Walk into any restaurant in Tamil Nadu – a top-notch local cuisine spread or a roadside ‘rest-o-rant’. Underneath the socio-economic differences, a little voice pipes up “We’re all the same! Tamizh vazhuga” (Long live Tamizh for the uninitiated.. um..un-Tamizhized). Don’t believe me? Run a quick finger down the menu….getting closer…closer…ah, ah there…oops, no missed it! Didn’t see it?
Ganga Jamuna mocktail
Fresh Lime soda
There! There! There! You can consume two of the major rivers in one keg-shaped glass with a slippery handle. You can experience a Bollywood masala movie through the not-so-sweet communion of orange and pineapple. I think you can do this in most places in the country (or at least everywhere you can feel the influence of that tiny indomitable speck on the India food map that still holds out to the Punjification threat…a spot called Udupi).
But coming back…the great state of idlis, kanjeevarams and eligible US-based software professionals…is the only place you’ll find that rare delicacy, that manna of every Tamizh mother’s kitchen…Horlicks paal (scalding hot milk with Horlicks and a shovelful of sugar)! A few mommas prefer the potion that ensures strength of body, and strength of mind…Bone-veee-taah. My family was rather partial to the horror-lix brand, however.
So not kidding. Really, try the above experiment and see. Me? I’m fed to the stomach with Horlicks paal…I was brought up to be a nalla Tamizh ponnu after all. Of course, mommas everywhere try to stuff their darling terrors with vitamins, essential minerals and all sorts of gunk to ensure the reign of terror is complete. But only a Tamizhian carries this trend ahead into force-feeding adults with this delightful concoction as well. Witness then, the visit of Mr. Arumugam and family to friendly, neighbourhood amma’s place.
Namaskaram, amma. Yenna, yepudi? (What, how?…aka…Wossup?) It is so good to see you looking good.
Welcome, welcome! What will you have? Tea? Coffee? Horlicks?
No, we had lunch before coming!
Parawallai (no matter). Have some Horlicks.
Ms.A (in panicky anticipation of future tortures):
No, we just had coffee this morning. So nothing, thank you.
Addu yepudi mudiyum? (That how be possible?) Horlicks then. It is very good for health, especially for growing children.
Ms.A at the tender age of twenty-two feels disinclined to protest. Enter a steaming hot tumbler of Horlicks paal for the esteemed guests.
Every summer vacation, as befitted the dutiful family from far away (in Mumbai), we visited our relatives scattered all over idli-land. Time was precious and the loving family, was numerous so multiple visits were packed into a single day. Every stopover would bring on a fresh wave of gushing (“Look how big she is!”) and a piping hot tumbler of Horlicks paal. Come sun, come sunnier sun, come eyeball-melting-hot sun, come I’m-nothing-more-than-a-puddle-of-sweat sun, the tumbler of Horlicks paal was always present at the welcome. Scalding hot (presumably to sweeten/sharpen tongue and produce future Horlicks-feeding Tamizh amma), sweetened to the maximum with dregs of undissolved sugar lying at the bottom of the tumbler. Oh and always filled to the brim. The typical tumbler is designed for maximum discomfort, engineered for most optimal wobbliness and guaranteed to cause pain through spillage, scalding by transfer of heat to finger and cut lips with sharp rim. One tumbler full of Horlicks paal.
On one such visit, having dutifully consumed a sufficient number of cups of Horlicks paal and feeling duly brilliant (enough to pass my exams of the next 4 years with flying colours), I rebelled. Naturally nice Tamizh aunty wasn’t swayed by my squeaky protests..couldn’t be helped, my tongue was still smarting from the scalding it got from the previous cups of Horlicks.
My cousin, however, having acquired a requisite set of survival skills from a childhood in Chennai winked to me to accept the tumbler without further ado. Then with a clear, innocent voice that could only sound that sweet from too much Horlicks paal, she announced that she’d like to show her Bombay cousin the garden ‘since poor child doesn’t get to see trees in Bombay’. Nonplussed I followed…I didn’t remember having any botanical cravings back then.
As we trotted around, I carefully balanced the tumbler and taking tentative sips from the tumbler to get the level down. At the corner, sweet cousin neatly poured her Horlicks paal under a plant stem. Eyes goggle-eyed with admiration, I started to her when she stopped me with
Wait! Not this one, then they’ll notice. Even plants get enough of Horlicks. We must find another tree!
Duly sympathetic to my botanical fellow sufferer, I trotted around dutifully and spotted another one. With a gleeful whoop I descended on the spot splashing the Horlicks paal out instead of the graceful streaming my cousin had accomplished. Oh, horror-lix of horrors, some of it landed on my dress! And what’s worse….nice Tamizh aunty and my parents turned the corner just then (aunty having decided that the ‘poor’ Bombay adults needed a tree-sighting as well).
You can’t imagine what came next. No, I didn’t get the firing of my life for disrespecting food, drink, the benevolence of the ma-cow that produced the milk and the martyred calves that gave their food away to me, the kindness of my elders, the hospitality of my dear great-aunt, the love my parents had shown in bringing me back to my roots…(do you know there are children who don’t get enough to eat! And here you are throwing away Horlicks paal!)
Instead, my lovely Tamizh aunt (obviously well-fed on a staple diet of Horlicks herself) gaped, recovered in a fraction of a second to say,
Oh poor thing. She really likes trees and in the excitement she spilt the milk. Don’t cry over it. I’ll make you another one!
Hmm…if revenge is sweet, the second tumbler of Horlicks paal was sweeter. I gave up my battle against the Horror-lix that day.
I still wonder though, if children everywhere else are subjected to the same delights each day. Someone should undertake a study to see if Tamizh kids really are better at maths, running races and giving smart answers in class. Some of us certainly grow a strange sense of humour. Like my uncle who famously claimed that no Tamizhian ever need to learn Kannada. Apparently substituting ‘pa’ for ‘ha’ and vice versa in every word in Tamizh would convert it to Kannada. Hallelujah! Apparantly my dear Kannadiga friends suffer from an onslaught of Porlicks hallu then! I better stop before they notice that along with my blood pressure level, and haemoglobin count, my Horlicks paal intake has reduced as well. Tree up ahead!