There are few things as memorable as the marriages in the family in the days before the advent of destination and colour-coordinated nuptials. They were low dimensional events but pulled in the entire family and the neighbourhood. The highlights were captured for posterity by the local studio in a few rolls of 120 black and white film.

In Malabar, in the early days after Indian independence, elders always decided who you could  marry and when and where. Horoscopes changed hands and under cover intermediaries confirmed important ground realities. When all the check boxes were ticked to the satisfaction of the elders, it was time to go public. That was how we were one day informed that our eldest cousin would be getting married. The groom was someone whom she had never seen before and who was working in what was then known as ‘the Gulf.’

There were no wedding planners and there was no angst about the venue– it was a simple DIY event that was to take place in the unpaved courtyards around the house where we all lived. The guest lists were scribbled down in a notebook, edited many times over and a simple invitation card was printed. In those days it was customary for elders to visit close relatives and personally invite them to attend the wedding and bless the couple. This was also the opportunity for elders to amplify the profile of the bridegroom, his family, his accomplishments and throw in details like what jewellery had been purchased for the bride. The people of the neighbourhood then added their footnotes to the shared content. Suddenly, everyone seemed to know the bridegroom or someone close to him and everyone also knew everything about life in the Gulf.

Nearer the wedding day, workers were engaged to whitewash the house and make plans for erecting the mandap[1], the pandals[2], the seating and the dining arrangements. This was the era before plastic and ‘Made-in-China’ baubles. The decorations were limited to what the surroundings could provide – bunches of green banana and tender coconuts adorned the entrance to the pandal. The pookula[3] was always the centrepiece in the mandap. It was prominently displayed alongside the traditional lamps, the overflowing measure of rice, more bananas and fruits and incense sticks stuck into plantains. Then there were twirls of jasmine and kanakambaram[4] piled up on trays or strung into long strands and an array of Petromax lamps and tube lights to add the final touch of festivity.

There were no discussions about the menu – nobody campaigned for sushi or Chicken ’65 and nobody had heard of momos or tempura . There were no cocktails and therefore no starters.  All that the cooks needed to know was the number of guests. They would then present the sadhya[5] – the traditional Malabar wedding meal served on a banana leaf. The guests would sit

crossed legged on the floor and savour the various traditional preparations and three payasams[6].  The menu was the same that was served at the bride’s father’s marriage and the bride’s grandfather’s marriage; chances were it would be the same for the bride’s sister’s marriage too. The only changes were in the pick of the seasonal vegetables that went into the dishes that graced the leaf and the choice of the payasam.

The wedding shopping was completed in an afternoon. Everyone was pleased with the simple cream silk sari and the green and gold brocade blouse that the bride would wear. The bride’s only indulgence was a bottle of nail polish and a set of metal moulds that enabled her to sport a crescent-shaped bindi [7] at the ceremony.

Everything that was to be served at the wedding was made at home. About a week before the event, the cooks arrived to prepare the snacks for the wedding. In those days, it was customary to serve a savoury and a sweet to the guests; and so, at every wedding, there were gram flour laddoos,[8]soaked in a sugar syrup and a mixture – a trail mix kind of a snack with fried gram flour titbits, groundnuts, cashew nuts and lots of curry leaves and green chillies. Relatives began arriving a few days before the date and that was time for children to be civil, give up their cots, beds and whatever else they were asked to.

A few days before the wedding the giant vessels were taken out of storage, washed and dried in the sun. The cooking was done in a shed outside the house. The work order began with the cooks stripping down to the minimum and following undocumented Six Sigma routines with meticulous detail. It was a stirring experience to watch the cook mix the payasam with a ladle as tall as himself and fry hundreds of pappads[9] in a cauldron of boiling coconut oil. Large banana leaves were used to cover the cooked food and giant wicker baskets were used to strain the water from the cooked rice. It was an amazing food production line!

The food service was timed to perfection. The marumakkathayam marriage ceremony was a contract that took less than five minutes to pull together. The crescendo of the drums and the nadaswaram[10] were signs that the ceremonies had come to an end. The moment it was over, there was nothing else to keep the guests occupied. Everyone was hungry and everyone rushed to where the leaves were laid. To save time, the leaves were partially piled with items from the sadhya and were placed on the leaf before the guests sat down. The food service then began and came to an end only when the last guest had folded his leaf and got up to wash his hands.

The bride stayed in her own house on the first night after her wedding and was on the following day taken to her husband’s home. One by one the relatives left for their homes, the vessels were cleaned and put back, the pandal was taken down. Two pleasurable tasks remained  – to see all the gifts that the bride had received and to go through the black and white wedding pictures.


[1] A decorated area or structure made for the wedding ceremony

[2] A temporary structure made from bamboo, coconut fronds and coir.

[3] Inflorescence – the complete coconut flower

[4]Crossandra

[5] The festive meal served on a banana leaf

[6] Payasam – a traditional sweet preparation

[7] The spot on the forehead

[8] A sweet confection made from gram flour

[9] A lentil and rice wafer

[10] A wind instrument the sound of which is considered auspicious

Many decades ago, we lived as a joint family in a house that seemed made for the purpose – grandparents, a granduncle, uncles, aunts, cousins and every now and then a few visitors too. The house was big, and every member of the joint family had their living space. Every member had a cupboard too – joint family life ended in front of the cupboard door and a very private life began when the key was pushed into the lock.  To complement the needs of the family, the house had its own cupboards too, not closets, or walk-in wardrobes – just old-fashioned cupboards!

