Conversations about Mother’s Cooking surface anywhere and all the time. It’s always trending when after hours of toil in the kitchen, hosts place food on the table for their guests. A summary survey of the fare and guests take off one by one on how their mothers used to make the very same dishes – the lamb rogan josh, the pork vin d’alho and the what-ever-else that is on the table.

The evening then becomes an extempore elocution competition. Guests go into overdrive about how their mothers used to make the classics – hand-pound the rice for the appams, place the biriyani on a charcoal stove under the tamarind tree, or bake seven layers of bibinca while attending to five children and nursing the sixth on the side.

These are priceless conversations. They unveil undocumented details for making the dish and touch on the high notes of taste that ensured that the offspring recalls the preparation even decades after mother put it on the table. The devotees at the shrine of mother’s cooking would linger over the quality and quantity of ingredients like ghee, almonds and saffron that went into the dish. In those days, these were rare items and within reach of just the high-net-worth families.

At some conversations you can be only a listener. My mother never cooked, was never taught or coaxed to cook, never enjoyed cooking and never felt it was necessary for a woman to perfect a cheese soufflé or make feijoada. She had no complexes about her lack of skills and no hesitation in sitting down to a meal that had been prepared with no cutting or grinding contributions from her side. As a consequence, she never grumbled when the food was burnt or when the okras were gooey and unpalatable. She understood weights and measures; she knew that ginger was a rhizome, that cloves were aromatic flower buds and that nutmeg was the seed of a tree. But her skills decidedly lay in realms beyond chick-peas and mung. She focused on preparing young women to stand on their own feet both inside and outside the kitchen and devoted her entire life to the mission.

And so it was that she came to live with us and at Christmas filled my stocking with the cookery world’s best seller of the year.  She enjoyed the gift too and flipped through the pages that showed everything from a complete wedding breakfast to illustrations on how to truss a turkey. She spent hours with the book but her contributions in our kitchen remained limited to boiling drinking water for the family. There was no blanching and stir-frying involved, but it did keep all of us free of typhoid and all other water-borne diseases.

As age slowed her pace, she was keen to contribute more to her life with us especially in the kitchen. She cared for her two granddaughters but she was keen to make a mark that would one day empower me to talk of “mother’s cooking.” She sure tried!

One night while we were out at a party, she put our children to bed and came into the kitchen to boil water. She turned on the gas, placed the vessel with water on the fire and went back to complete the last few words in the daily crossword. Sometime later, when we entered the house and passed the kitchen door there was a bright glowing object on the gas burner – the water had boiled, evaporated and the steel vessel stood out like an object from out of space!

There were no damages and we never spoke about the object from out of space ever again. Life continued as before. As our girls grew up, she took them to school, read to them from the Panchatantra, taught them Sanskrit slokas and did everything grandmothers love to do. Every now and then between stories or homework she paused to ask if they could see what in her mind was the bigger picture.  Did they know what they wanted to be when they grew up?

That was my mother’s cooking – She believed that women can dream of a life beyond cinnamon and cassia, outsource cooking when necessary and focus on standing on their own two legs. She knew her granddaughters were still too young to take a call but that was reason enough to work hard to prepare the ground and opt for early sowing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Apolonia Humelina Fonseca of Alto Porvorim, Goa, the former Portuguese colony in India died two days ago and her notice of death appeared in a local newspaper. Apolonia was the daughter of Anunciacao Candida Desa and the relict (an old usage meaning widow) of Jose Joaquim Fonseca who worked in Basra and Abu Dhabi.  Notices of death that appear in the local papers are columns from history. They narrate stories of Goan family life, starting with portraits of the family, their migrations, changes in lifestyle and finally the people they leave behind to carry on the family traditions. One noticeable lifestyle change that is apparent in these notices is that Goan Christians are dropping their traditional names and opting for new ones. There seems to be a move away from four and five and syllable names like Apolonia, Tiburcio and Constancio to two syllable names and in some cases names…

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Nurse Meenakshiamma was a midwife in our neighbourhood in the years before the advent of diagnostic sonography and cord blood banking. As a midwife, she was trained to help women in childbirth and when that was successfully done she invariably lingered on to help the mother cope with the tasks of caring for the new addition. She was a much-loved member of the community.

And so it was that when it was time for my aunt to deliver, someone ran all the way to Nurse Meenakshiamma’s house to summon her. She came as quickly as her legs could carry her portly frame and then stayed till the first cries were heard and she opened the door to announce the sex of the new born. If all of this happened at night she was escorted to and fro with a hurricane lantern and an umbrella during the many months of rain.

As children we were instructed to stay away from where Meenakshiamma was at work monitoring the cervical dilatation and presentation. When my aunt took hours to move from four centimetres to eight, it was only Meenakshiamma who stayed with her and soothed both her pain and anxiety. As for the rest of the house, the elders lazed on the easy chairs, the children slept and the men were never expected to be around.

In retrospect, Meenakshiamma must have had special access to a powerful deity who she relied on every time she clocked the contractions.  In those days there were no easy solutions for a breech presentation or any complication that put the life of the mother or child in jeopardy. There were no call taxis; the local rickshaw and the kuthiravandy[1] were totally inappropriate to rush a woman in labour to the hospital. Without a telephone, it would have taken a couple of hours to run around and organise transport to take the patient to the District Hospital.

