With a wave of your hand, the acquisition of some spare folding tables and the procurement of 15 plastic table cloths, you could turn any room into a dining hall in under two minutes. At Costco, you never over- or under-bought, rather knew the exact number of bags of potato chips, 2-Liter bottles of Coke, containers of Dannon and bags of hard candies to feed a crowd of any size, plus any last-minute, non-RSVPed guests.
Those who didn’t prostrate before the altar of your vast knowledge of crowd control before birthdays, graduation or anniversary parties often paid the price in more ways than one. Functions without your fingerprints were never as good.
You weren’t scared of anyone. You had a PhD from the School of Hard Knocks and when you spoke, everyone listened. I’ve seen you go head-to-head with everyone from mess hall cooks to American wedding planners, janitors to Hindu priests, elected officials to Indian musicians, usually within the same afternoon. You always won. He who dared doubt you often felt your ire and disgust for years on end.
You never forgot the rigatoni. You were a visionary and realized early on that it was the appropriate side to every imaginable combination of Indian cuisine.
You also never forgot the thair chadam……knowing that there was no location too proud, no occasion too fancy, no table too formal for a stainless steel vessel filled to the brim with curds, rice, and fried mustard seeds, best served in heaping mounds with a plastic soup ladle. Once, in my adolescence, I saw you make it with your bare hands in the kitchen of the Omni William Penn in a $700 sari wearing $2000 worth of gold jewelry while the hotel’s uniformed catering staff looked on in disbelief. When I was standing idly by and watching you, you handed me a plastic bag-encased bottle of Bedakar mango pickle from the depths of your Mary Poppins purse, and ordered me to find a spoon and add it to the buffet line. I hesitated momentarily, afraid of the way the offensive oily, orange-lidded jar of spicy, pickled mangoes would look against the grand opulence of sheer white linens and sterling silver trays, and, on your way out of the kitchen with a pathram of rice balanced on your hip, you snatched it out of my hands and did it yourself. You barked at me for not immediately following your instructions — irritated that I was embarrassed by the sight of empty buttermilk containers in the kitchen of one of the city’s most ritzy hotels — but I loved you all the more.
You had no less than 30 aunties buzz around you at the onset of every function like worker bees to the queen. They knew their role, their function, their designated vegetable in the buffet line, and always responded to your command like troops to the general. You always delegated, but they rarely focused and usually messed things up. You knew things only turned out right when you did them yourself.
You knew everything. Everything. Without asking a single question. People confided in you because you had practical, applicable solutions to any problem. You always had needles, thread, yarn, scissors, super glue, Sharpies, plastic spoons, safety pins and crepe paper on hand in case of emergencies.
You were the stuff of legend. Once, I swear I saw you feed 100 people on 5 minutes notice with a spoonful of rice, a handful of flour and two potatoes. Another time you stretched 2 cups of chakra pongal across a line of 400. And you made the best panchamritham of my life with a single banana, three grapes, and two spoonfuls of brown sugar.
Your efficiency and style and street smarts deserved their own show like “Whose Wedding Is It Anyway” or a million-dollar, high-flying, party-planning gig for P-Diddy where you were able to silence him and his entourage with the fire of a single glare and convince them to use plastic table clothes for cost-efficiency, but you stayed and catered to us: the undeserving.
And now, though your hair’s a little bit grayer, your gait a little bit slower, and you haven’t hiked up your sari on one side and leapt across a stack of plastic chairs to stop someone who wasn’t following your directions in quite some years…every time I go home and see you organizing and directing and orchestrating the details that matter the most, I know that my childhood, my hyphenated-American experience, my memories of the perfectly organized buffet lines of yesteryear would not have been the same without you.