My grandmother had two cupboards. The first was a huge wooden one with stubby legs that was placed in a room that certainly was built around her cupboard. She kept her dhobi [1] laundered clothes and linen in folded heaps and the moment she opened this cupboard, the room smelled of fresh thazampoo[2] flowers. Her second cupboard was behind her bed and was what was called a wall cupboard. It had little depth, just two shelves and always smelt of cardamom. This was grandmother’s private safe – this was where she kept her documents, two or three items of jewellery and two little containers – one with cardamom and the other with saffron. It was a privilege to be around when she opened one of her cupboards.

My uncle and aunt had two separate cupboards. My uncles’ was in what was called the Office Room and my aunt had hers in their bedroom. They both also had open wall cupboards with many shelves. My aunt kept pictures of the deities she prayed to, oil lamps and a couple of Mills & Boon novels on her shelves and my uncle stored old copies of the Sport & Pastime, a sports periodical of the time. There were few opportunities to peep into their two cupboards.

My second aunt inherited her cupboard from my grandfather – a beautiful piece of woodwork standing high off the ground and complete with a headboard where you could hide things if you wanted to. This cupboard smelt of camphor when it was opened but it was seldom opened when children were around and none of us got a look inside much as we wanted to.

My mother’s cupboard was shorter than her and was in her bedroom. It was made from jackfruit tree wood and had a locking arrangement that would have brought joy to any thief. She had her work clothes on the lower shelves and little curios on the top shelf – a Venetian broach, a Japanese-style fan and two empty perfume bottles. In the centre of the top shelf was a small glass jar that was always full of sweets – orange and lemon drops, or Parry’s coconut toffees wrapped in cellophane. On holidays after lunch, she opened the jar and gave each of us a sampling with the strict understanding that a request for second helpings would not be entertained. With the wisdom of youth, we did not tell anyone what this cupboard held for us.

One room in the house was full of cupboards. Here, in between two massive cupboards and a granary was a tiny little cupboard that sat on a table.  My cousins used this cupboard for their shirts and trousers. It was a boys-only shared-ownership cupboard and there were constant arguments about who pulled out what and when. My aunt tried to bring order into this cupboard several times a day. Am not sure where the girls stored their possessions? Perhaps it was in their mother’s cupboard.

Besides these personal cupboards, there were the house cupboards – some of them had glass panes and were so high that we could barely see what was on the top shelves. One glass cupboard had delicate pieces of crockery on the shelves that had either gone out of fashion or been written off.

On festive occasions, my grandmother opened this cupboard, took out a silver serving bowl and ladle and gave it to my aunt to serve the payasam[3] after lunch. It was fascinating to press one’s nose against the glass panes and look inside. There were many things from another era on the shelves.

There was a rickety cupboard opposite the glass cupboard and it was full of books that my grandmother had brought with her when she left her father’s house. During school holidays this cupboard doubled as a private library. The cupboard was home to Tod’s Annals and Antiquities of Rajast’han, Abu’l Fazl’s Ain-i-Akbari, William Logan’s Malabar Manual, a textbook on Obstetrics and Gynaecology and a number of English classics.

There were two house cupboards in the pantry and a third joined them sometime later. One cupboard held all the items that were needed to make breakfast and snacks for the family. There were jars filled with flour, sugar, eggs, jaggery, vanaspati[4], tea and coffee powder. One jar was always kept reserved for banana chips, the standard snack in Malabar. The second pantry cupboard was a meat safe that was an invaluable asset in the days before refrigeration. The sides of the meat safe had metal netting to allow air flow and its legs were plunged into bowls of water to keep the ants away from the freshly churned butter, jaggery treacle, the coconut toffee and anything else that was trending for the day. These cupboards were always kept locked – there were too many constantly hungry children in the house.

One cupboard in the sitting room was a dark horse.  One day my grandmother opened it, cleared the cobwebs and pulled out a bottle of castor oil. She read the label and told us that the bottle was nearly a hundred years old. We believed her and never wanted to peer inside that cupboard ever again. When the house was sold, the cupboards travelled with their owners to new locations and homes. The wall cupboards sad to say, had nowhere to go.


[1] The washerman

[2] Pandanus flowers

[3] A sweet preparation

[4] Hydrogenated vegetable oil

We begin in an era when Malabar was a lot more than an adjective and when God was yet to choose His own country. Daily life was simple but enormously different. There were barely any phones, no Internet, and no videos on how to make a fish curry. There were no on-line shops either and no delivery apps that would bring a freshly netted Indian salmon cleaned and cut, right to your coordinates. It was an era when everything happened at ground level and at a comfortable pace.

The talk about fish curry would begin while curtains were coming down on breakfast. Every member of the family was roped in to watch out for the familiar shout of the fisherman on his bicycle. His shout was a copyrighted sound clip audible over the clutter of the neighbourhood. Everyone clapped and screamed and finally Moideen was there. He wheeled his bicycle with the dripping fish basket down the long driveway to where half the family was waiting to inspect his wares.

He lifted the banana leaf covering the fish and there at the bottom were a heap of kunjanmatti (small sardines), fresh ayla (mackerels), a handful of tired looking prawns and two baby sharks. The pleasant chatter of bargaining for the ayla then started and Moideen used the talk time to slip in news that he felt may support his price. The catch had been poor for a week he said and the trains bringing the fish from Tannur had come in late every day!  The top news for us to clinch the deal was when he added that our neighbours had bought the entire neimeen (seer fish) yesterday. Moideen counted out the ayla in lots of five, threw the fish into Kunjhipennu’s pot, collected his money, and wheeled the bicycle out with another proprietary hoot.

