சோற்றுக்கணக்கு - A Valued Meal
சோற்றுக்கணக்கு - A Valued Meal
There is a high chance that you may not have heard about “Kettle Sahib”. He owned a restaurant abutting Sri Padmanabha Movie Theatre, off the Thiruvananthapuram Bazaar road roundabout. Circa 1960-1970, had a Thiruvananthapuram denizen not dined at his restaurant, he must be a vegetarian. He was running that restaurant until his demise 1978.
While his relatives still continue to serve meals at the same original premises on these days, as a filial respect, his son has been devolving the legacy of father in a new brand name of “Mubarak hotel” with the ample of ‘father and sons’ offshoot restaurant chains across the city. Ever palatable fish curry and succulent chicken gravy tastes scrumptious even today. Crowds swarming to the restaurant, joining the waiting queue and then eat, as though each day a high season. A neo-adage “Amateurs visit Thiruvananthapuram, but professionals consummate, dining at Mubarak hotel” is widely believed across the meat-eating trenchermen of Kerala.
There is something legendary about restaurateur Kettle Sahib. Allow me to narrate that.
These days, the restaurant is running under a tin-roofed, twig wattle fence gabled, wooden shelter filled with uncluttered bamboo cane strapped chairs and benches, inside a retroussé tipped alleyway. It was a coconut leaf thatch roofed, 15x8 feet shed, sort of a bothy, in those early days. Amiably ventilated four-way open shed, endowed with a persistent patter of rain during the diuturnal monsoon of Kerala. Nevertheless, the ever thronging crowd seldom slumped.
Did I say ever? On what day he opened the restaurant for all time? He opens the lunch session on the dot 12 mid noon and unfurl the door around 3’o clock and later he’d unlatch the hatch at 1900 for dinner and when the clock just about to chime on 10 the doors shuts down finally. Yet as early as 11 am , the crowd begin to constellate, one after other, in front of opposite ‘Rahmath villas’ tailor shop’s scaffold and at the forecourt of nearby ‘Karu.Pazha.Arunachalam Chettiar & sons departmental store’s warehouse. Nestling against each other, half of the hunkered crowd would pore over Mathruboomi or Keralakowmuthi daily and argue over K.Balakrishnan’s blistering political articles. Looming arguments occasionally may turn into scathing disputes.
This hurly burly cacophony ceases at once the sight of a pock-faced, 7+ foot man with shins and hands resembling the towers of Charminar, giving an impression of imposing burly figure, approaching the restaurant, commence to unravel the jute screen door like rolling up the shutter hood, follow by a call “Phareen” in a deep basso voice, take it as “Restaurant opened”. As though the whole gaggle perched on tip of the world waiting for this signal, jamming the daily paper in their underarm, skittering out of the nest, coalesced together, funneling through the restaurant threshold, fill the chairs. Kettle Sahib is bung-eyed, whose left eye could be comparable only with the shell of cowry and other one appearing like an earthy guttering clinker. You can invariably find him with refined netted white cotton topi cap on the pate, henna-tinted sorrel color beard minus mustache and a tartan lungi(*) clad around his waist fastened by a salient green hip pack belt. His features are well suited to his body. Albeit being a Malayali, nonchalant Kettle Sahib native Malayalam accent is spotty, once in a while, unassuming words in strongly marked Arabi Malayalam accent escape from his mouth.
No commissionaire needed at entrance, conjuring fragrance of assorted piece de resistance(s) starting with hen breast pepper roast, pullet chicken gravy, spicy prawn fry, seasoned sardine fish stew, marinated pearl spot fish fry, wafting across the streets, usher you in. I never savored such a lip smacking taste in any other restaurant till now. Vasudevan Nayar says “Natural corollary of calculative planning and handling of supplies. If larder supplier and food preparer are far apart, it will never have such a flavor. Kettle Sahib purchase not only the fishes and chickens, also rice and groceries himself in person, uncompromising even a wee retrograde in quality. Fished Prawns delivered directly from the brackish backwaters of Kayal Lake off the Cherai beach. Fleshy tellichery pullets unloaded as early as 3am from Cochin daily goods lorry service. The gamut of Fishes, culled from the fishnet of bobbling catamaran belongs to fisher Pappie a Mappila(1), haggled at once he about to wade out, before he steps onto the shore, get dispatched to a restaurant. Above all these, immutable probity has its own unique sapidness, Pal!!”
In all these 15 long years, there is no single instance of lapse, in the great finesse taste. It is hard to explain the enthralling elan events of the kitchen. I reckon added to probity, he has combination of focused level-head and occult knack. There is no waiter to reel out list of items, no tardy menu-card flipping, no grumpy post order waiting time, Sahib’s raw energized facile hands dexterously replenish the devouring diner’s plate with simmering gravies, soups and roasts in a dipper straight out from oven, whilst his eyes intently enumerating the in-flow customers, aligning them with foreseen count, culinary ingredients get concocted into the skillet in chronological order. Even so, restaurant acolytes no other than his beevi (2) and two sons. They too totally under the purview of Kettle Sahib and following his order to the letter. People conferring about his gustatory experiments done just by a sniffle, is not hyperbole. But the truth is, there is an Angel manned in, no no not an Angel, a Genie, not an Arabian one, an Indian Genie, lobbed from a deep-flung teensy tehsil vill of Malabar, reared and batten by Kallayi puzha (3) water.
