Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Thinking Thepla, Eating Idli

If you marry someone from another ethnic group in India, two things could happen. Either your parents never talk to you again, or, if they are nice, normal people, they mutter hopeful homilies like, ‘Children from inter-caste-marriages are always very clever…’ Luckily, it’s a while before you learn about the realities of living with differences. As a Malayalee married to a Gujarati, I could tell you a bit about this.

As with all things in India, finally, it all comes down to food and drink. Mallus believe that drinking hot water boiled with jeera, dhania or ginger in summer actually cools the body down. I never drank ice-cold, fridge-water at home, growing up. Once, around 5, I mistook a small bottle of white vinegar for water, grabbed it and drank deep before anyone could stop me. If they saw me, they'd take away the bottle, I knew. My lips turned blue, mom says, but I refused to let go of that bottle.

Somehow, in Kerala, anyone wanting to drink ice-cold-water is morally suspect, and is just asking for a sore throat. And a sore throat, as we all know, is the end of the world. For the first year of our marriage, the fridge was a silent war zone. He would put in bottles of water, I would take them out. It seemed wrong somehow, to be serving cold water at home, you know; to wantonly tempt the tonsil-gods thus? I mean, whatever next? Surely, drinking cold water at home is just a pit stop on the putrid path to gambling and alcoholism? My mum still doesn’t get why her son-in-law — such a fan of Mallu food otherwise — blanches at the Malayalee idea of a summer cooler: hot, pale-yellow, jeera-infused water.

Perhaps it’s because he’s from Kathiawad, where drinking cold water in summer feels like a minor religious experience. In summer, my mother-in-law freezes little steel katoris or bowls of filtered water. When they are frozen, they are slipped slurpily into into a large vessel of drinking water. And then — here's the best part — people drink it! I watched her do this the first time I visited with with a mix of horror and delight. Guiltily, I drank glassfuls, looking around furtively for a yelling adult. The fridge wars have hence ceased.

But others have taken their place. Breakfast in a Mallu house is serious business, with idli, dosha (yes, not dosa, with the hard /d/ and the snaky /s/), upma or appam. In a Gujju house, breakfast is the time you kill, munching homemade naasta before a delicious hing-and-gur-tinged lunch. When the sun sets, you want to eat light, and it’s time for a ‘prograam’. A bhel, bhajiya, dhokla or paani-puri no prograam. I watched, awe-struck, as the elderly polished off fried snacks for dinner — pav bhaji, pani puri, batata vada and / or bhajiyas. If I gave a Mallu father-in-law bhajiyas for a meal, Chernobyl, to put it mildly, would happen. Cardiac health! Diabetes! Acidity! Filial brutality! Murder! Stuffing my face, I worried about being able to conjure up similar whatnots when the in-laws visited us in Mumbai. Obviously, a square meal would just not do.

Then there are the specific food-group-related hysterias. Featuring — in our case — rice and proteins. We Mallus like our proteins caught, killed, cooked in kilos of cokennut and served with red rice. To most Gujjus, proteins = dals, which are eaten with rotlis, and not with rice (simply too starchy, no? Not healthy — say the people who mainline deep-fried food at breakfast).

The thinner half and I found all of it hilarious — till baby arrived. Then battles-lines were clearly drawn. Methi as a lactational prompt versus wheat. Oil baths versus just baths. Ragi versus rava. Rice-kanji versus dal-paani. Yellow bananas versus green bananas. Picking-a-name-off-the-top-of-your-head versus naming by the horoscope or rashi. Rubbing a stick made of scented herbs with a bit of gold inside it and giving the baby a drop of the paste (Mallu colic cure) versus fainting at the suggestion (Gujju reaction).

And food-group hysteria again. As baby grew, my mother-in-law implored, ‘Dal is the best protein, it's all that the baby needs! No need to give her non-veg!’ And then, seeing that I was determined to raise an omnivore, the poor lady got to her specific fear. ‘At least don’t give her pig-meat!’ My mother, meanwhile, felt duty bound to inquire, ‘Why haven’t you started fish-chicken for this child still?’ Meanwhile, the fruit of my womb calmly refused Mallu staples like chicken, fish, steamed yellow bananas, jackfruit and rice kanji. She seemed predisposed to sev-gaanthiya, pasta, paneer, pijja, noodles, and still needs her daily Gujju staple: dal-bhaat-shaak-rotli.