Kunjhipennu was always entrusted with the task of getting the ayla ready for the cooking pot. She did this with expertise and dedication, with two cats for company and an audience of children watching her every manoeuvre. At another spot, my aunt and grandmother were discussing how to cook the fish: With coconut milk? With onion and tomatoes? With roasted coconut, tamarind, and spices? With coconut and curd and a touch of cumin? There were no tomatoes in the house, the coconut milk curry was made just three days ago, the roasted coconut would take a long time and by default the choice was for the ‘curd-coconut-cumin’.

The ingredients were laid out and a whole coconut was halved and scraped for making the base of the curry. The grinding stone came alive with the sound of the crushing and up and down movement of the pestle over the coconut, chillies, and turmeric. The cumin was ground separately and kept aside in a little heap. All the matrons of this era advised that the stone be washed, and the water added to the curry to ensure that none of the flavours were lost. It was Kamalakshi who did the grinding and then the bathing of the grinding stone. Cook Nambiar checked the paste on the stone every few minutes to see that it was as smooth as grandmother liked it to be.  The ayla preparation for the day was in a curd and coconut base with ground red chillies and turmeric, a hint of cumin and a final seasoning of coconut oil and curry leaves. 

Cook Nambiar did not appreciate an audience so we stayed out of the kitchen while he went through the ritual of preparing the gravy base with the ground ingredients and the fish. But we watched as the flames enveloped the munnchatti (clay pot); the heat was fierce, and it took just a few minutes before it was time to add the final touches.

And just as the ritual was coming to an end, my grandmother shouted her final instructions: “Make sure you add the cumin just a minute before taking it off the flame.” Nambiar obeyed the instructions, lifted the pot off the fire, poured the coconut oil over the top and threw in the curry leaves. Then very gently he poured the fish curry into a serving dish. We followed him in a procession as he carried the dish to the dining area. It’s important to mention that – the coconut oil was neither virgin nor cold-press – it came from an old ox-powered mill in the area. And, there were no reviews in that era – there never ever was any fish curry left!

Modern kitchens are showpieces of design and convenience but they have few links to the antique cookhouses of the last century. My grandmother’s kitchen was light years away from the I of T, push-button gadgetry, ceramic hobs and wall-mounted ovens. The only common element was the heat that did its job and kept the family fed and burping three times a day. To their credit, it must be said that those archaic kitchens produced better food than the kitchens of today with their modular units, hoods and island counters.
My grandmother’s kitchen was a spacious L-shaped room that was connected to the house by a long and covered corridor. You smelt smoke when you entered it and smelt of smoke when you left it. One end of the kitchen opened on to the kitchen well with the familiar pulley, bucket and rope and a little sunken wash area. The other end was the cooking space with a mud-and-cow-dung plastered platform that had hollows for keeping the firewood and three raised surfaces for keeping the stoneware pots and urulis.(A wide-mouthed cooking vessel)
Firewood was the fuel of choice except at times when the order book of the local saw mill was overflowing. When the mills worked non-stop, they gifted saw dust free of charge to the residents of the area. In doing so, the mills saved a lot of money on disposal of the saw dust. The saw dust was packed into a cylindrical iron stove keeping a rod in the centre to create an airspace. Once packed, the rod was lifted out and the saw dust was lit for the first pot of the day to go on the fire. A high level of heat management expertise was needed to cook on the saw dust burner. There were no means to control the heat, and no way the flame could be put out till it had exhausted itself. These shortcomings were peanuts when compared to the ferocity of the heat it generated and the volume of food it cooked for no less than twenty people, for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The wood fired hole-in-the-platform was another challenge. Every morning the first person to enter the kitchen started the fire using a long hollow iron rod to blow and old pages of the Madras Mail to spur the flames. Once up and burning, the idea was to place one vessel after the other on the flame so that there was no loss of heat. To reduce the heat, the only strategy was to pull out a log of the firewood and place it on the side. At the end of the day, the embers were just right for a few jobs on the side. The plantain for grandfather’s dinner was thrown over the coals in its metal container and the egg custard was left to set and caramelise on the hot embers. In summer, the last of the embers roasted an endless supply of jackfruit seeds and occasionally a few cashew nuts as well.
There was little by way of equipment and utensils in grandmother’s kitchen. There was a cutting board that time had turned concave and a blunt knife that was called by its original Arabic name. There were two grinding stones and a long and slim iron skewer that was used to pull papads (lentil-based crisps) out of the boiling coconut oil. There was a quern for grinding grain and a coconut scraper that looked exactly like a fossilised baby crocodile with its serrated head held high. On festive days, the cook would sit astride this gadget and scrape over fifty coconuts and cut over a hundred bananas for the day’s fare. Of the two grinding stones, the round one was used to grind the rice and lentils for the breakfast idlis (steamed rice and lentil cakes) and the rectangular one was used to grind grated coconut and spices. Both stones were washed with great care after every use and the wash-water was to the ground mix to ensure that nothing was lost. In the wash area near the well was a wooden trough that looked like a dug-out canoe. The cook emptied the water from the cooked rice into this and saved it for the buffalo in the backyard.
There was a built-in cupboard with oil-soaked shelves with nothing much in it and over the fire place hung bunches of okra and beans being dried for planting. Thrice every day, the cook carried the food up the corridor to the pantry and the dining area inside the main house. On days when the cook had made something special, all the children followed him to make sure that he was not waylaid on this journey.
The storeroom was in the main part of the house. Every morning the rice, lentils, vegetables and oil for the day was laid out on a muram( a winnowing tray) and carried to the kitchen in ceremonial style and every evening the empty muram was brought back.

