Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have been caught dead doing what I did today. Why, if somebody had told me in the morning that I’d be standing in queue, waiting for a seat in that over-hyped, over-priced, so-called traditional restaurant, I’d have laughed at their preposterous suggestion. I’d been inside it only once before, with some visiting relatives. Everything about the place, starting from its blatantly pseudo-ethnic interior to its silk-clad customers, had filled me with disdain; the only thing that I’d enjoyed about the place was the kappa (tapioca) – though I had serious reservations about the size of the portion they’d served. I distinctly remember trying to hide my scorn in a momentary flare of my nostrils, as I am extremely fond of my relatives and did not want to express my opinion of the place and hurt their sentiments.
But 2 O’ clock, the 15th of April, found me lined up outside the restaurant – along with my very reluctant husband and cranky ten-year-old – to be a part of the throng that waited for their turn to enter the lofty portals beyond which lay the coveted Vishu sadya – the traditional, elaborate Vishu feast. (Vishu, in case you’re wondering, is the New Year day for Malayalis, who, in case you’re wondering, are the people of Kerala, whose mother tongue is Malayalam.) I’m sure my almost-eighteen must have been thanking his lucky stars that he happened to be on the other side of theArabian Sea at the time. The men in my life, sadly, have an almost indifferent attitude to tradition, especially when it calls for standing in queues.
It all started off quite innocuously. We were not celebrating Vishu elaborately this year because we were still mourning a death in the family. However, sitting at home and correcting test papers did not stop my mind from walking down the meandering roads that took me to the many Vishus that had come and gone. Once upon a time, there was a childhood when the wait for Vishu would start weeks before, with each passing day heightening the sense of anticipation. Back then, Vishu had meant getting up before the crack of dawn to be first ones to start the day’s fireworks. It had meant large family gatherings and quick wealth in the form of kaineettam – money given by the elders in the family. It had meant brand new clothes and sumptuous sadya on banana leaves. Vishu had meant so much back then…If there were other, less pleasant memories, I had chosen to forget them, at least for the time. All I wanted was my Vishu back.
My sudden longing for all I had lost in growing up channelized itself into an immediate and compelling need for sadya. It wasn’t just about food – it was about things that I knew could never be bought, even when I was trying to. I insisted that we go to a Mallu restaurant despite severe warnings about waiting crowds. (I must mention at this point that I refuse to take ‘Mallu’ as a derogatory term for Malayalis – for me it’s a convenient nick name. We Mallus have this habit of reducing all names to disyllabic nicknames that end with ‘u’ – Malu, Chinnu, Achu…) My long-suffering husband tried to tempt me with other interesting options, but I didn’t budge. My son pouted for all he was worth, but I just ignored him. Nothing but a proper Vishu sadya at a Mallu joint would appease me – I informed them with finality.
And that was how we ended up waiting for a good half hour in front of the door to the restaurant until finally we were allowed entry. When after another ten minutes the food was served, I ate as if I hadn’t eaten for weeks. It was the tastiest meal I had had in a long time – or so it seemed.
As we sat waiting for the bill, I looked around. There was a group of youngsters in the table next to ours, kids who wore tradition with supreme urban chic. Another table had a large family, including grandparents taking turns at running behind their grandchild. Yet another table had a group of young men laughing, talking and eating in equal proportions, and a fourth had a silent young couple, giving the food on their plate more attention than it asked for. Families, friends, colleagues, roommates – the groups were different, but the underlying sentiment seemed common. All of us were partaking of the sadya with nostalgic relish from the banana leaves on plastic trays in front of us. A non-resident Vishu sadya.
Thinking back, I don’t know if, in real terms, the food was worth the wait or the money. I don’t know if that one meal had actually satisfied my obsessive craving for all that was lost among the debris of time. Maybe it had – or maybe not. But what I do know is that my views on silk-clad customers waiting in line in front of over-hyped, over-priced restaurants with their pseudo-ethnic interiors will never again be the same again. Who knows what childish, nostalgic longings have brought them there?