Two striking memories from my childhood are the delicacies my mother made when I came back hungry from school and the anecdotes she used to narrate about a bygone era. I grew up listening to stories my mother narrated about her childhood and her school days. The dividing line between truth and imagination would often dissolve as I listened to the tales spiced with vivid details and humour. I tried to fathom a world very different from the one I was used to in a flat in Chembur in Mumbai (then Bombay).
My mother used to be a treasure house of memories and even now at 83 years, she continues to be so. From her goody bag, she churns out magical tales. Just like her name, Leela, her childhood was replete with playfulness and cheer. During the holidays, she visited her maternal grandmother. It was a sprawling house set in two acres. There were rows of green and yellow coconut trees, the latter used for tender coconut. The edges of the field were lined with panineer chamba trees, a cream-coloured fleshy fruit with a light fragrance. There were a lot of children, who had a free run as they were not under much supervision. The mischievous antics of my mother’s uncle Pappan, who was actually much younger than her, led to several hilarious incidents. He was always hungry and hence was given a special big fat glass called the vayaran (pot-bellied) glass for tea and coffee.
An aunt, Unnicheriamma’s marriage was round the corner and the house was bustling with activity. Dozens of tall bunches of banana covered with straw were kept for ripening in a big underground cellar. It had only one opening through which smoke would be let in twice a day to ensure that all the bananas ripened evenly to a golden yellow colour. The cook, Velayudhan, came to light the smoke and noticed a little toe in the corner of the cellar. Perplexed, he stepped inside and lo behold! Eight-year-old Pappan was lying unconscious inside. His pangs of hunger had led him there in search of bananas to eat. But having inhaled some of the smoke, he fell unconscious. Even such dangerous incidents and the spankings that followed did not deter him from future adventures. In several temples in Kerala, one can see the ritual of preparing thendu, a sweet made by the devotees themselves with rice powder, jaggery and coconut and wrapped in a dry pala (leaf of arecanut plant) and baked over a fire in the sacred temple courtyard. On the auspicious day, Velayudhan took all the ingredients, including firewood, and walked to the Kali Kulangara temple.
After a long walk, he reached the place. The sun was setting and shadows were lengthening when he turned around and saw little Pappan behind him. With dismay, he realised that the search for the little brat must have begun in full swing back home. It was not an age of phones and mobiles. As he could not deny the annual religious offering to the deity, he went about making the thendu, half-burnt and half-cooked, his thoughts hovering around the anxious search back home for the little boy. All this commotion due to Pappan’s greed for thendu!
Shenoy sir used to come to the house at sharp 7 every morning to take tuition classes for the children. Hailing from an impoverished family, his frail figure looked much older than his 70-odd years. Sitting against the pillar in the sit-out, he would be surrounded by an army of children of different ages. On reaching, he would say ‘kutti (kid), go to the kitchen and tell your mother to bring idli’.
The children were not keen on tuitions during vacations, but Shenoy sir would not miss a day. The elders felt it was a good idea to keep the kids occupied for three hours. One day Pappan asked Shenoy sir with a mischievous glint in his eyes, “Do you want chocolate?” The teacher’s eyes lit up at the thought of this delicacy. But Pappan gave him a laxative, Brukelax, which had a packing similar to a chocolate bar. Poor Shenoy sir apparently relished it.
After some time, he enquired about the washroom, which happened to be quite far from the house. It was only after several trips to and from there that the elders smelt something fishy. Immediately, the poor old man was given boiled buttermilk and a cycle-rickshaw called to ferry him home. Even the children felt sorry when they saw his pale face. Nevertheless, Shenoy sir reached the house for the classes promptly the very next morning with a smiling face. firstname.lastname@example.org