How did one clean a kitchen where soot was the dominant feature? The fireplace was emptied of coals and ash at the end of every cooking session and fresh firewood was put in place. When all that was done, the floors were cleaned daily with a cow dung mixture and left to dry.
When age caught up with my grandmother, she bequeathed the rights of the main kitchen to her daughter-in-law. A relative had gifted her with an imported Butterfly brand kerosene stove that came all the way from Malaysia. It was easy to light and regulate the heat and was placed on a table in the pantry. With the Butterfly, she treated us to French toast, scrambled eggs, coconut toffee and the daily fish curry. This was as smart as cooking could get in middle of the last century.

Shornur was a cross between a new town and an old village and an important junction on the Southern Railway in India. The town began its ascent when the British introduced and popularised rail travel in Malabar in the 19th century. It improved its profile when it became the half-way halt for rail journeys between Malabar and the erstwhile State of Cochin.  Later the Junction was spoken of as an early-dinner halt for the Mangalore Mail as it chugged on its way to the provincial capital, Madras.

Shornur Junction was a part of rail travel in the early years of Independence in India. Steam engines, coal-fed furnaces, whistles, semaphore signals and tokens in large cane rings that dedicated engine drivers picked up at each station for the safe run to the next. This was also the era of well-presented Railway Timetables, VRRs (Vegetarian Refreshment Rooms) and NVRRs (Non-Vegetarian Refreshment Rooms). Travel in that era was slow and stress-free and people always wore their best attire for the journey. Trains stopped at stations for long periods of time and also stopped in the middle of nowhere for reasons both known and unknown. To make up for the long journey, there were travel dividends that lasted till you finally reached your destination – the Shornur Biriyani fell right into that category.

In those days, the only means of communication between stations were the dedicated telegraph lines that helped station masters stay in touch with others of their tribe.  All Station Masters were willing to message food orders to the lunch and dinner stops on the line. Thanks to this arrangement, both the hungry passengers and the service providers were brought together. Two stations before Shornur Junction, the waiter from the NVRR would walk in and out of carriages of the train with a one-word invocation, ‘Biriyani, Biriyani, Biriyani ..……..’ Word-of-mouth messaging had endorsed the Shornur mutton and chicken Biriyani many times over. Passengers waited patiently till the NVRR bearers came to the compartment to take their orders.

Around mid-day, the train made its slow and majestic entry into Shornur Junction. It did not matter on which platform the train stopped as the NVRR had several doors opening to the main concourse and their service was well-organised and fast. As soon as the alighting passengers left the train, the service staff would bring in the trays with the Biriyani orders, each covered with an old issue of the Mathrubhumi[1].

The Shornur Biriyani was presented as a fragrant mound of cooked rice with a boiled egg poised on the top and caramelised onions strewn all over. There were equal parts of yellow, orange and white rice with the spice-coated meat hidden underneath and the ritual curd and onion mix on the side. As the Mathrubhumi was lifted, the aromas drifted up – top notes of cloves, cardamoms, cinnamon, coriander, star anise and mint and possibly many more secret ingredients.

It was normal to plunge the fingers into the mound and start with the first handful of rice. The tender meat fell off the bones; this was then wrapped in rice to marry the two and to make the taste buds move up the flavour ladder. The simple boiled egg was added and the meal progressed slowly and with little talk. There was no hurry – you could take your time eating and relish every bit of the rice pyramid, the meat and the egg.

The waiters collected the empty trays long after the train left the Junction and when it began its onward journey towards Cochin. As the train crossed the bridge over the Bharatapuzha river, it was time to lick your fingers clean to get the last of the great taste. Later you rinsed your fingers under the tap with as little water as possible – you never used soap to wash your hand after eating the Shornur Biriyani – that would erase forever the last vestiges of the flavour!

My mother once told us the story of Swami Vivekananda’s visit to Shornur Junction. We were then too young to appreciate the significance of his visit or the message he conveyed when he addressed a gathering of people.  At that age, all that mattered to us at Shornur Junction was the sheer thrill of enjoying the best Biriyani in Malabar.

The Shornur Junction was left behind as the Indian Railways moved on. To save time, several trains were moved onto loops that ignored the Junction altogether. With the advent of fast travel, trains never stopped at a station for less than a few minutes and with the introduction of pantry cars, the death knell was sounded for the brick and mortar VRRs and the NVRRs.

At the supermarkets in Kerala today, there are spice mixes for Tellichery Biriyani and Kozikodan Biriyani but the Shornur Biriyani it seems has not been replicated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] The local

 

 

As we drove into Zadar on the last leg of our stay in Croatia, we quickly flipped through the notes that we had made for the city. When compared to Pula, Plitvice, Split and Dubrovnik, it seemed that there was much less to see. There were the ruins of a Roman forum, the sea organ and churches to Chrysogonus, Francis, Elijah, Simeon and a round Romanesque one from the 9th century. The round church was getting a make-over, so we had to move on to Simeon – we knew very little about him.

We pressed our faces on the glass door of the Church of St. Simeon a few minutes after it closed for the noon break. We tried to attract the attention of someone who was moving around inside. We had just a few hours left in Zadar and felt a sense of determination to see Simeon. A few minutes later, a gentleman appeared on the other side of the glass and gestured to us to wait.

What happened next was astounding. The gentleman made sure no one was inside the church, then let us in and quickly locked the glass doors again. He led us to the main altar and pointing to a rectangular silver chest above the altar whispered to us that it contained the remains of St. Simeon. He then ran into the sacristy to get the key, stood on a stool and unlocked the gleaming casket.   Together we lifted the heavy lid just enough to get a peep of the contents inside. He asked us to look into the chest to see the remains and reliquary and when that was done, gently closed the chest. As he let us out of the Church, he said we could come back on Sunday when the chest would be opened.

