My mother used to hire a middle-aged Brahmin woman to cook during religious festivities at home right from my childhood. As she was a widow, brahminical customs would deem food cooked by my mother to be inauspicious as offerings to the gods.
The middle-aged cook used to prepare delicious holige/obbattu (sweet parathas prepared with gram dal and jaggery, a delicacy of Karnataka). We siblings would wait for festivals to relish the holige cooked by her; although my mother cooked it very well too, but a variation in taste brought by an unfamiliar hand was always welcome.
The woman was from a poor family. Together with their meagre earnings, she and her husband had to raise seven children. Back then in the 60s, the going rate was a rupee for a plate of sweets.
She wore a pair of glasses whose frame was broken. She couldn’t do without the specs, lest she mistake mustard for cumin or chilli powder for turmeric while cooking.
She had to hold the broken specs for two to three seconds in front of her eyes and double-check if her vision was fine. So, she would tie a twine to position the specs firmly against the eyes while she went about her business. She would not take them off fearing she would get a headache, besides losing sight of things. Unable to find a safe place to keep them in the kitchen, she tied the glasses together with the twine.
My mother used to invite another Brahmin woman, also middle-aged and from a poor family, for lunch as muttaidi (a woman whose husband is alive). We were used to this sight in the kitchen for many years.
Once, when I was on leave after I’d joined the army, my mother had called a relative of ours for lunch during a festival. I had seen her during my childhood. She had put on weight after marriage. I couldn’t recognise her gossiping in the kitchen.
After they had left, my mother asked, “Why did you not speak to Chhoti?” I replied, “Oh, I thought you had invited two muttaidis. My mother smiled and said, “Yes! She has become a muttaidi only,” suggesting she was now a middle-aged woman.
After everyone had had food, the woman with the broken specs used to collect her money with gratitude and request my mother for a few holiges for her children. When my mother used to pack her tiffin carrier, I used to butt in, “Vainee (my mother), give holiges to the entire family even for dinner.” My mother used to oblige with a kind look at me.
For me, the twine-framed specs reflected her penury and evoked my sympathy.