Like most kids in the ’80s, I grew up with with my grandparents. Everyday, mum would drop me off to their place on her way to work and pick me up on her way back home. In between that, the day would be spent either creating a ruckus around the house or prodding my grandfather to tell me some stories or to take me along for his market trips. But, the one memory that remains with me is of my grandmother (i called her mai in konkani) lovingly serving me more (than the usual quantity) rice, curry and whatever else coaxing me to eat saying “Samma jov putta, oodlo zaije ne maa” (eat well my son, you’ve got to grow up well). Not that I was a fussy eater, I never was. It was just her way of making sure the apple of her eye was well fed. I was very close to my mai, a woman who was simple, hardworking and caring. The warmth in her demeanor only being superseded by the love in her food. My abba (grandfather) had a slightly more public profile and my mai the more homely, quiter kinds. To her, the house was her kingdom she’d nurtured with her sweat and blood.
If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, you will know how big an influence my mom has been on my cooking. But, in retrospect I think I got infatuated with food in my mai’s house. It was there that I fell in love with groaning and grunting of the ‘waan’ (the huge stone mill used in mangalorean homes to grind coconut for curries) as she ground the masala for the curry, the aroma of the curry simmering on the stove made me hungry way before lunch time. And, the rhythmic sizzle of the vegetable being tempered would lead me to the kitchen invariably questioning “Kale randtai mai”(what have you cooked mai)
My grandparents were generous hosts and I am told no one ever went back without being well fed. In fact, the first question, she’d ask as soon you enter the house was “Zovlai gi” (have you eaten). As far as i can remember, my mai would spend most of her day in the kitchen. Her food much like her persona was simple and to the point. But in the simplicity of her food lay its beauty. The spicy pork sorpotel, the amber coloured fish curry where the fish had to be put in just before the curry reached a particular sizzle and that cardamom flavored vorn into which you could almost dive in and remain there for eternity.
In the last days of her life, mai was ill. But that smile never left her face. As she sat on her chair; fingers devoutly clutching on to the rosary, that reliable Christian intercession of hope. I was about 8 at that time and unable to comprehend her illness. I had always seen her active. And when i would drop by to visit her, she’d smile. With great difficulty, she’d move her hand around my cheeks. She couldn’t speak, but I know she asked me ” Kaso asai putta” (how are you my child) She left us a few months later. It was difficult for me to come to terms with the reality. The reality that mai is no more there. No one behind whom i can hide incase I’ve made some mischief. I thought she’d always be there.
Truth be told, I hadn’t planned to write this post. But it was mai’s birthday yesterday (July 10) and i felt that needed to mention mai here. After all, wasn’t it her cooking that set the background for my romance with food.
There are so many memories and stories that I could narrate of mai and abba and one among them is this. In most Christian homes, there is a tradition to ask the elders to bless you when you leave home. When I would leave i too would do the same. Mai would hug me tight and respond “Devache besav puta. Oodlo zaa” (God bless you my child, grow up soon). I know for sure even after she’s long gone, to her I will still be her tiny tot.