As soon as Ravi and Ranganathan brought us from the station, Soundara brought us good, strong coffee with milk and sugar. Let me say, there is nothing as heart-warming as South Indian coffee. (And I speak as one who loves the coffee in Spain.) There's a special technique in making South Indian coffee and combining the hot milk, pouring it back and forth and then serving it, and it was just the thing to shake off our travel weariness.
(There is also a special technique to drinking this coffee in such a way that the cup never touches one's lips. Everyone makes it look so effortless that I once tried it, sure that it was easily done. Well, it is not. I got coffee all over me!) You can learn more about making it and serving it and the utensils required at this blog site. (It's also a site for wonderful Indian recipes. You'll really want to pay a visit.)
Ravi (our nephew) had to go to work after he dropped us at the house. Later in the morning his father (Rajan's 2nd brother) came over, and the morning was spent with the brothers visiting and other relatives telephoning to set up times for visits. Later in the afternoon, Soundara and Rajan and I walked over to visit with Kalyani's family three streets away. (Raghavan and Kalyani -- another brother and sister-in-law -- live in Pittsburgh, but they own the house at Virugambakkam.) A couple of weeks after our return from the trip, Kalyani's mother passed away; it's a time of sadness for them all, so I will wait to post about the paintings Renukka (Kalyani's sister-in-law) does. This just isn't the time.
As the morning unfolds, incense floats from the shrine where Ranganathan does poojai. He gives us each a palmful of holy water, and a small piece of banana, and, for me, flowers for my hair. Overhead fans whir overhead, stirring the heat, while delicious aromas float from the kitchen, because Soundara is a master cook. (Pattu had planned to come to Chennai and help Soundara with the cooking, but then she caught a virus, and her doctor told her to stay home for a week.)
Not being Brahman, I couldn't help Soundara in the kitchen (though she was generous with her recipes and let me see how she prepared them). So all alone she served up feasts during our stay: vangibath, a spiced mixture of eggplant and rice; idlis that were marvels of fluffiness with sambar; snake gourd chopped fine and spiced. I could go on and on. As for tiffins: gulab jaman,deep fried dough balls soaked in syrup; ladu,an incredible "semi-sweet" made from lentil flour, sugar, and ghee, that literally melts in your mouth; savories like ribbon and vadai, another treat made from soaked dhal that has been ground to a thick dough flavored with chiles and salt and then deep fried.
Soundara is in her 80s and gets tinier each time I see her.Each time her face seems sweeter, if that's possible. She had her teeth all removed recently, but her smile is no less radiant. Rajan was four years old when she married Ranganathan, and she has always held a special place in my husband's heart. And I know she enjoys so much the opportunity to talk with Rajan face to face, even though we call often from California. It never is the same, is it?
Ranganathan, turning 90, was his same kindly, enlightened self. A devout Hindu, he is open and tolerant to all religions. When we visit, he tells me more about the Mahabharata, or the Upanishads, or other sacred writings that he continues to study. They say good people shine from afar, and these two are simply distilled goodness. I miss them when we come home.
|A photo Rajan took of Ranganathan.|
|Soundara on the right; Shamala, on the left, comes once a day and helps with housework.|
When we are there, I love listening to Tamil swirling around my ears. All of our relatives speak English, but for catching up on news, it's quicker and easier for my husband and them to speak in Tamil, while he translates to me. I have valiantly tried to learn Tamil, but it's a challenge for one who didn't learn it young. The script is so different, and the alphabet is composed of many more vowels and consonants than in English. Not only that, the written symbol is slightly different for each vowel/syllable combination. You can see the whole alphabet at Wikipedia.
The grammar is different, too, because like some other South Indian languages, Tamil is not Indo-European, but Dravidian. So, I content myself with simply appreciating the lovely sound of it when I'm there, and learning a few serviceable phrases (that I'm sure I pronounce all wrong.) Our relatives all promise that if I stayed there a year, I would be fluent in Tamil, but they are being kind, I know. This is a very kind family in so many ways.
Next post will be about our visits and visitors.