Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Inside the pickle jar! - Indrani Mathew

When Lisa first asked me to write something about my childhood, I agreed immediately. “Sure thing!” I said, all enthused. It could not really be that hard, I had thought then. It has been few months since and I have not been able to put words down on paper! Even now, while writing this, I keep asking Pravin “How much should I write? How long does one expect these pieces to be?” Pravin, of course, gave a vague reply saying “As long as you want it to be…”

It is not that I have shied away from sharing snippets of my life; I just did not know where to start from. So after much thought, I have decided to start from the beginning…my earliest memories. They are quite a few…

I remember being born into a house with many people in it; a house which was constantly busy. My father was the third child in a family of eight – five brothers and three sisters. My grandfather, the patriarch of the household had built 3 houses connected by a common compound. I was the fifth grandchild born into this family; one cousin sister, Meghali and my younger brother, Riju followed soon after. I remember spending most of our days running around the house, upto our own antics…

A lot of our activities were around the main kitchen of the house which was on the compound. This kitchen was a haven (I remember waking up to tempting fragrances). Huge vessels of rice were boiled throughout the day on the kiln (no one used gas stoves at that time). All the women of the household would be busy cutting, chopping and stirring up meals which tasted divine! The non-stop chatter around this area; the endless supply of food…

But of course, being kids, we were hardly likely to be interested in regular food! Amidst all the food, my grandmom’s secret hoard of pickles existed somewhere; she used to make and then guard extremely closely in a meat-safe. These pickles were doled out very carefully during the evenings when we would eat luchis (assamese puris) and sabzi. To give you a better understanding of what the temptation was for these pickles, you would need to step back and imagine the different jars containing different types of pickles that one could find – starting with the extremely spicy chilly pickle with yellow mustard seeds, raw mango pickles and on to an assortment of sweet and slightly spicy pickles of olives, tamarind, gooseberries, and ber (the red small berry). These were the kinds which once eaten, one could not stop. This was almost like the chocolate factory for us kids in those days. Especially since it was out of bounds, it was even more alluring! So it was that every evening, a group of mini soldiers got together, with a single point agenda of stealing as much pickle as possible, without getting caught! Of course one would eventually get caught, when ones stomach was upset; but until then, raiding the meat-safe just had to get done!

The pattern was always the same... There were 5 of us – 2 experienced soldiers - Bhonti Ba and Jitumoni Dada (our elder cousins) and 3 of us novices – Meghali, Riju and I. We would start the session by playing hide and seek. One person would become the ‘den’, while two of us novices, also the credible innocents, would be sent to hide in the room where the meat-safe was located; the remaining two would hide in different parts of the house. Two minutes into the game, one would inevitably hear exclamations of ‘cheating! cheating’ being yelled out by any one of the latter 2 players. A furious argument would ensue. The adults of the house would inevitably run to sort out the arguments and to pacify the arguing players. In the meantime, the two people hiding in the meat-safe room would quietly get to work - raiding the pickle jars and grabbing as much pickle as possible. Within minutes, both of them would have two fists full of pickle, while the argument in another part of the house would die down. We would all assemble in one dark corner, and quickly gulp down as much pickle as we could…

We continued to pass on this ‘tradition’ to our younger siblings, while the elder siblings moved on to new areas of interest. In all those years, one of us was always caught with our hands in the pickle jar, always admonished (in the case of one time offenders) or given few slaps (in the case of perennial chors); but nothing could deter any of us Bhuyan siblings from our grandmother’s meat-safe!

Unfortunately for us, this tradition died when my grandmother got older and was no longer able to make her secret recipe pickles anymore. It could have possibly continued with my eldest aunt, Renu, since she had learnt the art of making those pickles to perfection; however, she was always too generous with her pickles…and the excitement no longer lingered…sigh!

Memories of Vadakenadayil - Babu George Mathew

Vadakenadayil is the name of my mother's family. The name is derived from the fact that the ancestral home was at the northern entrance of the Manganam temple. But for us children, it only meant the house where her parents stayed. We referred to it as Vadakkanda, a corrupted form. It was on the Kottayam-Kumili road, just outside Kottayam town limits.

Our childhood was spent in Munnar, a hill station about 90 miles (145 kms) away from Kottayam where my father taught in the Munnar High School. During summer holidays, a visit to Kottayam was a must for my parents - to spend time with their parents, meet relatives, attend family church and renew cultural contacts etc. For Ammachi, it was a chance to gather stock of certain "essentials" for the next one year - special brooms made out of coconut leaves, beautifully made reed baskets, bamboo trays, jaggery balls (sharkarra from sugarcane), rice flakes, tamarind, cambodge pieces, clay pots and other traditional kitchen implements. She believed that these were hygienically and well made in Kottayam.

My paternal grandparents' house was about 250 yards away and was accessed through a narrow dugout pathway which also served as a boundary marker. So a visit to Kottayam meant a visit to both these houses. My early memories are connected with these visits. Our family who lived in Vadakkanda consisted of my grandfather who had lost his memory, my grandmother who was a meek, sweet and graceful old lady, Ammachi's eldest brother (Vallichayan), his wife (Ammayi) and five daughters. I do not think I was ever comfortable in that house. The kitchen area was dominated by the female residents, strengthened by the presence of my mother and elder sisters. Boys were not very welcome in the kitchen area. The other side of the house was the domain of Vallichayan. He liked to stay in his domain and hardly ever went out. We had to be careful around him as he was a highly irritable person. So there was hardly any "space" for me to sit down and read or daydream.

One of my earliest memories of that house is of quarrelling with Ammachi one day over something at bedtime. Right at that time, Achayan came there to collect a coconut leaf bunch which would be lit and used as a torch to go to his parent’s house through the narrow pathway mentioned earlier. Ammachi asked him to take me along and I readily agreed. After that I never again spent a night at Vadakkanda.

On visits to Kottayam, we would get down from hand-pulled rickshaws at Vadakenadayil with trunks and lots of luggage. After spending a little time there, we would proceed to pay "respects" to my paternal grandparents. Ammachi, my elder sisters and the youngest children would go back and remain at Vadakenadayil for most of the vacation.

As I said, the house is on KK Road, an arterial road connecting the high ranges in the east with the market town of Kottayam. Lots of buses and trucks would ply on this road. On the main market days (Tuesday and Friday?) there would be lots of small time farmers and artisans carrying their goods as head loads to sell at the main market. From the previous night itself, there would be a continuous stream of bullock carts (single ones to 3-40 strong caravans) carrying hill produce and farm products from nearby areas. The iron clad wooden wheels and the bells on the retaining spoke would make a lot of noise rolling over macadamised roads. From these people, which included women, Ammachi would buy kitchen implements, brooms with the help of her mother.

In those days people were particular about the way food was prepared. I think all women including the hired help were very competent cooks. Ammayi was no exception. I don't think I have seen a match for her perfectly made aromatic "puttu". Unfortunately it was an evening snack there and not a breakfast item. The breakfast in their house was the traditional "conji", a rice gruel made with specially broken rice which I couldn't stand. Other tidbits and the very sweet jackfruit served were always welcome.

The house has remained pretty much the same, without any significant changes and it still reminds me of the good old times.