Translated from Tamil to English by the author
The challenge was doing the job of a translator, interpreter and presenter of the Tamizh culture simultaneously for a global audience who know little or nothing about it. I self-translated the piece of fiction I had authored myself. I thoroughly enjoyed both the writing and the translation.
Amma, Appa, Anbu
The multi-storey building sat squat in one of the by-lanes of Cenotaph Road where Kotturpuram Bridge ended. I climbed the staircase and opened the door to our third-floor apartment. ‘Chup; bas!’ I heard my wife Sunita’s voice outside the door. Our son Anirudh, the recipient of the slapless slap from Sunita, knew better than to pay attention to his mother. He continued to twist the limbs of the Superman we had bought him last week. The purchase of the Superman had created a situation that had morphed into the current cold war between me and Sunita. I didn’t believe in the idea of supermen and didn’t want to invest in the toy either.
I understood the general mood and slipped to my room to change. Dressed in a track and faded t-shirt, I approached the dining table, neatly arranged with containers of lunch leftovers. I sighed with exasperation as I lifted the lid of one of the containers. Immediately, I sensed the pair of brown eyes staring at me. As our gazes met, smiling, my daughter Ananya slid off the side of the bed and ran toward me, leaving behind the blaring television, her mother and brother.
I put the lid down, bent down to scoop her into my arms. Together we turned to the kitchen. There was nothing in those containers that I could have had for dinner. The quarrels between Sunita and I lasted for weeks nowadays. Sunita’s disappointment was directly reflected in my dinner.
Sunita’s line of attack was straightforward. She wouldn’t cook rice whenever we were in a fight. Actually that was the best way to make me cower and come begging to her for mercy. I had done that in the past when I had been a small-time research assistant filled with all the drive to make it big in the world of investment banking. Back then, I couldn’t carry on if I missed a single meal. I didn’t have time to cook either. That time had passed. Now my career had plateaued. Work for middle managers like me had dried up. I could get fired at any moment, and I knew the corporation would carry on just fine without me. My job insecurity caused acidity that gurgled in my belly and bloated it. I could eat only white rice that agreed with my ulcerous stomach.
I sat Ananya on the granite counter and took out a green tea packet. I filled the mug with water and put it in the microwave. Ananya pressed the timer. ‘You know?’ When I widened my eyes in surprise, ‘I can make Maggi too,’ she boasted sweetly in English. I covered my mouth, expressing more surprise. ‘Want Maggi?’ Ananya asked in earnest. I shook my head, refusing her offer.
Actually, I could cook rice, make curd rice and eat it with the pickle that Amma kept sending from my brother’s house in Avadi, where she spent her time mostly. Curd rice was an ideal dinner for a hot summer night like that night. But I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. If I did, it would put some more distance between me and Sunita. Our fights would lengthen and deepen without closure. As a matter of fact, it was an act of self-preservation too. In this context, if I cooked rice, it would go to prove the fact that Sunita was wrong and I righted it. Married Indian couples did not antagonise each other like that. It was how we protected a marriage and gave it a superficial life of 50-60 years. At least I was aware what part South Indian men played in marriage. That was what I had observed with my dad and brother—the key lay in aligning your actions with your spouse’s and in knowing when to argue against. The adjustment should continue to a point after which both husband and wife would know the boundaries and when not to risk the common good. Your lives in general would be on parallel tracks that met when needed. As you grew older, you learnt to do things in a way that satisfied you individually and the common way for the family’s well-being. Anirudh would also inherit this tactic from me. From his behaviour, I assumed I had passed on the gene to him already. Similarly, Sunita would pass on her insight to Ananya too.
I sipped my tea and let its bitterness seep into me. Ananya wanted me to put her down, and as soon as I did so, she ran to her room. She came back with the book of Tamil alphabets that I had bought for her. I sat down on one of the balcony chairs and placed her on my lap.
