Friday, May 18, 2018

Eight Memories of Eighties Thamizh Cinema

Hold on a second.  Let me wipe the sheepish grin from my face.  I am quite amused with myself for choosing this topic.  The reason is that I was born in June 1981.  I have no right to be au fait with the 80s cinema to the extent that I am.  But – okay, stop judging me! – I started watching thamizh movies in the theater when I was less than 7 years old!  Plus, there were enough movies from the 80s that I caught later on video or TV that I feel like these films were an integral part of my formative years even more than they probably were!  In this piece, I am not putting on an analytical hat as much as donning a nostalgic cap.  I hope that at least some of these tropes and cliches bring a smile to your face, as you take a trip down your own memory avenues!

Note: I have embedded the videos such that clicking on play will take you to the appropriate place in the video. (Sincere thanks to all the youtube video owners.)

Begin with a bang – The 80s Titles
Much before Mani Ratnam decided that the titles would offer be artfully connected to the subject – a case in point is Revathi’s photos forming the backdrop of the titles in Mouna Raagam- loud flashy psychedelic colors were part and parcel of the title cards.  I suppose there were graphics much before Shankar decided to collaborate with computer scientists!

Exhibit 1: The titles of Makkal En Pakkam


Mike Mohan and Song Suresh – The singing heroes
Make no mistake - they definitely had some acting talent.  Especially Suresh – he had a voice that was good enough to later dub for Nagarjuna (Shiva, Ratchagan) and Ajith (Aasai) but think of these two heroes, what come to mind instantly are their lilting romantic blockbuster songs set to tune by The King and sung by Mr. Dulcet Balasubramaniam!  
PS: No, Suresh was not called Song Suresh the way Mohan had the ‘Mike’ prefix.  That was just my goofiness taking over!

Exhibit 2: Kootathile Kovil Puraa… from Idhaya Kovil


Thamil Vaalga – Radha, Ambika, Nadhiya, et al. 
I suppose Tamil cinema has always been flooded with heroines from outside the state.  Padmini, Savitri, Saroja Devi were all yesteryear heroines but they all dubbed in their own voice.  It was in the 80s with actresses like Radha, Ambika and Nadhiya was the voice artiste coming into prominence.  But to their credit, they all lip synced perfectly.  They all essayed a variety of roles from those of substance to being eye candy.  (In my mind, Saritha was the best non-Tamil speaking actress of this generation.  She dubbed for herself too.)  Nadhiya shot into prominence with her memorable role in Poove Poochoodava and had a short but spectacular run from the mid to late 80s. 

Exhibit 3: Chinna Kuyil Paadum…

 Silk and her ilk – the item numbers
What thamizh cinema did to Silk Smitha was a tragedy.  A travesty.  She was pretty, and could certainly act – remember her role as Thyagarajan’s wife in AlaigaL Oivathillai?  Yet she was made to prance around in skimpy clothing and dance to inane but super hit numbers like “Nethu rathiri yamma” (where Kamal was the dancer-in-crime).  Supposedly the distributors used to insist on a song featuring her even in the films with top actors.  Other ‘glamour girls’ followed in her footsteps but I don’t know if anyone made it as big as she did. (Of course, her real-life suicide was a tragic epilogue to her rags-to-riches-to-rags story.)

There were very few truly melodious numbers picturized on her, the song below being a striking exception. 

Exhibit 4: Poove…Ilaya Poove…     
 

No laughing matter – The Comedy Tracks
Comedians may come and comedians may go but Counder will go on forever!  It is a testament to the evergreen nature of his comedy sequences that even present day youngsters are familiar with most of his famous punchlines.  Though it was Karagattakaran that catapulted him to fame, there were several films in the 80s that had hilarious comedy ‘tracks’ (standalone sequences with a tenuous link to the main story).  My favorite, by a mile, is Vaidehi Kaathirundhal.

Exhibit 5: The mantel comedy

Don, men and their den
Henchmen got such a raw deal in thamizh cinema in the 80s!  The Peters, Davids and Kaalis were usually tasked with spouting the two most obedient words ever- “Yes Boss.”  What’s worse, they probably were sweating profusely while doing this.  They had to, in sweltering heat, wear figure-hugging jackets.  They had vision problems too – I would too if I had to sport sunglasses in dark dungeons.

