A Vegetable and a Sliver of a Memory
Seemebadhnekaayi curry with rasam rice was one of my favorite dishes as a long-braided teenager growing up in India. The squishy sweetness of the vegetable, a member of the squash family, gelled blissfully with the tangy spiciness of the rasam, a gravy-type dish usually eaten with rice. The curry was also blessed with the virtue of versatility — it paired deliciously with chapati, a type of Indian bread, or yogurt rice, and ably played a supporting role to the more flavorful vegetables in sambars or koottus, also gravies and the mainstays of South Indian vegetarian cuisine. If there were leftovers — a rarity in our house — my mother knew just the person to call to lick the bowl clean.
During my first few years in the US, I despaired of ever finding the vegetable in grocery stores. My eyes would glaze over the gigantic bell peppers and eggplants, rows and rows of lettuces and potatoes, baskets of zucchinis and tomatoes, but they could not catch sight of the one they sought. I did not even know it by its English name for me to be able to ask the store manager. Its Indian (or more specifically Kannada) name translated to ‘field eggplant’, but I knew that name wouldn’t cut it here.
One fine day, I came upon it when I wasn’t looking for it in the Spanish food section of the local Shoppers’ Food Warehouse. After sparing a moment to be amazed, again, at just how many foods Indian and Spanish cuisines had in common (cumin and coriander, for example), I made a beeline for the basket, picked one up, burnt its American name — coyote squash — into memory, took it up to my nose, breathed in its fresh but no-smell scent, felt its soft thorns at my fingertips and put it right back into its basket.
I turned my sights to the other vegetables on my list, left the coyote squash where I had found it after all those years and checked out of the store.
A recollection had waltzed in out of thin air, made space for itself and refused to let my mini-celebration be.
In one of the numerous homes we lived in during my growing years, the vegetable grew in our garden. The plant is a creeper and it wound itself around a guava tree, climbed over its branches and draped itself over a part of our roof, grace, strength and determination evident in every twist and turn of its stalk. One of the reasons for its resilience and bounteous nature was, perhaps, that it grew over a septic tank. Much like the fecund pomegranate tree in one of our earlier homes.
And if there is one truth about septic tanks, it’s that they require maintenance to keep the pipes clear. So, periodically, my parents would tell someone to send someone and the message would be passed on until the right person showed up with the tool of the trade - one long wooden (most probably bamboo) pole. They would also invariably arrive, no matter which town we lived in, thoroughly drunk. As you can imagine, there was not much to convey to them once they came to do job. All you had to do was point them in the right direction and pay them at the completion of the work.
But my dad was one for conversation. He would never pass up the opportunity to start a dialogue about where people came from, what they ate for lunch, if they had celebrated such and such festival, whether they sent their kids to school, how crappy the weather was, etc. So at one of these septic tank cleaning episodes, he ventured to ask why every person he had seen who came to clean out septic tanks was drunk. “Why do you guys drink so much?” he asked. At all times of day and night?
“Because it is impossible to do this job when I’m sober, sir,” the man said, and went back to his work.
That man, and everyone else that came after him, got a bit of extra money from my dad, but the episode had never bothered me until I was well into a number of years of running my own household which happened to be here in the US, when I experienced first-hand what it takes to keep a home — and all its pipes — running smoothly.
No matter how much I rationalize it, some of it is just not palatable (such as the times we had to clean up the incredible mess a construction worker repeatedly left in one of our bathrooms), but I do it because it is my home.
They do it because it is their destiny, the only thing their birth and their station in society will let them do.