Friday, January 26, 2007

PG Aunty

During the 16 months that I worked in Mumbai, I lived as a paying guest(pg). Many people had advised me against going for a pg accommodation, citing restrictions and lack of privacy. But when I did go house-hunting and found this house with a convenient room and a nice Sikh lady in charge, I jumped at it. I decided that I would need company in my first few days in the big bad city, and then later, if I felt that the pg cramped my style, I could always move to a flat. Besides, I didn't plan to live in Mumbai for too long. So I moved in. [I did try flat-hunting after a month or so, but at every stage I evaluated the merits and demerits of the flat and the pg I lived in, and eventually gave up the idea of moving into a flat of my own].

PG Aunty, as we all referred to her, was a very interesting woman. Very fat, with thinning hair, she had a perpetually worried look on her face. With five daughters, three of them yet to be married, she was forced to take in paying guests after her husband's business suffered severe losses. With a large house with many rooms, she had quite a few girls rooming with her. Add to them, the three daughters of her own, and a stern silver-haired silver-bearded husband, she had her hands full.

Her schedule was remarkable. We girls left home for work at different times in the morning - The two girls who were my colleagues, and I, were the first to leave. We had to catch our bus at eight in the morning. Aunty would rise at around seven, and go straight to the kitchen to start the food manufacturing for the day. She had a four-burner stove, which she utilized completely. On the back left burner, the tea boiled. On the back right burner cooked the vegetable curry of the day. On the front left burner was a tava on which she cooked chapatis for us to take as packed lunch, and on the front right burner was another tava on which she cooked thick parathas. All simultaneously.

She had two lumps of doughs - one for parathas and one for chapatis, and her hands never stopped working. She would pluck out a fistful of dough from the dough, and with three - just three (I counted) twists of the dough, it would become this perfectly spherical ball. She would then roll it out quickly, into, needless to say, a perfectly round chapati/paratha, and then it would fly, as if on its own to one of the two tavas on the stove. Oil would be poured on the chapati/paratha (this is where I would avert my eyes). A couple of quick turns and twists, and the chapati would come out of the tava and get wrapped up in aluminum foil and go and sit in our lunch boxes, and the paratha would fly into our waiting plates. In the milliseconds that she had between making these chapatis and parathas, she would add the masala to the curry or sugar to the tea, and stir the contents of those vessels. And by the time we came back for more parathas, the ready curry would have magically found its way into our boxes, the box would be packed and ready for us to take. How many times have we tried to tell her that we would do the packing ourselves, Aunty, please don't bother - but no. It would somehow get ready, as if she had a magic wand. And in all those mornings, during all those months, she ensured that we were never late. Only once did we miss our bus by a whisker - and that was because Aunty couldn't wake up in the morning because it was too cold (by Mumbai standards).

I can't speak enough about her cooking. It wasn't gourmet fare, but she was a good cook. Cooking for so many people, thrice a day, everyday, is far from easy. And she did the best that she could. Yes, it was Punjabi food most of the time - but I did not complain. I am such a foodie that I don't mind any cuisine, as long as it is good. I did miss South Indian food sometimes, and once, when I missed Saaru too much, I bought a packet of MTR Rasam powder and made Saaru for everybody that night. She also used to make something called Sindhi kadhi, which tasted remarkably like our huLi - so I enjoyed that quite a bit. Sometimes as a "special treat" to me, she would make Idli - sambar. The idlis were like stones and the sambar was not at all like sambar - but anyway I told her that I enjoyed it - I couldn't bear to see disappointment on her enthusiastic, eager-to-please face.

But she was the authority in Punjabi cuisine. She made some of the best parathas, and some great curries. These had too much oil in them sometimes, and part of my lunch ritual at office was pouring out the oil floating on top of the curry - but it was delicious nonetheless. She made great Baingan ka bharta and stuffed brinjal. Her potato fry was also very tasty. Her Khichdi was delicious. It was kind of too gooey for my liking, but I loved the taste. Her masterpieces were the Methi Malai Matar and the most exquisite Dal Ka Halwa. Strangely enough, her Carrot Halwa was uneatable, but if you ate her Dal Ka Halwa, you would forgive her for anything!

Sometimes she would turn fiercely money-minded. If we took extra curds with our dinner three days in a row, her eagle eye would notice it and say, "If you want so much curds, you should pay fifty rupees extra each month!" On the other hand, when I was down with a bad stomach upset, she made bland food and lassi for me, apart from the usual food for everybody else, and nearly hand-fed me everyday until I got better.

