What Thalaivar Ate

Runner-up in the 2022 Food-Writing Flash Contest

Nattu kozhi saru, absolutely watery, with no strong masala but the lean fat of the chicken melted in the stock, seasoned with pepper and salt, in liters—so much so that the entire brood of hens in Sivaganga would scamper away if they heard the sound of his footsteps or caught his scent in the air. Dry fish Kuzhambu, paruppu soru and potatoes—done with the skin—crisp and spicy with the freshly ground sesame oil that was drizzled steadily like rain, and he could be convinced to quit the race he was running and turn into a complete homebody—be a doting husband and an attentive dad to their only son.

His vices lay not in the world-famous sevu and endless urundais.

They were elsewhere. When his beloved thambis brought kilos of mathi meen or nethili Kandam and she turned away for a brief time, he would leave everything aside, fold his legs on the floor, and start shucking the flesh off the bones. Only the sucking of flesh and lip-smacking—a steady rhythm would go on for hours. The next day his legs would be like Brihadeeswarar temple pillars, and she would run to the medic to bring down the uric acid in his blood.

“No salty/fermented stuff; no non-veg at all,†she would declare and pack away all the sun-dried stock.

“Please. Please,†he would plead. When her annoyance peaked, “Okay, fine. Let me neither quit, nor indulge. Keep a handful on the plate. I just need to look at it and eat,†he would make his case with that melt-in-the-heart puppy-face she had fallen in love with.

Forty days of continuous car travel along with her puliogare, kara kuzhambu, and vathal handy, meeting like-minded people, canvassing for a sovereign Tamil-speaking nation, his blood boiling and chilling to loud anna-anna chants. When the one occasional thalaiva fervent cry broke the air, his followers would bundle and stuff him into the waiting car.

Jaws clenched in the long, tension-pulsing high-speed drive, when the Bay of Bengal rippled on the side, he would speak up. And ask for stick kulfi. From the cycle kulfiwallah. One two and three kulfis would abate all the apprehensions, and he would be ready to get down and get back on the road.

“So, he is very much like us: a fierce leader on the podium and an ordinary individual at all other times,†his not-yet followers pondered aloud.

“Even worse than you all,†Thambis would chorus in a single voice, nailing his public image.

A black background with red border and a white line.
A woman with long hair and a white dress.
Vijayalakshmi Sridhar

Since she was young, stories have been a part of Vijayalakshmi Sridhar’s life—both telling and listening to. Her fiction explores the angst around relationships.

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