I was packing my bag carefully, scanning through every dress, and showing it to my husband, Chandrashekhar. No deep neck, sleeveless, skirts, or even anything floral. There was nothing beachy in my bag for a beach vacation.
“Why are you so nervous?” Chandrashekhar asked.
“It’s my first vacation with them. We have never spent so much time together.”
He gave a side hug and said, “They like you. Just be yourself.”
I tried, but I was not untouched by the notion of an Indian mother-in-law being strict. I always felt conscious in front of my in-laws, especially my mother-in-law. I would carefully watch out for what I speak, wear, and do.
They arrived the previous night. And had already packed their bags for a trip to Pondicherry.
“Cab is here. Let’s go.” Chandrashekhar said.
Papa wore black sandals first, then brown slippers, and finally changed to shoes. Chandrashekhar first wore crocs, then sandals, and changed back to crocs. He is also very particular about footwear. Chandrashekhar closed his eyes and did a short prayer. He does it before every trip. I noticed mummy did it, too. Finding the roots of your husband’s habits is always cute.
It was a 3-hour drive from Chennai to Pondicherry, where you drive along the coast. I read somewhere it’s one of the most beautiful roads in India. And I feel happy every time we drive along it and look forward to the destination: Pondicherry.
Pondicherry has a unique fusion. It’s called the French Capital of India, with Mediterranean-style yellow houses (straight out of postcards), white framed windows, fancy bakeries, chic boutiques, churches, and temples. It has a French ambience but is rooted in Tamil culture. And the food did not remain untouched by this blending—it’s a perfect spot for cafe hopping, where you can find both classic French Apple Tart and Biryani.
So, the first question that arose after we dropped bags at our hotel was: What to eat?
Our hotel was in White Town (the heart of Pondicherry), which was perfect for walking and exploring around. We didn’t know how much Mummy and Papa would be open to experimenting with food, so we were searching for a North Indian restaurant. Finally, we found a tiny shack-style restaurant on the terrace of a building. I saw multi-cuisine written on the board, so I hoped to get some North Indian food.
“What would you like to have?” I asked Mummy. She immediately turned towards Papa.
“Bhindi masala!” he said.
“And you, Mummy?”
She looked at Papa again.
“I’ll eat anything. Bhindi masala is fine.”
I was trying to ask her again. But waiters were hurrying us up.
“Mam, lunch will close in 30 minutes.” He already said twice.
We quickly ordered Bhindi masala (Ladies finger fry with spices) and roti (Bread). As expected, it had more masala (spices) and a lot less Bhindi. Mummy made a pucker face after taking the first bite. Clearly, she didn’t like it. But why did she say she would eat that? I was still settling into the family dynamics. There were some things which I got. And many things I didn’t. At that time, I chose to eat quietly.
We finished lunch and walked up to Rock Beach. Visiting any beach is meditation for me. When Chandrashekhar and I wanted to get married, the families weren’t happy. We were not on good terms with the entire family for three years. On all those days when we felt lonely or sad, we would go to the nearest beach and sit there for hours. It was one place in the world that would make us forget everything.
The beach is a good friend. It listens without judging and never shares your secrets. Now, years later, sitting on the beach with the family felt so good. It was my kind of happy ending.
“Tell some story,” I said to Papa, coming back to the present from my nostalgic rewind.
Surprisingly, he told one hell of a hilarious story.
Thirty years back, when Mummy and Papa had three kids, they decided not to plan another one. Everything was getting costly. Papa’s job was still temporary. They thought managing four kids would be an uphill battle. But they didn’t know what to do next. Someone suggested meeting a priest. They found a priest who said he would do one pooja (a Hindu religious ritual) and give some herbs. The pooja will stop Mummy from conceiving again. They did all the rituals, and Mummy ate herbs, but she got pregnant again. Mummy and Papa got nervous about how they would manage the house.
A couple in the neighbourhood said to Mummy and Papa that they would adopt the fourth child. But Mummy and Papa didn’t want to give their child. They went to another priest who said the fourth child would be the most intelligent of all. And they decided to keep the baby. Though unplanned, the fourth child was really special to them. I’m married to that child, Chandrashekhar. For them, he was a gift. I laughed so much at their innocence at first but also felt happy that they always raised him, thinking he was special.