We stood outside that church in silence.  It was long past lunch time, but the enormity of the experience that we had had pushed aside hunger and the need to search for an eatery within walking distance. We were speechless. We had visited the church of St Simeon and seen the remains of a man who had been born before Jesus Christ.  Over two thousand years ago, the same Simeon had held the Baby Jesus in his arms and told the child’s parents of all that was to unfold! How did Simeon who lived and died in Jerusalem over two thousand years ago reach Zadar? And why did the people of Zadar revere a man who reached their shores over a thousand years after his death? There were many cross references within the story and we would have to delve into each of them.

Zadar on the Adriatic coast of Croatia has the distinction of being one of the oldest inhabited cities of the world. This means that from time immemorial everyone starting with the Romans, the Liburnians, the numerous Italian states, the Austrians, the Byzantines, the Serbs, the Slovenes and Croats all loved to have a pied-à-terre in the fortified city. Some others reached Zadar through force of circumstances and in this category was the holy man Simeon.

There are hundreds of saintly Simeons in history! But there is just one whom evangelist Luke refers to in Chapter 2 of his Gospel, as ‘the righteous and devout man of Jerusalem.’ Luke narrates that the Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would not see death before he had seen Jesus Christ. Simeon was in the temple at the time when Joseph and Mary, the parents of Jesus brought  the child into the temple for the purification rituals. Simeon took the child in his arms, blessed them all and announced that he could now depart in peace as he had seen Jesus as prophesied. There is no other mention of this Simeon in any of the other Biblical texts.

Somewhere in the archives of the Vatican there may be bundles of parchment with records of Simeon, his death, his burial and his elevation to the status of a saint. But for lay people, the next mention of Simeon comes from the annals of history. In the 6th century, the remains of the holy man were shipped from Syria to Constantinople. As one Crusade followed another, it became clear that it was time to move sacred possessions to secure locations. Constantinople was no longer a safe haven. Six centuries after his first journey, Simeon’s remains were again put on a ship to what may have been planned as his final resting place in Venice. A Venetian merchant was entrusted to carry Simeon’s sarcophagus from Constantinople.   The ship was caught in a storm off the coast of Zadar and the merchant came ashore to have his vessel repaired.

The story goes that the merchant fell ill. Fearing for the safety of his precious cargo, he hid Simeon’s sarcophagus in a burial ground. After the merchant died, the monks who were treating the man chanced upon the documents on his person referring to the sarcophagus. They retrieved the sarcophagus without much knowledge of its contents. But soon news spread, and miracles began to take place.  The people of Zadar realised that they had received a divine bounty and from then on fiercely guarded the remains of Simeon as their own.

The news of miracles spread to countries around the Adriatic and the curiosity of the people was aroused. In the 14th century, the Queen of Hungary and Croatia visited Zadar to see the Saint. Legend goes that while she was in the Church, she broke off a finger of the Saint and hid it within her bodice. The piece of the finger began to decompose immediately, and a wound appeared on the Queen’s body where she had hidden the finger. She had no option but to return the digit that she had wrenched out. Before she left the Church, she promised to gift a silver and gold casket to the church. This casket today holds the remains of the Saint. The Queen’s commission was carried out in Milan by a leading goldsmith of the time and then brought to Zadar. The chest is considered a masterpiece of medieval artisanry and has the status of being a UNESCO protected artifact.

Some centuries later, the remains were moved to the church of St. Stephen that was later called the Sanctuary of Saint Simeon, the Righteous. Legends about Simeon abound but it is difficult to mention all of them – suffice to say that people of Zadar love the prophet and venerate him.

We left Zadar and continued to make discoveries about the holy man. Simeon has enjoyed long shelf life and is fresh in people’s memories even two thousand years after his demise. The Christian world did not forget Simeon. Day after day, they celebrate the man who had the privilege to hold the Infant Jesus in his arms. The words he spoke in the temple became the Canticle of Simeon used in prayer daily among Christians in many parts of the world – Simeon came to be called the Prophet of Nunc Dimittis (Latin meaning Now Release) – the Canticle of Simeon. It has been sung and continues to be sung in both Latin and English by some of the best voices and choirs of the world.

Simeon left his impact on the arts as well. In the early 18th century, Aert de Gelder, the Dutch artist painted Simeon’s Song of Praise in the Rembrandt style. The painting which shows the man with the Infant is now at the renovated Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis at the Hague. In the last century, the American poet T.S. Eliot wrote the poem “A Song for Simeon.”  This work was one of five poems that the poet did and finds place in his collected works.

There are several stained-glass windows that portray the scene of the presentation in the temple and one of them is in St. Alban’s Anglican Church in Copenhagen, Denmark. Every year it is at Christmas time that the story of the Nativity of Christ is told and retold. Simeon features in the last lines – in the Nunc Dimittis verses:

“Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said,

Lord, now let thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word”

Simeon

                                                                                               

A few years ago, the Western world was introduced to the taste, texture and goodliness of chakka – the South Indian name for the giant summer fruit called, the jackfruit. A well-choreographed marketing strategy, good product sampling, talk of incredible nutritional benefits, and the low-profile fruit from the developing world became the buzz on the subways in Manhattan. People were in ecstasy about chakka smoothies, chakka sorbets and tales from the chakka blogs. There was nothing that was not possible with chakka! That summer, chakka displaced heirloom tomatoes and pluots!