Exhibit 6: The 'thagudu thagudu' scene in Kaaki Sattai

Judiciatree – The Panchayat Scene
Did you think that Vijayakumar was the first nattamai in thamizh cinema?!  Nope.  Courtesy of Bharathiraja and his protégés, there were many judiciary matters resolved under humungous trees!

Exhibit 7: The intermission point of Mundhanai Mudichu

Photo finish – The post-climax group photo
The writers and directors wanted to have the carrot halwa and eat it too.  They would kill off a character or write an intense, dramatic climax scene.  Yet they wanted the audiences to leave the theater without a heavy feeling lest the masala quotient be diminished.  So, what did they do?  They would tack on a family photo scene where a character would crack a joke and just to offer a cue to the audience, the others in the scene would start laughing. 

VaNakkam!

Exhibit 8: The final scene of Moondru Mugam           


Sunday, May 13, 2018

C'est la vie

It was the longest thank you.
“Be choosy about choosing and you will choose well.”  These were the words of author Sheena Iyengar, above her autograph.  After reading her magnificent creation in 2010, “The Art of Choosing” I was so moved and, I dare say, so inspired that I felt compelled to thank her in person.  “Thank you” - it takes less than two seconds to utter; it took me 45 minutes!  I hesitated to request her autograph because she was visually impaired.  She asked me if I would like her autograph.  I wish she could have seen me smile.

It wasn’t always like this.
It used to bother me when one piece of potato in my curry wasn’t properly fried.  It used to irk me that my best friend hated my favorite actress.  Once, when in my teens, I flung the remote control on the wall when India lost a cricket game.  I had non-intestinal digestion issues – I could not stomach the fact that my teacher bought another student a watch for his birthday!  Yes, I was a pugnacious brat.  But as I dug deeper, I started to realize, courtesy of Professor Iyengar, that I was clearly not being choosy about the things that could make me a temporary insomniac.

It was unexpected. 
As I started identifying the things related to my core values or my identity, two things started to happen, one good and one not so.  I became relaxed around the choices, or lack thereof, around everything outside that nucleus.  Suddenly there seemed more to enjoy in life, more to take in my stride.  In short, I gradually felt liberated from many of my obsessions.  But when it came to those things – friendships, emotional generosity, even writing, to name a few - that I continue to hold very dear to me, I started being more protective.  Which doesn’t sound like a bad thing but when you over communicate around your obsessions, you cannot always expect people to think, “It is only four to five things that he is protective about.  Let me stay out of it.”  Instead, I found that there were enough people to pounce on my vulnerabilities.  Why?  It might have seemed harmless fun, a way to mask their insecurities or an opportunity to vent out pent up emotions stemming from a perceived inadequacy.  The reason doesn't matter at all.  Scratch that.  It does matter when you bear the brunt from people whom you did not expect to behave a certain way, where moving away even emotionally is difficult.  That is when it hurt.  Deeply and abidingly.

It happened once…twice…now, I have lost count.
Thanks to close to a decade of meditation, literally and otherwise, I have largely curbed my temper and impulsiveness.  But I quickly realized that when you rid yourself off anger, you have to find other ways to express.  Where I used to flip out, I now try to reason out.  But I know that it does not work all the time.  With a couple of people that I have gradually distanced myself from in the recent past, it was clear that my efforts to communicate my needs fell on ears that weren’t deaf as much as purposely stuffed with cotton to mute everything that I was stating.  The longer the rope I gave, the more nebulous the person at the other end appeared.  Beyond a point, I didn’t want to keep track of the number of instances where these people dismissed, mocked or, worse, attacked passions of mine.  But as much as that caused searing pain, it opened my eyes to the true value of people that love you for who you are and wish the best for you.  These are also the people that know how to retain levity and laughs in life without crossing just a handful of boundaries that I have drawn for myself. 

