Monday, March 1, 2010

Venkatole


For those of you who have read Wodehouse's conception of a personal chef so good that church-going women battle for his service like common crooks, then brace yourself for this. The flesh-and-blood version of Anatole is alive and kicking, displaying, as we speak, his exceptional culinary prowess daily in my mother's kitchen. Venkat starts the day with a strong cup of coffee that springs you from bed faster than a kick in the groin. You will embark on a gastric odyssey from a dosa breakfast to ambrosial dishes of the problem-solving cadre. His all-in-one sambars, for instance, have wiped out saas-bahu type of disputes, but the piece de resistance is the tamarind chutney that seizes control of the upper esophagus for all of five witless seconds. Insanely slurper-icious, it has much scope in improving bilateral relationships.

Unlike Anatole, however, Venkat is not a mercenery. But he also carries his own baggage of eccentricities. For one thing, he is honest to the point of insanity -sure, integrity is godsend to my mom whose last cook Sanyasi was steadily pilfering her saffola oil and pure sooji - but, Venkat does not even eat at work because to him that is tantamount to stealing. Second, he thinks cooking, in spite of all the awe it inspires, is just unskilled labor (he always dreamt of being a car driver, but sooji is easier to obtain than a steering wheel where he grew up.) He is also touchy as a hen, cannot tolerate a slight or even the perception of one especially on his appearance. And even if he feels slightly insulted, he resigns immediately.

But thanks to his quirks, he now works for my mother. His previous employer Judge Shankar just lives up the street from my mother's house. On Diwali day, Venkat came to work dressed in pink Gemini shirt and maroon striped pants, such a bizarre sight that even the normally dour Judge guffawed. Venkat quit immediately, and his wife put him back on the market, triggering a bidding war between Mom and Mrs. L.

Of course, you'd think Mrs. L won; after all, the conniving wealthy woman has many stellar accomplishments: best maid-servant, best gardener, and most obedient husband. But she misread Venkat. Money alone doesn't work on him. He is also particular about piosity. In this department, my mother has no equal. Mrs L's fourteen gods in her pooja room are no match for the pantheon of thirty-six on mom's staggeringly superior pooja room.

I remember I was in India when my mother got the acceptance call from Venkat. His wife came alone first to "inspect" the kitchen. Her eye caught the family antique in the dining room - a large amphora from Egypt with elliptic handles. She pleaded with us to put it away.

"But why?" asked my mother.

"Because the handles on this amphora look just like his ears. He will be offended immediately."

"But the handles are protruding outwards, human ears go sideward," I said.

"Venkat's ears are unlike human ears, he has front-facing lobes." She produced her ration card with his picture. It is difficult to imagine front-facing ear lobes until you see them with your eyes. She was right - the resemblance to the old jug is striking. So it went to the attic. And so did the salt-and-pepper shaker because of the likeness to his nose. So did a terrain-map globe because of its likeness to the baldness pattern on his head. Finally, Venkat began office the next day.

In hindsight, I should have seen the first sign of trouble just a few days later. My mother's driver had quit, so we were searching for a replacement. Venkat sought me out and offered himself.

"Have you ever driven a car before?" I asked.

"No, sir. But," he hastened to add, "the old driver Ramu taught me everything I need to know. Clutch on the left, brake in the middle, gas pedal to the right. Press the clutch, shift the gear, accelerate, and steer. It is a piece of cake."

"Listen, Venkat," I said softly, "why don't you get some lessons where driving a real car is involved? A couple of years experience, and this job is yours."

"Two years, sir?" his voice faltered.

"Completely necessary, Venkat. Just a breeze. Can I get another cup of that elaichi tea? It is just out of the world. With a piece of cake, please."

A week later, we were heading out to the airport for our return trip back to US. When the taxi stopped at a traffic light, I saw an old beat-up Fiat on the curbside repeatedly backing up into a tree. The driver was too inept to avoid the tree as he rammed into it over and over again. Our light turned green and my taxi started pulling away when I recognized the Fiat driver's face: Venkat! Taking those darned lessons, but not learning much.

When we arrived in America, my cellphone immediately buzzed. Missed calls from Mom. I called her up.

"Son, it is all over. The sky has fallen on our heads," my mother bawled at the other end.

"What happened?"

"Venkat resigned. He is gone."

"But why?"

"Mrs. L enticed him with a driving opportunity. She purchased an old beat-up Fiat just for him, so he can drive it around for groceries."

"Oh no! I saw him in the car. I thought he was taking lessons. She knew his weakness, that clever woman."

"That woman has no shame. She just sent an invitation for her birthday party tomorrow. She is ready to show off her new cook."

"Mom, listen - I think you should stay calm ..."

Clearly, nothing I said calmed down my mother. My wife sized up the situation and asked me to go back to India again.

"Whatever you do, you got to get Venkat back," said my wife with the look of a determined bahu.

Forty-eight hours later, I am back, ringing the doorbell on my mother's house. I saw the beat-up Fiat parked outside Mrs. L's gate, more beat-up than ever. Venkat must be pounding it like one of his rotis. Mom opened the door.

"Good to see you again so soon," Mom said.

"Well, you look like you recovered from the shock," I said.

Mom nodded. "You must be really tired. Back-to-back trips when I'm doing just fine. What do you want - coffee or tea?"

"Tea, please." I said. Didn't really matter. I flopped down on the balcony chair, and Mom appeared with tea cups. I could see Mrs. L's house from here. In fact, I know where her kitchen is. Venkat must be in there, I thought and sipped my tea.

For a second, the world turned upside down and tilted upright again. The veil seems lifted, the sky is blue again. The birds are chirping, the fruit-seller is calling out his goods, and the kids are playing in the park. It is a perfect day. It is elaichi tea. It is a kick in the groin.

I leapt out of my chair. "Venkat is back!" I said.

Mom smiled: "Yes, he rejoined this morning."

"But why ... how ..."

"Well, I went to Mrs. L's birthday party. Can't be the sore loser, right? Venkat was there, avoiding me, but his food was as good as it usually is."

"All right," I said impatiently, "but why did he come back? Change of heart?"

"Not really. I had to take a gift for Mrs. L, after all she was kind enough to give me a gift on friendship day. I hope you are not mad at me ... I gave her the Egyptian amphora."

"But, Mom, why ... that is so dear to us... OH!" It struck me then. The devious plan. I stopped.

Mom grinned: "Mrs. L had no clue what this was getting her into. She was so excited about the amphora she put it on her dining table. For one whole day, Venkat had to endure the humiliation of this hideous thing mocking his ears."

"Mom, you are the devil incarnate." I realized I was wasting my time now. "Well, you should have let me into the plan. I took emergency leave to get back here. I'll take the 3.30 flight to Bangalore from where I can get back to work."

"Why don't you stay here for dinner? You must be tired." She called out for Venkat.

I dialled the travel agency and spoke: "Can't, Mom. Gotta go. Oh hello! Frontline travel? Can I speak to Ms. Archana please"

Venkat arrived in the meantime as I was waiting for my agent.

"Venkat, my son is not staying for dinner. So nothing fancy today, you can stick to my regular diet."

I cupped the mouthpiece. "Wait, what were you planning for dinner today?"

Venkat cleared his throat. "Uttapam opener, and then a main course with two curries - stuffed brinjal and chopped jackfruit, coconut, tamarind chutneys, and strained rasam. For dessert, thayir vada and pista kulfi. But, since you are leaving now ..."

I instantly slammed down the phone. "That, my friend, is just a rumor!"

ps: To my mother's cook who has all the skills as the Venkat of this story without his front-facing lobes and fragile ego.


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