Din-din-dinner dilemmas! A young man's first visit to India. Quotation Inspiration Entry.
|All Words: 1987 (excluding the note)
Indian words used:
Saree -- un-stitched garment worn by women
Idli / Masala Dosa -- 'all day breakfast' foods, particularly in South India.
Idlis are rice dumplings and masala dosa is a savory pancake with vegetable stuffing.
Chutney / Sambhar -- accompaniments to idli / Masala Dosa
Chutney is often made of grated coconut, and sambhar (gravy) is a mix of lentils and herbs.
Chaat -- Indian street food
Sev-puri -- a type of chaat
Chillies -- little pungent green peppers
Curd -- Yogurt
(See the 'cover' illustration for a depiction of how food is served on a banana leaf. This is an eco-friendly way of using disposable utensils.)
Now, don't get me wrong. I, Lenny Franklin, love this country and I love the people here. Indians are the most hospitable people ever. They wear colorful clothes, live in colorful houses and have colorful personalities. They talk loudly, sing (out of tune) loudly and guffaw loudly. They have big smiles, big families and the biggest hearts in the world. I was lucky to be selected by my office to visit India, and I'm grateful.
So don't get me wrong when I say that Indians confuse me.
Because I am confused. Ever since I arrived here a few days ago, everyone has invited me everywhere for every meal. I haven't been allowed to sleep off my jet lag -- it's a nineteen hour flight from the States. But let's not talk about jet lag, let's talk about dinner parties in India.
My first dinner party in India was at the home of my host's brother. My host is a young man called Srikanth, who lives in a charming cottage with his wife Madhuveni and their sixteen month old daughter, Aparajita. I work with Srikanth online and have 'met' his family on Zoom several times.
Zoom meetings, however, don't involve the sharing of food.
Srikanth came to the airport to fetch me, at 2 AM India time. We got home at 3 AM. Bangalore roads are never free of traffic. The baby was asleep, but Madhuveni was in the kitchen, keeping my food hot. At 3 AM. That's right, 3 o'clock in the morning.
There was no point in telling her that I'd eaten on the plane, that my stomach wouldn't accept food at that hour, that she shouldn't have waited up and bothered to cook ... it was my first taste of Indian cooking and Indian coaxing, and both are strong medicine for the uninitiated American stomach.
The young lady didn't know the meaning of 'no'. She piled the potatoes on to my plate like there's no tomorrow. With the heartburn that followed ('I only put in half the spice I usually do, knowing you Americans like bland food') I thought maybe there wouldn't be a tomorrow. After a sleepless flight, I had a sleepless night, and my jet lag was worse at breakfast,
I had thought I'd give my stomach a rest, but Madhuveni had different ideas. That indomitable lady had woken at 6 AM, seen to the baby, and had hot idlis and chutney and sambhar ready for me at 7.45 AM. She brought these to me on a tray in bed. Six idlis and full bowls of chutney-sambhar. The coffee set alongside gave off a tempting aroma, mingling with the fragrance of the traditional Indian foods. I tried to pick up the cup of coffee and beg off the rest, but it wasn't to be. What's more, I had to hide in the bathroom to avoid another helping of idlis after I'd champed my way through the first half dozen.
We went sightseeing that day, and my sleep deprived mind did its best to absorb the bewildering array of architecture, traditional and modern. Fortunately, the traffic was rumbling so loud that my stomach, which was protesting the quantity of food it had to cope with, couldn't be heard by anyone else. Lunch was at a restaurant, and (fortunately, again) Madhuveni was occupied with the baby and I actually got away with a light meal. Just one masala dosa. You understand that I use the phrase 'light meal' lightly.
Then came the dinner party. Indians, I was told, eat dinner before sunset, so we got to Srikanth's brother's place before the protest in my intestine had entirely quieted down.
I was introduced to Srikanth's brother's family. It was a traditional Indian 'joint' family ... Srikanth's parents were there, his brother and sister-in-law, sister and brother-in-law, and five children belonging to the two couples. We didn't sit at a table, but cross-legged on the floor. The children giggled heartily at my attempts to lower myself on to the floor-mat without kicking the banana leaf placed there instead of a plate.
The crouching position did nothing for my intestine, and there was no spoon either. A five-year-old kid tutored me in how to eat with my fingers while his mother, father, aunt, uncle, grandfather and grandmother took it in turns to put food on my leaf. Nobody seemed to understand 'no', 'enough', 'I'm done', 'thank you' or any other phrase.
"I've been eating all day, I'm honestly full," I pleaded, looking toward Madhuveni and Srikanth for support.
It was then that I realized the true nature of Indian hospitality. Indians can veer from the path of truthfulness for the sake of their hospitality.
"He hasn't eaten a thing," Madhuveni declared. "Not a thing. Give him more."
In sheer desperation, I tried to plead that I have diabetes and high cholesterol and have had to watch my diet since the time I was born, unless I wanted to get into real health problems.
"Health problems?" the old man bellowed. "Our foods are our medicines. Eat more, young man, eat more, it's good for you. All your foreign health problems will disappear under the onslaught of our good Indian curd." A heaping helping of curd-rice was promptly plonked on my banana leaf.