As much as I manipulated my attitude, the fact remained that food had deeper connections with my cultural roots. Having rice for lunch and dinner symbolised my sense of belonging as a Tamil Brahmin. Certain dishes outlined my memories of the child- and adulthood I had spent with my parents. The milk peni Amma had made for AvaniAvittam—an occasion when Tamil Brahmins chanted the Gayatri mantra and changed their Poonal (sacred thread worn across the chest); it was also the day Appa had died of cardiac arrest. I remembered the samba sadam that featured in the village Sivan temple Saturday Prasadam, simple homemade dinners Amma made that had rice, vatha kuzhambu and dry-roasted appalam whenever we had a wedding feast for lunch. Amma had adapted to the changing demands of the times and even made vegetable kozhukattai and pizza dosa for my brother’s kids. In fact she had made my niece write down all the heirloom recipes in English and handed it to Sunita too. Amma could cook effortlessly. Even the plain white rice she cooked acquired a taste of its own and appeared like mallipoo in texture and colour.
Sunita wasn’t a bad cook either. Her Marathi dishes were out of this world.
But the affinity I had established towards rice, sambhar, koottu and poriyal were intertwined with root Tamil phrases like Amma, Appa, anbu, (love) etc. I wanted those phrases to roll off my children’s tongues, echo in the walls of my house. In fact, in the 10 years of marriage I hadn’t learnt as much Marathi as Sunita had learnt Tamil. That was why the children knew only Marathi and English—a mistake on my part. I got the book of alphabets in an effort to rectify the mistake, get over it before languages made deeper connections in my children’s minds. Already they had enough confusion at home. Their schools added more fuel to fire. There was the mother tongue (Marathi for Anirudh and Ananya), then there were second and third languages they were supposed to choose at the primary level. These were chosen with their futures in mind and places they were likely to travel to for education and work. Our choices had been French and Hindi. If I taught them another language (Tamil) at home, how streamlined would their thoughts be? Would they think in one language and transliterate it in another? If I didn’t, how would they remember their father’s linguistic identity? For a middle-aged married man like me who found his happiness in as basic a dinner dish as curd rice, wasn’t a regret this deep and profound surprising? This realization came to me only after I married Sunita.
I pointed to pictures in the alphabet book and read aloud the corresponding words for Ananya to follow. When I said ‘Ilai (leaf)’, Ananya stopped and looked at me. ‘What is the other word that sounds similar?’ she tested me. ‘You use it on the phone with Paati (Amma) often.’ She offered a hint too. Honestly, I couldn’t place the word she was referring to. ‘Illai (no),’ she said, her eyes gleaming with pride. ‘Wow.’ I guffawed and explained the subtle difference between the two words in pronunciation. ‘Good effort.’ I appreciated her observation in my guilt-steeped afterthought.
Sunita stormed out of the bedroom. As if on autopilot, she began emptying the contents of the steel containers into Tupperware boxes, shoving them into the refrigerator and with an air of finality, slammed the door. She turned in our direction and asked Ananya something sharply in Marathi. I couldn’t understand anything except ‘school’ in it. Ananya replied to Sunita, and with an air of accomplishment she snuggled closer to me and said ‘Illai(no)’ emphatically. She also shook her head strongly for effect. I was shocked.
I shouldn’t be doing this. I shouldn’t be confusing the child. It shouldn’t give him or her space or reason to commit mistakes later in life. They shouldn’t use the cultural and linguistic differences between me and Sunita and the strife in our household to justify those mistakes. I decided to call off my silly effort when a lashing torrent of Marathi poured out from Sunita. Instantly struck by its poignancy, I let Ananya go.
One by one, the lights in the dining, living rooms and utility went off. Our bedroom door was slammed shut. As the rattling echoes diminished and other sounds floated out of distraction, I felt alone and offended in my own house, a strange darkness enveloping me.
Illustration by Madhri Samaranayake
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