Ammamma’s Kitchen

I’ve never quite understood the kind of people who hate summer. The season is more than just the sweltering heat — to me at least. When I close my eyes and think of summers, the darkness explodes into splashes of warm and vibrant colours, taking me down a long road of memories. Memories that still bring a smile to my face and at times, even an adrenaline rush. The heat never bothered me, for, in the summers, I was free. No assignments to finish, no classes to attend, and no teachers to listen to. I could bid goodbye to my boarding school for a good three months and focus on things I cared about. Going back home always meant three things — playing cricket during the day and challenging the sun to try and stop us with all his mighty rays, watching cricket matches in the evening and the hearty meals my grandmother used to cook. Playing cricket is something I grew out of over the years, watching cricket became a social activity, but eating Granny’s meals? I couldn’t fathom my summers without them. ‘Ammamma’ is what the children in the house called her, and Ammamma’s biggest trait was that she would never let anybody that entered her house leave without tasting one of her meals. People across generations vouch for that fact and every one of them had multiple anecdotes from their experiences. I do too.

My mornings would begin with a cup of coffee or milk followed by a light breakfast of Pooris or Dosas that were made with extreme precision. The dosas were never too crisp or burnt, and never too thick, and they would be accompanied with Sambar that you could smell from miles away. I, for one, have been awoken by the tantalizing smell of the lentils and ghee blending beautifully. The first bite of the dosa soaked in sambar would give me the energy I needed to set out for the day. The boys from the neighbourhood would all gather in the local ground with their bats and balls, with the walls doubling for stumps and the fences becoming the boundaries. These games were summer rituals and there was a code meant to be followed. The boys who owned the bats were always allowed to bat first while the rest of us fielded and bowled. You couldn’t bowl too fast, and you couldn’t hit the ball too far off, or much worse, straight into the windows of a neighbour’s house. Every game would always end in a scuffle where more time would be spent arguing than playing the actual game, with each team twisting the rules to suit themselves, and in the end, there’d be no winners. All would be forgotten by the time we’d retire to get cool drinks at the nearby store and head back home for lunch.

Lunch used to be my favourite part of the day. Ammamma used to go all guns blazing when it came to preparing lunch. She had an entire supply chain unit of daughters and maids and grandsons carrying out tasks assigned to them dutifully. I was always tasked with buying meat and vegetables from the store on my way back after playing, so I needed to be on time. The kitchen would come alive and the sounds emanating from inside would make one assume that it had a voice of its own. Nobody except Ammamma knew the recipe to most of the dishes and she liked for it to be that way. All the recipes were written and stored in a small notebook which she tucked into the folds of her saree and I’d always wanted to take a look at what’s written, but I never got a chance. Despite repeating the same recipes over and over, she would always need to peek into the book. Ammamma would make sure she catered to everyone in the family. She made sure there was always a gravy that wasn’t too spicy for the kids to eat, she would fry chicken in a way that it was crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside and just biting into it would make you full. The fried chicken was always my favourite and she made sure that her favourite grandson had his favourite meal every time. Another staple on the spread would be grandpa’s favourite mutton curry. “This curry is what keeps me going” he’d say after every meal. The menu at home would be a mix and match over the summer to make sure all the guests that visit are ‘happy and satisfied’ as Ammamma always said, but the fried chicken and mutton curry were defaults that couldn’t be changed.

The hours following lunch were always a blur. The adults would all sleep to get much-deserved rest and silence would prevail across the house as the kids would be too full to move. I always found myself being restless and uncomfortable in the silence though. I’d spend my time toying with things around the house — old and new, and I’d go snooping around the attic pretending I was on a treasure hunt. On one occasion, I came across an old camera from the ’90s. On another, I found an old watch that still worked. My favourite find of them all was a cricket bat that belonged to my uncle from the ’80s. I finally had the privilege of batting first and I couldn’t wait to get back on the field. The entire gang would set out like a troop of baboons to carry on the games and I had a good run with my uncle’s Kashmir Willow until two summers later, when the bat succumbed to its age and split into two at the touch of a tennis ball, as did my heart.

Learning that things change with time is something and that age catches up with people, places and things is something I started learning when that bat broke because I also realized that I was growing older. The number of cricket games we played kept decreasing, as did the number of people on the team, as a lot of us, set off to different places to seek better futures. The ground was deserted for a while until a local builder decided to capitalize on the real estate by building a commercial complex there. The few of us left around got together to play one last game to bid goodbye to our childhoods, and this time, there wasn’t a scuffle. This was the summer I turned 16. I came back home to one of Ammamma’s feasts and the world didn’t seem that bad anymore. The next summer, we had to bid goodbye to Grandpa. Age had caught up with him, and for the first time in my life, the house I grew up in and loved seemed to have lost the liveliness it always possessed. Ammamma stood strong through it all. A week later, she gathered the family around for a heavy lunch again. “Life has to go on, no matter what,” she said, and we listened. The spread was vast and had the usual sense of zest to it — except, Mutton Curry was missing.

Another part of growing up that I learnt over the summers that followed is responsibility. The cricket ground was replaced by an air-conditioned office, and my laptop took the place of my bat. College made boarding school seem like a cakewalk and I had to do internships during the summer, which also meant that Ammamma’s fried chicken was replaced by a sad excuse for chapati and dal that tasted like death. These internships took me to different places, which also meant fewer visits to Ammamma’s place. She didn’t have a problem, though. She wanted me to study hard and work harder. When I did drop by whenever I found the time, I would be overfed to compensate for the terrible meals over the summer. But things changed at home as well. The spread on the table kept getting smaller each summer after, as did Ammamma’s supply chain unit. Age was catching up with her too. We’d volunteer to help her out, but her strength faded over the years. But we were still satisfied with whatever we had because even if lesser in number, it was all the same in the taste.

I finally got a chance to see what’s inside Ammamma’s secret recipe book one day, after years of waiting. She was in the kitchen and she called out to me. “Can you tell me what’s written? I am not able to see clearly” she said. And at that moment, I wish I hadn’t seen it. I wish the mystery of it remained because then it would mean that Ammamma could function all by herself like the iron lady that she always was. I took over the kitchen that afternoon, and I couldn’t bring myself to eat anything. I watched as Ammamma ate and I tried stepping into her shoes, but I couldn’t. The shoes were too big to fill and for a second I thought of how lucky I’d been to have had all of this. I felt unsettled at the thought of it all changing.

The last meal I would have at Ammamma’s place came the summer I finished college. It had my favourite fried chicken and grandpa’s favourite Mutton Curry, after years. “I don’t know, I was just reminded of him,” she said and sat with us to eat. She told us she was going to sleep, and she never woke up. The house didn’t seem the same anymore. I felt the heat of the summer engulf me and swallow me, transporting me to a deep, dark void. The tears we shed seemed endless and I wished I could reverse time for just a second. But we picked ourselves up because Ammamma would say “Life has to go on, no matter what”.

As I was preparing to leave for work after everything, my mom handed me an envelope with my name written on it- in Ammamma’s handwriting. Inside it, I found her old recipe book. Torn in places, ink on the pages faded but readable. I smiled through the day as I walked into work and handed in my papers. I came back home to pursue a calling and to carry Ammamma’s legacy forward. In the commercial complex that stands on my favourite playground, now resides a restaurant. My restaurant, that I named ‘Ammamma’s Kitchen’.

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