Kettle Sahib and his family bid riddance to their native when a gut-wrenching famine gloomed upon. Sahib such a private, pauciloquent rarely speaks as only hypnotizing is the only way to make him vocal, no one could pry about where he originally come from. Once, Malayalam Poet Yousufali Kechery’s acclaimed serenade “Kallayi puzha oru Manavati (4)” rucking up the air, Sahib’s son stopped at a half-opened door and suddenly let out in his new adolescent, scratchy voice “ Isn’t it our Kallayi river?”, only on that moment, it was corroborated that Kettle Sahib’s origin is Malabar. That’s all they know about his background. Extreme penury forced him to shoulder the family at an age little less than boy. Lugging a jumbo tea kettle, he footslogged fore and aft the streets of Thiruvananthapuram, eventually acquired the befitting sobriquet. In his 20s, he tendered fried fish trundling around a pedestrian kiosk hand cart, later venturing to own a cubbyhole eatery. Believe it or not, the laureate Kaumuthi Balakrishnan, his himself make a beeline to relish Kettle sahib’s chaya(5) from the podium everytime upon winding up his council speech. Anandhan nayar once said “There is no chaya to peer with piquant Chaya of Kettle Sahib “ succinctly.
Kettle Sahib enjoyed a sound monetary surfeit in his later pastures of life. And so, he could solemnize his 3 daughters marriage with Mappillas from well-respected tantamount families in unpretentious ceremonies, also aided each of the New-(m)applaes to own the spin-off brand restaurants. As a quinquagenarian, he reclined along with the ensembled joint-family members in a palatial white house at the coronal locality Ambalamuk of the Thiruvananthapuram city. You may not wonder even slightly, if I tell you, he was able to accomplish all these as a pushover, solely by the courtesy of his ever cash registering restaurant chains. But If I explain how he operates his kaarobaar (6), you will lo and behold for certain. Starting from his pre-teen days, throughout his heydays, he never accepted cash for his service, in lieu; he places a tin-cashbox on the right corner in front of the restaurant, hooding it with coconut leaf thatched sheet. Upon finishing the meal, while they about to leave the restaurant, customers can pay as much as their whim in the box. They are allowed to leave without dropping a bittie centime rupee coin. Whether they drop payment in cashbox, if they do, how much they paid, he never gave a least sign of noticing it.
People say, he’s been has raised like this, ever since his boyhoods when he sold tea flitted around in hitched up tank topless dungaree shorts plus a winsome kufi topi (7). He just keeps a dinky little box with him always. Unlike other tea sellers, he never intones the prices of the items he sold. Indeed, some customers did insist him to quote the price, but he never quoted the price. Yes, there were occasions, the street thugs and barrel-chested hustlers intimidated him wrangling over his attitude. They bullied him by dropping papers, muddy wrappers in cashbox, sometimes they mugged him, decamping with cashbox itself. Many others swigged tea for days, months and years for nothing. None of these did ever fret Kettle Sahib. It had not even occurred to him to recollect those faces.
Only once, Kettle Sahib whipped his palm on a bloke’s cheek bone. On that day, an outsider woman, a fugitive peon, absconded famine from an unknown Tamilnadu village, who sold winnowed cumins and pepper in the street, was sipping the tea. Karamanai Kochukuttan Pillai, a famed tutor, ordering tea, turning around, falling into her eyes, leveled a concupiscent glare over her body for few moments. All of a sudden, besetting her, incapacitating her constitution , he began to cram her nipple. Either her sweating clamminess or yappy growl must have enticed him. Locking her twitching body, undressing her on the way, schlepped her to the nearby alley. Kettle Sahib followed him silently right on his heels through the alley, pulling his shoulder around, landed a slap smack in the middle of his cheek, echoing through out that inversely-tapering street. Rabbit in headlights, Kuttanpillai snorted snot, blood hemorrhaged from his nose and ears. His sphincter was squeezing shut, letting out sour heated urine, he conked off like a miss clipped dress slithers and falls down from wash-line. As if nothing occurred, Kettle Sahib recommenced his tea sale.
Kuttan Pillai’s cohorts admitted him in hospital. He spent intensive 18 days, convalescing after that incident. Ever since the day, he permanently lost bowel and bladder control, could never walk or hear properly. The slap shambling his jaw, caused his head shaking vigorously. He endured chronic pain and epileptic seizures sporadically. Seven months later, Kuttan Pillai slipped over Karamanai river and drifted away while waded in for bath. His bloated dead body was found wedged into some branches that struck over the water. In-furious, clan Nayars up in arms, remonstrated in front of chaalai Mahadevar Temple Trustee Anandhan Nayar, sarpanch “How on, the name of Lord Mahadevar, a Muslim Mapple bludgeon a lofty clan Nayar?. He brushed aside them, “Every unjust act warrants its duly punishment, either by snake in his own couch or by ant in forest. For certain his own karma caused his death” exclaiming once and for all. Thereafter was no further tit or tat.
