Archives for category: Nostalgia

It was a scheduled flight from Bombay to Rome, Paris and somewhere beyond. In the aisle seat in front of me was a petite woman in the familiar white and blue garb of the missionary order. In preparation for the weather in Europe, she wore a cream woolen coat over the loosely draped sari. A young man was travelling with her – possibly taking her to a donor’s meeting or a forum that she was due to address.

Before the mid-night flight took off, almost all of the flight crew came to her seat. Some bent low with folded hands; others knelt down. All of them asked for her blessings. On the first leg of the journey the flight touched down at New Delhi.  As the aircraft took off from the capital, there was a ‘bird hit’ and the jumbo returned to the airport. All the passengers filed out with their hand baggage. She did the same, but instead of staying in the hotel near the airport possibly went to join her sisters at work somewhere in the city.

Several hours later and after the usual manoeuvres of dismounting the bird-hit engine, waiting for another and remounting the new one, the aircraft was ready for take off. A fresh crew came on board and the passengers piled back anxious now to get to their various destinations. She was in the same seat in front of me.

Once again the crew came to seek her blessings. They belonged to different faiths but perhaps had the inner grace that enabled them to recognise basic goodliness in another.

I sat still in my seat behind her unable to do what the crew was doing. Visions of all the nuns who had supervised my very breathing in the early years of life flashed before me. Was this frail nun of the same tribe or was she different?

As the captain apologised for the delay and prepared for take off, I felt an urge to touch her. I leaned forward and through the gap between the seats touched her right hand. It was warm. Very warm. She felt my hand and turned slightly to acknowledge the touch. She pressed my fingers and then said: “Today, I have learnt another lesson. I feel amazed that this small bird that hit the plane has made such a difference to our lives. We all had to get down, we have all been delayed; it only shows that the most insignificant of God’s creatures can also make a difference to the world.”

That was Mother Teresa. And that was thirty years ago. I often wonder whether I should have also knelt down to get her blessing.  There are no regrets. The memory of her warm touch still lingers and the few words she spoke continue to inspire – “The most insignificant of God’s creatures can also make a difference to the world.” Those simple words now take on a whole new dimension!



The Old Prescription


Medicine and healthcare are now way ahead of their times.  For this reason it is right and just to attempt a retrospective of health care in the days before the advent of penicillin and micro-specialisation.

 My early memories of healthcare revolve round our doctor who had a Licentiate in Medicine and practised in Calicut. When he placed his stethoscope on a patient’s body, he was never far from his oath to practice medicine honestly. He looked for the symptoms and an effective cure and never bothered about the tax status of the patient, his standing in society, his religion and least of all his ability to pay. In those days doctors divided their time between their pharmacies and home visits. The mid-century pharmacy had a few basic amenities like an X-Ray machine, a surgery for dressing minor injuries and in some cases, a few rooms for patients from out of town.

 A home visit from the doctor was an occasion for everyone to congregate in the drawing room. The children hung around the door while the doctor examined the patient with the help of a torchlight. The healing began with a finger on the pulse, a look at the tongue, an examination of the throat and the inevitable instruction to breathe deeply. Then there were questions about when the symptoms surfaced, how well the daily routines were going and whether there were other issues like a headache, body pain, or a cough.

 There were few pathology labs and digital readers to let you into the deepest secrets of the human body.  All the same, ailments from chicken pox to pemphigus were diagnosed within minutes and there was never the need to wait half a day of one’s life to see a specialist. The doctor simply read the signs, analysed the symptoms, listened to the patient, then smiled reassuringly and said: “Am sure you will be back in school in two days.” He was a dietician as well. At the end of the visit he would issue the negative list and an advisory for the next few days: “No mangoes, no oily foods, just kanji[i] or rice and buttermilk cooked with turmeric.”

 He then wrote an elaborate prescription which the compounder in his pharmacy deciphered and prepared. Most medicines of the era seemed related to the carminative and were a bright red in colour. Quinine which was still in use was a deceptive pink and topped the international levels for bitterness. After compounding, the mixture was poured into thick glass bottles with a label on one side and a paper-cut measure on the other. Back home the instructions were followed like religious rituals:  ‘shake the bottle before use; take three or four times a day before, or after food.’

