Oh My 'Curd'!
Oh My 'Curd'!7 mins 861 7 mins 861
All was well. At least, all looked as well as it usually was when Shreeja’s mother-in-law gave the kitchen the finishing touches for the day.
It was exactly three months ago to the day, when Shreeja entered the threshold of this house to live her new life as Mahadevan’s wife and the daughter-in-law of his parents.
Shreeja’s mother-in-law, though a sweetheart of a lady, still held on to the management of the household. Shreeja wasn’t allowed to take even simple decisions such as what vegetables could be used for the day’s meals. She only carried out whatever her mother-in-law dictated.
“Cut some carrots and beans for the curry… no, you are cutting them too small, make them a little bigger.”
“I have added the necessary salt and spices. Watch over the sambar till it comes to a boil, then turn off the stove.”
“Scrape the coconut.”
“Get a plate to close this.”
“Wash the rice a few times, then call me.”
Shreeja didn’t mind being her mother-in-law’s sidekick. After all, what did she know of running a house, let alone cook a meal. She had been a nerd all through school and college, knowing nothing else but her books. And within a week of her graduation, her marriage was fixed.
It wasn’t that her parents had been looking out for a suitable husband for her. It just happened, and all so fast.
Books being her world till then, Shreeja never bothered to learn how to cook or keep house. And neither did her parents compel her to help in the kitchen. They were not the orthodox type who believed that a woman’s place in a house was in the kitchen. Luckily for her, her mother-in-law understood her daughter-in-law’s “shortcomings” but she never made an issue of it. It helped, didn’t it, having such a daughter-in-law? It ensured she would never be in control. After all, in Indian households, authority began in the kitchen.
So, when, today, the running of the kitchen was suddenly thrust upon her, Shreeja felt excited. Here was her first chance to show her efficiency. But behind the excitement, she was all nerves. What if something went amiss?
Her mother-in-law’s sister and her husband were going to Tirupathi by car and it so happened that their son who was supposed to accompany them got held up at work. Since three tickets were booked for the puja, Shreeja’s mother-in-law was pulled in.
The senior lady was very hesitant about letting go of her kitchen for the day. But the prospect of having darshan of the Lord of the Seven Hills was so beckoning that she packed her bag.
“I’ll be back tomorrow. I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. Now listen carefully,” and she gave Shreeja a long list of instructions.
“And finally, before you go to bed, after all the work is done, you must remember to ferment the milk. For tomorrow’s curd.”
Shreeja kept up a head wobble all throughout the monologue. Her mother-in-law was shooting out instructions even as she was getting into the car that her sister had sent for her.
“Don’t forget the ‘anda’ over the milk,” were her words of goodbye.
For more than 20 years, Mahadevan’s family had been buying fresh milk from their domestic help, Ammu. Ammu and her husband raised some cows and there were a few families in the neighbourhood who bought milk from them regularly.
Every evening, around half past four, Ammu would come to Mahadevan’s house with the milk. While she cleaned the dirty utensils from afternoon’s lunch, Shreeja’s mother-in-law would boil the milk. (No, this boiling the milk was not part of Shreeja’s duties. There was a certain prestige attached to this task and it could not be handed over to a subordinate unless there was a valid reason.)
So, Shreeja’s mother-in-law would boil the milk, and when done, she would ladle out some milk on to a plate and keep it under the fan for cooling. She would then make coffee for her husband, herself and for Ammu. Ammu was not discriminated. She got the same coffee that the family had. In fact, Ammu liked her coffee very sweet, so there was always extra sugar added to hers. And while they had their evening coffee, Ammu would give an account to the senior lady of all the new stories in the neighbourhood. While this chit-chatting went on, the tabby cat of the neighbourhood would make itself present at their doorstep. By this time, the milk in the dish would have cooled and Ammu would set it at the doorstep for the cat.
Besides this, there was another milk ritual that was followed in the household. Every night, before lights were switched off in the kitchen, Shreeja’s mother-in-law would take an ‘anda’ or a huge vessel, and upturn it over the now-cooled-down milk. The following morning, the ‘anda’ would be removed and the mother-in-law would peer at the contents, sniffing. She would then proclaim that the curd was set and put it in the refrigerator.
On the night of Shreeja’s ascend to responsibility, she mentally went through the day, crossing out the tasks that were expected of her. Her father-in-law, Ammu and even the cat was satisfactorily attended to. All that remained was the ‘anda’ business.
Shreeja picked up the ‘anda’ and waited impatiently as her husband went out to check the courtyard. The kitchen led to the courtyard and sometimes the cat could be seen hanging out there. Of course, the backdoor was strong enough to keep the cat out, yet it sometimes managed to come in through the ventilation in the kitchen.
When Mahadevan came back to the kitchen and shut the door, Shreeja proudly went over to the milk and upturned the ‘anda’ over it.
“Did you ferment the milk?” asked Mahadevan as he was leaving the kitchen.
“Yes, I did,” replied his wife. She then switched off the kitchen lights and joined her husband in their bedroom.
Now, Shreeja had this blatant dislike for curds. When Shreeja was but a mere baby, she had taken her mother by surprise by spurting the stuff out of her mouth with such force whenever she was fed it. After a few trials at feeding the baby, the mother gave up. For ever.
The rest of the family, which included some very stern aunts, took up the challenge of getting Shreeja’s taste buds acquire the taste of curds. The less said about those efforts, the better. The efforts being in vain, the aunts turned the ire of their failure upon the helpless mother. It hurt Shreeja that her mother had to take the brunt of her ‘indisposition’. Yet she couldn’t bring herself to consume the damn thing.
Not only did she not include the white thingy in her meals but she also kept it at a safe distance. She had no qualms about being open with her anti-curd sentiments, be it at school as a student, at family gatherings or even in her in-law’s home. Her nose would crinkle just at the sight of it and she wouldn’t let etiquette come in the way of her treating curd-eaters at the same table with distaste. So steadfast was she in her dislike that she never learnt how to ferment milk to get curd.
Mahadevan’s family swore by curds, but thanks to the sentiments of milk power, Shreeja was able to hold on to her aversion. So, she had never noticed her mother-in-law take a little curd in a spoon and mix it into the milk. All she had seen was the upturned ‘anda’.
The following morning, Mahadevan took up the ritual of the curd smelling. Imagine how confounded he was when no curd met his inspection!
“You didn’t ferment the milk?” he asked Shreeja, a tone of annoyance in his voice. Mahadevan had never spoken to Shreeja in that tone, so she panicked a little.
“If you did, then what do you call this?” asked Mahadevan, twirling the pan of spoilt milk.
“How would I know what it is? I don’t take curd. You know that!”
Mahadevan had to buy readymade curd for lunch that day. The family didn’t relish ready made curd but it was better than no curd.
The curd incident was an eye-opener to both husband and wife. Mahadevan learnt that if he wanted something, he had to procure it himself. He mustn’t take anyone for granted. Shreeja learnt that even if something was to her distaste, it didn’t harm to learn new lessons. She mustn’t take anything for granted.