I savored my first meal at Kettle Sahib’s restaurant in 1968. I originally hail from a coastal village Osaravilai situated in India’s southern most tip. My father, a feeble family man, never enjoyed a strong sense of occupational calling, an accounting and bookkeeper of a Rice Mill at Kottar. I was a listless lanky lad, good only at studies. Upon completing my 11th standard, attained an age sufficient for the next stage in the rite of passage, keen to join as the freshman in college . Throughout my upbringing , my family had been pinching paisa in the puny salary of my father, as a result, twice a meal per day became extravagant. It was unimaginable to help my higher studies at that moment. Decided to seek aid from, my close relative uncle, presumed to be in higher housing ladder than ours, who owes my father debt, was residing at afield Thiruvananthapuram Pettai . Matriarch Aunt was from Thazhakudi a small town in the out-with of Kanyakumari city. By lambent afternoon, we alighted from the bus at Thampanoor, heart of Thiruvananthapuram and had to hoof it till Pettai in bare foot. My father held me close with him, tightly entwining my arm within his. Somberly brushed up hairdo exuding coconut oil with sweat in my temple and forehead, clutching a round clay pot (a.k.a) holdall for my companionless Dhoti and half white shift enfolded deep in, I was hunching along with him. It was the first city that I saw.
At Pettai, my uncle family was eking out in a distemper dilapidating, timbers poked out, gaunt tenement printing press. As my father succored him out of woods during his difficult days, he could not decline. I soon enrolled in university college B.A English literature course. By jamming a rusty one rupee coin in my palm firmly, my father uttered “Do not spend this, Uncle will take care of you. Waving Aunty towards him “Look here Subbamma, he is not your son-in-law anymore, He is your son” parted out heaving a sigh of relieve. There was a note in the dubious gesturing of my uncle, inattentive squiggle line of mouth smile of the aunt, which tentatively signaled, ‘you are unwelcome’. On that evening, dinner capped off with the warm plates containing boiled rice, (*)sambar , fried vegetable, baked lentil-flour crisps, uninvited therefore unattended. Much later in the night, I was offered rice water with morsel drops of gravy, only in the kitchen, that too in an aluminum plate, which further affirmed that I was a revolting addition to their family.
From the get go, pillories and starvings are part of my life. Personally, I could see a pattern, as much I endure, as extortionately it mounts . At Uncles home, I had to avail my self to do every other onerous chores. I was forced to get up early in gray hours and bossed around to wipe nooks and corners of the house, followed by foot-dragging the water gathered from well and fill it in the fussy number of pails. By the time my first period about start in college, I patiently tout math to their elder girl Ramalakshmi and hurriedly drop both their girls at school. Soon after the college hours, without reprieve, I also had to pick them from school every day. In the night, I was allowed to sleep, only after stultifying kitchen cleaning work. Even after making these sacrifices, I was offered mere rice porridge with (*) achar with increasing irritation and a 5 x 3ft sleeping place in veranda. Invariably fractious, aunt evil-tongued every soul she got a chance to speak, that I am bankrupting their family. Above all, she foamed at mouth upon seeing me open a book.
Notwithstanding to the bombardments of humiliations, I decided to remain in uncle’s house and face the issues by myself. As my father jettisoned me to focus on my brother and sister, I refrained from writing my miseries to him. Earlier at Osaravilai, every alternate day, we consumed, a low quality, defiled quick-sale rice, discarded from the near by Rice Mill, boiled and salt added, gone slippery. From my memory’s earliest fetch moments , our daily lunch no more than river bank watercress lettuce broth, sans coconut, single chilly and just a pinch of tamarind stirred, boiled and churned . My mouth effuses water just for the boiling lettuce’s whiff. Once in a starshine day, mother goes to fish market and purchases sardine fish for 4 (*)anas, the whole day house would be repleted with a piety smell. We would also be blessed with the consort of pristine white rice, reserved for that day. No matter how much effort I put in, to get hold of myself, becoming lulled into the enticing sardine fish gravy smell, nothing would shunt me. Even the few last drops of fish broth blotched deep in the clay pot, mixed with remaining rice would get served by mother. As it was about to pan out, just as I claim my last mouthful ball of rice broth mixer, my brother would barge in for another palmful.
I was due to pay my college tuition fees. Mincing my words, I let uncle aware about the fee due, more than several times, yet he did not give a sign of noted it. Brushing disgrace aside, I went ahead and asked him straight, as expected he responded back “I can offer just food and a place to stay. You write to your father. ” curtly, as though he laced on me. It was pointless to write father. Within fortnight, I received a final reminder notice from college, that I temporarily suspended until the fee due cleared. A frozen stasis pricking the skull, insistently seeping through my temple, forehead and neck, instigated a startling mental injury. Aimlessly milling around the city , I reached Thambanoor railway station. On that whole day, scarcely batting eyelids, hinging the stare limply on the Railway tracks , fancied killing myself jumping in, recurrently. Kumara Pillai, my confrere, an easy company, appeared and gave me a solution. He brought me to J.Nagaraja Panikkar, a rice warehouse manager. I joined as a jute rice bag account keeper, with an offer of Rs.1 per day as initial wage. The work timing was best fit as I had to come only at 5 PM after my college hours, stayed there until completion of daily accounts, which extended till 12 AM occasionally. I was paid one and half month salary Rs.40 in advance, on the first day, with that I cleared my tuition fees debt.