It was hidden in plain sight.
As I ruminate on Dr. Iyengar’s words, being “choosy” extends to people as well.  Letting one’s guard down in front of all and sundry is a recipe for disaster.  As some sagacious soul once said, life is the opposite of school.  You don’t learn and then take tests.   Life gives you the exams and then teaches you the lessons.  Still, I wish I could have minimized my hurt somehow.  But…c’est la vie.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Flash of Brilliance – An essay on flashback sequences in Tamil cinema

Here is the thing about one of the famous tropes in Tamil cinema – the flashback.  Sometimes it actually makes no logical sense, especially when it involves a song sequence.  Sample the scene that leads into the freedom struggle segment in Indian.  Sukanya, playing the ageing wife of the former freedom fighter Senapathi (memorably essayed by Kamal Hassan), asks the CBI officer in disguise, “What the hell do you know about freedom struggle?”  The story goes back 50 years to the pre-independence era.  A rousing 20-minute sequence follows.  We then cut back to the present scene involving Sukanya.  So, let’s think – what would she have been narrating to the officer?  That she danced to “Kappal Yeri Poyaachu” and changed costumes a dozen times to reflect the myriad ethnic Indian wear?!  But I can bet my life’s debt…err, earnings…on the fact that not one member of the packed audience at Satyam Theater was thinking this way back in 1996 when the movie was released! 

The flashback sequence packs a tremendous punch, not missing a single emotional beat despite all the grandeur and special effects.  This sequence is meant to offer an explanation for the violent ways of the protagonist.  The emotional wallop is complete in a second flashback in the second half featuring his daughter Kasthuri.  If the freedom struggle portions sowed the seeds for violence as a justifiable means to a utopian end, the village portions ensure that our emotional investment in Senapathi is complete. (Even here, did Senapathi, who had a corrupt doctor at the edge of his knife, tell him, “We sang and danced to the lovely ‘Patchai KiLigaL’ song?”  Of course, I don’t need an answer!)  Now we are not only empathizing with him but also rooting for him to take out the corrupt, societal weeds the way he deems appropriate. 

The flashback has been a part and parcel of the grammar of Tamil cinema.  It is an efficient way to reveal the motivations of a character.  It is a tool that allows writers to chart a narrative arc, while achieving a dramatic high.  It also forces them to be economical.  For instance, the delightful Karthik segment in Mouna Raagam plays for only 24 minutes from start to finish.  Yet Karthik made a career out of playing variations (not always nearly as well written, of course) of this character!  These segments allow the writers to build to an episode within the bigger picture, with a climax of its own, even if it means a tone that is different from the rest of the film.  Though not regarded a commercial classic the way Indian is, the standalone segment in Jeans is a standout.  Radhika steals these scenes with her expansive performance, her diction, her body language and her piercing stares all fitting in perfectly with her character, one that has shades of gray.  (It is a testament to her skill as a performer that she made her abrupt transition in the second half work.) Up until this flashback sequence, Jeans meanders along.  It is with this short, powerful segment that Shankar ensures that the first half doesn’t come across as totally slight.


Never one to shy away from experimentation, K Balachander used the flashback to great effect in several of his movies.  One of his greatest efforts AvargaL, worked precisely because of the back and forth nature of the storytelling.  Told linearly, it would not have worked nearly as well in giving us glimpses into the complex, sometimes confused mind of the lead, played splendidly by Sujatha.  This narrative form allowed KB to establish the specter of the Rajnikanth character looming ominously over the life of Sujatha.  This brings a sense of urgency to the narration, making us wish for her happiness and for her to end up with a man (played with finesse and restraint by Kamal) that has a sad past of his own. 

The one kind of flashback that I am not a fan of is the one where a sad scene opens a movie, only for us to immediately travel back in time.  Even in undisputed classics such as 16 Vayathinile, I find it to serve little purpose except to forewarn us to a sad end.  In movies like Mudhal Mariyadhai, Housefull and Duet, the initial scenes give away a little too much.  In the marvelous cult classic Hey Ram, it works both ways.  The present day scenes offer a telling counterpoint to the communal violence of the pre-independence days.  But it is the same narrative style that, at least for me, robbed the crucial shootout sequence (where Shah Rukh Khan ends up losing his life) of tension.  Thanks to the present day scenes that had preceded this, I knew that nothing untoward would happen to the Kamal character.  The one movie where the solemn-first-scene trope worked exceptionally well was Bharathi Kannama.  The old character played by Vijaykumar is apparently waiting for his daughter and son-in-law to return.  We think that Meena (his daughter) and Parthiban (her love interest) will return.  What happens in the climax, of course, is entirely unexpected and all the more stunning because of the skillful setup.


