Nila Mami’s father, was a strapping young lad who joined the armed forces at the youthful age of nineteen, in the second half of the twentieth century. Much against the wishes of his parents and despite opposition from close relatives, this stubborn, only child, went on to prove everyone wrong. He achieved great success and respect in his chosen career. He retired as a serving General with honourable mention.
Thanks to him, Nila Mami grew up in eighteen different, one horse towns, across India, within her first twenty five years of existence. She led a very protective, insular yet privileged life of sorts. She had never travelled beyond her father’s watchful eye and line of control. Mami was driven to school every day, in a flag car, accompanied by her mother, their maid and a jawan. He stayed outside her classroom all day, keenly watching over her. She had never bunked college to catch the first day -first show of any new movie with college buddies. Never stepped out for coffee or gone shopping without a chaperone. Never done anything by herself, alone. Her first connection away from the army life and into the civil world came, when she married her mother’s real brother’s, son. An outdated practice that was still prevalent in certain communities of India.
And yet, Nila Mami had seen it all. Knew it all. No one could had seen any better or knew any better. All she did, owned or acquired was simply ‘the best.’ Her husband had the ‘best job’ in the ‘best company’. No he did not work with B.E.S.T. Please try and concentrate! She had travelled to all the ‘best cities’ with him, in India and abroad. Her daughter had married the ‘best boy’, from the ‘best family’, of the ‘best city in India, Baroda’. Her grandchildren studied in the ‘best public school’, Baroda had to offer. She always wore the ‘best clothes’ from the ‘best store’. Her tastes in food, clothing, music, was ‘the best’. Her knowledge about the world and matters thereof was ‘the best’!
Her dog too was simply ‘the best’. Had the ‘best pedigree’, performed the ‘best antics’, loved her ‘the best of all’. Once poor Scotch fell severely ill. Nila Mami took him to the ‘best vet’ in town. He prescribed the ‘best medicines’ for him. She bought them at the ‘best chemist’ in town. Still poor old Scotch did not make it through. Mami arranged the ‘best funeral and memorial service’ for him. ‘The best coffin’ was ordered. ‘The best band’ played his favourite number. Scotch was wrapped in the ‘best linen cloth’. He was laid to rest in the ‘best spot’ of their garden. Till today the ‘best roses’ in the city, only bloom at that very spot. ‘Best’ being her most favorite word, as you may have already noticed.
“Have you tried Sushi at Wasabi, the best Japanese restaurant in Mumbai, at the Taj? It is to die for! It is simply the best I have ever eaten!”, she exclaimed, at a family lunch, in her newly acquired, heavy American accent. She had recently dropped her sister’s husband’s, mother to the T2 terminal, ‘the best airport in the world!’, to catch a flight back to England, the ‘best country’ in the world, where the old lady stayed with her daughter and son in law. Nila Mami had picked up the heavy accent at or maybe on her way back, from the airport.
Now anything that is the combination of the words Su and Shi speaks for itself, especially as far as my father was concerned. Baba, is a simple, middle class fellow, recently retired from a long tenure with the State Bank of India. Having made it on his own steam, he is a true man of the soil, simple dal- bhaat chap. He has never had any patience for the frivolous and pretentious. Loudly he guffawed, ‘Kya re Nila! Waisa bhi that wasabi of yours looks like kaali, ekdum black, strongly brewed, red label chai without milk and tastes like bitter- sweet kadha, aie’s age old ayurvedic concoction for a bad throat!’ Speaking bits of Hindi and Marathi with hints of English, he continued, ‘Aur ye tumhara sushi is basically kacha meat rolled and covered with boiled rice! Kai tari bhaltach! Rubbish yaar!’
As Nila Mami began to retort, we all dived for cover, knowing only too well, where this conversation was going. Mother excused herself and ran towards the kitchen, the other ladies following her in quick pursuit. Mama began to fiddle with his phone. Kaka turned his deep attention towards the ceiling dampness and leakages, of the two bedroom, one attached bath, tiny barely there kitchen plus hall, we proudly call home. Only us kids, sat around, waiting for the brutal aftermath, that always follows, when Baba and Nila Mami enter into a conversation.
“ But Nila, have you tasted this ‘best dish from the world’s best chef’, freshly fried slivers of shallots with tempered flat rice, tossed in a dash of nutty, fragrant oil, with fried peanuts, finely chopped boiled potatoes crispened to perfection, garnished with hints of fresh parsley, coconut flakes and a slight squeeze of lemon?”
“Never heard of it Bhauji, Taj or Hyatt? Where did you have it?” Nila Mami replied, a wee bit sarcastically and arrogantly.
“Arre at Leela,” replied Baba, cool and composed, the devious devil he was.
“No re! hamari Leela bai makes it, in our very own kitchen …batate pohe!! You must try it sometime! It really is the best dish in the whole wide world!”