This year has been a year of repairing estrangements for me. In the course of this, Re met an uncle and an aunt, two of his second cousins in New York (they had him at Elsa and Anna), and two long-lost (and I don’t even know why they were lost) second cousins in Bangalore. They bonded instantly and Re was teaching Alvi (the one nearer his age) his ballroom moves while we adults chomped on Tex-Mex and found that we were related in more convoluted ways than we thought. “It’s blood,” said the just-found cousin-by- marriage, looking fondly at the kids bonding. But I feel blood as a currency is overrated. It was definitely more than that.
He also met his chittapata (grand uncle, my father’s younger brother). When he was confused what it meant, I told him it was a junior taatha (Tamil for grandpa). Oh, he said. That’s why his voice is like taatha!
I was visiting my uncle after nine years in his retirement home in Coimbatore. I had, in the meanwhile, grown a husband, a child, two cats, a paunch, greyed all over and switched multiple careers. But my uncle and aunt were arguing about dates and family trees just like they always did and it was as though time had stood still. My welcome meal was chittappa’s famous chinna vengayam (baby onion) sambar and potato podimaas (mashed potato curry). That seemed unaltered in its aroma and taste and something told me all will always be well with this family. Chittappa had Re at his favourite semiya payasam, which he had multiple bowls of and declared his stomach was singing a song. Re had him at you-look-like-that-man-who-comes-in-that-ad (read Amitabh Bachchan)
The baby onion sambar assumes a different varietal with every member of our clan. While chittappa allows the baby onions to flirt freely with capsicum and bhindi, my mother would never allow it. She would of course chop the larger ones to equalize them with the smaller ones. She always has an economic agenda which often camouflages as aesthetic. My father would be more flamboyant about his preparation, given everything else he does. He would sautee the baby onions separately in ghee before releasing them into the ocean of sambar. I do my own thing of adding a chopped spring onion garnish to it, which my father finds interesting, although I always thought he would frown at the lesser onion polluting the higher onion.
Family is people who meet you even when it’s not convenient. They show up, even if you don’t like them very much. They never miss a wedding or a funeral. We all have our own take on things, as long as we are allowed to express them. But we have to meet enough to be able to do that. When I was little, there were always weddings, thread ceremonies, house-warmings and whatnots. There don’t seem to be enough of those now, and we have to manufacture reasons to meet family. But sometimes, desire is enough too. I have 15 first cousins. Re has four. He hasn’t even met two of them. I need to manufacture a lot of family for him.
With friends, it’s different. We meet our friends in airbrushed, manicured, orchestrated settings, the stomach is tucked in, the hair is in place, the food is molecular, the lighting is just perfect for ‘likable’ photos.
With family, we are our jagged, bad-haired, out-of-bed selves
I recently messaged a friend who I had been planning to meet when I was in Bombay. She wrote back saying her parents and sister were over, so could we meet another time? I just felt I was not family enough.
Part of the reason I moved out of the city was that I could never count on friends to be family for Re. They always had something more important to do, like family or activity classes or birthday parties, and I was tired of explaining to Re why he wasn’t priority. Since I moved out of the city, I use every opportunity I have in Bombay to reconnect with old friends. Food always catalyses such reunions and the higher the possibility of it being involved, the greater the chances of my meeting them. Friends or families that don’t do food enough usually fade off my radar.
My friends know that I always show up. So asking me a lame question like “when do I see you?” is not a good idea, because I always come up with a plan and mean to execute it. I make friends so that I can take them home. I make friends so I can find more people I can be myself with. I make friends so they can feel like family.
I was recently at Delhi, spending a few days with Usha Aunty and Vijay uncle. I do this whenever I get a chance. They are not family. They are my dear friend Reshu’s in-laws. I meet them more than I meet Reshu, since she lives in Dubai. We go back as long as her marriage, which I think is 20 years. We discuss recipes of lauki with kalonji, stuffed baby karelas, apricot and tomato chutney. We recently found connections in our families, and realized what a small world it was.
In the end, we all want friends who feel like family and we want family that we can be friends with. But the key is, you have to show up. Eat a meal. Cook maybe. Talk some. Cry some. And no, clicking ‘like’ on Facebook does not count. So before the year ends, try and locate someone from your family tree or your friendship universe. Go meet them, have a meal with them. Tell me how it felt.
(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 17th November, 2014)