It’s a gloomy 7 o clock-daylight-turning-to-night moment, as we drive into the basement of our building in Bangalore. And that single moment held a world of pain like a tightly wrapped fist. It was the end of a long and arduous 24-hour journey, one that we tediously took every year from Bangalore to Bombay, and back. But more importantly, it marked the end of another glorious summer vacation, before we return for a fresh term. It was the end of a year, as we would measure it in school. It was the end of the endless cuddles with our grandparents, of afternoon naps dotted with a medley of fully made up stories that never seemed to end, of snuggling into ammama’s saree and sniffing up the dusty remnants of her make-up routine – a gentle blend of Pond’s talcum powder and Lakme compact. Of waking up to the drone of ajju’s tanpura on riaz mornings, of having them pamper the living daylights out of us with completely homemade meals with simplistic delights like mutter-paneer and fried fish. Of languorous afternoons spent playing in hushed whispers, or curled up in ajju’s reading chair, nose stuck in a book, quietly sweaty under a too-slow fan, while ammama and ajju rested in the same room.
Those memories are inked in my mind, indelible like a precious tattoo that will never fade away. And thinking of that moment, the painful transition between the summer that was and the cold, empty home that lay waiting for us, uninhabited for a month now, still makes me wince a little. I remember it to be the earliest instance of truly experiencing being unhappy, low, despondent. One of times in my life when I registered what feeling sad was actually like.
We’d drag our tired bodies up the elevator, with our many suitcases in tow, with the heaviness of nostalgia for a time still fresh in our minds, trailing behind like a cranky child throwing a tantrum. But we’d walk through the main door, and suddenly the pall of gloom would lift. My mother would excitedly talk about dinner that she was going to cook. That magical concoction that was known to make everything better — saaru-anna. Potent, peppery, hot saaru (a kind of lentil-based rasam) that was comfort for an aching body and happy-food for the mind, as much as it was solace in a dinner plate for the soul. Served over a small mound of piping hot white rice. With a pool of ghee that you had to mop up and mix together quickly before it melted away and trickled all over your plate.
It’s the kind of meal that needs little else. Wholesome, complete, hits all the right spots, every time. Pungent, tangy, warm, like a hug in a dinnerplate – to use an over-used cliche. But there would sometimes also be a simple sabji, hastily thrown together with the simplest of vegetables laced with a generic, bare-basic tadka, tossed together with a hiss and a sizzle, with crispy cracking curry leaves and the essential soft freshly grated coconut crumbled over it.
And some more peace. Again .
The memories of expecting that plate of saaru-anna are as strong in my mind today, ensuring my heart lights up, as much as the memory of driving in at sunset makes me wince. Memories like this have a strangely comforting way of reminding us of so much in just a minute moment. A slice of time, that splices together so many events, feelings and the consequent flood of other memories that is inevitably triggered as a result.
If memories of that moment of the end of the holiday drag with it the memories of the many enjoyable summer vacations my grandparents gave us, the plate of saaru-anna will forever bring me closer to home. Will forever indicate an uplifting time to come. It was the perfect antidote to the drudgery of having to deal with post-summer-vacation blues.
It is no longer just a plate of humble homemade food. It is the promise of comfort. A powerful peg that I hang on to even to this day. Something about carb-loading on white rice has ever since remained my only association of comfort food. While some reach for a bag of chips, a decadent slice of chocolate or a stiff drink, to feel better all I ever really need is a plate of saaru anna. Comfort food is such a over-done, over-used, cliche term to bandy about these days. And yet, it is the only thing that can make sense of a meaningless kind of day. The only thing that can filter out the positive thoughts from a web of negative ones that has momentarily taken over your mind. Its the only way to settle the system, feel at peace, and regain balance.
It’s what I still turn to. It’s what I make when I return from travels and have to cook us a meal. When I’m tired and need a healthy upper in the form of a plate full of food. When I am blank and have no idea what to cook for lunch or dinner. When I am having a bad day and I need to get my mind off it.
And yet again, I turned to saaru-anna (rasam–rice), with a simple palya (sabzi). And I went the extra length to fry up some happala (papads). And the finishing kiss of that essential dollop of ghee. It was certainly one of those deserved soul food. Except today, it was my mind that needed it more than my body did.