Growing older makes you hanker for the ways of your childhood. It makes you want to reclaim some of the past by teaching your children things you picked up unconsciously from your parents. I sometimes imagine a family where everybody drinks warm jeera-water and enjoys dried-fish pickle. My husband probably dreams of a home where chhunda is made in summer and methi theplas are lovingly roasted by the wife in winter. However, despite our occasional longings for the familiar, it is with the unknown, the different, that we are charting a course. It’s a bit rocky, but it’s fun too.

Our mixed-up ‘Gujyalee’ or ‘Mallurati’ kid will, hopefully, find her own path through the minefield of her parents’ combined nostalgia. If she ever marries, though, I hope she goes all out on a limb. Brings home a son-in-law* who grew up eating boiled whale blubber or pickled goat intestines.

The more different the better, I say.

A shorter version of this article appeared in the
DNA of Sunday, May 15, 2011

* I should actually be PC and say person-in-law maybe, but let's get to that bridge when we see it, shall we?

16 comments:

Journomuse said...

N is a lucky child..doesnt have to contend with parental ambitions along with hers too as to where (un)holy matrimony must take her..:) Enjoyed the read immensely..:)

Choxbox said...

A post after my own heart!

Well we eat pooraNpoLi with rasam so there you go!

Anita & Amit Vachharajani said...

journoelli, thank you! i dont know about lucky, bec we have our own ambitions, right? we'll prolly want her to marry whoever she likes, while she'll (shudder) want us to 'find' her a nice gujju/mallu boy! as a parent, you're always wrong!

chox, omg. p poli and rasam is right up there with p poli and sabji, which is how the gujjus eat it.

Choxbox said...

Err.. yours truly is also a Gujju. Married to a non-Gujju of course!

We have a hardcore Andhra-ite, a hradcrae Dilliwala and a pakka Gujjubhai in the family. If there was one more sib, he/she would have married a Bong to complete the picture!

Choxbox said...

*hardcore (sorry for spamming and for the typos)

kavimona said...

OMG, Ani .... sounds soooooo familiar ... mallu marrying a gujjubhai is same-same like mallu marrying a tam-bram .... so we do compro and eat punju food... but mostly south indian on weekends

unfortunately, fruit of our loins has an italian soul .... so despite having sambar aviyal etc as shared cuisine; i still have to make pasta pizza brownie for the pope ....

atleast N eats healthy.... so that is one aggravation less ...

marjorie said...

lovely read ani . it deserves a goan meal . come over next week na .x marj

Anita & Amit Vachharajani said...

marj, just hearing the offer makes me want to fly to yari rd :) but baddish back and poxy kid. so some day, i will call and take you up, wokkay? i want to have goan sausages sighhhhhhh.
kavi, feeding the pope, eh? i love the thought!

Darpana said...

:) Great read!

Having being born as a mix-breed of Marathi and Tamil parents, I know picture the situation oh so clearly...esp of the veg-nonveg...hehe...

You should blog part 2 of this post- the diff b/w the languages! ;)

Anita & Amit Vachharajani said...

planning that, darpu... on losing our languages too :)

mannab said...

Your article is very important from "Antar-Bharati" point of view. I would like to translate and send the same to some weekly like Sadhana, if you permit. Please reply. Regards.
Mangesh Nabar

Anita & Amit Vachharajani said...

Sorry Mannab, I don't own the copyright and you would need permission from the DNA to re-use this piece.

Vipanchi Raghu Chattopadhyay said...

Hi Anita,

Landed on your site by chance googling benefits of jeera water and loved your article! I am a Gult married to a bong and we have similar warzones too!Will keep coming back to check for more shared thoughts!:) Entertaining and lively writing!

Anita & Amit Vachharajani said...

thanks, vipanchi!

radha said...

I stumbled here by accident and found this post hilarious. It was not too bad for me - both being from different states of south India - but even then there are differences! Will browse and check out other posts too.

Shraddha said...

Stumbled upon this post by google search. Love your post "Thinking thepla, eating idli" I am a gujarati while my husband is a tam brahm from kerela. I can totally relate to your post.