I was forced to skip the drudgeries of uncles as my evening work hours sucked the last ounce of energy out of my body and mind. Upon reaching the uncle’s home mid-night around 1 to 2 o clock, I threw myself on sedge mat right away, entering a deep slumber with minimal or no dreams, waking up as late as 7 AM, next day, having the time only to start to college. In college, I had a handy habit of listening the lectures intently, added to that I utilized every morsel minutes I got chance to study, including the interval time between college periods, as a result I was a good student. University college was about 45 minutes walk away distance from Chaalai bazaar through Government Secretariat, touching Karamani road. Twice a week, final period was conducted by professor Shanmugam Pillai. On my bad hair day, him commandingly pronouncing passionate lectures the period would extend way beyond 4.30. By exerting a full fleet-footed sprint, through this route, I can reach Panikkar go-down in 30 mins. Even if I was late, just as little as 5 mins, Panikkar would induct usurper Paramasivam for that day’s accounts work, without commiseration. I lose my quarter salary as the goods transfer only on 4 days out of a week. No point in arguing with him after the replacement.
I did not receive the first month Salary, as Panikar subtracted Rs.15 on for the account of my advance salary. Next morning as a first thing, I found an old notebook, beginning to fray at the edges, placed conspicuously on top of my book stack. As I pored through, much to my chagrin, it was docketed with food expenditures. Ana (*) 6 enumerated per day, summed total to Rs.48/- . In the fit of exactitude, Aunt punctiliously detailed every food I consumed there, without missing single instance, beginning from my day one at Thambanoor. I tried to unravel the knots in my stomach, “What is this all Mami ?” I asked. She replied “There is no such a thing called free food. Your are earning now. You must pay for it. Have you doubted my record, I shall revisit and update” inhaling furiously.
Feeling an acute pressure in my throat, “ Mami, I was not expecting this” showing the notebook towards her, ”I.. My..My pay is so hard up. I need to buy books, my fees. ” I floundered . “You see, We have two matured daughters, on the verge of marriage” She continued. “At any time, we ought to arrange dowry money, jewels too. Why on earth should we feed you free? Your uncle is not raking in money here. Vouching on our fiduciary relationship, you must settle it ” replied Mami high and strident tone. Attempting to rise my voice, failing miserably, rather in squeaky voice “ I don’t even have paisa now. I assure to repay part by part” I said. She said “On what basis, I put trust in you?”. I had no word to reply . Quitting the quibble, I departed from my uncles home in next half an hour. When I explained my state to Panikkar, hoping to get a safe garret to stay, I could see a apparent suppressed delight in his face, that he got a night watchmen for free of cost. Aunty confiscated my main coursework books as pawn.
Life at Chaalai was strange, yet snuggly. Morning began with a bath in Karamani river. Emerging from river, I gobbled 4 idlies(˘*) soaked in sambar gravy in Elisamma’s kiosk hotel on economy. Determining to defray as early as possible, I skipped the whole day food, save for the single biscuit and tea in evenings. As a result, day time dragged with indefinitely pricking hunger. I could not call my brain to anything other than food thoughts. I gawked upon every corpulent person passed me, as a teen lad ogles on bonny lass oozes sensuality in each pore. Queer questions, popped up, within me, like how much food this fellow consume in a day. On bimonthly auspicious pradosam(*) days, rice pudding milk with banana fruit served in mini banana leaf offered as Prasadam(*) in Chaalai Mahadevar temple. Occasionally, road aside village god Saastha bestowed, boiled black Channa, motherly Isakki the goddess with yellow rice. On these merciful days, I could save a single course meal paisa. I still couldn’t quite put together enough money. When, I was little closer to settle the advance repayment, the next semester fee due was alerted. Yet, with whatever I had, I down paid 5 rupees to Mami as I needed to take back my books before semester exams, scheduled at the end of month.
Parsimonious dining approach had its own repercussions. Mine already a delicate constitution, thinned further under the strain of food depression. In the middle of my studies, a sudden hunger pang would knock me down, making me unconscious, before I will it back from that extreme 10 seconds. My mouth, invariably, filled with a bitter taste. Since, all my properties writhed in agony perpetually, in the elongated day time, It took more than an hour to reach college. I fancied about good food in every idle moments. One day, while I was rambling, I found a dead dog in road hit by an accident. My hunger ennui pushed me to my wits end, that I had an outre dream about how I can take away this carcass slyly to a hidden place and kindling it in the square stones and eat the spatchcock. My mouth filled with saliva, slobbered uncontrollably, wetting my shirts.
Kettle Sahib’s restaurant door swung wide open, when coolie Narayanan introduced it to me. It was unbelievable to hear that a restaurant owner offered every food items on the house. Only the willed customers can pay for what they eat. I ascertained with certitude, inquiring with several other people including some unknown strangers, rest assured. Yet I was not bold enough to venture there. Cogitating about having food at his hotel, replaced my every other earlier food thoughts. Several times my concerted attempts failed. I was pussyfooting towards the hotel, waiting near the thresh-hold and returned back, as I had no gut to enter in. Fish, Chicken curry aroma permeating from the hotel, enticed me in great deal. I consumed fried fish only twice in my life, that too in a village lord house grand function. Next week, I had to dip into my means to pick 3 rupees in my hand , set off straight to kettle Sahib’s hotel.
