Saturday, December 30, 2006

Dinner at Saritha's

Saritha Reddy is a doctoral student at Sri Venkateshwara University (SVU) in Tirupati. She was one of the group of students who accompanied the team of SVU professors and students to the Indian Ageing Conference in Bhuvaneshwar last week. I got along well with everyone, but especially struck up a friendship with Saritha and with a young doctoral research scholar named Subbu.

Saritha has sort of adopted me since we got back from Bhuvaneshwar. Her father was at the railway station in Tirupati when we arrived. In his presence, and somewhat to my surprise, she invited me to dinner at her home the following evening. I accepted the invitation without hesitation.

I called my mentor, Dr. Jamunah, to let her know what I was up to and to ask her advice about what I should take as a gift for the family. A bouquet of flowers was deemed appropriate. The following evening, Saritha and her father arrived in a taxi to bring me to their home in downtown Tirupati.

I was invited to take off my shoes before entering the house. Inside, I sat down on a sofa while family members came by one after another to greet me and stay a while to chat. I met Saritha’s mother. Saritha has two sisters and a brother. I met the sisters and their husbands, along with two young boys aged 4 and 6. I met the brother’s wife, who was holding a 15 month old girl; the brother was out of town on business. I met Saritha’s aunt—her father’s sister—who has lived with the family since she was widowed many years ago (in India, a widow rarely remarries). I also met another brother-in-law who stayed a while, leaving just before I was called to dinner.

Before a meal one must wash one’s hands and I was invited to the kitchen to do so. Then I sat down at the dinner table, which was already laid out with an array of dishes containing the food we were about to eat. Chandrashekar, one of Saritha’s brothers-in-law, joined me at the dinner table, I think because he spoke very good English. Saritha spread a large banana leaf on the table in front of each of us, which was to serve as our “plate.” She then proceeded to place on the leaf one dish after another, mostly on a bed of rice with some sauce or curry to go along with it—and chapatti (thinly baked unleavened bread). On the side were puri (a light, thin, crisp deep fried dough) and some other crisp item made from rice.

I decided to eat with my fingers, notwithstanding the fact that spoons were provided for me, since everything else was being done in traditional Indian style. Everyone I’d eaten with since I arrived in India ate with their fingers, so I decided it was time to try it myself. I asked my dinner companion to show me how to do this without dropping the curried rice all down my front. I quickly got the hang of it--sort of. Apparently the food tastes better when eaten with the fingers, but I was too preoccupied with the logistics of getting the food from palm leaf to palate to notice the difference.

All I can say is that everything was delicious.

After the main meal, Chandrashekar and I went to the kitchen to wash our hands and thence to the sofa where we were joined again by Saritha’s father. We chatted some more while Saritha brought us two small desserts and a banana. Then, as a final touch, she gave me a present to unwrap, which turned out to be a set of pretty brass Chinese wind chimes—made in India, of course!
As per Indian custom, once eating was over it was time to leave. I said goodbye to everyone, thanking them for a wonderful evening. Saritha, Chandrashekar, and his two boys came with me in the taxi back to my guest house and thus ended a lovely evening—my first in an Indian home.

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