Readers Write In #374: Half a Kilo Mixture

Posted on June 29, 2021


(by V. Vijaysree)

Four years after Madras on my Mind, A City in Stories, here is another Chennai-centric anthology, this time by a single author. In her debut collection of short stories, Half a Kilo Mixture, Ranjitha Ashok captures the changing mores of Chennai through a host of female protagonists. Most readers, especially those who have self-effacing mothers, will empathize with these women who want to carve out an identity for themselves. 

In Grocery List, a keen-eyed woman – an amalgam of aunts we’ve always liked to spend time with – makes her way through the aisles of a food store. She is preoccupied with her upcoming party, but she muses on life as she fills her grocery cart. The musings remind me of the internal monologues of the good-natured Isabel Dalhousie, the Edinburgh philosopher, created by Alexander McCall Smith.

So, our shopper seems wise and with-it, but getting service from the young shop assistant is another matter altogether even for someone like her. “Excuse me…” you begin tentatively, hating to disturb her, forcing her to do her job, when she looks up from her cellphone, and snaps: “Did you tell Manejasar I went off early for coffee?” You step back, ready to defend yourself against this monstrous accusation, while denying even the slightest knowledge of this infamous ‘Manejasar,’ when you realize she is addressing a colleague behind you. 

Half a kilo ,ixture

In the end, the beleaguered shopper – a persona of the author surely – forgets the sourdough bread on her list, but she has all the ingredients for a stream-of-consciousness narrative. Her creative hors d’ouevres (mini-idli with red onion chutney, morkali squares – topped with chopped olives and seashell-shaped pasta with pesto) would have been a hit, I am sure. 

The author has a wonderful ear for both dialogue and dialect. Burgled is written entirely in Madras Baashai, a dialect of Tamil, with loan words from the many cultures that became part of Chennai since its inception nearly four centuries ago. Like Mumbai’s Bambiya, Madras Baashai is irreverent and colorful. Perumal Elvis Ganesan, a small-time thief, recounts the story of his life in this dialect.

Some of the stories are fictionalized personal narratives. There are stories of women who rebel quietly against traditions. In Spice in Waiting, a widow decides to live alone and rustle up onion and garlic dishes for herself, foods which were always forbidden in her conservative family.  If you recall that upper caste women were conditioned to give up their favorite foods upon becoming widows, you’ll root for this woman with the tenacious tastebuds. The pakora paithiyam who never gave up on the dream of making those fragrant delicacies in her own home.

Two stories deal directly with death, but one is a hilarious account of the departing soul bonding with the emissary from beyond. (What will they serve at the funeral feast, she asks the emissary. He responds: They usually serve what you had liked, but I kind of doubt botanical gin cocktails and dirty martinis will work with yelai-saapad…) Two of the stories reflect on characters from the Mahabharata. Another about a quest for the author of an old lullaby meanders, but you will not begrudge a good writer some extra paragraphs, here and there. Her contemporary stories of Chennai work best for me. 

Ashok has previously co-authored a non-fiction book on the lives of boxwallahs, Office Chai and Planter’s Brew, with Mr. S. Muthiah, the beloved chronicler of Chennai. She is also a longtime columnist for the fortnightly Madras Musings. Those columns have been collected into a book,  Chennai Latte, Madras Brew.  But unconstrained by things like word count or column space, she soars.

The very first story, Code, is the finest example of her writing – spare, but full of telling detail. Shared grief brings together two women from two different generations, and diverse backgrounds. How will they ever move on from the tragedy that has befallen them? 

The healing begins when the older woman introduces the younger one to the works of that well-regarded British humorist of the 20th century, P.G. Wodehouse. Every member of her little household was a fan. Amongst themselves, they often quoted lines from his books to describe annoying relatives, or to make light of difficult situations. The family of three had derived much joy from speaking in code. Now, the mother finds solace in those very same lines.

A minor third character in Code is the loyal cook who still stops by to shore up the spirits of the older woman, her former employer. She is not unlike Chef Anatole, the Wodehousian legend. When the neighbors attempted to steal this highly skilled cook, her employees rushed to double her wages, recalling the lines: “Pour out money like water rather than lose that superb master of the roasts and the hashes, or rather of vengaya sambar and sepankizhangu roast … that peerless disher-up of paniyaaram studded with vadu manga pickle.” 

Like the young woman in the story, you may even end up buying P. G. Wodehouse titles after this gentle introduction to his writing. The author who is a diehard fan mentions that she is ever grateful to Wodehouse for having created the ultimate destination for an escape from Life, with a capital L.

Just like a bag of good quality mixture, this book has addictive content. The stories are light-hearted in tone, but offer interesting insights on aspects of life and, yes that very last chapter of life – death. The digital form of the book can be downloaded  on Amazon Kindle