In the annals of history, they will mark the noughties as the beginning of the end of the traditional South Indian brahmin wedding. Mehndi and sangeet ceremonies are now common additions. At engagement ceremonies, the bride and groom cut three-tier cakes and exchange rings. Diaphanous zardozi sarees, once dismissed as North-Indian gaudiness, make regular appearances on the carpet, and even the groom wears lipstick. I remember when it was quite hip to have a chaat stall at the reception buffet, but that is now passé. At one wedding, there were so many stalls that we needed to refer to a map (pasted outside) to figure out what to eat, and how to get there before peak-hour. Photography has changed too. In the old days, you could see the blinding flash from wherever you stood, and be ready with a casual but dazzling smile when they swung it your way. Nowadays, candid photographers lurk everywhere, lying in wait for an award-winning shot of you stuffing a second laddoo into your mouth. But I knew the end was nigh when a Tambrahm friend from a conservative family arranged a cocktail party for her son’s wedding. The only problem, she said, was that the older relatives were miffed at not being invited. “How can I invite them?”, she said to me, “What if they grab a margarita? What if they…like it?”
“Relax”, I said, “Serve them coffee. The pleasure of drinking filter coffee after dark is just as illicit.”
My meticulous research into coffee has revealed that it caused quite a stir when it appeared in Madras homes. It was cast in the same light as tobacco, alcohol and gambling, and many conservative people shunned it. The scholar A. R. Venkatachalapathy, in a book titled “In Those Days There Was No Coffee”, writes about an enthu-cutlet type so disraught by the state of affairs that he felt compelled to write to Gandhiji. “Brahman ladies”, he wrote, “have become addicted to many of the Western vices. They drink coffee not less than three times a day, and consider it very fashionable to drink more.” I can just about imagine a group of rebellious mamis getting together secretly in the heat of a Madras afternoon, and drowning their sorrows in tumblers of neat coffee (shaken, not stirred). Before they returned to face the joint family, they would have to bury the used coffee grounds in the backyard, and chew a sprig of pudhina lest the elders smell coffee on their breath.
Luckily, for them (and for us), there were no Hindutva vigilantes at the time, only some mild-mannered letter-writers, and coffee went from Western evil to grand tradition in the blink of an eye. My parents say that it has always been a key feature of the Great South Indian Wedding Fight or Sambandhi Sandhai. In an unspoken, lopsided deal, the groom’s side would lay claim to not just the substantial dowry, but also to the first-brewed “decoction”. The full force of the patriarchy would be revealed when the morning coffee was served. The groom’s side could lay one of several charges. Either the coffee wasn’t hot enough, or it wasn’t thick enough. If it was both hot and thick, they would contend that it was served too late, thereby disrupting the bowel movements of an entire branch of the groom’s family. But the most serious charge that could be levelled was that the second decoction had been served to a member of the groom’s side. It was an insult of the highest order and provided enough, er, grounds, for calling off the wedding.
It’s not just us, you know. Apparently, Turkish bridegrooms were made to swear that they would always provide their wife with coffee. In India, where men barely venture into the kitchen to do anything, let alone make coffee, such a promise would be laughed at. But things are changing quickly. My husband, for instance, makes the coffee in our household, and is part of a growing tribe of barista husbands. The secret? As soon as you replace the humble steel filter with a large gadget, the men start to take an interest. The better half has now added accessories like a milk thermometer. He has the coffee-seeds vendor on speed-dial and regularly tries to educate the illiterate masses (that is, me) on the difference between Arabica and Peaberry.
He seems slightly obsessed, but, hey, I’m not complaining. I always get the first decoction.