The other aspect about flashbacks that I find to be especially important is the build up.  The best of writers find the most appropriate places to introduce the flashback segments.  The twin flashbacks in Rhythm are placed at just the perfect place in the narration, allowing us to relate deeper to the central characters, leading to an intermission where each of them have learned about the passing away of the other person’s spouse and the tragic coincidence.  Of course, the flashback of flashbacks is the one in Baasha.  The entire first half is essentially an 80-min lead-in to the unforgettable introduction of the don character and his bête noire Raghuvaran. 

As the newer generation of writers and directors strive to make a mark in Tamil cinema, I hope that they use but not abuse flashbacks that can, when conceived and executed thoughtfully, really help them achieve peaks in their narration.  They just have to flash back to the classics of Tamil cinema to see how it was done effectively.  And of course, by coming up with ingenious ways of incorporating flashbacks (Rang De Basanti is probably unsurpassed in this aspect) they will only be flashing forward to a glorious era of cinema!

******

PS: If you are a fan of Raghuvaran and have not seen this flashback in “Thulli Thirindha Kalam” do me and yourself a favor by watching this. (You don’t need to watch the entire movie to understand what happens in this segment.) It starts at the 1 hour 48 min point and lasts around 25 minutes.


Wednesday, April 18, 2018

"Kutty" - A little girl's huge tragedy

Articles and tweets on the horrific Asifa tragedy have made me feel rather depressed in recent days thinking of the world in which kids live.  In a Whatsapp exchange, my Aunt remarked, “Don’t trust your child with anybody!”  Of course, it might sound hyperbolic but such is the fear that these acts of depravity put in our minds.  As I saw one of those hauntingly innocent pictures of little Asifa, my mind went back to Kutty, the remarkable debut feature of Janaki Viswanathan that was released in 2001.  In case you have not seen the movie, let me tell you that there is zero graphic content.  The eventual fate of the little girl, played marvelously by Shwetha, is heartbreaking.  Sometimes leaving something to our imagination tends to be a lot more haunting than showing something on screen.  I will hasten to add that Kutty is not a one-note depressing movie.  I remember smiling quite a bit owing to the sweetness of several of its characters.  There is not a trace of manipulation in this movie – the movie flows like a rivulet through joy, hope and despair. 

An adaptation of a story by Sivasankari, Kutty tells the story of its titular character, a little girl who leads a limpid childhood in an idyllic village.  She is the apple of her father’s eye. (The father is essayed by Nasser, who makes you want to give him a hug in the sequence where he pacifies his daughter.) To him, the little joys of parenting help vivify their tough lives.  But her mother (Eashwari Rao who turns in the performance of her short career) is a little more worldly wise, constantly urging her husband to let go of his pampering ways.  Fate strikes when the father dies in an accident.  Struggling to make ends meet, the mother is forced to send Kutty to Chennai as a domestic help for an upper middle-class couple, played by Ramesh Aravind and Kousalya.

In Chennai, the couple treats her with affection but their son and Aravind’s mother (MN Rajam, who makes you want to give her a tight slap, throwing respect to the winds) ill-treat Kutty to the point where she wants to escape the house.  This leads to the sequence that left me not only misty eyed but also made my eyes bereft of any more tears to shed, the day I first watched the scene.  It is the scene where Kutty requests the kindhearted shop owner – Vivek is fantastic in this short role – to write a letter to her mother to come rescue her.  But here’s the catch - she does not know the address.  We, in the audience, are in Vivek’s shoes, watching helplessly as the girl breaks down. 

Start watching at the 39-sec point:

The movie also offers, in an understated manner, social commentary on the way even seemingly good natured people (like the ones played by Aravind and Kousalya) take the easy way out and don’t always do what is in the best interests of society at large.  This is illustrated in a sharply perceptive scene where Kousalya talks to her colleagues about Kutty’s plight and the evil of child labor.  All this happens while a school-age kid delivers them tea! 

