Rathinam had just finished cooking and sat down to recuperate. He wiped the bead of sweat and looked at the time. It was almost noon, and he still had to clean the banana leaves, arrange the tables and run a few more errands before the mess was opened for lunch. “Ranga Mess”, was an old mess located in one of the busiest streets in Chennai. Surrounded by tall skyscrapers and commercial buildings, on the either side, the quaint little mess looked somewhat timid. Rathinam came from a long line of cooks, and had the culinary skill in his blood. Along with his father, he undertook catering orders and slowly gained a reputation as a cook.
Once while he was coming back from a nearby town after completing a contract, he met with a fateful accident that rendered his left leg crippled. After that, although he was able to walk again, he found it very difficult to travel far, or even sit or stand for a long time. For a while, time stood still in his life. Luckily he had inherited the old house from his father, along with his knack for cooking. The house had two bedrooms, a large kitchen and a living room. He started cooking from home and supplied to some known friends. Upon some well-wisher’s advice, he converted the house into a mess. He named the mess after his late wife Ranganayaki. He bought some tables and chairs. His only nephew was working as software engineer in Hyderabad. He was married with two kids, who settled there and only visited for holidays. So the mess was a solace for his loneliness. Initially there were very few people who came by. With the number of restaurants and fast food centers mushrooming every day, people were hesitant to try a small mess. But slowly, the homely food at a reasonable price began attracting a lot of office goers and students.
Over the years, the mess became very popular. People were really enjoying the food, and that really made Rathinam happy. He kept the menu simple but changed it every day. Day by day his clients increased, and sometimes they would also bring their families to sit down and enjoy the authentic south-indian food. The mess would serve lunch from noon to almost 2:30 pm depending on the crowd. The dinner service commenced at 7:00 pm until late in the night. In order to cater his office going clients, Rathinam started selling snacks in the evenings. A lot of people would stop by after office for a piping hot filter coffee with snacks. His ‘Kuzhi Paniyaram’, ‘Rava dosa’ and ‘vazhaipoo vada’ (a savory made with plaintain flower), were some of his specialty snacks. Though there were no great profits, he was able to manage his life, and pay his two employees, who helped him in cooking, serving and cleaning. Over all, Rathinam led a contented life. But of late, with his old age and health, he felt a strain. He began to worry about his future, of whatever is left. So far, he was able to carry on his work, and remain independent. But he was losing confidence slowly. His eyesight was weakening, and a few weeks back, he slipped and fell in the kitchen, while working. Ever since, his back was also hurting him. His only comfort was his nephew Arvind and his family had visited him while he was in hospital. Aravind’s wife Veena had stayed with him for a week helping him and tended to him.
Aravind was very affectionate towards his uncle. Rathinam and Ranganayaki did not have any children and loved Aravind like their own son. Ever since he moved to Hyderabad, he had been inviting Rathinam to stay with his family. But every time, Rathinam would just smile and say,”I’m perfectly fine here”. This time, Aravind was sounding firm, and was not ready to take no as an answer. “Uncle, you have worked more than enough. You have strained your body, not to mention your heart. I think it is time for you take rest. You should move in with us now.”
Rathinam laughed and said, “Aravind, you are worrying unnecessarily. One heart attack doesn’t mean anything. In fact, if I stop working, my heart will too”.
Aravind was serious, “Both my parents are no more, and you are all the family we have. I understand that you want to be financially independent, but physically it is honestly not up to you. You do need some support. Both Neeraja and Nitin would love to spend time with you. Think about it.”
That was true. Rathinam loved spending time with them as much as they did. But to leave the place he grew up, more importantly the mess sounded painful. However he promised Aravind he would definitely think about it at least. Soon after Aravind left, there were some bad news. Due to the age old wiring, there were short circuits and needed re-wiring. Also the plumbing started to wear down. To add to the list, the old roof started to leak. It was getting difficult for Rathinam to manage the mess all by himself. Rathinam wanted some help in fixing up the repairs. He knew it was not easy, but with some monetary help, he was confident of doing it. He could try to renovate the mess using a contactor and fix the things. It might take a while, and also cost a fortune. He needed someone to coordinate with the contractor and make sure the work gets done. When Rathinam casually mentioned to Aravind over phone, he silently listened and said that he will see how he can help. Aravind also asked him, if he had considered renting out or selling the Mess to which Rathinam laughed and said “No”. He knew that it was a lot of work, but he could never think of giving away the mess. Luckily the topic was never discussed again until two days ago Aravind had called and informed that he was coming to Chennai this week officially, and would discuss the rest in detail. Something told Rathinam that it was not merely an office trip. Rathinam had nothing much left in the bank, and knew that he could not bear neither the expenses nor the strain alone and so he told himself to keep his mind open to whatever Aravind suggested. After all, Rathinam had already willed the Mess to Aravind. But until now, neither Aravind nor Veena had interfered with any of his decisions regarding the Mess, and he was truly thankful for it.
His thoughts came back as the clock struck 12:00. He rose to check on the meals. Since Aravind was coming home for lunch, he had made some of his favorite dishes including Avial, sago payasam, Amla pickle and potato fry etc., His clients praised the food as usual. Rathinam was unsure as to how long would he be able to feel this satisfaction. Aravind came at lunch time. He enjoyed the food, and wondered how his uncle managed to retain the taste every single time. Following a heavy meal and a nap, both the men sat on terrace sipping the hot coffee and munching crispy murrukkus made by Rathinam. Both of them waited for the other to say something.
Rathinam slowly broke the silence by asking him, ”I hope you didn’t have to change you busy schedule in order to stay back here. “
“No uncle, that’s no problem at all. This was a long time coming. There is no point in delaying this any further. If need be, I’m ready to extend my stay even longer. I already discussed the possibility with Veena too.”
“So this time you are very determined and would not take “No” for an answer.”