, I took a spoonful of you into my mouth. And I have to say I am sorry I used a spoon, I did not really know you then. I was revolted at the taste of you and instinctively spat you out. You were not who I thought you were: Kheer.
I later joined IMSc and kept my distance from you for almost a year, despite seeing you everyday patiently waiting in a corner in your unassuming manner. I did not think about you much then because I felt cheated. You looked like kheer but you were just rice and curd mixed together with a sprinkling of fruit pieces. I had never liked mixing my rice with curd even at home. Everyone at home could do that, not me, not usually anyway. I can’t recollect the exact moment our reconciliation happened but I think it was on a day when nothing on the menu was palatable to me and I was getting bored of eating rice at lunch everyday. Not that I mind rice, I prefer it to roti but it gets boring without some companion other than yellow daal or sambhar or rasam. And there you were in a corner, full of rice but also your own person. I decided to embrace you once again, this time with the sound knowledge that you were not Kheer, and with a bit of mixing with a little pickle, I found you were more than just curd and rice. You were so much more than the sum of your parts and the names people called you. Your tangy sensuousness with the pickle was unmatched by anything I had ever known. You did not need to be Kheer, you were defiantly original, and you did not need my approval. I could tell it from the scores of people I saw everyday mingling their fingers with your being, exploring your interiority, before plopping a mouthful on their tongues.
I am sorry, though, that I used a spoon, that I let the coldness of stainless steel get in between the warmth of us coming together. My not using my fingers had nothing to do with you, it was all me. I used a spoon with you for historical reasons. As a child I grew up eating rice with my hand, my right hand. But I was born a left-hander and had been taught to switch to the right hand for writing and eating. I could even dig up a picture of me, evidence enough that I used my left hand to eat when I was really young and before I had to learn any “manners” and switch to right-handed ways. Anyway, I grew up eating with my right hand. Then one day I think I revealed to my mother that in the potty I used my right hand, which was natural to me because I needed the left to hold the mug. She couldn’t believe me and I couldn’t believe her. I always thought everyone uses their right hand. Turns out, not so. The left hand is “dirty” and suddenly the aversion to left hand everywhere became clear to me. I had never thought of it before but in that moment I decided I should not be eating with my hands any more and use a spoon instead. This, despite the fact that I switched hands in the potty also, yet another adjustment to the ways of the world. And that eating-with-spoon habit has stayed whenever a spoon is in sight. So you see, it wasn’t you, it was all me. I have since tried to fix that mistake by using my fingers on occasion.
The time is near when I shall leave Madras and I write this to let you know what you have meant to me. You have been the steadfast companion when I hated everything else on the menu, particularly the days they made a brinjal sabzi with its atrocious smell. You are not sweet but I like you just the same. Maybe I can even learn to mix curd with my rice and mingle them up with my fingers in your memory.
*The first had been three years earlier, that time for admission to a mechanical engineering program, which I did not eventually take up (becoming a physicist instead).