None among the womenfolk in our joint family would have handled balancing the supply and demand position more satisfactorily than my caring and considerate grandmother who served the simple, South Indian staple food in our young hands every night. A firm believer in the dictum that the family that eats together seamlessly stays together, she would appear in our sprawling courtyard with a big soapstone vessel brimming with thayir sadham—the loveable combination of rice and curd laced with crystals of salt for taste.
The call for dinner would not require any sounding of dinner gong as was done in old English country houses since my platoon of brothers, sisters and cousins having hungry wolves in their bellies would have already assembled there in a semi-circle. The resident cat, a female that almost always was pregnant, would be the first to arrive with an authoritative, deep meow. It would sit on its haunches turning its head every which way as if doing a head count. A kerosene lamp perched on a stool would provide the diffused yellow light which will be dispensed with during nights when the moon from up above will provide the soft, diffused lighting.
The service would start from the youngest and proceed clockwise, the lap including the cat as well. Some would quickly gobble up the handful, a habit frowned upon by my granny. The one in a dark mood would take time chewing the food and may even mumble “pause” when the next turn came. But the Oliver Twists who always wanted more had to wait patiently for their next turn or else their ears will be tweaked gently. No noise should be made while eating or the fingers licked. Though we all squatted on the floor and ate, the regimen our unlettered granny inculcated in us was nothing short of fundamental table manners.
While her hand was busy serving food, her mouth will not remain inactive. The Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar had enjoined that “some food for the stomach is brought/when the ear gets no food for thought”. Yet, she would combine feeding both of them at the same time by telling stories from classics. She had such a fictional repertoire that no story was repeated.
Instead of using a narrator’s monotone, she would assume the roles of the characters whenever conversation with appropriate voice modulations was deemed necessary to take the story interestingly forward.
We could feel the presence of Sita, Hanuman, Arjuna, Duruva, Vishwamitra, Krishna, Kamsa and others enacting their roles. Indeed, she was a magical realist.
When the vessel became empty and the bellies full, supply having met the demand, she would collect the sparse remnants from the bottom and feed that coveted tasty morsel directly into the mouth of the youngest.
Such heart-warming scenes would be rare now, with the only child of the nuclear family listlessly picking at the dinner, poring over an iPad or fiddling with a smartphone, the granny with abundant supply of love and affection, but denied takers, relegated to the background. Or made to languish in an old age home with peers sharing similar fate.