Competition in the good old days !!
Remember the post on the naming ceremony ? I had eaten one too many "vadai"s (think of them as south Indias answer to the Falafal) and had fallen sick. I did promise a post on that .. so here is the story that had come to mind.
This story is real. It happened when my grandfather was not boy of 10 or 12. In south Indian brahmin families it is customary to celebrate the death anniversary of your immediate forefathers (maybe two generations) with a prayer (to call for their souls to rest in peace). This is called the "srarth" or "srartham". At the end of this half day ceremony, they usually put 11 big plaintain (banana) leaves and ask 10 brahmins, to eat a feast. The 11th leaf is served but is not touched by any of the brahmins and at the end of the ceremony sometimes a kid is asked to eat from that leaf (the idea is that the 11th plate is for god !). This feast is called "bramanartham" in tamizh lingo. Enough of the details.. lets get to the story !!
Usually they pick priests with big potbellies because at some point in history, people started equating the happiness and contentedness of the priest at the end of the feast to the amount of rest that the forefathers poor souls get !! So, you can imagine how things evolved over a few hundred years. The priests who started performing srartham ceremonies started developing superior bellies that could potentially house a family of three or four kids inside with room to spare.. I am talking bellies that were genetically passed on from father to son and the ability to eat enough to fill those bellies in 30-45 minutes. It is rumored that these priests used to teach remedial classes for camels and cows that used to fail the "chewing the cud 101" course !!
Naturally, they were much sought after, even more than the ones that could actually recite the prayers because their belch at the end of the meal could directly be heard by the forefathers souls, faster than the recited hymns and prayers !!
In one such feast in the village near Mayiladudurai (where my grandpa grew up), there were two priests who were famous for both their knowledge of the scriptures and their ability to eat ! (I cannot name them here because, who knows, their great grand kids might be reading this post !!).
The poor womenfolk, start cooking for the feast as early as 3 -4 AM and they get no rest till the last priest has had his fill. That said, in one of the ceremonies, one of the priests challenged the other to a contest. "I can eat more vada's than you !!" and I will prove it in todays feast !. When the ladies heard this, they were of course alarmed. They had not prepared enough lentil dough to make the vadais.
Keep in mind that usually the lentils are soaked in water the previous night, then they were ground in a stone grinder manually !! There was no electricity or Osterizers or Griders available 70 years ago ! At the end of the grinding process, they added some ginger, chillies and peppercorn to this dough, some curry leaves and salt and deep fried in oil, in the shape of a mini donut.. The end result was and is usually divine both in smell and taste. Today, even a novice like me with a mini belly can eat 10 vadais in one sitting..
When two veteran priests have decided to contest and especially on one item in the meal, the ladies panicked. What if there is not enough dough, and the priests curse them ? Luckily a village elder (super granny) calmed them down. She asked them to boil water and accelerate the soaking process for the lentils. This helped, but still the ladies were in the frying process when the priests started the contest.
In 15 minutes both priests had consumed all the vadais that had been made for the morning. The other priests and the family who had to eat after the priests all decided to forego their share of vadais to help the ladies in their noble cause !! They had finished 50-60 vadais each !! and were asking for more. While the frantic ladies were parallel processing vadais on multiple stoves, the priests were going about demolishing them even faster!! I can only imagine them beating their chests, a la "king kong" style with every additional set of vadais safely tucked in their tummies.
This keeps going for almost an hour and a half and by this time they are both pretty full. But their "bloated" egos, wouldnt let them concede victory to the other and they keep asking for more. In those days, the priests word was absolute and the family had no choice but to oblige. But by now, a crowd has gathered to witness what has now turned into a local sporting event !
The local medicine man was put on standby as the family did not want a dead priest to commemorate their grandfathers anniversary! They were both in the nineties (I mean the number of vadais, not their age)and struggling. At this point one of the priests makes it to a hundred vadais and stops. He can hardly speak. But he looks at the other one for a response and starts to throw up violently.
So the other priest wants to top the 100 with 101 vadais. He finishes it (picture it in slow motion) and collapses right there ! His pulse starts to drop and pandemonium breaks out.. What happened next ?
The local doctor (medicine man), asked the priests near lifeless body to be taken to the river. He then asked two or three guys to hold the priest by the shoulder, facing the river where the currents were strongest.. 15 minutes later (as my grandfather tells me), the priest burst his "over pressure relief valve" located in his rear and out came the vadais (digested or otherwise) and with a choke he woke up !! The local doctor saved the day !!
Luckily both the priests survived the competition ! Even today you can go to south Indian brahmin family "srartham"s and watch the priests in action. At the end of the day there is something to be said for watching a man eat and show how happy he is.. When they bless you, they bless you with all their heart, or should I say stomachs ?!?