Chakka is – Hortus Malabaricus, a member of the Plantae kingdom. The Portugese rechristened the fruit as jacca and this was later anglicised into jackfruit. In 1563, Garcia De Orta, the naturalist mentioned jackfruit in his work Coloquios dos Simples e Drogas da India. A century later, Henrik Adriaan Van Rheede, the Dutch Governor of Malabar gave the world visuals of the chakkamaram[1]  its leaves, fruits, seeds and timber, in his famous work – Horti Indica Malabarici. The volumes were in Latin but Van Rheede’s editorial team wrote the names of every tree, flower and fruit in four languages – Latin, Malayalam, Arabic and Hindi. In a ‘we-too’ move, the British botanist R.R. Stewart stood up to say that the jackfruit was named after a Scottish botanist William Jack who was on the payroll of the East India Company. Nothing changed for chakka!

We knew none of this as we grew up under the many jackfruit trees in my grandmother’s house in Malabar. All that we knew was that there was a chakka season that started in the first quarter of the year and ended with the first showers of the South West monsoon. In those days, there were few choices in the markets by way of produce and very little money to spend on them. The produce from every backyard was what put food on the table, day after day. Chakka had a leading role in that play.

At the start of the season, my grandmother would survey the bounty on the trees and take a call on when the first of the iddichakka[2] should come to the table. These tender jackfruits were used in a dozen different ways to make both mains and sides. They were cooked with spices and coconut to resemble a mutton curry, or simply stir fried in coconut oil with a hint of turmeric and salt and eaten with rice and lentils. There was much sharing and gifting as well all over the neighbourhood and there was no one who did not have iddichakka on the menu during the first flush of the season. A few more weeks on the tree and the mature chakka was ready to be sliced and deep fried in coconut oil in giant Chinese woks. A light sprinkling of salt and you had an amuse-guele that went with everything from evening tea to a single malt. During the season, it was jackfruit with jackfruit for breakfast lunch and dinner!

As the fruit thrived on the heat and humidity, grandmother would make many more recces to see which of the chakkas was ready to be cut. Cutting the jackfruit from the tree and lowering it to the ground was no mean task. The fruit was what the airlines now term ‘oversize’- carrying it from anywhere to anywhere required well developed biceps and a worthwhile tip.

Parents in Malabar made it a point to send jackfruits to each of their children – a tiny strip of jute cloth across the belly of the fruit was all the packing that the fruit required to travel on top of the mofussil bus or the luggage compartment of the local passenger train. The fruit never formed part of carry-on baggage but no one hesitated to check it in on a flight!

The cutting, slicing, cleaning and removing the pods called for many hands. During the summer months, several afternoons were spent in this bonding activity.  Our cook used a large well-oiled vettukathi[3] to cut the fruit at the diaphragm and remove the central fibrous core.  Then it was sliced into workable portions and spread out on an old edition of the Mathrubhumi[4]. We oiled our hands to avoid the sticky white latex and began pulling out the juicy pods from its sheltered base and then removing the seeds. A large portion of the pods were consumed on the spot and the rest got to the table for the rest of the family. The jackfruit seeds – chakkakuru were delicious and lasted long after the rainwater seeped into the last of the fruit.  The seeds were spread out to dry and then stored in open containers to be used later.  They were cooked into a curry with coconut, buttermilk and mangoes or boiled and stir fried with just a brush of turmeric and salt. For those who needed an immediate protein rush they were roasted over coals and eaten hot on the spot.

There were different varieties of jackfruit and one variety was just perfect to be turned into a confection called the chakkavaratiyade[5]. This was made with the chopped fruit and jaggery over blazing flames in giant urulis[6] and later topped with clarified butter and stored for the whole year. Every home took pride in storing the confection and later reconstituting it into a dessert called chakkapradhaman[7] served on very special occasions.

Chakka was an integral part of the food culture of Kerala together with coconuts, mangoes and plantains. Until a few decades ago, the leaf of the jackfruit tree was used as a spoon to drink rice congee –the leaf was shaped into a cone and pinned together with a one-inch piece of the midrib of the palm leaf. After the meal, the disposable leaf spoon was thrown out and fresh ones were made for every meal. There are folk tales and proverbs and a whole inheritance that revolved around the tree and its fruits. Every compound had a tree and every home some item of furniture made from the wood. It never went out of fashion and never needed an epiphany and hopefully never will.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Jackfruit tree

[2] Tender jackfruit

[3] chopper

[4] Local newspaper

[5] A confection made with jackfruit

[6] A wide mouth vessel

[7] A dessert made with jackfruit, coconut milk and jaggery

A search for the Kuthiravandi or the single horse carriage on Google throws up titbits of meagre consequence. It has vanished from existence and there are very few people who remember the days when it was one of the preferred modes of transport in Malabar. What made the Malabar Kuthiravandi special was that it was unique in construction and style and very popular till the middle of the 20th century.

Chances are that the Kuthiravandi traced its genetics to the hansom cab patented by Joseph Hansom in Britain. The design was gradually introduced to the British colonies in the latter part of the 19th century and then modified locally. Some of these had longer lives than others and have lingered on in places like Mandalay till today. Nobody referred to it as a pony trap, or a horse trap but in some parts of India, a version of it was known as the tanga[1] or just simply the goda ghadi[2]. The Malayalam name for the vehicle came from the combination of two simple words – kuthira meaning a horse and vandi meaning a vehicle. There were other horse drawn carriages used in Malabar, but the Kuthiravandi was in a genre of its own.

