"Morning Kaapi (coffee) must be as fresh as that day's newspaper," according to Thathaji.
The grand sire likes to have coffee while the tang of toothpaste is still on his tongue. Reclining on his cane chair with newspaper eagle spread in his hands, he will wait for the coffee to arrive. Though the aroma would have hit him right from the kitchen onwards, it is customary that Sitamma coffee-in-hand waits for him to relinquish his paper. Thathaji would groan and grunt at certain news, check the obituary and glance through the sports section. When the newspaper curtains finally came down, he expected the next performance to begin.
Sitamma, hot "Kaapi" with aromatic mists hovering over the stainless steel tumbler and the vatta- all three stood expectantly.
"Why didn't you say you were waiting?" Thathaji would ask lamely.
But he would not lower his newspapers one instant before he wanted to and the petite lady knew it.
"Sitamma you look like one of those torch-bearing fisher folk heroines, standing by the sea waiting for their spouses to return," I tease when I see her waiting for Thathaji to put down the daily.
"Sure it is I am still at sea with him anyway. Thathaji wouldn't leave his paper even if his child were falling into the well. He will notice it only if it is mentioned in the newspaper. I wish they relayed news instantly on the paper too, like they do on the TV."
That was not all, for all the waiting, Thathaji never received the coffee cup from Sitamma. He would silently motion saying, "leave it here on the stool." But then if she left the coffee on the stool without his silent approval, all hell would break loose.
"Can't you wait for one kshanam for me to finish the paper? Which country of yours is getting ransacked for you to rush back so soon?" and so forth the peroration would continue.
"Only in this household will coffee making taking so long. I would have prepared an aviyal and a usili in this time," grumbled Sitamma.
But secretly, she loved this morning of ritual of serving her old man his Kaapi. And what a ritual! For that original, vintage-classic brew, Sitamma would choose light greenish coffee seeds and roast them. At a particular temperature, aromatic fumes would rise to fill the kitchen first, then the outer rooms. Gradually the coffee seeds' roasting would perfume the entire house. While the seeds cooled, Sitamma prepared that antique coffee grinding machine and other coffee-making gadgets including a clean piece of muslin, a smallish steel pot and some water on the stove. While the water heated, she ground the coffee seeds. By the time the water came to boil, the small quantity of coffee was powdered and ready for that morning's brew. The milk would be put to boil while the coffee diffused through the muslin cloth, like a brown lotus spreading its petals, turning the pond of water in the steel pot into a dark brownish fluid. Noticing Thathaji passing by the kitchen door after brushing his teeth, Sitamma would immediately start mixing the fresh-fresh decoction with the boiling milk from the stove. She never boiled milk and the coffee together. It was always boiling milk poured on the dark brew’s “head”. The amount of sugar added was important. It was that delicate amount of sugar- neither too much, nor too little. The coffee’s bitterness was intact, yet it was a refined kind of bitterness. Finally entire concoction would be mixed, not with a spoon (that is so unmagical) but by swishing and swooshing the fluid to and fro between the tumbler and the vatta. A thick thread of coffee flew between the two containers without one precious drop spilt and finally a frothy cloud stood the top of the coffee tumbler. This ritual for every coffee made in the household, morning, afternoon and evening. That too to be performed by Sitamma only, none else. If Sitamma were to ask Thathaji, “Coffee, Kaapi or me?” in all likelihood Thathaji would say, “Kaapi and also you because of your Kaapi.”
After coffee was served, Thathaji, his nose hitting the bubbly froth would draw in the heady concoction with a huge slurping noise, which is music to Sitamma’s ears. For the next 15 minutes, Thathaji would give his undivided attention to the freshly brewed nectar. Masticating on the news from the daily and mentally arranging his tasks for the day, Thathaji reminisced on his sepia memories while sipping on the brownish brew.
“If you want to marry someone, then treat him to Sitamma’s coffee and say that you made it,” suggested Thathaji.
“Which moron would agree to marry a woman just because she makes good coffee?” I demand.
“Well, this moron would and did,” accepted Thathaji sheepishly. Apparently, Thathaji fell for both the coffee and the golden hands, which made it. This during the usual dekho session arranged by the families before the wedding.
“Sitamma looked almost as good as the Kaapi she offered. Why, she even sang Kaapi ragam that day, what a coincidence! Intha soukya manine, how well she sang,” Thathaji went on gleefully.
“Day starts with coffee, life started with coffee….what more?” I ask.
“Someday when I drink coffee from your hands, my life will also end with coffee,” Thathaji said and laughed devilishly.
“Haven’t you heard of filters and coffee makers, Sitamma?” I ask.
“Things haven’t percolated down to that yet,” she replied dryly.
“What your filters and percolators make is coffee, what Sitamma makes is Kaapi,” concluded Thathaji categorically.
I can see that the art of coffee or rather Kaapi making can be so tricky and as demanding as the pursuit of performing arts. Particularly for Sitamma, when you have a coffee connoisseur breathing down your neck, the mere chore of making coffee becomes a performance of sorts. On stage no two performances can ever be alike. But Sitamma has managed to master the nuances of giving out coffee which tastes just the same each time- with the same thickness, flavour and temperature. One can patent it, I feel.
But how she manages a first decoction, second decoction, all this roasting, grinding, filtering through muslin cloth drama day after day, I really don’t know. It is nothing short of a lifetime commitment to serve her coffee connoisseur husband the best of coffees.
“I wish you were my wife, Sitamma,” I say taking in her painstaking efforts.
“I wish I were my husband too!” she replies with a sigh.
"Coffee, Kaapi or me?" was published in The Hindu November 17, 2002