We grew up in Calicut, a town in Malabar that enjoyed special status in the expenditure budget of the erstwhile Madras Presidency. In the days leading up to Indian Independence, the town had a cosmopolitan profile, well known centres of learning and one train that connected the  town with the rest of the country.

 Our locality which was a little distance from the town was really a village where everyone knew everyone else.  Everyone also knew your grandparents and their parents and how you came to be living in the house to the right of the temple, or the house with a view of the community bathing tank. Information of this type was never ‘mined’ maliciously or used commercially; it was simply a part of local lore. There was little to exploit – people lived on food made with coconuts – for breakfast lunch and dinner; and on their income from sale of coconuts. 

 In those days there were no full service caterers, fancy wedding halls or event managers. But everyone knew what to do when there was a wedding in the family with a guest list that would touch four figures. The elders in the family appointed a local Brahmin to prepare the food for all the festivities connected with the marriage. The festive menu was traditional and non-negotiable but the cook had the last word on the shopping list and where to buy everything from yam to fenugreek. The cook also knew which of the houses in the locality had the cooking vessels that were large enough to meet all his requirements. 

 The elders would then go to these houses and request for a loan of the vessels for the period of the festivities. Every house was happy to open the store and take out the vessels that were in any case seldom used. My grandmother owned a set of vessels that were made of different metals and were right size for cooking meals for over a thousand people.  There were bell metal urulis, charake, cauldrons of copper alloys and giant cheenachattis (Chinese woks) Some of the urulis and charake were over a metre in diameter and the cauldrons were deeper than the classic bathtub.  They were kept in excellent condition and had their own set of accessories. There were wooden and metal spatulas that were taller than the cook and metal ear rings that weighed a few kilos. The ear rings were put on the vessel, wooden poles were passed through them and then the vessel was lifted off the fire. It took two men on either side to lift a vessel full of food.

 The children were in charge of making an inventory of all the things that were being taken on loan to the wedding house. We added our own instructions about the care of the vessels before they were placed on the hand cart. We also made sure that everything was well balanced and secured with ropes. Everybody who ate at the wedding knew from where the vessels had been borrowed and everybody tucked away the information just-in-case.

 The vessels were brought back from the wedding house after the festivities had ended all clean and ready for another wedding in the community. Some families would see that the vessels were ‘tinned’ and others would just clean them as best as possible. Whatever they did, the return of the vessels was a time of great anticipation for us children. We hung around while the urulis and chinachattis were untied and unloaded from the hand cart and carried back into the store room. Most families sent a whole bunch of bananas by way of a thank you note. Others added a basket of sweetmeats or banana chips possibly made for the wedding festivities. Sometimes the bananas were too green to eat and had to be hung in the store room to ripen.  We took great care to see that the handcart was out of the gate before gorging on the goodies.

 After grandmother’s death, the house was sold and the vessels were divided among grandmother’s four children.  The new houses into which they moved barely had room for their families and it was impossible to consider housing the giant cooking cauldrons as well. The urulis and charake gradually found their way to metal dealers in the market and were lost forever. The community in the meantime welcomed turnkey caterers who did not have to go around looking for woks and cauldrons. Their menus were negotiable and that was from when the neighbourhood began to serve Cauliflower Manchurian.

 

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