 Cuts and bruises were treated with a tincture of iodine and a home-made bandage. There was a litany of poultices for every part of the anatomy.  Rigorous salt water gargles were always in fashion and every home owned an eye glass to clean the eyes of dust and dirt. Castor oil, Epsom salts, glycerine-tannic acid, gentian violet and Mendel’s solution were permanent fixtures on the medicine shelf. Turmeric, ginger, garlic, cumin and half the ingredients in the pantry were also used as remedies to complement the red and pink mixtures.

 Some members of the community placed their trust in Ayurveda and some in homeopathy. The aryavaidyasala[ii] in our town at that time had no chrome and glass, but dispensed powders, medicines and mixes for various ailments.  The patient came home with a bundle of dried roots and medicinal plants all wrapped up in an old issue of the Mathrubhoomi[iii]. The decoction was then prepared at home just as the vaidyar[iv] instructed. Often, the ingredients had to be boiled for hours with lots of water and slowly reduced from maybe a pint to an ounce or two. The end result was bitter and had to be gulped down in the best way possible and then repeated every day for as long as the treatment lasted. The list of dietary restrictions was long and varied, but at the end of the treatment the patient usually hurried to offer oblations to Lord Dhanvantari[v].  

 There were short comings and limitations. When all of the above did not work, the wealthy took the Mangalore Mail to Madras or Vellore for the next level of care. The rest of the community re-imposed their trust in the Licentiate in Medicine, the print-wrapped bundle of herbs and their own destinies.


[i] Gruel made with broken rice

[ii] The medicine shop

[iii] The local daily

[iv]  A doctor of indigenous medicine

[v] The deity for healthcare


The Comrade’s Wedding

 Our boarding mistress was the person who first introduced me to the topic of communism. It was somewhere after Josef Stalin died and Nikita Khrushchev succeeded him in the Soviet Union. She told us horror stories of all that Stalin had done and all that his successor would continue to do as a communist leader. At age eleven, it was difficult to figure out how it would affect me and how an evil communist would scale the high walls of the convent and come to persecute the boarders.

 Then one day not long after that, there was much excitement in my granduncle’s house – his granddaughter, my cousin was about to get married and she was going to marry a man who was a communist. My granduncle was thrilled but others in the household (like our boarding mistress) had their own intangible concerns. In those days, nobody really understood communist ideology but everyone cuddled a negative prejudice.

 In the weeks leading up to the wedding, the prospective bridegroom was at my grand- uncle’s house every evening. I watched him from a distance as he sat in the open drawing room talking to the elders. There were no similarities between him and the commies that the boarding mistress had lectured about.  He spoke little and had little opportunity to speak to his bride as well. Instead everyone spoke about him – he was a communist. That was the protagonist in the story.

 They had a night wedding in April 1954. Hundreds of relatives, neighbours and friends were invited to the marriage ceremony. The grounds around their house were enclosed with pandals[i], decorated and illuminated. The grandeur of the event was unforgettable! The couple stood on a carpet within four floral pillars. Each pillar was made of several white flower garlands that dropped down from the ceiling of the pandal and were held in place on the floor. I stood on the steps at an elevation and enjoyed every bit of the brief ceremony. I don’t recall what the bride wore, but the groom was in a double mundu[ii] and a white shirt with long sleeves.

 The traditional wedding sadhya[iii] was lavish and the finest I had ever eaten. It was served on banana leaves that were laid on the floor. My leaf was so large that I had to gather up my long light- green taffeta skirt, kneel on the lower half and stretch out to get the food on the top half of the leaf. It was worth every bit of the exercise.

 A few days later the married couple left Calicut for Madras en route to their new home in Bombay on what was then known as the Mangalore Mail. My mother took me to the station to see them off and we waited till the first class coach was attached to the train coming from Mangalore. This time I remembered what she was wearing – a  red silk sari[iv] with a black blouse that had a lattice window on the left, a little above her waist. That open patch on her blouse fascinated me for years!