She often joked and laughed with us, and told us her problems. She in turn wanted to know everything about us - especially whether we had boyfriends. Sometimes the child in her would come out and she would indulge in playing pranks upon us. She also occasionally conspired with us against her husband who tried to be very strict with us. Uncle had set 11 pm as the curfew for the pgs, but if we pleaded with Aunty to relax it for "jusssst one day", she would turn a blind eye and even distract her husband when we let ourselves softly into the house after 11 pm. Uncle always wanted to watch Aaj Tak channel on TV. So when we wanted to watch something else, we would switch on our channel and then "lose" the remote (The TV was slightly conked out - the channel change button on the TV set did not work). We would then "find" the remote and hand it back to Uncle once our programme ended. Aunty knew all this, but she just smiled and said nothing.

She was extremely sensitive. She would take offhand remarks to heart and worry about the layers and layers of meanings in that comment. It worked the other way too. She was very conscious that she would hurt one of us inadvertently.
Once she came to me early in the morning and told me about her expenses and that they had to pay the daughters' college and school fees that month and they were out of money and all that. Just when I was wondering where it was all leading to, she said, "I wouldn't have bothered you otherwise, but could you please pay your rent for this month quickly?" I was surprised - I had already paid the rent for the month. I reminded her, but she was confused. I then jogged her memory, told her that I had brought the money to the kitchen, but her hands had been busy and so she had asked me to keep it under the sugar box. Enlightenment dawned on her face and she grew extremely apologetic. "How could I do this to you? You are always the first one who pays the rent, and always within the third of the month - and I doubted you of all the people... " She apologized until I was worried I would get late for office. I said "Aunty, it is ok, such things do happen...." But she called me even at office - twice - to apologize, "Bura mat maan-na, Shrooti, please, kya boldiya maine, kya sochegi tu mere baare mein..."... I finally had to tell her "Aunty, aap mujhe sharminda kar rahe hai"... She stopped, but she was extra nice to me for the next week!

She wasn't in town when I left Mumbai. Her daughter who lived in Indore was not well, and she had gone to visit her. It was good in a way, because she would have become "senti", and I, being the softie that I am, would no doubt have cried.

I still call her sometimes, and I once even wrote a letter to her in Hindi - it's very touching to see how thrilled she always is to hear from "her girls", as she calls us.

Good times and bad, I have had them all in Mumbai - but there is no doubt that by and large, my stay was comfortable and convenient - and a lot of the credit for that goes to PG Aunty!


Anonymous said...

Probably the PG aunty symbolises Mumbai in many ways. Efficient in her own way..Money minded but still has a heart of her own.
God do I miss Mumbai :)

Anonymous said...

nice post... good old mumbai!

"On the back left burner, the tea boiled. On the back right burner cooked the vegetable curry of the day."

several times have i used the phrase 'on the back burner' without really thinking about it, and probably as many times have i used the back burner at home too, but not for the idiomatic purpose.

but here in the quoted section, it seems, is where the rubber really meets the road!

- s.b.

Viky said...

This time, the comment first, as it was too interesting to spellcheck first ;)

I would say the same about my roomies - if you have not read about them earlier here

While I'm sure there are other kinds, most PG aunties are of the type you mentioned - strict, to-the-point, and with that motherly instinct which teeters on the edge of smothering you over.

You end up learning so much about them, and give them so much of yours - what I call entwining our respective threads into each other's fabrics - that you cringe when you sever it to seek greener pastures for yourself.

While new people come and go, in both lives, it is impossible for anyone to relive the flavour you had with them. Finally when you leave, all you have is memories - of time well spent, which can be recollected to bring a smile on your face. And that is all that matters, trust me.

I'm just sorry my Mon did not get any such PG aunty. :(

Viky said...

Spellcheck Alert: There is a missing line break between para 9 and 10.

Anonymous said...

very nice post shruthi. yes your PGAUNTY is a symbol of mumnbaite they are very nice people and will go out of way to help at the same time they mean their business.
yes today's mumbai have gone worse from those days of bombay. but still you see the actions of these people when it needs like the bombay blasts or rain rain train bob blasts they are unitedl and great human beings.
salam bombay salam shruthi salam pgaunty

Shruthi said...

