by Vani Viswanathan
“Okay, so maavu-la thanni sethukkanum, okay,” said Radhika, commenting live on the process as the woman beside her mixed water with flour.
Radhika relaxed. They had to give the woman time to mix the water and flour well and knead the dough properly. Obviously they couldn’t show the whole process on television.
As she watched the woman deftly push her fingers into the dough, Radhika wondered how she’d got into this sticky business. She’d been practicing to be a newsreader after all – perfecting her diction, her ability to read from a teleprompter without making it obvious, getting her posture right too. She’d made it to the final round of selection of newsreaders, only to miss it by a margin, because she knew her competitor who eventually made it was definitely more good-looking than her. Impressed with Radhika’s voice and Tamil pronunciation, though, the producer recommended her to another department, and that’s how she’d ended up on this cookery show of “authentic” Tamil cuisine. “Other channels are going into pasta and pissa,” the cookery show producer had said, “but we are about bringing to the fore forgotten Tamil dishes from across the state. And we need a voice equally authentic, fluent in Tamil, to go with the feel of the show.” Out of desperation – for money, for a job – Radhika had agreed.
Barely months into the show, however, Radhika felt she was over-using her voice while her proficiency in pronunciation was rusting due to lack of use. Her sentences were many but banal, spoken in everyday Tamil with a sprinkling of English words such as “So”, “Okay” and “Next” – “We still need to connect with the aspiring young English speakers in the audience”, the producer had said. If she’d been a newsreader, on the other hand, she’d have had the flexibility of suggesting articulate ways of conveying information. Her powerful vocabulary and way with words (thanks to her Master’s in Tamil literature) would have been put to good use. That job would have required a woman with a mind of her own. This job, on the other hand, could literally be done by anyone in the world, she thought.
“I’m done with the dough,” announced Radhika’s guest on the show. The camera started filming again.
“So ippo enna seyya poreenga?” Radhika asked, at which the guest started narrating the upcoming steps in the preparation.
Radhika watched with mock fascination, muttering “ooh”s, “aah”s and “apdiya?”s periodically. The camera, after all, wouldn’t be able to feature how absolutely disinterested she was in cooking, or food, for that matter.
Which was why Radhika detested where she was. She was someone who ate to live, and didn’t care about trying new kinds of food, didn’t bother about cooking, and was just fine eating whatever came her way. When she’d started on this job, she didn’t know that there was a kind of oil made from sesame seeds and couldn’t identify when chopped onions were cooked right. She found it absolutely okay to eat anything on the show, pretend it was delicious and congratulate the cook. She thought with distaste about how men were never guests on her show, or that they never cooked at home – or on TV – for free. Women, on the other hand, were craving for appreciation for their hours slaved away in the kitchen, labour that was taken for granted. Radhika’s show was a chance for these bored women to appear on TV and show off their skills to an anonymous broad world. Radhika imagined the excitement with which these pitiable women would tell their friends “Catch me on TV! I cooked vaazhappoo thuvaiyal!” – their miserable lives reduced to cooking, she was sure these 25 minutes of TV time were a blip in their otherwise eventless radar.
This didn’t make her feel charitable towards the women on her show, though. She hated being there and watching them cook. She hated having to ask them pointless questions about what got them interested in cooking, how they learnt about this dish, who taught them to make it this way, etc. Every time, the responses were trite – mentions of mothers and husbands abounded; an interest in cooking either started from childhood or was a sudden result of marriage usually accompanied by a “Aiyoh, I didn’t know any cooking when I got married!” Radhika found them all equally annoying and hated whatever they cooked without prejudice.
These emotions were on a high today, because Radhika was particularly perturbed by this 21-year-old who’d told her she had quit college midway to get married. Watching the guest fry each ball of dough individually, she asked the next natural question: “What do you serve this with?” to which the woman suggested coconut chutney. Radhika leaned in slightly towards the oil and looked at the dough turning golden brown. “So we should fry it till it turns golden brown?” she asked. The woman had a detailed reply about how well-cooked the dough would be when it turned golden brown.
Within minutes, it was time for Radhika to taste the dish that she would have to say was delicious. The woman placed it on a beautiful plate with a delicate blob of chutney and handed it to Radhika. Radhika used her fingers to take a piece and bit into it, all ladylike – not opening her mouth too wide.
“Aaaargh!” she cried out, spitting it back out on the plate. “Why didn’t you tell me it’d be this hot?!”
They waited for another piece to be fried. This time, Radhika gave it two minutes before tasting the piece.
“I’m really excited to try this!” she said, looking at the camera.
Gingerly she bit into the piece. It wasn’t too hot. She began to chew. Her mind instructed her to say “Mmmmm!” while she chewed, but she didn’t. She pointedly looked at the camera and chewed. She could see the director frantically waving her hands, asking her to say something, but she kept quiet until she finished chewing.
The crew watched in angry silence. Now they would have to do a re-take until she said the food was yummy even as she chewed on it.
Radhika finally finished chewing, and swallowed. She turned to the woman and said “Uppu jaasthi ya irukkunga!” It’s salty.
The woman looked at Radhika, stunned. She’d been told by the producer that no matter how it tasted, Radhika would say it tasted good.
“Actually,” continued Radhika. “It’s not cooked well in the inside. I think I’ll fall sick if I eat uncooked dough!” she said, and threw the rest of the piece into a dustbin nearby.
“Cut!” This voice sounded angrier this time.
The next morning, Radhika collected her final settlement cheque from the TV channel and left the building with a grin on her face. She didn’t know what she would tell her mother given she was the only earning member of the household. But she walked confidently, imagining herself as a news reader, one that people waited to watch everyday, whose saree and blouse combinations would be regularly monitored. She felt ready to start the whole process again.