Blog post by Savithri Sundaram
This morning I received a wonderful mail about a south Indian childhood and was hit by such a strong surge of nostalgia that a la the Ancient Mariner I felt compelled to revisit my own childhood. You,dear readers, are the Wedding Guest.
Summer holidays in my childhood meant trips to good old Madras and the excitement would start building up from the moment Appa discussed booking tickets.I would insist on sitting facing the direction of travel as if that would bring me quicker to my destination.The minute I reached, off I was to my maternal grand father’s house to meet up with all my cousins. Oh,we had some glorious times.
We were quite a few of us in the same age group. Those who were older considered it demeaning to play with us as we did with those who were younger than us. But who cared.We were in our own world. Hot summer afternoons were spent stealing mangoes -the raw ones were incredibly sweet,sweeter than the ripe ones that Thatha kept locked in the store room away from our grubby, thieving fingers. But,who cared—-was that the leit motif of our existence then?While the boys were thus occupied,we girls stole into the kitchen to get the salt and red chilli powder that transformed this simple treat into ambrosia.But,somehow my blind grandfather always sensed that we were upto mischief while the sighted aunts were blind to our doings.Or were they simply being indulgent?
We waited eagerly for the weekends when we would be treated to a trip to Marina beach.A bunch of rambunctious kids and the beach..surely a recipe fordisaster.No.I remember all of us holding hands and standing in the water waiting for the waves to lap our feet and shrieking with maniacal glee when it did so;dragging the more reluctant ones deeper into the water and threatening to dunk them when the next big wave broke.When we had had our fill of the water,off we went to feast on the manga,thenga, pattani and sundal.We then wended our way home, wet and sandy and grubby and oh so tired and just waiting to drop into bed but not before we had stamped our feet in the courtyard and rid ourselves of all that clingy sand.
We cousins would sit in a semi circle around an aunt in the mittam of the house while she would spoon, with her fingers, pazhedu thair sadam and vetta kuzhambu or mavadu into our cupped palms.We each had a strategically placed badam leaf under our hands to catch the stray drops that escaped from between ourfingers. Can any treat compare with this? I really don’t think so.
Some afternoons we stood outside the door or windows to the kitchen and watched with amazement as the aunts, with great expertise made the flour,bound the dough and expertly rwisted it into murukkus or patted it in to thattais or rolled them into small seedais.This was pre Grand Sweets or Adyar Anand Bhavan times you see. If any of us so much as ventured to ask them what they were making we would be sushed.Why did they not understand that we were casting, not the evil eye, but a lascivious one on the goodies?We would wait anxiously for tiffin time when these scrumptious delights which had been locked in the storeroom(can’t blame them with kids like us)would be judiciously apportioned among the hungry masses, on bits of paper mind you,no plates, for who was to wash them later.I remember savouring every mouthful slowly,oh so slowly.to make it last as long as possible and wave it triumphantly in the face of another cousin only to have it rudely snatched away and,and wailing of course.
The thrill of new clothes for Diwali is simply indescribable.The visit of or to the tailor,the taking of measurements,the trials, the disappointment if you got only a sheeti pavadai and not a pattu pavadai…..and the joy of wearing it and visiting your relatives and gorging on all the bakshanams and the Diwali Marundu. Oh!those were the days my friend,We thought they’d never end(with due apologies to the lyricist)
Those of my readers who belong to the next generation,you are all extremely well connected technologically but can anything ever replace the emotional bonds that were forged over shared memories of not only the quarrels(there were many,let me tell you)and the subsequent peace that was brokered by the adults.Our memories consist of the simple pleasures of life;of waiting anxiously for the ring of the cycle bell or the tring of the hand bell announcing the arrival of the Rita kucchi ice-cream wallah or the gulfi, yes,gulfi wallah;of ten or more pairs of imploring eyes turned towards the uncles to see which of them would part with the princely sum of ten or fifteen paise per treat.
Off going to sleep with mardani on your hands with your hands akimbo so that your hands would not smudge and laughing like crazy when you woke up and saw a red blob on your cousin’s arm or face or wherever and being told crossly that there was nothing funny because you too had these badges of war. …an apt comparison because the morning after, the dhurrie and the floor were littered with the detritus of the mehendi for no one had the patience to go to the bathroom and wash theirhands.The air was rent with victorious cries of “My hand is darker than yours” and the disappointed sniffles of those whose hands were only a pale orange.
How can I forget the evenings spent plucking flowers and watching the ubiquitous aunts deftly weaving them into gajras to decorate our hair;the sweet fragranc e of the kadambam with its marikozhundu and other herbs that lingered in your hair long after the flowers had wilted and withered and been discarded;of sitting patiently while the leaves of the kewda were cut and painstakingly stitched onto your braid(hey,mere bhi baal kabhi kale ghane aur lambe the).
How can I forget the ritual of the oil-bath and the disgusting intake of castor oil or paste of tender neem leaves that was administered to help keep our tummies inorder.Was this pre or post oil bath,I wonder. Whenever it was,it was B..aa……dddddd let me tell you. You had an obliging elder holding your nose to help send the potion down and you dare not bring it up again, which happened almost reflexively,because you would be subject to a second dose.The choice wasyours.The more recalcitrant kids were brought kicking and screaming but no one escaped it.
How can I forget too that it fell to the lot of the lone then unmarried mama to make his numerous brood of nieces and nephews go to sleep at night.He would sit in the midfle of the huge oonjal in the koodam with two of us on each side and swing us to dreamland.
I wonder if yes, yes.those very same aunts ever suspected that those of us who had been entrusted with the onerous responsibility of taking the dabba of formula milk for the newest entrant into the family from indha aam(thatha’s)to andha aam(periamma’s) always helped ourselves to generous spoonfuls of aforesaidpowder.It was only payment, you see.
Oh! It was a wonderful time, it was..oil bath and kashayam but computer deprived and electronic gadgetsless though it was. Perhaps the distance in time is making me see my childhood through rose tinted glasses but let me assure you it was the BESTEST time ever.
Hey,this is a fairly accurate account though I may have embellished it a bit.I look forward to your feedback.
Pattani Sundal:Pattani means peas.Sundal is any of several kinds of pulses whiche pressure cooked with salt.drained of water and then tempered with mustard seeds,asafoetida,a few red and green chillies,grated ginger and grated coconut.Traditionally offered as prasad or an offering to the Goddesson all nine days of the Navratri celebrations.
Mittam:The centrally located open courtyard.
Pazhedu:Cooked rice that was left to soak overnight in water and to which was added salt and thayir….curd /yoghurt.It was then mixed into a smooth paste and doled out to the children in the afternoon.This used to be and still is I suspect,the one meal that helps the poor farmer toil in his field in the sweltering South Indianheat.It has been now declared as a very nutritious meal.
Badam leaf:Leaf of the almond tree.
Vetta kuzhambu:A thick tangy spicy curry.
Mavadu:Pickle made with raw,tender,baby mangoes.
Murukku,thattai and seedais:Deep fried savoury delights made from a mix of rice and lentil flour also known as bakshanams.
Gajra:Flowers deftly woven or sewn into small garlands and used to decorate the plaited tresses.
Sheeti as opposed to pattu:Cotton as opposed to silk.
Diwali Marundu:Marundu literslly means medicine.Made with a mix of several medicinal herbs.ghee and honey and jaggery,it serves as a digestive.
Gulfi:Kulfi….a frozen dessert served on a stick.
Kewda:Very fragrant flower…..pandanus odorifer.
Intha aam to andha aam:This house to that house.
Periamma:Mother’s elder sister.