Saturday, 30 January 2010

At grandmum's knee

I grew up in a household where my parents stayed with my paternal grandparents. I was the first grandchild on both sides - and suitably pampered therefore. But by virtue of staying with my paternal grandparents, I naturally was closer to them than the other set. My grandfather was a gentle, soft-spoken and kind-hearted man who always bought me little gifts in the form of rarely available cookies and ginger-bread men. But this post isn't about him - it's about my formidable grandmother and her influence on my life.

"Ammachi" as I used to call her, was neither gentle nor soft-spoken. She stated her mind loud and clear and was quite clearly the boss of the house. Ammachi was short, stout and had a fierce look about her. She was as strong physically as she was mentally. Her house was always spotless, her meat-safe always full and the dining table always laden with delicious food. In those days eatables were rarely bought; often homemade. Ammachi took great pains to make one-of-a-kind murrukkus, diamond cuts, perfect rose-cookies, appams and payasams. Christmas and Easter seasons meant oodles of this stuff being made in her reasonably rustic kitchen with the help of my grandad "Appachen". These eatables were then served to family that visited during the Season and to be sent to neighbours, most of who were Muslims.

Ammachi's daily cooking is noteworthy too. She would painstakingingly cut vegetable such that all the pieces were the exact same size. I kid you not - but to the naked eye, each piece would appear identical to the next. Try cutting yam, beans, carrots to that perfection. Or try chopping green papaya into the tiniest pieces ever - she believed that unless it were cut that fine, mixing it with coconut and steaming it to make a "thoran" would not result in that perfect dish she was used to. Her meen- vevichathu (the renowned red Kerala fish curry) had everyone in the family begging her to teach them how to make it. It was just so good. My mother (her daughter in law) perfected the recipe from her after decades of training. Till Ammachi passed away, my mother used to take out all the spices for grinding and get Ammachi's approval on their relative proportions, before proceeding to make the dish.

Fierce she was. But if she loved you she was also fiercely loyal. I hear from the rest of the family that inspite of living in very small quarters with her husband and 3 children, her home was always open to her nieces and nephews that needed taking in because they had come to this city to study in or whose families were going through a rough patch. Money in those days was limited. Her daughters have told me of times when the guests in the home would be well-fed, but many a time Ammachi’s children would have to do with a little less. She had 5 brothers and was staunchly loyal to all of them. They could never do any wrong in her eyes.

But these are just aspects of her that others remember very well. I remember her most for other reasons. As a child and teenager, I shared a room with my grandparents and later on after Appachen passed on, shared it with Ammachi. Ammachi and I were together a great deal when I was a child. Though she was still running the kitchen then (my mother was still second in command in the kitchen till some years later), she found a lot of time to talk to me and tell me about her childhood (a sack-full of coconuts for 25 paise, pencils being such a rare and precious commodity that no matter how small the pencil, it would never get discarded – instead they’d find ways of artificially elongating it and using it till the lead was completely gone, being married at age 14 and so on). She also taught me a lot of songs and stories – all in Malayalam, the only language she ever knew. She was the one who taught me a “kadha prasanggam” – a long story spoken entirely in song. I took to her lessons very well and as all children do, by-hearted these songs quickly. Ammachi and Appachen also taught me the part Malayalam – part Syrianic litany (worship/litany) used in the Syrian Christian weddings. When I visited my maternal grandparents, the larger family there soon discovered that I knew all these songs and stories and I obediently prattled it all out for them, again and again.

When I later joined school, my teachers realized that I had an ability to sing/be on stage and very soon I was a part of every occasion in which my class had to be on stage. Stage-fright never worried me and it’s a gift that I have even now. I believe that the early initiation by Ammachi into singing and story-telling and the resultant occasions (amongst family, friends and school) that I got to “perform” is the only reason why I carry so much confidence when it comes to any form of public speaking.

Ammachi might not have been the traditional white-haired, plump and huggable grandmother. Infact I don’t ever remember her kissing me even once. But I was her first grandchild and I knew I was special to her. When my brother came along, her belief in carrying on the “family name” took over her loyalties and he became her favourite. But I believe that I was the one who had the privilege of knowing her best as a grandmother and had the privilege of spending the greatest amount of time with her. Neither my brother nor any of her other grandchildren ever learnt a single song or story from her.


Haddock said...

cut vegetable such that all the pieces were the exact same size . . . . .
Ha ha I suppose all ammachis are like that. My mum in law does the same thing even now.

besunni said...

@Haddock: Its really a blessing to be amongst Ammachis like that. Sadly I inherited neither the skill nor the patience to be anything as perfect as Ammachi was in the kitchen.

Thanks for stopping by.