 Back at boarding school after the summer break, I never told the mistress that there was possibly a card-carrying-communist in our family. Three years on, a Communist-led government began governing the state.





[i] Temporary structures put up during weddings and festivals

[ii] Seamless garment tied at the waist

[iii] A banquet

[iv] Seamless woman’s garment

Coconut Toffee

 In the middle of the last century, there were few options for showing someone how much you cared. There were no emoticons and no in-boxes to receive assertions of affection; and no smart phones to swoosh off sparingly spelt words like luv and xxxs’. The corner shop was yet to stock greeting cards with red ribbons and pink hearts and there were no cards specially labeled for husbands, wives, sons and daughters. The only florist in town specialised in supplying flowers meant solely for the family deity. Anyway, florists of the time seldom stocked red roses; they only had baskets of flowers like jasmine and kanakambaram[1] that they strung together by the muzam (a measure about a metre). Now what would a husband do with a gift of three feet of flowers?

 With these limitations, my aunt firmly believed that the only way in which a woman could demonstrate her love for her children or her grandchildren, or a wife for her husband on a birthday or on any other occasion was by making a batch of nalikera[2] or coconut toffee. It was a special confection, specially made for special people.

 No one had a classic recipe for the nalikera toffee. No one dared tout title to the recipe as their very own and no one claimed intellectual property rights for their tharavad[3]. Instead, my aunt had her own weights and measures, for the sugar, milk and coconut and an inherited set of guidelines for the cooking and setting. Every time she set out to make the toffee she began with the hope that the setting would be perfect and the colouring absolutely like the colour linked with love – a passionate pink.

 She decided on the number of coconuts that she was going to use and got the youngest in the kitchen hierarchy to scrape the white kernel out of the nut. She then added the sugar, vanilla flavour and cochineal to the coconut, placed it over the flame and stirred the mixture with undivided attention. On many occasions more colour than was called for dropped into the pan and the mixture looked more like lust than love –when this happened, the blood red toffee was quickly distributed among the children.

There were no digital sugar thermometers at that time. The science of measuring heat and determining the setting point was limited to intuition and a bowl of cold water in which the confection was dumped from time to time. With practice trimmed with experience, the mixture was judged to be ready at an auspicious point and then quickly flipped on to a plate, spread flat and later cut into square or diamond shapes. My aunt cut hybrid shapes and the consistency was always one of three adjectives – grainy, chewy or dense.  She always hoped that the pieces would be like the perfect pieces of confection that were available in Sweet Meat Street, the main shopping area of the town. Children who hung around and watched the cooking process and occasionally contributed a minute or two of stirring got the first pay-outs. My aunt would hand out the crumbled mixture that had passed the hard-ball stage and all the broken pieces with an advisory that we may not get much more. The best shapes were set aside and reserved for the person for whom it was meant.

 All through the process of cooking there were several appeals to the deity at Guruvayur or the friendly neighbourhood goddess for presentable results. Once it was served, my aunt would seek approval from her peers and exult in the few words of praise. Then for a couple of days after the toffee was made, she would continue to remain in the mode of self-inquisition and persist in prattle about her last attempt at making coconut toffee.  “Was the colour too dark? Did you stop stirring when I went to take the registered letter from the postman?” she would ask addressing no one in particular. “Last time the toffee set better, this time it crumbled and broke up, maybe the quantity of sugar was not enough or it was kept too long on the fire?”

 Nobody replied and nobody bothered. Troubleshooting was not a science in those days and it seemed pointless to follow up on the complexities of sugar temperature or the variables that would have contributed to the colour, texture and flavour of the toffee – There was always one redeeming factor and my aunt was well aware of this – sugar, coconut, milk, a splash of vanilla and a tinge of pink looked and tasted good in any consistency. Nobody cared if the mixture looked like sweetened breadcrumbs or felt like stick jaws. And for the special person for whom it was meant, it was always better than getting a gift of half a metre of jasmine flowers.



[1] An orange-coloured flower

[2] Coconut

[3] Ancestral family

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