My emaciated constitution was shaking when Sahib opened the door. Hiding behind the entire crowd, I entered into hotel slyly as if I am about to commit a crime. Chin upon my chest, I chose a bench seat in the corner, not willing to notify any known face about my presence. The frolicking noise of chatter subdued my perturbation to some extent. Sagely Sahib was serving boiled rice to customers expeditiously. Inversely placed lotus leaf was used as eating plate. Flambe red rice was dished upon the plate, dousing reddish fish curry over it. I noticed that he glossed over chicken gravy to some and fried chicken gravy to some others. It seemed like he served in a random manner, but soon I deduced with astound that omniscient Sahib knew each and everyone. He did not wait neither the sign nor the acquiesce of customers on what they want, instead either fish or chicken gravy or curry naturally emerging from the utensils, infused into each plate according to their desire. Also, I found, there was a none or less courteous words exchanged between Sahib and them. He served the first-course meal to every customer, only the second-course gravy was served by another assistant boy.
He came near and looked at me speculatively then asked “What Pillai? new face?”. I wondered, how on earth he found that I am Vellalan(*). He piled up rice on my plate, more than sufficient amount and anointed gravy over to it. One huge tenderly fried chicken leg was crowned on top of the mixer. “Cadet , eat well!!” he ordered me in a hoarse voice. My scrupulous mind calculated instinctively, that this food it self is valued more than my 3 rupees. As I began to partake, my rumpled stomach resisted the ingestion, the food was blocking in the throat, I huffed and puffed. “What are you doing,!! Pinching rice with thimble fingers, take the handful and eat Pillai!!” he coerced me. Without losing any more seconds, I wolfed down the food hurriedly. Savory, Divinely Manna, unplugging my throat, cascading into my core like cataract, enveloped every nook and corner of my body and filled my soul. Oh !! What a heavenly taste!! God, what have you done to me? You forbade me from savoring such a lovish food until this moment. My eyes effusing droplets, ceaselessly gushed out through the side cheeks until dwindled into tickles.
In a small ladle he brought a colloidal liquid looked like a cow ghee. He bastered it over the remaining rice of my plate, adding little extra gravy to that “Mix well, have it, fish spawn it is.” he said. It was fresh water fish roe fat. Yellowish tallow liquid is taken from gill cover of the fishes. It added taste to already a fit for god tasty food. It has been years since I had my feel full food, my thus far sealed stomach could not take any more. He tried to strew out another rice full of a colander in my leaf plate. “Oh !! No, I am done!!” I was about to exclaim. He whacked my blocking hand with that colander itself. “How dare you block the rice!!, Eat well you Idiot!!” cried he. I felt the strain in my fingers. His reddish eyes warned me that he would surely lambaste me if I get up in the middle. I realized that leaving rice in the plate, will make him in-furious. Somehow I managed to finish it up without leaving dregs, but then I could not get up as I felt groggy. I was able to stand only by holding the bench where I sat. I tread across, discarded the lotus leaf and washed my hand.
My body quaver aggravated when I reached the tin cash box. Cocksure I was that Kettle Sahib was secretly monitoring the cash inflow in some way at some angle. My hunch was proved wrong, he was totally into serving the customers without glancing what is happening near cash box. Many customers did not drop money in the cash box. Though some of the others paid, they appeared very normal. I dropped my share 3 rupees after whiling, much of my features writhing. My imaginary eye was intent, looking for a voice or glance or betoken which recording my paying moment, through my back of a neck. But there wasn’t any. When I came out of the hotel, I felt as though my body losing all its weight, levitated in mild breeze swayed across the road. Trembling with excitement, with a void of thoughts, I returned back to my place as if possessed.
I dared not to visit even the precincts of a hotel for the next week. Only when I managed to piece together 2 rupees, I got the gut to enter the hotel again. Kettle Sahib served me fish roe in the same order. This gesture of him assured that he acknowledged my presence. With out any minor deviation from my last meal course etiquette, pitch perfect coercing followed by ditto scolding, same hearty foods catered by Sahib in his singular interest. Very same nose the delicious hearty food contents in carte blanche performed by me. This time, I paid money without any insanely quaking. In a gap of three days, I slogged out the work and tighten my belt to save as high as 7 rupees in my hand. My rational mind insisted me, that I should pay entire money on for my pending debt to Mami in that evening. But my heart induced me to spend 2 rupees from that amount at Hotel. On that stage of my life , spending more than 2 Ana for food was nothing but zenith of profligacy. It was impossible to disobey my heart, as the luscious taste did not allow me to think otherwise moreover my pleasant dreams of on those days, filled with the parade of fish gravy and fried chickens of Kettle Sahib. I even composed a poem describing the Sahib’s tantalizing food varieties in the last empty pages of my notebook. On that day, when I was about to polish off my meal, I had a sudden urge that what if I skip the payment just like many others.
That thought itself poured piping hot acid in my stomach. Partaking meal turned as a cumber task as I could not swallow anymore. I felt as though pushing a ball hard into the water from that moment onwards. My eyes rolled up made vision blurred. I slowly foot dragged, washing my hands, moved towards the cash tin box. I could not hedge around the cash box. There was a sensation of pressure beating wildly at my temples and ears. All of a sudden, taking out the entire 7 rupees, I dropped it in the tin box and scampered out quickly. When I reached an airy place, only then I realized the magnitude of blunder I committed. My half month salary cash vanished into ash. Only 8 days were remaining for semester fee. How many such other dues are pending? In an act momentary brainfog, I put myself in utter nasty cropper.
I sobbed from my deep in, until my eyes became parched. I felt as though I lost some one very dear close to me in a disastrous accident. If at all, had my full-on job, not taken away all the energy in the brain, I would had even gone to an extent of throwing my self on the railway track and killed myself. After much of brooding over the lapse, I finally decided, why should I need to worry? Let bygone be bygone. I shall consume meal for free until it accounts for the entire money I dropped. I slumbered deeply, with that conclusive, consolable thoughts.
Next day college was over in the afternoon itself. I came directly to Kettle Sahib’s hotel. This time, I partook the food contents in a sound and relaxed mind. As usual, for my every little fidgety pause, he responded by cussing me “Eat you Idiot!!” at once, thinking that I was about to get up. At the end of the meal, after I washed the hand, I structured the words in right order, as my reply to Sahib, in case he questions me for not paying for that day's meal. He was completely engrossed in his serving task and so he did not notice me skipping the payment. I was totally peeved off as I could not find any feet of clay in him , busting out I came out of the hotel. Gone completely ape-shit, powerful negative feelings sweeping away my thoughts, I snubbed Sahib severely. Sahib such a freebooter, thinking himself as a generous guy. He is assuming the unadulterated benevolent status only as a direct result of largesse donated by ever frontrunning patrons. He is no more than any other typical merchant. He is just pilfering the muslim customer’s Ramzan zakat money. Otherwise, how could he managed to own a house in upscale prime Thiruvananthapuram location? Either I pay or not , It doest not make any difference to him. Let me see , for how long he bears my non-payment. I was totally consumed by that intense sick in the stomach feeling.
With the same ill-filled sick feeling, I went to hotel the next day. I expected Kettle Sahid not aware about my current thought works. Still I decided , if I could perceive wee little vagary in his attitude like If he treats me tad extra special, I decided to bid good-bye to his hotel, declaring that his observing the payment inflow for each consumers. But on contrary to my expecting, he was immersed in serving with usual serene, unsparing manner. Same fish caviar was glossed upon my plate. Placing a fried half chicken on my plate “Bolt this fried chicken, Pillai!” in unaltered coercing voice, followed by serving a fish fry. I looked at him raptly and asked myself “ is he belonged to this very earthly world where I stand? is he really a Mappila or a Genie?”. Usually, when I am about the finish the meal, as a wrap-up process, I mix rice with fried chilly powder and char fried shred of a chicken leg . I presumed that concealed this habit well enough not to draw the attention of Kettle Sahib. But I was only little surprised when he noted that and catered me ladle full to find me solace.
When I was about the consume that dumpling of rice mixer , leaping in the surge of emotions, my heart began to condense tenderly and I wept hog-wild. No one has ever fed food with such an unstinting benign manner in my whole life. Even my own mother herself served the defiled meager rice broth that all my family members shared, in her niggling hands, filled with dreariness. He is the foremost first person in my life, whom whole heartedly impetuously serving me glut of food over and again eternally without any instance of tardiness. Motherly hands those are, the very same soothing hands which feed people in bedridden final stages of life. Yes!! This hairy, hoarsely, bearly hands are my matriarch hands. From that outset, I never paid money for my meal at Kettle Sahib’s hotel. I can swear on my studies, not in a mere sake of cashing the saved money. No nestling pays back for his own mother bird feedings. From that day on-wards, for the next 5 whole years, I never dropped a single paisa in the cash tin box.
There was no turn back in my life as I slowly raised in green wave propitiously , ever since then. I began to partake daily once, either lunch or dinner at Kettle Sahib hotel. That meal was sufficient for that whole day. Additionally, I just consumed 4 idlys in mornings. A tinge of shine emerged in my cheeks. From a boy, I became a sturdy man. My pencil thin mustache turned intense. Adam’s apple vanished as my voice raised. I started to confab cheerily with friends. I took my time to spruce myself and walked confidently with a little swagger. In panikar’s warehouse, I was assigned to the position on par of a manager, maintenance of the inventory records and tracking the goods transfer, put on to my shoulders with a hiked salary. Soon I cleared my fee dues and retrieved back my course workbooks from Aunty after ponied up my debt. I even began to the money order, some of my saved amounts to my father. I rented a comfortable single room about Arunachalam Nadar departmental store. I also had money to fulfill my mini childhood dream of own a bicycle.
As months passed on, I ensconced myself in Kettle Sahib foodshed. I had a little doubt that he is observing me, as it seemed like he slowly was shedding his asperity while serving me. There was a little chance that he is noticing myself turned as a man. Nevertheless, at the moment when I see those lovish motherly hands, falling out of the scrupling thoughts, consumed in imagining myself as a suckling who supping the breast milk of motherly Kettle Sahib’s. Over my home in Osaravillai, my brother upon completing schooling, successfully received the driving License. As a next step, he applied and mustered in government job of public transport bus driver with a sassy salary. Soon my family drifted away from the glare of poverty. I visited my home more regularly than earlier. My mother started to buy better brand rice and fishes to prepare the meal during my presence. She was a good cook with better ingredients, as the gravy well prepared by sauteing sardine fish, added tamarind water, pepper mixed with Samba(*) Rice. But the lifelong poverty she dwelled with, cuffed her serving tendency miserly. If I ask for little extra gravy, she would respond with diminutive drops, by keeping an eye on the pot, where she would toss it back the remaining gravy. Such an effect of the lassitude serving by my mother, rice, broth dumpling in the fourth round would get the choke in my throat. “Eat it dear!!” she would insist feebly. I would unseat and wash my hand in next minute purging the remaining meal.