Above all, the huge reason memories of this movie refuse to be erased by the waves of time is that it skillfully juxtaposes goodness with sadness and poses difficult questions.  How a kid’s body and soul must be protected with utmost care in a world where the juggernaut of antisocial elements can crush innocent souls, leaving many a victim in its wake.  Kutty cautions us that for goodness to flourish, it has to co-exist with caution and heightened awareness.  It is a testament to the skill of the writer-director that the movie never feels preachy or didactic.  Like a seasoned filmmaker, the debutant director tells a story unflinchingly, trusting us to pause, reflect and most importantly, act on the messages packaged organically within the construct of the story.  It is a certainty that these messages have to sink in deeply for humanity to stay afloat.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Goodbye, Chennai

If you know me really well, you already know this – I hate goodbyes.  This whole separation business - I easily go bankrupt!  My mind goes so numb that you would think that I am anesthetized.  My heart sinks so deeply, even the Titanic would watch me go past her!  This effect gets amplified further with time and distance.  I was in Chennai recently for a short trip.  The primary purpose of my visit was to spend time with my ailing grandma, who was recovering from a cardiac arrest.  I was also able to spend time with quite a few of my extended family and close friends, spanning the age spectrum from my 13-year old cousin to my grandma’s 93 year-old cousin!

These warm, emotionally munificent people have all enriched my life in ways that I have lost count of.  But from this trip, I have distinct memories of three types of people - the octa / nonagenarians, my parents’ generation and finally, some genuinely kind people who were relative strangers till my first meeting with them (which happened this trip).  

My grandma, her sisters and sisters in law are not getting any younger.  I took a picture with them and sent it to my family members with the note, “Gold doesn’t get old!”  Makes for a nice caption, I guess.  But really, I was just thankful that I could see them and spend quality time with them.  They may have lost the vim and vigor of their younger years.  But they seem to make up for lost verve with nerves of steel that help them face the inevitability of infirmity.  Some of them, such as my grandma and her older sister, have had to bear the loss of one of their children in recent years.  But in their long lives, they have faced many a crucible that has hardened their resolve.  It was rather touching to see how they cared for each other, knowing when and how to offer support in an unquestioning, unconditional manner.  As my wife mentioned in her write-up, it is through support, prayers and wishes that we, in a younger generation, can do our bit for the people who have spent the majority of their lives caring for their families, spending very little time focusing on themselves.  

It was not only the people my grandma’s age but also thoughts about folks in my parents’ generation that made me feel heavy as I left the shores of Chennai.  Especially moving was the way my guru asked me to capture the year-and-a-half that had passed by since our last meeting, through anecdotes, in the 90 minutes that I spent at her place. (She happens to be an Aunt of mine; technically, the Aunt part should come first but she is my teacher in so many ways that 'guru', to me, comes first!)  I later remarked to my wife that visits such as this felt so, for the lack of a better term, pure.  In this competitive, cut-throat world, I find it increasingly rare to come across people that feel such unbridled joy at just your mere presence, that any success that you share with them seems to be received as their own.  Incidentally, during this trip, a friend quoted a lovely line that lyricist Vaali had written – ...pirar uyarviniley unakirukkum inbam, ivai anaithilumey irupadhuthaan deivam. (There is divinity in the true pleasure that you derive out of someone else's success/progress.)  Now you know why I seem to deify my guru – there is no other way to see her and people like her!  In my eyes, they stand so majestically tall that, in their presence, I feel like I am standing at the bottom of a waterfall, their purity of thought and emotion washing over my own flaws and foibles, at least momentarily.  

Thanks to one of my other Aunts, I was able to meet her friends, a few of whom are in the film industry.  At an evening gathering that my Aunt had arranged, I was again, a lucky recipient of immense kindness.  While in the car, my Aunt heaved a sigh of relief as she told me, “You know, Ram.  Ever since I got to know your arrival date in Chennai, I have been praying every day at the temple that your grandma should remain healthy.  I knew that you would have been devastated if something untoward had happened.”  If that was generosity of one kind, what moved me equally was the generosity of emotion on display by her friends, all of whom I had been meeting for the first time.  The concern that they showed towards my grandma, wishing her well and offering to pray on her behalf, was deeply poignant.  Similarly, I was able to spend time with both a close friend and confidant of 25 years as well as a friend from this blog (cartoonist Ravishanker) whom I was meeting for the first time.  The vibes of warmth and friendship assumed equally meaningful proportions despite the vast difference in the length of the relationship.

