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When I decided to keep my weekends free before finally leaving the city of Coimbatore on 4th of February, I had no particular reason in mind as to why I was doing so. Maybe it was my way of deciding to linger on at a place I liked. Or it could be that I was interested in scouting around the place just to note something memorable that had so far escaped my notice during my stay of one and half year in the city. Now, if I'm called upon to to say something about the landmarks of Coimbatore which will speak of my intimate association with the place, I'll honestly draw blank...and I'm sure about that. For a person who has not used public transport inside the city during his one and half year long stay, who has never driven a car here nor travelled through its streets as a pillion rider, only pathetic ignorance should be in his share. Honestly, I don't know where they sell fish and where the flower; which god or goddess they run to when faced with problems. Howsoever I tried, I could not locate a person who would have given me some creative vibes which I could remember in the preface of my next work. I even tried to meet the great guru Jackie but that was destined to be another failure. A guru of such a stature is not so easily accessible--I should have known that before aspiring to meet him. So, my experience has been so very restricted. Oh yes, I can say about the circular flyover on Avinashi Road [Avinashi Road Mamvalam], a bridge that comes from everywhere and goes to everywhere. I can remember a picture of Gandhi before a Khadi outlet there, which is written in Tamil as Kanti to be read as Gandhi. Indeed, you can say I have seen far less than the city offered me to view.
Come Saturday and I had an invitation from a retired colleague to take lunch at his place. At the outset I was a little hesitant, not because I was too big a person to accept the invitation but for the simple reason that I was not sure why I chose to linger on at Coimbatore for the weekends. Was it for a lunch? Oh no, it was no ordinary lunch. It was an authentic Tamil lunch, quite different from the ones I used to get from those thalis served at different Bhavans with a dozen of tiny pots of side dishes. Aha! let me remember the list before I proceed further to tell about the authentic Tamil dish I got yesterday. Well, the Bhavans used to serve Sambar, Rasam, Puli Kalmbo, More Kalambo, Poriyal, Avial, koot, Chukuti Kirai, Pasi Barpu, Papadam, curd, pickles, Javarsi Payasam, Vazaiphalam (Banana), ice-cream, Bida (betel). So many of them. I used to get too overwhelmed by their aromas to retain hunger. All those were just to be touched and left. Even local people used to do that: none ever tries to finish every morsel of what is served.
But last Saturday, with authentic Tamil lunch before me I had no such feeling of being lost.
Even before I accepted the invitation I had very unashamedly made my preference clear: I'd prefer fish fry to Meen Kalamboo (fish with gravy of tamarind). But my host showed his helplessness saying that he was powerless before his wife in enforcing my request. Come what may she would make Meen Kalambo and feed me. Well, if that was so, let it be so. I should help my host.
And when the food was actually served, I had to welcome them item by item, not everything in one go. As if they each had a tag of sequence. Every item of food was like a competitor in a sprint race and no one was allowed to leave its numbered track.The first thing to arrive was sweet. But why? Would not sweet, at the first place, kill my appetite? I was aware of the guiding principle that comes in the shape of a Sanskrit sloka: मधुरेण समापयेत्. Translated it implies: Eat whatever you want, but finish with something sweet. This is how we eat in Odisha. The hostess who knew no English or Hindi was sharp enough to understand my quibble and smartly broke the sweet into a small piece. I accepted the compromise. Then rice was served, just a ladle of it. With rice I was to take Meen Kalambo(the fish swimming in the sour gravy). I liked it. And my expressions made it clear. The hostess was to be communicated by translation but she had understood the content before the service of translation could reach her. She was not only an expert in culinary art; she was was a psychologist who accurately interpreted my smile of contentment before her husband could choose the right word to describe my smile.
After Meen Kalambo I was given the freedom to munch the fish fry. It was something I had requested for. It tasted like the one I'm accustomed to in Odissa. Just plain fry; there was nothing very spicy about it. I simply uttered the feedback and with a quick translation from the husband the hostess understood it. She had smile to encourage me to go on.
Then came Sambar. And a ladle of rice. After my three stints in South India, I have at least the ability to distinguish Tamil Sambar from the Sambar of Andhra...and from that of Karnataka for that matter. About Kerala Sambar--well, one should train oneself to be eclectic first before trying that. Sambar of Tamil Nadu is just a sour edition of Odiya Dalma--the same exuberance of vegetables in it, the same turbidity. As for Andhra Sambar, one should not mind shedding a bit of sweat and tears just to get the real taste of the dish.
Then came Rasam, then curd, and a ladle of rice with both the items. Then Payasam, then banana, then betel...the serves just went on and on. How many courses? Oh, I just lost the count. I remembered there was curd to finish the rice-related course.
Even as I was eating, I enquired my guest as to when he would take his food. It was already past 2 PM. And the reply was that in matter of hospitality there is a sequence too: the guest should get his food first and then the head of the family. And actually the hostess waited till she bade me good bye so that she would go to her meal. Aha! The old people with old ideas on priorities and sequencing. In a typical Odiya household, the guest is served food along with the host and others: only the lady of the household in charge of serving takes her food at last.
But everything was not old and ancient there. The host played the video CD of her daughter's marriage for me to see and appreciate. The perfection in cinematography showed that it was more an avant-grade documentary than a mere memorabilia. There were scenes of colourful processions, firework, speech making, the couple riding chariot, people greeting each other smearing sandal wood paste on each other's cheeks, draping shawls or tying turbans, dance drama troupes from Kerala performing to their perfection. There were soulful songs at the background which I liked to listen to without getting to understand a word out of them. Everything reminded me of the famous proverb: You live once and so you live in style.
And I could spot in the video a handsome colleague of ours with his trademark beard and shining red shirt, a fellow who is with us no more. The dear old soul has gone to heaven for heavenly assignment. May god bring the soul eternal peace and the heavenly bliss.
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"How do you like Tamil Nadu?", even now people ask me the oft-repeated question. Yes now when I am to leave the station.
"Aha! It is really very good," I just reply on without getting tired.
A. N. Nanda