I scored second highest mark in University MA. Soon after valedictory gathering, I was offered a job of lecturer in the same university college. Receiving the appointment order, I cycled straight to Kettle Sahib. Hotel was not opened yet. Unable to wait to see face of Sahib, furling through the juke sheet, I gate crashed the back door. He was sprinkling the vegetable oil poaching the fish in a behemoth wok. His whole hands, eyes coordinately focusing on the job. I did not want to distract him as it looked like he was conducting a prayer ceremony. I returned back and waited till the hotel open. In the afternoon lunch time, I saw the unimpeachable face of Kettle Sahib. As always, there was no special glance for me. I decided not share my happiness with him. That would make no difference to him.
In the evening, I went to my home village Oosaravillai. I was not able to grasp the feeling of my mother as she always wore a surly face. My father though asked, “What is your salary, son?” . I said “It is just enough, Dad. ” trying to skulk away from the cold probe. He asked again “Would you get 200 per month?” I was offended by the footling clerk in that question “ Including allowance, I take home 700, Dad.” I said proudly. In a fleet moment, a conspicuous vengeance speckled and disappeared in the eyes of my father. I never forgot those 2 seconds, in my entire life. As a feckless account keeper, he never received more than 20 rupees per month until his retirement. It seemed like only my brother was honestly happy, “So, You will be lecturing in English. Thats cool. You write and speak English like British then?” bobbling around me. My mother piped in “ Ok. Fun aside, save the money for future of our family. Do not spend extravagantly” said distraitly.
Using the opportune moment, my mother unleashed her suppressed ego fanning out to its maximum degree , “Do you know the state of swanky Thazhakudi Aunty? What all she spoke when she lived on clover ? I saw her attending Shanmugam marriage. She became thin as a weed. Lord punished her for all sinister deeds” my mother emitted scathe brickbats. “Why are you shouting, did she not lent her hand, fed your son on critical time? You should remember her timely help” said my father. “What a phony help from that stingy witch? Let us settle that pelf amount. I can’t bear the sight of her tugging the sleeves at my threshold” my mother. "Shut your mouth, you henpecking spoilage!!” shouted my father, as a start to a fresh quarrel.
Next day, I went to Thazhakudi Aunty there. It had been 2 years since my uncle’s expiry. Everything occurred in a flash. He was admitted to hospital after a sudden febrile illness aggravated. I had taken care of bed-ridden uncle for a couple of days without realizing that he was in his final 2 days. The plaque built on his teeth cum sprawling the bacteria deep till his heart inflicted his death in the third day of admission. By the second afternoon of cremation, we calculated the loan amount which exceeded slightly above Rs 2000 . Press owner compelled them to vacate. She decided to short sell the printing press equipments in order to settle the loan. Later she decided to go back to her mother home at Thazhakudi, as she owned some land. With whatever remaining money, she took a home for rent. Ramalakshmi discontinued her studies intermediate 11th standard. Day by day, money she held, ramped down rapidly. As a result, losing her will and withstand, she wilted in the wistful thoughts about future . On my every visit to Osaravillai, I took time to visit Aunty’s home for courtesy and keep ten rupee note on the table upon my return.
This time, Aunty was not there. I found lone Ramalakshmi reading a Rani Muthu Tamil novel in a home. Grown Ramalakshmi shedding her puerile out looked pale and attenuated just like her mother. Their jerry-built home just had a tiny front-yard, kitchen, and a small room. The awash mattress was hanging curly on the washing lines. I could see the cow dung mixer was sprayed generously in the house. She slipped out through the backdoors, returned back borrowing either sugar or tea powder and offered me black tea. No doubt, she was a supple, sprightly gaiety girl with just a demerit of ne'er-do-well in maths. I recollected , when I was in Thiruvananthapuram, I touted her calculation of compound interest itself as long as 20 days. Hiding her entire constitution behind the door, she was peeking out through the door. I just had a glance at her face. I was silence as I was not sure what to talk to her. She looked like an entirely different person from whom I knew.
Not so comfortable minutes rolled slowly between us. As I was about to start back, Ramalakshmi insisted “Mom would arrive at any time. Please wait!!” uttering in a tender voice. “No, I got some work to do. I am leaving!!” I replied upon placing a 50 rupee note on top of the table. I saw mami lurching in the opposite side, when I was crossing the edge of the ginnel. She held a crocheted basket on top of her head, using her saree end as sort of a clipper to hold it still. In first few moments, she did not realize who it was, after some few seconds “Dear o God. It is you my son!! ” she exclaimed. Lifting the basket on my arm, I took down the basket by my shoulder. It was filled with beige colored flaky stuff, looked like chaff. It appeared that she must have collected as wage for her coolie work. “Come home dear!” called she, pulling my hands. “No, I am in a hurry. I got to go to Thiruvananthapuram today itself.” I replied. “Aunty, I got a job, in colleg,e” I said politely. She was impassive in reacting as poverty benighted her perceiving sense.