As children, our encounters with Nurse Meenakshiamma began after the baby was born when she walked in mid-morning to bathe my aunt and the infant. Like visitors to a circus, we packed into the bedroom, perched at vantage points and watched in awe as she put the newest addition of the family to what we imagined must have been a most traumatic cleansing ritual.

Before the bath began she arranged everything like a magician about to begin a performance. She tested the water in the white enamel basin with her elbow and adjusted the temperature with more of the hot or cold. She placed the various bottles and containers within easy reach and kept the baby’s clothes away from the basin. She sat on the floor with her legs stretched before her and held up the baby with one hand. We watched spellbound as she stripped the two-day old of everything except the remnants of the umbilical cord which hung precariously from what would later become the belly button.

The baby howled each time she rubbed virgin coconut oil into the skinny body and each time she dipped the infant into the water. The howling upset us all and we often wondered why both our aunt and our grandmother had given her such a free hand with the baby. We were terrified that the cord would fall off and we would all have to leave the room to allow her to set it right.

All through the ritual she carried on a Q&A session for our benefit – she answered most of our questions but smiled when she found us moving into areas of curious overdrive. When the rubbing, dipping and drying had finished she dressed the baby and handed the bundle over to our aunt for a feed. That was the signal that the day’s programme was over; it was time for us to pick up our marbles, tops and comics and head right out of the room.

When her brief was over, Nurse Meenakshiamma’s returned to the house as a guest on the 28th day when the new born was given a name. She took a proprietary look at the baby, sat down to eat the sadya[2] and left. Her brief was over. She then returned to the house only when it was time for another baby to join the family.

[1] A horse carriage

[2] Festive meal

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.

 

Congratulations to the couple who are celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary

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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…

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Active Healing

 A day in the hospital begins just when the patient is finally dozing off after a night of post operative aches and pains.  The night Duty Nurse sails in and pushes the digital thermometer under the axilla. With years of experience in multi-tasking, she also takes the pulse and blood pressure reading and tries an early-morning gambit at bedside conversation. Life in the hospital is rebooting and sleep is the last thing that the patient can hope for.

 Next in line to take the day forward is the nursing novice who wheels in a wobbly trolley with a basin of water and other paraphernalia for the patient’s sponge bath. Her job is to wash sleep off the body together with the rest of the dry cells and dirt that come in the way. Somewhere between the readings and the bath, the patient is offered a cup of coffee like a peace offering before the onslaught of the activities for the day. Before the cup is back on the saucer, a cleaning squad enters the room to segregate the waste, sweep and mop the floor and do whatever else is necessary to maintain the hospital’s ISO rating.

 Not long after that, the day crew enters the ward like a flock of migratory birds back for the summer. They scan the monitors for status reports and read the instructions for the day. There’s a flurry of activity in and around the nursing station as the team takes stock of all the nocturnal events. They develop the strategy for the day and sub-divide the tasks on hand according to age and wage.  Another chance to doze while the team is busy deciding who will do a bladder wash for Room 326? Unlikely – its breakfast time and the food trolley is already in the ward.

 Before breakfast is over, the dietician marches in with a 24-hour menu and your own order form with several check boxes in faint small print. When you still have a couple of tubes running into your body and another two running out, it’s an effort to decide whether it will be porridge or cornflakes tomorrow morning. There are no special dispensations and the check boxes have to be ticked one by one to get something to eat. For the patient it means a long scan through lunch, tea and dinner for the day and breakfast for the next morning.

 Just when you think the morning’s jobs are over and you can snatch a nap, it’s time for the most important event of the day – the doctor’s rounds. No patient is privy to when the doctor will actually come or whether he will come at all.  A patient is expected to possess loads of patience as he or she waits for the doctor’s visit.  Time is at a premium and the patient also has to make notes of all that he wants to say and all that he wants to ask the doctor. The doctor’s visit is part of therapy and bedside hope and as important as the anti-biotic that’s flowing into the body through the intravenous drip. It’s the time when every patient willingly stays awake for hours and perhaps the whole day.

 There’s no sleep possible during the wait for the doctor and no sleep after either as the nurses hurry to carry out the Doctor’s instructions – a post operative walk down the corridor? an X-Ray?   a fresh scan?  a wound dressing?

 Next on the hope line is a nap after lunch to compensate for an over active morning?  Ideal but it is ill advised!  “Don’t sleep during the day, you will sleep better at night,” were the last words of the Doctor as he left the ward for another session of surgery.

In the happening ward rest and sleep should be the last things on the patient’s mind. Lunch is followed by a visit from the stoma care nurse keen to demonstrate how to get on with a changed lifestyle. Then it’s the turn of the Floor Supervisor and a person from Housekeeping both keen to know if everything is in order. There’s another visit from the duty nurse for recording the body’s performance during the first half of the day and then the hospital day moves into the visiting hours.

 The dinner trolley should announce the start of the end of the day? A glimmer of hope but there are some more things to be done. It takes time for the catering assistant to distribute the different meals and more time to collect all the trays after the meal. Time for sleep at last? Not just yet – the diet check box includes a glass of milk – unfortunately that arrives after the patient has said goodnight to the doctors, nurses and hopefully to all the ailments.

 An active and busy day in hospital is sure part of the healing therapy!

 

 

 

 

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