The maternal relative is a businesswoman. At least that is what she imagines. Dinner table conversations at our home sometimes veer towards entrepreneurship and each of us voice our dreams of turning entrepreneur. I talk about the book café that I have dream of for the longest time. In the beginning it was just a cosy bookstore with easy chairs and sofas where book lovers could come in and sit for long hours reading their beloved books. I would, of course, be sitting in my private nook writing fabulous books and holding my writing workshop on languorous afternoons.

When the fledgling returned from pastry school and started baking up some impressive French desserts and cakes, my dream expanded and suddenly there was this book café where I would hold court with my workshops and book readings and she would be the cake maven dazzling everybody with her cakes and entremets.

At extended family dinners the pretty picture of me and the fledgling doing business together comes apart a bit when does the chef’s version of a surgical strike: “Mom, that book café dream needs to have boundaries. I’m only coming into the café if you promise you will not tell me how to bake and how to do business. You will write your books or stay behind the cash counter. And be silent.”

I love the fledgling but sometimes I think the younger generation needs to show some respect. Here I am trying to give her a dream debut in my bookstore and she shows no sign of gratitude. Tcchah.

“Oh, alright. If you don’t want to be in my bookstore, it is entirely your loss There will be any number of people who want to do business with a well-known author,” I say weakly, quickly changing the subject.

But not as quickly as I thought though. The maternal relative mostly pretends she is hard of hearing, especially if we are trying to tell her to stop behaving like a spoilt brat. Or frantically telling her to get off the phone and spare the soul of the hapless being on the other end who has been listening to her story of the softest idlis she ate at a home of a family she visited to pay her condolences.

When it comes to idlis and dosas, there is no stopping amma. These two south-Indian staples are, I suspect, right next to God when it comes to her devotion. When she has walloped four velvety soft idlis with malagapodi  and sambar, amma can be convince to do almost anything. Catch her in the post-idli bliss and she will magnanimously give away her every possession. A couple of idlis a day is amma’s recipe for every ill, the sanjeevani that will bring back the dead. The only other person I know whose passion for idli competes with amma is my brother-in-law, a nice Chennai boy whose equation with amma is based on pure love- for the idlis she feeds him diligently. Mornings at the dining table in the Menon household is almost like a meditation room as the two put their head down and make their way, reverentially, through a pile of idlis and a pool of coconut chutney.

But I am digressing here. Coming back to the maternal relative and her penchant for business, she believes she is on the verge of becoming one of these entrepreneurial divas who pictures stare out at us from magazine covers. “If you are passionate about what you believe in, nothing can prevent you from succeeding,” she told us recently, miffed that we ignore her constant requests to set her up in the food business. In our defence, the kitchen looks like a war-ravaged zone after amma’s cooking sessions and my sister collapses in a heap cleaning after mama bear who, by then, is snoozing on the sofa, to the backdrop of strange women plotting to kill each other in some bizarre serial on telly that she is addicted to.

Amma’s business idea finally found the perfect platform when the gated housing society in which she lives with my younger sibling decided to hold a food festival showcasing their in-house entrepreneurs. And no surprises for guessing what she decided to showcase at the fest: “I will made idli-vada-sambar and paal payasam,” she declared, promptly producing a grocery list. My sister swears the next couple of days made her experience what life in a sweat shop would be, as amma lorded it over the kitchen, organising the cleaning, chopping, grinding prep for her menu.

She was the first to reach the venue of the food festival, crisp and business like in her starched cotton saree-“one should dress like a business woman,” she said to my sister, giving her cotton salwar kurta the once over. “You have to dress the role in order to be taken seriously.” Business took off briskly at amma’s idli-vada-paayasam kiosk and my sister left her to head out for a couple of hours to attend to some work at home from where she updated me through Whatsapp about amma’s great business knack.

“Thanks for aunty for the amazing idlis. Never eaten so many in one go before,” said one Whatsapp to my sister. “Your mom is the best cook in the world. The paayasam was divine. Took some home for the family as well,” gushed another text message. “Boss, you should enrol her in a home-chef business. She is a brilliant cook,” said yet another message. Amma herself called the sister, asking her to fry two dozen more vadas since she had exhausted her stock.

“Maybe we should take her more seriously in future. She has been wanting to set up this business so long,” I texted my sisters with who I have a Whatsapp group to exchange family news. “Yes. Totally,” agree the elder one from another corner of the world.

Amma came home after the festival floating on air and fell asleep immediately after telling us her stall was the most popular. She had won the best chef award even, she declared, eyes ablaze with pride. We cheered for our in-house culinary diva and went to bed, also exhausted from all the rushing about for the culinary adventure. “She must have made around Rs.5,000 in just 4 hours,” my brother in law said. “You must take her culinary ambitions more seriously,” he said and we felt a stab of guilt for not supporting her enough.

All hell broke loose next morning when amma’s purse produced not the Rs. 5000 we expected but Rs. 1,200. “Where did the money go? Did you leave your purse unattended? “We told you to watch the purse!”

“ How would I know what happened to the money? I was busy at the stall,” amma said. “Also, I’m very tired, so stop harassing me,” she said, sniffing in indignation.

The mystery of the missing money was solved unexpectedly in the housing society’s gym where the brother-in-law ran into members sweating out the excesses of the food festival.

“You are one lucky dog,” a portly guy who could do with eating less told the b-i-l. “Your mother-in-law is the best cook yaar. And how sweet of her to not charge me anything for all the food I ate. And she has invited us to dinner next week ,” he said, huffing and puffing on the treadmill.

Barely had the b-i-l gotten over the shock revelation when Mrs. Sharma from C-building , who was doing the sheershaasan called out: “Hey, thanks for all the goodies. Your mom-in-law is a fab cook. I ate 3 plates of idli-vada-sambar and she packed me some for home. We had that for breakfast as well. Such a generous woman. God bless her.”

The brother-in-law tottered home after hearing six more stories of the maternal relative’s generosity and culinary brilliance and this was amma’s answer when he casually mentioned his conversation with various residents of the society.

“What is the use of making so much money from friends and neighbours? It is very cheap to take money from people you know! (Sweeps away in a cloud of indignation.)

My brother-in-law, meanwhile, leaves town every time amma mentions participating in another food festival. My sister goes on a business trip two days prior to the festival but amma soldiers on bravely and enthusiastically and the neighbours enjoy the free food blessed with amma’s generosity.

The lack of income from business has never been a stumbling block for amma. Come February and amma heads to the vegetable market to buy great amounts of tender mangoes to make her signature feiry Kadumanga pickle. My friends love the kadumanga and they pre-order so that they are not left without their stock to enjoy with curd rice during the summer. The trouble is, for every bottle she sells, amma gives away 2 secretly- to the maids, the watchmen, the cleaning staff and once, to the watchman’s pregnant daughter-in-law. “she will be craving pickle during her pregnancy,” she explained when asked about the mysterious disappearance of several bottles of pickles.

Ditto for limbu paani during high summers when she spends money buying lemons at peak prices to make endless bottles of delicious lemonade “for sale”.

Trouble is, we are not buying her story anymore because amma, bless her generous soul, lives in a utopia where nothing needs money. You give stuff in return for love, affection and goodwill.

“Business is not about money. It is about building relationships. You have do business with your heart!”

Whoever said that the purpose of business is to make money has clearly not met our amma. She can teach him/her a thing about doing business from the heart!

[Picture Credit: Uma Dhanwatey.]

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