Once bell rang in her brain, “Great.. Long live you.. God bless you. dear !!” said she yanking my hand towards her. “I thought of ask you after you settled in such a permanent job. As you very well know , we are helpless. Devoid of any money. Have a look at the basket, this too, I earn by pounding rice for the whole day travailed in pain. If I don't sell this bran by today evening, we have to eat this very same bran. This will tell you my current situation. But don’t forget that when you were all at sea, I catered you. You turned a man only by consuming food with this my very own hands, for 8 months as many times as 500. Every day I offered you rice and good curries. Poor Ramalakshmi down on her luck. She has been dreaming about you day and night. Offer her a toehold dear. If you don’t do the justification for the food you consumed in my home, you ought to settle it eternally. I know very well, your mother will not heed to this proposal. But I entreat you to give her life. dear! ” she delineated.
When I departed from Thazhakudy, I could clearly perceive the spurious theatrical voice of Aunty, grated on my nerves. I felt as though my entire body effused with rancor. I was spitting continuously trying the eject the last bit of bitterness. Had my newly joined work, perforce, not consummate my brain in, I would be porting that bitterness for an elongated time. When I received my first month’s salary, I sent the money order to my mother impromptu. In the reply letter ”Subbamma came here and talked to your father. You father himself is not fully convinced. My suggestion is we don’t need her relation anymore. If at all, you think she did help you, we can settle in cash as your wish either 200 or 300 rupees as that girl’s marriage gift. We should not be in a position to owe her. I advise you to marry a girl in a higher status. That only, good for your life and our family. Incidentally , I received details about a groom from Poodapandi having a wealthy background, Can I proceed further with this?” my mother wrote to me. I was not in full mind. I embroiled over my mother words in that whole night. In the morning, my mind was as clear as kara man ai river “Just make sure the girl is educated” I jot down her back.
In the mid of my very first month job, I enrolled into Saminada Iyer’s chit fund saving scheme, subscribing to the sum amount of 20,000 with monthly recurring deposit 500. As per the fund agreement, at the earliest lucky draw, my lot was matured soon after my 8th month installment. Thus I was offered accumulated amount of as high as Rs16,000/- . With ebullience, I received the currency bundle enfolded in Mathrubhumi daily paper comprising, full and full of fleecy 100 rupee notes. I never touched that much cash in my entire life. Scudding fast to my room, I spread that amount in my bed and watched the currency for a long time in bloom. Effect of the money, fuzzing around me, induced goose bumps in my hands. Even in my wildest dream, it never occurred to me that I will have this much money in my hand at one day. At that stage, I can by a small turnkey house in Thiruvananthapuram . I simpered with amusement that my mind already acclimated to the that effect of the enormous money within a very short time as the excitement slowly faded away.
At lunch time, I went to kettle Sahib’s restaurant. When he opened the door and I made a beeline to cash tin box and began to drop the amount, imparting one by one from the bundle, through the small slot of cash box in a gingerly pace. Once the money filled the cash box, I requested Kettle Sahib to bring another box. “Hey Hameed, change the box” ordered Kettle Sahib and I recommenced payment. After finished depositing the entire money saving no paisa, I washed my hand and seated for the meal. Kettle sahib unfurling the leaf plate in front of me placed my favorite Prawn fry. As always he stewed out the boiled rice, anointed gravy on top of it. I knew very well that , there would be no difference in his attitude. Not even an additional word. In the crowd of ever teeming customers, there were two skimpily clad unprepossessing lads seemed like Nayar boys, sitting together with their nerves all in shreds. It seemed like there were enmeshed in the full colander rice and curries that Kettle Sahib piled upon their plate. When one of them, exhaling and coughing was about to balk away from Kettle Sahib when he just began to serve fried chicken. Sahib smacked on top of that waif’s pate “Eat it, Idiot!!” duly . It was a painful blow. He sat down at once and gorged the food hurriedly. I presumed that the chilly power fell into his eyes caused him to sob uncontrollably.
Serene Kettle Sahib was serving Fish, Chicken , Prawn curries to customers accordance with their desire as usual. I expected a benign glance from his eye. Should not my host mother bird know about his nestling, grown enough, to spread his independent wings? His eyes never met my eyes. When he brought fish gravy for the second course rice, I just saw his gracious, coarse hands. These bearly hands are my hands, only these fathom the depth of my stomach .
I returned back to home and tied knot with Ramalakshmi in forthcame Avani(*) month.
- Mappila - The member of a largest Muslim group of Indian state of Kerala
- Beevi – wife
- Kallayi Puzha – River of North Kerala, orginates from Western Ghat (Puzha – River)
- Manavaati – Sweetheart
- Chaya – Tea
- Kaarobaar – Business
- Kufi topi - brimless, short, and rounded cap worn by men in many populations in North Africa, East Africa, Western Africa and Asia
- Nair/Nayar - The member of group of warrior caste belongs to Indian state of kerala
- Sambar - is a lentil-based vegetable stew or chowder based on a broth made with tamarind popular in South Indian and Sri Lankan Tamil cuisines
- Achar - (In Indian cookery) A type of pickle in which the food is preserved in spiced oil
- Ana - A currency unit formerly used in India, equals to 1/16th of rupees
- Mami - Aunty
- Idly - Boied Rice Cake an usual breakfast of Sound India
- Pradosam - Bimonthly auspicious day connected to worship of Shiva
- Prasadam - Food that is a religious offered food in Temples
- Vellalar/Pillai -Agricultor landlord community of People in Tamilnadu,
- Samba - A high brand rice variety grown in India and Srilanka
- Avani - Auspicious Tamil month suitable for marriage ceremony occuring mid-august to mid-september