Acha and I: The turning point

Acha-and-IBy Uma Balchand

My father, or Acha as we called him, was unquestionably the authority when my brothers and I were growing up. He was a strict disciplinarian who hardly showed his softer side.

Amma on the other hand, had the patience of a saint and would pamper us with long conversations.

My relationship with Acha while growing up was complex. While I admired and respected him, I feared him.

But the day my mother unexpectedly and quietly slipped away from life during her afternoon nap, I saw my Acha break down for the first time. Amma’s passing was a pivotal turning point for our family. Acha was not the same man. He became Father and Mother to us.

My brothers got married and I became the only one living with him at home. It took a long time for me to get used to not having Amma around. I could not relate to Acha as I did to Amma.

There was always a reserved, respectful distance in my dealings with him although he was clearly making efforts to be more approachable.

There is however one endearing father–daughter moment that will always remain with me.

It was routine for my brothers to come home with their families every Sunday for a meal. Acha had taken over the home kitchen after Amma’s demise. A strict vegetarian, he experimented with vegetarian recipes he knew, read and watched on TV.

Acha used to help Amma in the kitchen after her eye surgery and had remarkably picked up some skills and together, they created some great meals.

Acha looked forward to these get-togethers and to lay down his masterpieces on the dining table.

I, on the other hand could hardly cook, and we had this unspoken rule that he was the chef, and I the helper.

But one Sunday, he decided that I should make a dish by myself for dinner.

“You cook these ladies fingers,” Acha said while pointing to the vegetable.

“Maybe you can fry them.”

I silently cringed!

“Fry them? Then what? What about the masala?” I thought. I still didn’t dare ask him what to do, because well, these things I only asked Amma and she was no more.

“Coat it with some turmeric powder, chilli powder and salt first. Let it rest for a while so that the ladies fingers can soak up the flavours.” Acha said.

“How long was ‘for a while’?” I thought. But I still did not ask him. Then Acha had a phone call and he was out of the kitchen, leaving me to fend for myself.

I gave the marinated ladies fingers five minutes and started deep frying. I started getting excited. “Maybe, I could do something glorious and make Acha extremely proud!” I fantasised.

I reckoned deep frying them till golden brown would make it work. But what turned out after “slaving” over the wok was oil-soaked ladies fingers. Black. Burnt. Charred.

I rushed to the fridge. There were zero ladies fingers! No other vegetables! Acha had already used them for the other dishes. I panicked!

Acha came back into the kitchen after the phone call. There was no place to hide. He looked at my pathetic vegetable. I stood still, certain I was going to get the lecture of a lifetime.

“Get me the grated coconut and the tairu (yoghurt).” Acha ordered.

I didn’t dare speak. I just did what I was told. Before I knew it, he whipped up a chutney, fried onions & garlic, added the charred ladies fingers and voila…that was his version of a raita!

He took a tiny portion of the raita, smacked it on to his left palm and tasted it.

“Hmm, good” and then, he burst out laughing. That contagious laughter has become such a special and endearing father-daughter memory for me.

Nothing about the kitchen disaster was brought up during dinner. While the family was chatting, Acha and I watched the others, especially my brothers, who helped themselves to more and more of the raita.

That look of satisfaction on Acha’s face that day was simply priceless.

After all of them had left, Acha and I shared another hearty laugh. That was the moment he became my friend. Before I realised it, I was cheekily teasing him that I was going to create more kitchen disasters for him to fix.

“There is always a solution. Just trust God, think harder and believe that you can deal with it. Somehow you will. No quitting!” That was Acha’s philosophy. Not always easy, but comforting nevertheless.

Over the years, our bond grew stronger. He became my pillar of support. Now, I can see that special father-daughter bond taking shape between my husband and daughter.

Happy Father’s Day, Acha. Rest in Peace. No kitchen disasters today. We’re eating out.

Uma Balchand is an FMT reader.

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