In many ways we are like the British royals… We have matriarchs ruling the roost with an iron hand hidden in well padded kid gloves. That way, the menfolk think they are in command and go strutting and humming…I’m the king of all I survey… We women watch indulgently… and let them strut on… Though the house is our kingdom, the kitchen is the powerhouse. For a quarter of a century (almost) I have been studying the machinery and would love to relate chronologically how power has changed hands in the past… That I am in line,waiting for the reigning monarch abdicate in my favour,cannot make me a prejudiced historian. I hereby solemnly promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth…even if it kills me socially…and in the family circle! The kitchen is jealously guarded as one’s kingdom by the ruling monarch. 25 years back, it was grandmother who reigned and no one dared to so much as step into it without formal permission sought and granted. Reliable sources tell me that she had been occupying the throne for a long, long time. I remember myself, timid and terrified, hovering at the threshold of the kitchen in the mornings to be noticed and handed a hot glass of coffee. The ‘madi’ factor frowned upon anyone who hadn’t had the quintessential morning bath touching the water …or milk… Grandma would bathe and clad in wet sari enter the kitchen, close the door and change into the dry clothes hanging just below the ceiling far away from hands that may touch them. Next she’d do her poojas and sing a few songs… Athai, her eldest daughter would act as her assistant. <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-comffice:smarttags" /><st1:City><st1lace>Sparks</st1lace></st1:City> often flew when allegedly the assistant violated the orders or tried to innovate… There was always a clash of wills which would end up in either the chef or the assistant walking out and threatening never to return… I used to watch in anticipation of a total boycott by the injured party… but it never materialized… The next thing I knew, both were back and soon at loggerheads with each other. I knew Athai was waiting for an abdication in her favour. She had limited powers till things swung in her favour. Her jurisdiction was limited to occasional tiffins and the making of the annual vadams and pappads and of course the interim control of the kitchen on festivals. On such days when the grand old lady was busy religiously ( pun intended) performing various rituals and generally harrying the poor priest who has come to guide her do the pooja, Athai would wield the temporarily borrowed sceptre. Of course, there’d be heavy criticism from the hitherto busy monarch about the general state of things in her absence… I often used to wonder who’d succeed paati… Athai who has been waiting to grab the sceptre all these days… or the legitimate prince of wales – Amma. At the moment Amma was like the scullion in the chef’s realm… doing the menial tasks like peeling, chopping and cleaning up after the chefs have done for the day! Of course, Amma had no chance as she was not a resident. She more like the Duchess of York whereas Athai was the Princes of Wales. Also, she had her own small dukedom where she ruled… The next I remember, Paati had to abdicate due to failing health and she did albeit reluctantly in favour of Athai. The next 12 years I the new monarch reigned over the kitchen… Though she ruled well, she left her kingdom with hangovers of a battleground and it was more or less Amma’s duty in her enhanced capacity as the next in line to clean up. I could sense Amma’s frustrations at not being able to grab the reins. By now she had relinquished her dukedom and had shifted residence to the palace…where as I now had been bestowed with the Dukedom of York! I could see Amma ‘s suggestions and tips falling on deaf years. No one wants to deviate from the trail blazed by them and Athai was no exception… With both her feet planted firmly on terra firma… her terra firma, and hands planted firmly on her hips she’d overrule all suggestions. So what if occasionally there were culinary disasters and backfired projects… It was the royal prerogative to blunder and the retinue had better turn a blind eye… Amma still continued cutting and chopping and generally helping out , like churning out an occasional breakfast fare or helping out with the mass production of ‘chundals’ and making coconut burfis for Saraswathi pujas. Unlike pati, Athai did not actively participate in festival poojas, she had a personal bone to pick with God and refused to openly glorify Him… So even on puja days, Amma would initially play second fiddle to Paati and later took over that duty. The struggle to accede the kitchen throne continued… In the meantime, stirrings of power hunger started in my innards. When would I get a grab of the reins… Fat chance, I kept reminding me. I was anything but groomed for the job. First of all I had never tried my hand at the royal ceremonies like Annual Pickling, Annual Pappad and Vadam Making or Diwali Sweet Making. All major festivals were under the watchful eyes of those in charge… In fact, I hardly even bothered to powder my own Rasam Powder or Dosa Molaga Podi. Every six months freshly made powders were supplied to me by Amma. Like they say in Tamil ‘ Kuduraye Kandaa Kal Valikkum’ ( if you see a horse, your legs will ache – implying you’d want to take a ride…) I continued the bliss of alleged ignorance. The pages of my own recipe books containing recipes for these ‘podis’ and pickles did not bear thumb marks and haldi powder as did other pages… Maybe I was a lousy cook of traditional fare. Anyway, I was way down in the line of succession and didn’t worry too much at that point in time… And suddenly I found that Atahi had abdicated in favour of Amma. I really don’t know if it was abdication or overthrow…. Suddenly, one summer, Amma was in charge. The historian in me wanted to dig up the details….but it was all sensitive grounds…and I could often see the abdicated monarch looking disgruntled as the new machinery clicked into place and the well oiled machinery of the new rule set rolling. Amma was not just the Head of State, she was also the head of all religious functions and also the Annual Pickler and Pappdam maker… Athai now assisted her and clash of wills could be observed by the sharp eyed observers. Amma reveled in her new role as the monarch. She by now had her own Prince of Wales, Duke of York and Earl of Wessex… her consort watched in amusement as the Princess of Wales ( yours truly) waiting in the wings for her chance… That’s how it has been all these years… Now I wait wondering if ‘mere number ayega?’ Amma is in no mood to abdicate. She is in charge of the kitchen and that is that. Of course, I do get to ‘help out’ by way of chopping vegetables and scraping coconut ( as she is unable to squat on the floor thanks to a knee replacement surgery) and once in a while she lets me take over the reins in the evenings and roll out phulkas and subji for the dinner… there is no question of acceding in my favour! I don’t plot or scheme for the overthrow of the reigning monarch. She is a benevolent ruler. Yet, I feel uneasy about the situation. She got control when she became a sexagenarian… And if one looks back at the way abdication patterns have fallen in the past I have to wait a couple of decades to perch on that throne… Today, I do have the necessary degrees in different branches of sciences… though no commendable PHD ( Pickling, Happalas, and Desserts ), which makes me not a very fit contender for the throne… But in my own realm, I have a good reputation and people do appreciate my culinary victories and I have to be contented with limited power as of now. Recently, I tried to send some feelers out to check my chances of accession. Not much chance, came the result. First, I am still not in station to take over. Secondly, temporary shift of power do not count in the long run. Eight months back, I had gone home thinking that Amma would let me run the kitchen since she was orthopaedically incapacitated to do much. I never knew that insecurity can be therapeutic… The day I landed, she who had been under bed rest, got up and into the kitchen… Which triggered a series of doubts in my mind. Am I such a lousy cook? Are my culinary efforts too Pakkaattaan for their Kannadiga palates? Has the royal consort told the monarch in secret that he detests whatever I cook? Or am I a formidable opponent capable of an overthrow of the regime? I may resemble a bulldozer but when it comes to getting my own way…I am a Samson without locks! When I recount that I made such and such things in my home…there are smiles on faces… smiles with a shade of skepticism lurking in the corner… When I say last Vinayaka Chathurthi, my ‘modakam’ turned out divine, my head is patted patronizingly. May be I am being paranoid about all this. Of course, I used to be terrified in the initial years of my married life to attempt at cooking there. Appa is a finicky eater. Every I had to be dotted and every T crossed when it comes to cooking for him. The rice has to be neither too much or too less cooked. The tamarind has to balance perfectly… His lassis had to be decorated with Kadipatha and for a while seasoned with rai and hing… There was time he used to compare the softness of the idlis he’d eaten in various places, driving Amma up the walls. He used to suddenly put a damper on Amma’s spirits with things like “Nobody cooks as well as my mother’… Of course all men say that and we women should never feel offended about that… Just feel comforted by the thought that your own sons would say that… I still feel a trifle timid to cook for Appa, though, he, like my father, never says anything deprecating about whatever the daughters in law cook. When I am nervous I tend to commit errors. I remember one incident when I was very newly married. I was in Bokaro and Paati was also there. One evening we had guests and Appa and Amma were busy entertaining them. It was Paati’s dinnertime and she wanted me to make dosas for her. I was so terrified of her that I did something stupid. Before the tawa was really hot I poured the batter and spread it… Since she was already seated with palte in front of her, and I didn’t want to appear a culinary moron, I just somehow or the other turned it over and cooked it on the other side and took it to her. She gave me a disgusted look and said, So, you don’t know how to make even a dosai? I cringed and said I’d make another one. Praying to all Gods I knew, I made the next one and in my hurry to please her broke it into pieces while turning it. That was it. Paati told me to go and get Amma… I ran for life and got Amma… and hid in my room. I don’t know what transpired between Amma and Paati. My disastrous efforts were never mentioned. I was never again asked to do anything in the kitchen. Who could I tell that I had learnt to cook simple meals when I was in grade six and could really cook a good meal… It was all terrifying for me. So, when Amma refuses my offers to cook lunch, I feel I have a reputation to live down. My husband, as far as I know has never mentioned my cooking in jest. But then he is not at all a fussy eater. He has never once criticized the meals I have spread before him. May be it is time I started powdering my own Rasam Powders and making my own Pickles to prove my worth to the throne under contention… Or I may find my own daughters in law reigning while I may end up like a Prince Charles abdicating a throne he hardly sat on in favour of Prince Williams which quite possibility as rumours state… In the meantime I ask no one in particular…”Mera number ayega?” *** This was originally published in Sulekha by me.