Calicut, the Malabar District head quarter’s town had its share of kuthiravandis operating within the town limits and in nearby localities like Feroke. It ferried children to school, took the family on social visits and for shopping and was very popular to get to and from the railway station. The kuthiravandi never competed with the hand-pulled rickshaw – one was able to carry four adults while the rickshaw was able to carry just one adult. When a family wanted to go somewhere, the vandikaran or the driver of the carriage was informed well in advance. Minutes before the departure time, one would hear the bells announcing the arrival of the carriage. Seating in the kuthiravandi was decided by the vandikaran. He would assess the height and weight of the passengers and then politely suggest that those with ample proportions sit up front to help maintain the balance of the carriage. Children were lifted up last on to the laps of the elders.

The kuthiravandi was assembled in Calicut and customised for the needs of the community. It was a two-wheeled cart, high above the ground with a basic suspension arrangement. Atop this was a placed a near square wooden structure that was linked to the driver’s seat in front and had a little door at the back for passengers to get in and out. Above the wooden base was a frilled canopy that served as a sun screen but was of little use in the rain. Below the rear door was a footstep that was fairly high above the ground; many Malabar matrons had to get a little back end push while getting in and a brief hand-holding when alighting. The outside of the carriage box was painted and decorated and the inside had padded seats covered with a white cotton fabric. The seating was a tad cramped and knees knocked but then there were flounces and curtains and clean upholstery.

The driver perched in front and most often had a little boy with him. The little boy’s role was to hold the horse while the passengers alighted and at the end of the journey to feed the animal with grass and horse gram generously laced with tiny laterite stones. The horse was decked with a saddle, decorated with blinkers, and had a bunch of colourful feathers flying above its head gear.  On either side of the carriage there were head lamps that were low on lux but would today have been a collector’s item. A number of bells of different dimensions on the wheels and on the saddle announced the movement of the carriage in the narrow lanes of the town.

There were few safety measures in existence during the kuthiravandi era. The carriage performed well on a flat road but when the horse had to move up a slight slope there was anxiety all round.  The biggest challenge for the horse was the gradient leading up to the Kallai bridge. With carrot and stick, the horse was prepared for the slope but everyone held their breath to see if the animal would make it up to the top or slip back and often just go on its knees. On occasions when this climb was made at a time when the train was passing on the adjacent rail bridge, there was added anxiety in spite of the best set of blinkers. Everything was set right when the vandikaran coaxed the animal back into the bridle and harness.

Sometime in the last century the kuthiravandi disappeared from the town without fuss and fanfare. By then, Calicut had grown up and become a city.  Around the same time, the hand-pulled rickshaws were withdrawn, cycle rickshaws were introduced and three-wheeler autorickshaws made their debut.  It was swansong time for the Kuthiravandi and the vandikaran accepted that change was on the way. The tragedy that remains to this day is that it is difficult to locate even the skeletal remains of a Kuthiravandi anywhere in the area.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Horse carriage

[2] Horse carriage

The ease of modern day travel makes us erase the years before the advent of superfast trains and non-stop flights. That was a time when travel was meaningful and memorable. In those days, my mother was a school teacher in Calicut. During the summer vacation, she would travel to her sister’s home in Ponani and take my cousin Madhu and me with her. Ponani was about sixty kilometres away – less than an hour’s travel really in a modern crossover. But the journey in those days took the best part of a day and included a train journey, two bus rides, a river crossing and finally a bit of a dusty walk as well.

The first leg of the journey was the slow-train ride from Kallai, a suburb of Calicut to Tirur. The train moved over the Feroke river and bridge and then chugged on to the Kadalundi bridge with splendid views of the rivers meeting the Arabian Sea. The train stopped at every station; and every now and then moved on to the siding to allow the mail trains to speed on their way.

This was the era of rail travel in a newly independent India. Steam engines with coal-fed furnaces and steam whistles, semaphore signals and tokens in large cane rings that engine drivers picked up at each station for a safe run to the next. The travel treat was a walk to the head of the train to see the driver shovel coal to feed the furnace inside the engine and watch him pull the string that set off the shrill whistle.

The stations announced themselves – giant chimneys spewed black smoke as the train ran into Feroke; then you held your nose at each of the next three stations – Kadalundi, Vallikunnu and Tannur. Feroke was a major tile manufacturing town and Kadalundi was where rope makers retted coconut husk by soaking it in the backwater pools till it disintegrated and smelled putrid. Vallikunnu and Tannur were landing beaches for the fisherfolk of the coast. Every train that went north or south picked up a few baskets of the catch of the day. Passengers had to cope with the smell of fish and water dripping from the open-weave baskets.

The only entertainment on the journey in those days was to look out of the window, scan the Railway Timetable, track the numbers on the telegraph poles and if possible strike up a conversation with others in the train. The first activity always resulted in coal dust blowing into the eyes after which the other two activities came to an end. Speed was never an issue and the train took its own time to make its way to Tirur.

At Tirur station, we stopped at what was then called the VRR (Vegetarian Refreshment Room). There were just a few items on the menu, but their vermicelli payasam[1] loaded with raisins and cashewnuts and flavoured with cardamom was well rated by all who passed through the station.

At Tirur it was also time for the second stage of our journey – the bus ride from the Station to Chamaravattam on the banks of the Ponani river. Our transport this time was a dilapidated coal-fired bus with the chassis perched high above the ground. The bus ran through the suburbs of Tirur, passed in front of the Muslim Girl’s School, then the market and mosque and hundreds of stamp-sized fields. Many fields later we finally came to the banks of the Ponani river.

We carried our bags and footwear, walked down and waded through ankle-deep water to reach the boat. When the boat was reasonably full, the boatman picked up his bamboo oars and rowed us across the deep stretch of the river to the sand bank on the other side. It was a short but eventful crossing – during every crossing children would drop their sandals, or toys, or the bag of banana chips they were carrying. When tears were wiped and order was restored we were ready to resume our road journey in the second bus.