Papa shifted to another rock closer to the waves after finishing the story. Mummy followed along.
Chandrashekhar was about to say something, but he didn’t. Nobody said anything for the next ten minutes.
“Shall we get some tea,” I asked everyone, breaking the stillness.
We got up. Mummy and Papa were walking ahead. I walked a little slow to catch a couple of minutes alone with Chandrashekhar. Maybe just to ask if I was doing fine.
“I never knew it,” Chandrashekhar said.
“This story which they told you today. They never told me in this much detail.”
Before I could say anything, Papa turned back, and we caught up to speed. Rock Beach is a lane full of restaurants and stalls. You don’t miss out on anything; instead, deal with an option overload. I suggested stopping at the first tea stall we spotted.
I ordered tea, and Papa was checking toys at a small stall next to the tea shop. I noticed a guy popping fresh popcorn in the next stall. In Chennai, I only see popcorn in movie theatres at prices that you need Cola to digest.
“Get one popcorn pack.” Mummy tapped Chandrashekhar and pointed toward the cart. I guess she noticed my eyes. After having tea, we went to Church and explored the local market. We stopped by for dinner later, and again, the same thing happened. I asked Mummy what she liked. She looked at Papa, and we ended up eating what Papa said.
We came to the hotel to sleep in early so we could see the sunrise the next day. I took a quick shower and crashed into bed.
“Why doesn’t Mummy order anything?” I asked Chandrashekhar while scrolling through Instagram.
“Moms are like that only. They try to keep adjusting according to everyone. Even at home, she will ask about everyone’s choices but rarely cooks something for herself. “
Chandrashekhar snatched my phone. “Sleep now. We have to wake up by 5 AM.”
The next day, I decided we would eat at least one thing she liked. Breakfast went by. Lunch went by. Every time I asked, she would either look at Papa or Chandrashekhar, and there would be silence.
For dinner, we went to a famous North Indian restaurant, and I wanted an order from her anyhow this time. I asked what she liked. She looked at Papa.
He said Kofta (Indian veggie balls).
“I am asking her. Let her answer.” I stared, and Papa continued looking at the menu.
She didn’t answer.
I asked one more time and got no answers again.
“You order,” Chandrashekhar said to me. It wasn’t a big thing for anyone at the table. But I got so frustrated that I would eat anything by that time—even prawns—which I am not a big fan of.
I was stealing my eyes and looking around. It was a big restaurant with at least 20 tables, and there was a bar on the other side. A group of teenagers, maybe college students, were celebrating a birthday. Pondicherry has many engineering colleges.
“Order mushroom, I’ll eat mushroom curry,” Mummy said to Chandrashekhar, maybe after noticing my frustration.
“Now stop being angry. I know you like mushrooms.” Mummy said.
I looked at the menu first and then at her.
“Order fast. She is getting angry.” Mummy showed her hands to call the waiter.
She was trying to calm me down. I felt so connected with her for the first time, not as a daughter-in-law but as a woman. It’s so easy to forget your own choices. It was the first time she had ordered something in two days, and that was also something I liked. I wanted to say something to her but didn’t know what to say. It’s rare for someone like me who is known for being talkative. I simply held her hand. Papa and Chandrashekhar were talking, but we both sat silently until the order arrived. She didn’t leave my hand either.
We came back to Chennai the next day.
Papa loves going to the market. As expected, the first thing he did after coming back was buy two full bags of fresh vegetables and fruits. Mummy separated vegetables into different packets, and she said,
“This Palak (Spinach) looks fresh. Palak dal (Spinach lentil) will taste nice.”
Photo by Jacqueline Howell from Pexels
I kept all the vegetables in the fridge, leaving Palak aside. She picked up pomegranates.
“What are we eating for lunch,” Chandrashekhar asked.
I noticed she smiled and continued peeling pomegranates.
I started chopping Palak. After two days of asking and even a small tiff, it was the first subtle hint I got of something she liked. The humble Palak dal is a special dish for me now.