As I reflect on my trip, I only have all these people to blame (!) for how I felt at the end of my trip.  But I know that I must be thankful that they are all part of a larger journey of mine, one where they show me how to live well, love unconditionally and achieve the truest form of happiness.  Vaali is probably grinning ear to ear from up above at his lines being immortalized by all these folks.

On that happy note, till we meet again, goodbye Chennai.  And thanks for all the memories.


***

Monday, March 26, 2018

Thathamom: A guest post by my wife Nandu

Paati in Tamil means grandmother.  But I don’t think my husband has ever addressed his maternal grandma that way!  At around the time I got married to him through the arranged marriage process 11 years ago, I was told by his family members that when he barely started speaking, he called her, “Thathamma.”  And since no one, starting with Thathamma, had the heart to correct him, the moniker stuck.  As I got to know her better and heard more stories of Ram's childhood, I remarked to him that she should be called Thathamom as she was a most integral part of Ram’s childhood, showering him with unconditional maternal love and affection. 

Thathamom with my beautiful mother-in-law
For anyone that knows Thathamma, they will agree that she is not the quintessential Tambram grandmother.  She is very cool, loves to eat out, be it Mumbai chaat, South Indian tiffin varieties or even ice cream.  A few years ago, when she visited us in North Carolina, we took her to an ice cream place.  She really enjoyed the experience and smilingly remarked the next day, “I don’t mind going there again!”  Of course, Ram being the strict grandson (!) that he is, said that sugary stuff was not good for her health.  Well, I couldn’t convince him because he seemed to have a watertight argument – she was diabetic!  One of the other things that I like about Thathamma is that she is very religious and ritualistic but finds a way to make that coexist with modern thoughts and broad mindedness.  Once, during the concluding portions of a rather long winded prayer meeting, she said to me that I probably would not feel comfortable wearing a saree for such a long time and urged me to change into casual clothing.  I thought that that was very genuine and generous of her.

Thathamma’s life revolves around her grand kids- as a kid, my husband was pampered beyond words by her.  After Ram’s aunt had a daughter in 2004, Thathamma was very involved in her upbringing.  I have some very fond memories of her visits to the US where I enjoyed being the subject of the same kind of affection that Ram and his cousin enjoyed.

Thathamma is not only a wonderful cook but also a lovely host.  Her cutlet, pongal and sandwich (which she calls “chilly cheese toast”) are all to die for!  In fact, while I enjoyed his previous write-up, “Warmly Served” the only bone I had to pick with Ram was that he did not write enough about Thathamma.  She embodies every virtue that he wrote about in that article.  Her generosity of spirit as a host is very symptomatic of her as a person.  She is just a very giving soul, in general. 

But this giving soul needs something from all of you readers now – your prayers.  On January 1st 2018, Thathamma suffered a massive cardiac arrest.  By the grace of God, she survived but she is still recovering slowly, as it has taken a heavy toll on her quality of life.  For a person that lost her husband 24 years ago and her second child 18 months ago, this health crisis is too heavy a burden.  Not a day passes by without all of us praying for her continued recovery.  Dear reader, if you are religious, pray for her.  If you are not, it doesn’t matter - just think happy thoughts for her.  For a person that has personified giving for 82 years, it is time to get all the strength, of body and of mind, to deal with this health crisis. Something tells me that she will come out of this healthier.  After all, I need to buy her the ice cream that my husband once denied her!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Warmly Served

Summer of 1993 – I was still a year away from entering my teens.  My Aunt (who passed away in 2016) and Uncle had moved temporarily to an apartment building just two streets away from where my grandparents lived.  Technically, I did not ‘live’ at my grandparents’ place.  But…well, you get the idea!  The tradition must have been in place before I was born because for as long as I can remember, my grandma, my Mom and my Aunt always made vengaya sambar (sautéed shallots mixed with lentils) and potato curry every Sunday for lunch. 