Anon, How right you are! :) And I do miss Mumbai too, sometimes! Please leave your name the next time!

S.B., yes :) It must be one of those "bulb lighting up" moments!

Viky, ah that's a compliment ;) Hmm.. rightly said.. and yes, I do remember reading about your roommates - made of the same fabric, huh?
Uh oh... I hope Mon didn't have too bad a time!
And you are right about the line break, was far too sleepy to correct it last night! ;)

Praneshachar, thank you ;)

Shammi said...

What a lovely anecdote... I feel like rushing off to meet your Punjabi aunty right now - of COURSE to eat her home-cooked food. I LURVE Punjabi food... it's as hearty as the people themselves! :)

Anonymous said...

Reminde my roomie, who was just like this PG Aunty. She was yet another IT person lived with me in our room during my PG stay before marriage.
GOD bless PG aunty.

Anonymous said...

You have had a lovely PG aunty. All my friends who have lived in PG have always cribbed about their PG auntries :)

Somehow I cannot live like a PG. That living your life on a single bed is something which I cannot digest.

Anonymous said...

Wow.. this is such a nice post... Looks like your PG Aunty had turned the morning cooking ritual into a machine drill...

Anonymous said...

Nice post Shrooti..

//Shrooti - thats a typical punjabi accent :)

Anonymous said...

For the first time in my life, I'm considering moving out for grad school. Seemed dandy at first, but is scaring the living daylights out of me. I feel like I can take on the world, yet I need the mothership to do my laundry for me.

I guess someone like "PG Aunty" can ease the transition into the real world.

PS: I'm still coming in June/July, I'm still making you meet me (even if I need to drug you), and I still have my tonsils.
PPS: Guess who!

Shruthi said...

Shyam, that's true :) .. and they eat as heartily too!

Veena, that's nice... which part of India did she come from?

Anon, yeah, I have also heard a lot of cribbing - guess I was fortunate! So haven't you lived in a hostel either? Single bed is perfect for singletons ;)

Vijay, thanks! Yes, you could say that! It was machine-like precision!

Anon, heh heh :) thanks!

Anon - the Dulhan, I know who you are and the fact that you still have your tonsils scares me :O Hey, I wanted to drop you a personal mail - how on earth can I contact you? You have disappeared from Orkut too - and I can't locate the url of your blog either.
Oh, and I am sure grad school will be lots of fun - as for laundry, you can take tips on how to manage for long periods without doing your laundry, from my sis P. (Don't tell her I told you this, though :O)

Anonymous said...

duInteresting ! I have always liked your writing - the approach, style, narration, etc. However, I would like to see more significant topics in your writing. May be that is neither the intent of this blog, nor your personal interest. But it is increasingly getting less and less thought provoking starting with a more recent "pencil sharpening", .... to the latest "PG Aunty". These little topics mostly read like a school student's essays attempting to show off her/his writing skills.

Apologies in advance for any hurt this comment might cause. I know in indian culture criticism is generally taken in the right spirit - but I thought I would make my comment anyway. Good luck.

If you care to understand what I mean, try watching one of those movie song channels on TV ! But there are a class of people who would sit all day watching those channels (and may be that's the reason those channels exist). But..

Shruthi said...

Anon, thank you for your comments! You are right, this is my blog to do as I want to. And I can easily say that if you don't like what you see, you are free to go elsewhere. But I also do understand how it feels when a reader comes to a blog expecting a certain thing that he associates that blog with, and ends up seeing more of a different thing. And I appreciate your taking the time to tell me about it.
I don't want to defend myself - but I write about what is going on in my head at the moment - and if that means nonsense and juvenile stuff, then so be it. At least I have no pretensions!
And I thought I had understood what you meant - but your reference to movie song channels totally confused me. I have no idea what you mean.
Also, please leave your name!

Anonymous said...

Nice, heart-felt post. It had me hooked all through the end :) And, of course, brought back memories of the Sher-E-Punjab days!

Usha said...

I loved this portrayal of the lady - I almost feel like I know her.
What a tough thing to do - just cooking for my family, I sometimes feel so tired and hate looking at the kitchen. Having to do this day in and day out and still smile about it - what a nice woman!

Vani said...

hey great post. got tears in my eyes

Anonymous said...

Mumbai --- A very well-written experience. With this explanation and some hopes (dreams)in mind, I'll be taking off to Mumbai soon.

SN said...


- -