Ruhsa canteen used to be run by a lovely woman called Vimala. She was always pleased to see me when I came back and we used to spend hours cahtting after eating. When my sister and her boyfriend came to stay at RUHSA, she showed them how to make vadai. When my mum and dad came to stay, she showed them how to make a chicken biryani. Last March, however, she lost the contract for the canteen, so when I came back this year she was gone.
Yesterday, a beaming boy on a moped whizzed past me, vanishing into the dust before I registered that it was Sammy, her son. A couple of judicious questions to Immanuel as part of my daily routine revealed that she was living in Vellore, yes, her husband still worked here and yes, it had been her son on the back of the moped as he came back often to see his friends. In reply to my questions about whether he still spoke to her he said he did, adding darkly that calling her was dangerous as she talked 23 hours a day. Always, always on the mobile phone: when cooking, eating, on the bus, in every situation. He phoned her then and there on the spot. She was busy. After a couple more tries we got through and had an ecstatic verbal reunion, rapidly arranging an actual reunion that night – arranging to go to her house for dinner.
Since being here in India, I have been attempting in my half-hearted way to continue my quest for effortless weight loss with nematode assistance. To no avail. I have been cycling furiously, sweating and panting my way through all the nearby villages, assisted by the breezes contained in their gales of hysterical laughter. Not much difference. In desperation, I added a new regime the other day, I would only have one cooked meal a day. For the other two, I would have home made muesli, which I love here. The dried fruit has barely less water than when it was plucked from the tree or vine and the fresh fruits, such as pomegranates, are plumptious, so home made muesli is a pleasure not a chore. I started in earnest the day before yesterday. Unfortunately, I was so pleased with myself after a massive hour long cycle ride, I ate 3 vadai, a coconut cup cake and 2 wicked sugary things, that I don’t even want to discuss. I had the muesli as well to pretend everything was above board. So yesterday was going to be a new day and all was going well until Vimala asked me to dinner. The invitation came after lunch so the opportunity for having 2 muesli meals today was already lost. Little did I realise that the opportunity was more than lost, it was murdered, dismembered and then buried in an unmarked grave in a remote part of the Gobi Desert which only scorpions and sidewinders visit.
I arrived at Vimala’s and the physical reunion was as joyous and noisy as the telephonic one. We chatted and chatted, in miniature breathes between sentences she rattled off orders to Sammy to buy, this and that and the other and more things for dinner.
“You want snacks? Biscuits, tea, coffee”
“No, no,” I replied, "I’m fine."
“Sure, sure. I’m not really a fan of biscuits.”
“Ok, ok, me neither”
Of course she ignored me, but I managed to escape by eating only one of the egg puffs she brought, despite her looks of sadness that I refused the second one. My problem is that I have limited will power. Well, none actually.
As she started preparing the dinner, her teenaged son and daughter wafted languidly in and out of the kitchen either being helpful or disruptive depending on the presence of a Y chromosome.
In the miniscule hairs breadths between the miniature pauses, her mobile rang, which resulted in tens of minutes of one-handed cooking accompanied by yelled conversations at her various friends, family or acquaintance in that fabulously ululating language, interspersed with faintly recognisable English words, like “farinner” (foreigner – me presumably) and “dacktar” (me again, I would guess.)
I watched attentively to the cooking process which as you might imagine, without direct instruction, was somewhat obscure – pinch of this, dash of that, oops, what went in then, missed it. She was preparing ‘mashroom and baby corn soop’, capsicum fry, chicken fry, chicken with gravy, raitha and chapatti. Recipes on request.
In between the miniscule etc etc jingly feet padded in and out of the house from upstairs. Longing looks were cast at me, with much head wobbling and intimations to follow. Apparently, India, never short of events to celebrate or poojas to make had found another brilliant excuse for a party. Her neighbours' daughter had come of age and the whole building was celebrating. Struck by a sudden thought, I wondered how they measured this coming of age. Is it literally, an age, eg 13 or ……? Yup, you got it, once she starts her period the fact is announced to the world. Remembering the humiliation of mine which started unexpectedly in the school gym aged 12 ¾ this was one ceremony I’m glad we didn’t celebrate in West Clandon. The idea of bouffant women from the stockbroker belt all coming to ogle me knowing the shame of my transformation turned my blood cold. Then again, it’s all hideous anyway as a teenager, so perhaps one last bash as a child is not a bad idea.
Vimala promised that we would go upstairs and help celebrate. For reasons I still can’t fathom and which cause me cultural embarrassment, having a farriner at such events is highly desirable. I’ve said before and I’ll say it again, the honour is not reciprocated by White English in middle England to their Asian brothers and sisters. However, on this occasion my presence would be mutually satisfactory for everyone. I was dying to know what they did to the poor kid.
Meanwhile, Vimala continued cooking and cooking and cooking and cooking. When making chapattis I looked at the small pile of dough balls ready to be rolled out and thought it a bit strange that she was only cooking one each. Then she said,
“Four chapattis enough for you?”
Pardon? Was all this food for me?
“Yes, yes, special meal for a special friend”.
“But what are you going to eat?” I said, astonished and horrified.
“They will give us something something upstairs”.
Oh my God, not only did I have a gargantuan 5 dish meal being prepared for me downstainrs, but I was also going to have to eat dinner upstairs as well. It is impossible to refuse food in India, it is as bad as sleeping with a member of their family in public.
It didn’t matter how I tried to work it out, I was stuffed, figuratively and soon to be literally.
We went upstairs to celebrate the menstruation. A delightful and articulate young girl/ stood up from an appropriately blood red velvet covered throne with silver embellishment, dressed in a heavy brocade sari which rippled below her feet by several inches. Her hair was plaited and extended to her knees decorated with diamante buckles and jasmine flowers. Across her forehead lay a diamante chain coming from her parting and ending is a perfect drop. Henna decorated her hands and feet in elaborate patterns and rather charmingly she had her specs on.
“I am so very happy you could come to my celebration” she said to me and I responded in kind; she was adorable. Many photos, laughing and talking before the dreaded battle with dinner Number One started. A banana leaf with piles of rice, rasam, sambar, vegetable and lentils with a fried sweet snack thing and banana lay in front of me. I do not exude the impression of a picky eater so they looked at me expectantly. Knowing there were a further 5 dishes waiting for me downstairs put some brakes on my hunger. I looked at Vimala.
“Eat, eat” she said.
Traitor I thought. I managed the first wave of food, they had not been over generous which was lucky, but it did take an enormous surge of energy to stem the flow of further helpings.
“Rendu dinner" I said, pathetically -two dinners- looking at Vimala to back me up. She stepped in with a flood of Tamil and the efforts to fatten me up abated mildly until I got downstairs.
Vimala behaved as if she hadn’t just seen me eat. I did cope with a substantial serving of each dish, stuffing it down my increasingly rising gorge with sheer determination not to offend my friend whom I had watched slaving over a hot stove for an hour and a half. All three sat and watched.
“Please have some”, I pleaded.
“No, no”, they said as one. “We are too full.”
It was impossible, Vimala looked as if I had singled out her favourite relative to dance naked in front of when I refused to eat any more. I still had food in my mouth I couldn’t swallow, so talking was becoming increasingly difficult. It was torture. Torture to eat and torture to watch her face and torture to see all her efforts sitting sadly uneaten on the side.
I told her next time I was bringing my own dinner so I could have three meals with her. She did laugh. Today I am not eating a thing. Except I have been asked out for lunch and dinner. Oh God.