The brightly wrapped containers of instant idlis reminded me at first of classic science fiction serials in which meals were cooked on dining tables by opening small capsules, adding them to bowls and pouring boiling water over them. Instant idlis appeared to be a harmless case of fiction inspiring reality when compared to the flat television ‘parlor walls’ of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 which broadcast senseless soap operas that play in the minds of the people, sucking out their ability to think creatively, ultimately turning them into passive, brainwashed robots.

As a Tamilian from Chennai where idlis are the most common breakfast food, I have a longtime aversion to these steamed dumplings, so much that as a child I decided when I grew up I would never look at another idli in the face. I haven’t missed them. But the novelty of instant idlis made me buy a package.

I emptied the desiccated mini idlis into the container along with the instant sambar powder, added boiling water and waited for eight minutes before opening, and prodded the tiny lumps floating in the sea of sambar with my fork. The touch of those idlis rendered a warm, fuzzy feeling as a Proustian memory flooded my mind.

Aunt Meenakshi was my favourite among my parents’ relatives. She was one of those rare and wise individuals who treat children and adolescents with the same courtesy they give to grownups. Coming from a pan-Indian family, we communicated inevitably in English but I loved listening to her speak in Tamil for her pure diction, the old-world adages that embellished her conversation and her charming Madurai dialect. Aunt was a Tamil scholar and a wonderful storyteller who played haunting ragas on her Veena, but her many talents did not extend to cooking. Her live-in maid cooked for her. Aunt Meenakshi also had a wry sense of humour. She once described her maid’s cooking thus, ‘Her idlis are like rocks, hard enough to kill someone if you throw it at them.’

As I prodded the lumps of instant idlis that bobbed up and down within the container, I was reminded of the warmth of that golden evening in Chennai which still retained the old-world charm of Madras, in that peaceful age undisturbed yet by internet or mobile phones, and Aunt’s gentle voice describing the idlis her maid prepared, with a deadpan face and just a glint of mischief in her eyes.