The jet lag and the digestion lag competed with each other to keep me awake that night. I tackled the lemon-rice Madhuveni brought me at 7.30 AM with determination. The rest of the day was going to be spent away from her, at the office, where Srikanth was to introduce me to our fellow Zoomies. Madhuveni wouldn't be able to force me there.
It was wonderfully freeing. Nobody forced me to eat anything in that corporate atmosphere. Lunch was laid out, and whoever wanted to could walk up to the buffet and help themselves -- or not.
I chose to give my tummy a break, and contented myself with sipping coffee out of the dispenser at intervals over eight and a half hours. By the time Srikanth was ready to drive me to his boss's place for dinner, I had put in a hard day's work and my appetite was back. Plus, I needed to eat so that my night-medications weren't taken on an empty stomach.
Having studied Madhuveni's habits, I had my strategy worked out. I would say 'no' when initially offered anything to eat, and my hostess, being Indian, would fulfill her duty by forcing me.
The first surprise was that in this household, nobody believed in eating before sunset, or eating any time soon. We chatted and downed some drinks and sang some songs and played some party games and talked about cricket, which everyone in India is an expert on. I was actually getting weak with hunger. When would dinner be announced?
The time came.
I gave it my best. "Nothing, thank you," I said, when my hostess graciously offered me my choice of four items. "I have eaten too much and need to watch my cholesterol and diabetes."
"Okay then, Lenny,," she responded, and vanished into the kitchen.
A servant emerged therefrom, bearing a tray laden with the others' orders. Everyone was served with their choice of item. Having opted for nothing, I was given nothing.
My hostess emerged, carrying her own plate. "You are very lucky that my mother-in-law and father-in-law are traveling," she said. "If they'd been here, they'd have force-fed you, cholesterol or not. Me, I'm modern, I understand these things. I know that people on medication need not have their diet messed with. So I won't ask you again."
I watched as the others tucked away at their first and second helpings, and then the question of dessert arose.
"Now you can eat," my hostess beamed at me. "I'll leave out the ice-cream and custard and serve you the fruit. Even diabetics can eat this."
She proceeded to give me heaped plates of papaya and melon, brandishing a fork like a weapon as she placed it on top of the fruit.
That night, I took my medication on a stomach which was delicately holding its fruit, but I can't say that it held for much longer. Papaya and melon are not recommended in that quantity on an empty stomach -- they are actually indicated when the stomach won't empty, if you get my drift.
Madhuveni had to shake me awake when she came in with my breakfast tray. "I decided to give you an American breakfast today," she announced.
Never have toast and omelet looked so beautiful. Or tasted so spicy. What had she put in this? Surely those little green things couldn't be so lethal ... Srikanth poked his head in just as I was gasping and reaching for the water jug.
"Hey, Lenny," he called. "I forgot to tell Madhuveni to leave off the green chillies in your eggs. If they're too pungent for you, just pick them out before you eat." His head disappeared before I could respond.
We lunched at a restaurant with a client A client who was determined to prove to me that Indians are not narrow-minded, backward people who only ate rice. "I know this man," he said, indicating Srikanth, "won't give you anything more than eggs, his being a vegetarian household. But with me, you can order fish, chicken, mutton ..." He proceeded to order all three, and some more besides, just to make sure I was convinced of his modern outlook.
"You enjoyed the non-vegetarian stuff?" Srikanth asked, when we were in the cab on the way back to our office. Srikanth himself had partaken of a simple cheese sandwich. How I envied the man.
"Yes," I lied. I was learning to lie, when it came to food.
"Good. Because this evening's dinner is going to be pure veg. We're having chaat at Jyoti's place."
Chaat, I learned, was Indian street food, a mix of onions, potatoes, chutneys, sauces and various stringy and hard disk-like items in various degrees of thickness.
What's unique about chaat, however, is that it absolutely has to be prepared on the spot, You can't make a dish and leave it there for guests to help themselves, oh no. You ask the guest what he wants, and in what proportion, and then mix it up there, like magic, in front of his very eyes.
"They've hired the best chaat-makers in the city," Srikanth sighed, as we entered and were greeted by various members of the hostess's family.
"Feel at home, feel at home," everyone cried, gesturing toward the dining hall.
The dining hall was crammed with people and tables.
At each table, there stood a man or woman in a tall chef's hat, deftly mixing up the dishes ordered. "Let's go to that one," Srikanth yelled in my ear, above the din the other guests were making. "It's not occupied."
Unfortunately, others had spotted this. Srikanth and I were almost run over by a couple in their sixties, heading to be first at the unoccupied table. "One sev-puri for me," the woman was screaming, hitching her saree up to run all the better. "Make my sev-puri with extra onion and no tomatoes."
I spent a pleasant evening being joggled, jostled, prodded and pushed. Chaat was not something to be backward about. Everyone had to have it now, have it exactly the way they wanted, and have it standing right at the counter, so as to be able to replenish any ingredient that fell short. Considering the townsfolk and their extended families and entire friends-circle was invited, not to mention sundry gatecrashers, this put quite a strain on even the best experts in the city. They didn't lose their smiles, however.
I've put ointment on my bruises and am about to go to sleep. What was it Carol Matthau said?
"The dying process begins the minute we are born,
but it accelerates during dinner parties."
I guess I'll die of gratitude ...