My Aunt loved to have the cake and eat it too!  My Mom offers the cake, while my grandma admiringly watches on.  There I am, with my eye on the cake.  They say that you can tell the foodies early!
During the period that my Aunt had moved close by – thank heavens that the construction of their house took a long time! – I would go to their place every Sunday for lunch.  She was a fabulous cook.  Funnily enough, she would invariably make tasty curries, delectable side dishes but make a bit of a mess of…of all things, rice!  I once remember that when she offered my Uncle water during a meal, he joked, “Don’t bother!  The rice is watery enough!” (Poor thing, she must have turned off the pressure cooker a tad early!)  But as I have mentioned elsewhere, she was a sport.  So, she would laugh off her own clumsiness.  Her smiling countenance was the usher to an enjoyable hour during which she would, at times, gently rib me for my lack of work ethic.  As I think about it, it was not so gentle!  Nevertheless, she enjoyed taking that privilege with me.  Sometimes I would bristle, at other times I would turn a deaf ear.  (Neither reaction, I suppose, was very mature!) 

She and my Uncle then moved into their house which was farther from our place.  Somehow my Sunday routine was broken.  I never thought much of that until I was revisiting some of those moments in my mind, after she left us.  My memories of 1993 taught me an important life lesson that food is a matter of comfort more than taste.  Of course, as was her wont, she never said this to me.  As I reflect on my interactions with others, I can safely say that not everyone has stacked up to her in this respect.  I don’t expect them to but some of my negative experiences have taught me to be more appreciative of welcoming, hospitable folks.  Even among my near and dear, while I take privileges, I try to not be insensitive.  This is one area where I strive to emulate my father - he never fails to acknowledge and thank the cook in question for every meal of his, even if prepared by my Mom, grandma or my wife.  It might sound like overkill but as I emulate him, I just look at it as giving people their due for the time and effort put into preparing a meal.

My Aunt's daughter - clearly, enjoyment of food runs in the family! (This pic is from Dec 2012)
An incident that happened in my late teens which I find impossibly hard to erase from my memory was a visit to an acquaintance’s place.  I was not invited for a meal.  But as we struck up a conversation – I may have had some blind spots here, to be abundantly honest – I thought that everybody was having a fun time.  One of the members of the host family urged that I stay for lunch while another made a long face…that I noticed.  But instead of politely refusing the offer and leaving right then, I inexplicably stayed back.  And trust me, hunger or a rapacious appetite were not the reasons I stayed back.  I just did not have the sureness of foot to act decisively and leave in an unfussy manner.  Some delicious items were on offer at the table – heck, the rice was very well cooked here! - but even now as I think of that incident, I want to eject every morsel that went into my system that day.  Since then, I have been exposed to all permutations and combinations (good meal / unfriendly host, tasteless meal / delightful host, and so on) and I have come to the natural conclusion that the vibes matter the most.  The taste of the food is a nice-to-have. (For the record, during this incident, the person that made the face did not have to cook a thing; the meal was ready and was made by someone else.  And, the family were very wealthy and had good support staff - no paucity of food issues there either!)  

On the other hand, I have grown more sensitive to the fact that there are times when meals for guests are imposed on a member of the household by a spouse, a parent or even a child.  That especially if only one person is preparing a meal for others, that it is utterly unreasonable for me as a guest to expect them to not look harried or overworked.  I try my best to avoid putting people in that situation.  Thanks to the aforementioned incident, I dine at a person’s place only when I trust them to the hilt.  When I am unsure, I visit people outside of typical meal times so that I can leave before someone even broaches a conversation about a meal.
    
Of course, I have close, trustworthy friends and extended family members who have made me feel welcome.  And my blind spots too have thankfully dwindled in size.  They say that hindsight is 20:20.  But I have realized that heightened awareness can be also be a reliable pair of lenses to view this world through.  It is my sincere desire to act sensitively, decisively and empathetically when I visit people.  And as a host, I hope that I am able to make people feel loved, welcomed and valued when they visit me.  Those vibes that they hopefully experience, more than the aroma of the chai that I make, are what will make my Aunt smile from up above and know that the lessons ‘taught’ in 1993 have been indelibly imprinted in my mind.  The mind that bottles the scents of my memories of her.  Scents that extend far beyond those that wafted from her vengaya sambar.