Travelling in a bus through the villages of Malabar in the fifties of the last century was a colourful experience. The bus was piled high with farmers taking gourds and greens to the market,  women carrying salt fish in wicker baskets, a drummer on his way to the temple and a pettikaran[2]with a selection of bangles, ribbons and cosmetics quite ready to open his wares. There were no bus stops or schedules – the driver obliged everyone and in return everyone was resigned to getting home when the bus got to their home stop.

And so about five to six hours and nearly sixty kilometres later we reached Chandapadi where we had to get off the bus. No! the journey was not done yet – we still had the last mile of dirt road past the temple and more paddy fields. On days when we reached after sunset, we had an escort for this stretch – my aunt would send one of the farm hands with a pantham[3] to lead us home. As we started, he would light the pantham and swing it up and down to light the way. And as we walked, he would also give us news of what was happening in his world – the coconuts had just been plucked and they were going to pluck the mangoes the following day.

The last mile was the most difficult part of the journey. After what seemed like a mini-marathon we finally saw our aunt waiting on the threshold with the hurricane lantern in her hand. Unforgettable journeys.

 

 

 

[1] A milk and vermicelli dessert

[2] A travelling vendor

[3] A locally made torch

Ammu Amma was born in the first decade of the 20th century just before the whole world  went to war. She lived through two World Wars, the birth of independent India, the first elected Communist government in Kerala and the advent of television. She was low on good looks, high on wisdom and enjoyed being able to draw on the courage of her convictions all through life.

As a young girl she was determined about a profession. This was not difficult for the eldest daughter of educated parents. She chose Queen Mary’s College, for her graduate studies and left her sheltered life in Malabar for a cosmopolitan environment at the Presidency Headquarters at Madras. She stayed on in Madras for her post graduate studies, a licentiate in teaching and eventually an assignment at her alma mater.

She was an average student but had a rare flair for languages and glided from one to another with ease. She had the amazing ability to straddle cultures and step down literature into digestible prose and verse. She would narrate the story of the Merchant of Venice to her nephews, put the book down and then recite verses from the play Nalacharitham Randam Divasam in preparation for the evening’s Kathakali performance.

At College, her autograph book was full with messages of colleagues from distant parts of India and the world. She studied and lived with students and teachers from different cultural backgrounds and new confessions. By the end of her student days, she was drawn to the Christian faith and decided to make it her own. Her parents accepted that she was old enough to make her own decisions but the rest of the clan viewed her decision as both a heresy and an irreparable insult.

For years she remained a novitiate in her new faith. She continued to live in the culture she was familiar with and to it gradually added some of the rituals and observances of her new confession.  She was more at home with the stories from the Vishnu Purana and the Shiva Purana than with the work of the evangelists or the names of unfamiliar saints and martyrs from the Christian pantheon.

The world was again at war when she decided once again to make a choice. She had not married and till then there had been few suitors queuing up at the door. In the last quarter of her reproductive life cycle, she decided to have a child. She was certain it would add an essential dimension to her life. All the odds were against her. While in Madras, she had met a man a few years younger than her and the inevitable sparked between them.  He had legally separated from his wife but according to the stringent provisions of his personal law was in no position to ever offer marriage to her, or to any other woman.  Their choices were limited.

The baby was born at a hospital near her college and in due course the news was conveyed to the family.  Her parents waited to see their new granddaughter but others on both sides of the family were less euphoric. The traditional stand-off fell into place and both mother and child remained constantly in the line of social projectiles. She remained unperturbed. Her financial independence stood her in good stead and she faced the stigma and odium of both sides with calm resignation. She spoke little, explained nothing but continued to love every member of her family just as she always had. Ammu Amma had thought it through and was prepared for the long haul. She persevered and balanced her career with the responsibilities of an unwed single mother. Gradually, the stand-off eased into a kind of one-sided non-negotiable tolerance.

Ammu Amma enjoyed her life as a teacher. For some time she worked in a Muslim Girls School in Malabar and while there enjoyed the love and affection of both her students and their parents. When there were signs of communal strife in the area, the parents of the students vowed to keep her safe.  She continued to be with them knowing full well that they would keep the promise. She enjoyed her time at this school just as much as her students enjoyed their Ammu Teacher. This was another dimension and she had the opportunity to understand another culture and another faith.

She loved her profession as a teacher and enjoyed being with her colleagues and her students.  All through her career she was aware of people who had perennial unspoken questions about her marital status. She got her increments and promotions and became the Headmistress of the School but the highest award was always held back year after year. After all, she had a child but could produce no paper-proof of a husband to complement the family picture. It bothered the judges. It never bothered her.

After retirement, she became a student once again. She resumed the study of her new faith, explored the verses from the Psalms, went deep into the Book of Revelation and enjoyed listening to interpretations of theology. She walked through the Christian pantheon reading for the first time about saints like Ulrich and Homobonus.

Between her learning and listening, she taught Sanskrit slokas to her grandchildren, made them understand the various names of Arjuna and told them stories about Ahalya, Draupadi, Sita, Tara and Mandodari.  She revelled in the bonus of cultures and religions and assimilated the riches of each of them.

Those around her finally realised that her choices had made her both strong and determined. And through it all she remained the same – a daughter, sister, mother, grandmother and every other feminine profile possible. Whether she was a feminist or a woman before her time, she still commands applause – a hundred and eleven years after her birth –  Ammu Amma ki jai!

%d bloggers like this: