Wednesday, March 23, 2011


“Na jaane kyon / hota hai yeh zindagi ke saath / achaanak yeh man / kisi ke jaane ke baad / kare phir uski yaad / chhoti chhoti si baat / na jaane kyon!”

Today is my mother's second death anniversary - is it so long since Amma hasn't been around? Can't believe - because she keeps coming to mind ever so often! She had her idiosyncrasies, alright. Who doesn’t? Looking back, they seem trivial in comparison to all her positive traits. In fact I am proud to admit that I have imperceptibly imbibed some of them.

Amma’s most admirable trait was her total honesty. She was true to her conscience and so never hesitated to wear her heart on her sleeve and was never afraid of anyone. I remember I was scared of her as a kid – why, even after marriage! I’m glad about that as it has helped in moulding my personality! I learnt that if she would not approve of something, I was in the wrong. It was as simple as that – I had a very dependable touchstone – but I wasn’t aware of it then! I learnt to be conscientious like her but not outspoken.

Another trait I’ve imbibed from Amma is her sense of fairness and equal distribution. It was apparent even in day-to-day trivialities. Don’t laugh – take the instance of dessert-sharing at home - if mangoes were cut and offered on a large common plate for everyone to dig into – the smarter and faster ones would get a greater share. Amma would never allow that. She would neatly peel (she loved to do it) some half a dozen mangoes as we’d patiently sit around and wait and watch. Each mango would then be cut into equal-sized pieces and carefully divided into five equal parts. This would be repeated with all the mangoes. Each of us would get a mound of those pieces on separate plates – this way every one of us would get an equal taste of every mango. A small incident but enough to instill fairness and justice and also the habit of sharing in us kids.

Amma knew the value of hard-earned money and would never part with an extra rupee unnecessarily. She’d bargain with everyone – right from the vegetable vendor to the jeweler and emerge winner at the end. We’d be secretly happy with the outcome but couldn’t condone the waste of time and energy. I also don’t let myself be taken for a ride by shopkeepers / vendors but expend every penny judiciously with the typical middleclass mentality. I am happy to admit that I too am ‘money-savvy’ – no, no, not in the way you imagine – I don’t go in for stocks and shares for greater returns but manage my funds in the most conservative way – like my parents, I believe it is better to be safe than sorry! I believe in conserving money without affecting the quality of life.

Amma was the daughter, daughter-in-law, wife and mother-in-law - of civil engineers. So her interest in the construction aspect of house/apartment was natural. For the housewife that she was, it was surprising to listen to her discussing the ‘built-in area of a flat or dimensions of each room. Out of the blue, she would ask, “What’s the size of your master bedroom?” and I’d be groping for an answer. The height was when we had all gone flat-hunting for her and she posed the question, “What’s the size of this room?” Embarrassed, we curtly told her, “You can see it, ma, how big it is.” But she insisted on the blueprint of the flat – we found it funny then but she did have a point there – she needed to study it carefully and make a thorough analysis before taking the plunge. This speaks volumes about her caution.

Amma was the Home minister, Finance minister, External affairs minister… All rolled into one. Her excellent sense of economy and judiciousness reflected very well in the family’s budget. With her careful planning, she had managed to get ready all the gold jewellery for the wedding of her two daughters well in advance. She held on to our baby-jewels (gifted by both sets of grandparents) and passed some of them on to my children – even to my granddaughter as heirloom. Well, I feel proud to see my granddaughter wear the ear rings her grandma had worn as a kid – the ones which had been originally gifted to her by her grandmother and which were gifted to the little girl by her great grandmother during their first and last meeting! (Confusing? Rack your brains…). This is just one of the half-a-dozen such jewels that had come from both sets of my grandparents to me when I was little, which came from Amma to my kids and have now gone from me to my grandkids – traversing 5 generations, thanks to Amma! Didn’t I say some of her traits have rubbed on to me? She had even preserved the lovely frock-sweater she had knitted lovingly for me. Unfortunately it couldn’t be put to good use as she didn’t have a granddaughter! Well, I couldn’t preserve it – for my granddaughter! But my grandson does sport the smart kid-sweater I had knitted for my son and looks his exact replica!

I admired Amma’s zest and passion for life even in her seventies! She loved to buy as well as wear synthetic saris as well as Kancheepurams and silk cottons. The more you have, the greater the difficulty in maintaining them! But it was a pleasure for her to stack them neatly. Even as kids we had to help her fold the sari – holding one end of it as she folded from the other end. I kept up this practice – no, not with my kids but with my husband. Now he has become an excellent sari-folder!

Amma had ‘tasty fingers’ – whatever she prepared tasted great. She was very particular about festivals and meticulously prepared delicacies. But she wanted us girls to hang around in the kitchen and be at her beck and call to hand her this and that during the snack-preparation. Though my sister and I were clueless then as to why she wanted us to be her robots, over the years we have realized that we have picked up our culinary skills the right way – by observation and actual practice and not from cookbooks. We can boast of preparing all those sweets from ‘laddoos’ to ‘jangiris’ and ‘kozhakkattai’ to ‘elai adai’ and snacks, savories, ‘vathal’, and ‘vadaam’. We would puff up with pride when Amma in her later years complimented our cooking – it was akin to Vashishta Muni giving the title of ‘Brahmarishi’. I would be on cloud nine when she sought my handy hints and cooking tips with a kid’s eagerness.

Amma had great interest in music – she had learnt Carnatic music – vocal as well as veena. As a youngster, I would sing Tamil and Hindi film songs and Amma would appreciate them. Till her end, she remained my fan – perhaps my greatest – I would give her cassettes of my amateurishly sung and recorded songs and she would go into raptures listening to them! In fact she is my guru in a sense. Amma had always felt bad that I couldn’t get much formal training in classical music due to my father’s frequent transfers. She turned my guru and insisted in teaching me some ‘keethanams’ in preparation for marriage alliance. I remember my brother rushing out with the SOS, “Hold on! Start your ‘sa, pa, sa’ after I go out! Bye!!” I had grown up listening to her favorite numbers – ‘vaasudeva yani..’, ‘paraamuga mela..’, ‘jaga janani..’, ‘thaye yashoda..’, ‘teeraada vilayaattu..’, ‘vallabhaa..’ and so they came easily to me. In her later years, her eagerness to sing during functions and festivals remained unabated but since she couldn’t reach the high notes, she’d coax me to join her – and I’d become ‘Radha to her MS’ (just a hyperbole, not audacity). Amma would sit through hours of music and dance on TV – all I had to do was, give her a call about the special program going on - she’d be all excited. At times, she’d call me to say Chitra was singing on Asianet! I’m sure the channel’s TRP must have been affected after she was gone!

Amma enjoyed family functions and weddings – she was easily the best-dressed senior citizen around. With my sister’s son’s marriage round the corner, we all feel her absence very much. I remember how proud and happy Amma and Appa were at the weddings of my sons. I can imagine the proud grandparents in all their glory showering their blessings from heaven! 

 © Copyright 2011. Brinda Balasubramonian.


Penned in Oct 2010
My Amma was an iron lady – a tough taskmaster, intelligent, shrewd, fearless, and honest to the point of being blunt!! Endowed with a typical middle-class mentality, she had great value for every hard-earned penny. All admirable traits, I agree. But her Achilles heel was her poor time-sense. We, the next generation, felt she wasted too much time on trivial matters and were naturally at loggerheads with her. But she had her own unbeatable reasons which were convincing only to her! You see time was not a constraint for her – she had ample time at her disposal but then we belong to the generation which believes it makes judicious use of time.
As kids we used to be scared to be caught in the act of mischief by Amma – we dreaded the long-drawn court martial that would follow instantly. There were times when we took cover behind Appa to escape punishment – he wouldn’t use as much as a feather on us! And he didn’t believe in raising his voice or wasting his breath on trivialities. But Amma did – she was prim and proper and expected everything in its proper place. She could riddle us with her glare and stare till we coughed up the truth. If she found something amiss, setting it right would assume top priority, forget cooking or school or office! I still remember about the missing needles. Many a time it would be me who would have used it to mend a loose button and lost it by accident / negligence. Amma would spend hours turning the house upside down, rummaging every cranny, bent on retrieving the lost needle while I would hide away so that her shrewd eyes would not note the guilt pangs writ large on my face! I’d wonder why she made such a hullaballoo about a cheap little needle! After all, it would just cost a couple of paises! I would heave a secret sigh of relief when a disgruntled Amma would reluctantly give up the search for the day. I’d keep my fingers crossed that she’d not restart the hunt all over again the very next day. I’d resolve to buy half a dozen needles which would cost no more than 25 paise and thus end this ‘mountain-of-a-molehill’ matter! It took me years to realize it was not the cost of the item that mattered but the utility value at the required hour!
Amma’s penchant for finishing a project - whatever be the time taken and whatever be the chores sacrificed - was definitely irritating to the family. If she was involved in an ‘Operation’, we kids would sometimes have to wait for our lunch even as our stomach made loud rumbling noises. What made us cringe was that most of the time it would be about what we’d consider a trivial issue – like looking for a particular vessel which had gone ‘missing’. “What the …! Couldn’t she use another vessel and look for it later – as if there was a dearth of vessels at home?!” And for all you know, that vessel would make its appearance when she’d be looking for something else! So why waste breath on searches galore – I simply couldn’t understand and still can’t! Once I got delayed for school – Amma had found a lousy little louse while plaiting my hair and she binged on ‘Operation Lice Clearance’ and went on and on combing my hair with the special comb. I was awarded punishment by my teacher for being late to school; I was also rewarded with a sore head after all that vigorous combing operation! The next day I was simply scared to venture near Amma to get my hair done! No doubt her intentions were good but wasn’t that poor time management!
All ladies have the notoriety of being the delaying-factor for any outing – they work overtime in getting dressed – this is an open secret. But I think Amma took the cake in our family. If we had planned an outing at 5.30, both of us sisters would be ready five minutes earlier along with our little boys. Amma would send us a SOS to help her with her hair and choice of sari. Giving a sly furtive glance at our watch, we would pick one of the four saris she’d show. She’d spend another precious five minutes picking up the right matching blouse out of the five in similar shades and carefully arrange the rest back neatly. That’s why she overshot the time –she always maintained a neatly-stacked wardrobe – no shuffling or shoving, pulling or dumping the clothes in a hurry like us. As for us, if we didn’t find a matching blouse for the chosen sari, we’d pull out the sari that would match the blouse in hand – as simple as that! By the way you should see our wardrobe – it needs to be spruced up every week – that’s the price we pay for our punctuality. What delights me to this day is the appreciation from my not-easy-to-please Amma for my quick prim-and-proper dressing ability (including well-draped and neatly pinned sari) complete with matching accessories - ear-rings, rings, pendants, hair clips, purse et al – that too in the hubbub of scores of morning chores before taking off for work. Good that she hasn’t taken a peek into my cupboard – else the kudos would have gone for a toss!!
Another time-consuming activity of Amma was the long-drawn- bargain sessions – be it the vegetable vendor or the textile merchant or our jewelers. She simply loved to bargain – who doesn’t? I agree but then we know when to call halt – either from the tone or attitude of the other party. But Amma would keep repeating her argument, the dealer his and we’d be progressing nowhere – and we’d be ready to tear our hair in exasperation. But Amma wouldn’t let us intervene to tide over the status quo. Don’t ask how and when the deal would pull through – every time it would end differently. But Amma would have the last laugh at having saved valuable money even as we’d mutter muffled expletives at the waste of precious time! Clash of ideologies, you’d say! Absolutely!
Her penchant for talking was such that she never for once realized that she was indulging in monologues with us most of the time! We’d throw in a ‘hm’ or ‘ha’ as we‘d listen to her continuous talk in which the topics would be repeated in a cyclic order – we’d be too polite to interrupt or curtail her – after all, this was the only luxury she craved for! But then after her massive heart attack, whenever she would start chat sessions, we’d try to silence her, “Okay, take rest. We’ll talk later.” She’d bounce back saying, “Let me say whatever I want to. May be there won’t be time later” and we’d have to give in! We found it ironic that even as she realized the importance of time, she continued to use it for her favorite activity – talking. This time we could not raise any objection!
It is two years since Amma has become silent forever. Still her words keep ringing in my mind on various occasions – sometimes bringing a smile, sometimes an acknowledgement of her sense of righteousness and honesty.

© Copyright 2011. Brinda Balasubramonian.



(Written in April 2009 soon after Amma’s demise)
4.30 p.m. I keep staring at the silent telephone, my finger itching to dial the usual number, also hoping against hope that it will start ringing and I can have my usual quota of 20-40 minutes talk time with Amma – she’d go on and on about the day-to-day trivia repeated not less than thrice, as I’d ‘hm, haw, oho..’ - with a question here or an advise/ answer there. She needed someone to talk to, so I’d be the willing recipient – the patient, silent listener.
That’s what comes to mind first – Amma’s penchant for talking – I feel she must have spent a good part of her waking hours talking ‘twenty two to the dozen’! This won her a lot of friends. In fact, she made a brand new young friend barely 8-10 hours before she bid her final goodbye. This newlywed who had just moved in next door visited her to say hello and ended up spending a good three hours with her at the end of which she knew the ‘who’s who’ of our complete family as Amma had supplemented the details with the photo albums!
You can call her a ‘connoisseur’ of family photos. Any photo you give her becomes a prized treasure. Her favorite pastime was ‘album viewing’ – she’d have seen and shown the albums more than all other family members put together! And she’d love to pose for pictures – but only after making sure she was draped in a nice saree.
Oh sarees – she was very fond of buying – or even just seeing. Every trip of hers to Madras would bring sarees for all of us. She had a great collection – well-maintained and well-used. Her zest for life even at seventy plus was enviable! Mention of a marriage or a music program would kindle a sparkle in her eyes and a cheer on her face. She’d take her own sweet time to get ready – you can’t hurry her. In fact more minutes would be spent on the selection of the saree for the occasion but at the end of it she’d be the best dressed among the lot! She’d love it when we pinned her pallu neatly for her – one thing she always admired but never mastered. She’d never leave home before asking, “Powder saria irukka?” Again, just eight hours before she died, she had been seen in a crisp saree taking a walk around her building – for a whiff of fresh air – another insatiable craving of hers.
Meals had to be piping hot – all the better if it were straight from the frying pan to the plate! She was the slowest eater ever I think! Yes, she was fastidious about food but she didn’t mind tasting new stuff and she enjoyed what she ate. But regular food had to be prepared her own way – which she had imparted to us, her daughters, and had genuine pride about our cooking. When we were teenagers, she’d call us in the kitchen during festivals to assist her – we picked up our culinary skills the best way - by observation, not from recipe books. And if our children and grandchildren are proud of our tasty treats, they know who to thank! Even at her age, she’d get all flustered and enthusiastic during festivals.
That brings to mind Amma’s unbending nature – not willing to make compromises or major adjustments. Having had her own way all her life, expecting a major change on her part, according to her, was asking for too much! Little wonder that she’d argue on and on with a child-like stubbornness and defiance throwing logic to the winds – the opponent would be driven to the wall and forced to give up! If anyone could boast of giving her a stiff resistance – at times – it was her brother and her son! It is indeed to her credit that she managed to live her life on her own terms – independent, not cowed down by circumstances - till the very end – Providence was on her side – she was very lucky in death – sudden and as painless as can be.
One admirable trait of hers was her complete honesty – she spoke nothing but the truth even if she were to sound harsh or blunt! She was not afraid of anyone or anything. This trait enabled her to cling on to her independence even when she was not in the best of health - she had tremendous will power. A negative trait was her habit of ‘worrying’. She always needed something to worry about – never mind whether it was major or minor. So we’d be content to let her chew the cud of a trivial issue rather than solve it – you see, that would be giving her a chance to find some other ‘botheration’. She never learnt not to worry about issues which are beyond our control. She loved to be unreasonable, I think. Her extraordinary attachment to Madras, especially her ‘Karpagam Avenue’ house even after a decade may seem unnatural to others but only she knew her emotions best. She was lucky to have spent two months in Madras (though not in the best of health) and got to meet all relatives before leaving the world.
Amma knew a little bit of everything and she would make a thousand and one queries before making a decision (she tried her best to postpone her decisions). She was definitely very clever. The younger generation may ridicule her caution and calculative planning but the fact cannot be denied that the family has only benefited from that. She wanted the worth of every penny she spent. She knew what to give who and when and she was pretty generous. But she wouldn’t be taken for a ride – never.
She was very prim and proper and wanted everything in place. I still remember the court of inquiry she’d conduct at home when we were kids to convict the culprit responsible for – say - the missing needle. To avoid getting charge- sheeted, we’d resolve to get a dozen needles. We have realized over the years that she had a point – the more the stock on hand, the more careless we tend to become!
Amma’s chapter is over. Her demise has left a big void in my life – a mother’s place is definitely unique and irreplaceable. I won’t hear her “vaayendi, leave taane onakku”. I won’t have to put up with her ‘killing‘hospitality – offering this and that every ten minutes and saying at the end of it –“onakku pasikkaradho ennavo.” I won’t have pangs of guilt rebutting her impossible fervent appeal, “oru naal koodi irunduttu poyen”. I won’t have to use my strategy – telling her about my ‘two-day’ trip if I had planned for three days – and pretend to give in to her appeal so both wouldn’t be losers!
It is rightly said that we crave for something all the more when we lose it! Has Amma become closer to me after she was gone – ‘her presence is felt more in her absence’!

© Copyright 2011. Brinda Balasubramonian.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What is Palghat Cuisine?

Palghat – a small town in South India – in Kerala state – more specifically on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. But it has an identity of its own! It is (was?) mostly inhabited by ‘Tam-Brahms’ – more specifically Iyer Brahmins from Tamil Nadu. But as the town has been in Kerala, these Iyers mingled with the Malayalam-speaking people of Kerala and eventually evolved a separate dialect. This dialect is similar to Tamil, with a splatter of Malayalam in it yet different from both (Could I call it Malamil?). And it is specific to Palghat Iyers! I belong to the clan.

India is a land of many states, many languages and an amazing variety of cuisines. You can mostly make out the state that a person hails from on listening to his speech. On occasions when you cannot – for whatever reasons, you just have to ask him and he would say – ‘Maharashtra’ or ‘West Bengal’ or whatever. But when we are posed with this question, my husband replies ‘Kerala’ and I blurt out ‘Tamil Nadu’ – and we have had several unresolved debates on this issue. What is politically correct is that we are Tamilians settled in Kerala. My husband was born and brought up in Kerala and hence his affinity for Malayalam. I was born in Kerala but brought up all over India. And I considered that ‘Malamil’ is closer to Tamil than Malayalam. Still it is a confusing notion – you see, our forefathers have used Malayalam script to convey Tamil sentences in their letters and we have never for a moment considered it unnatural. Anyway, ours is a beautiful and enviable blend of both cultures. Now I have learnt to tell acquaintances, “You know, we are Palghat Iyers” and sure enough they understand – especially if they are South Indians. It’s so simple because ‘Palghat Iyers’ have an unmistakable identity.

My parents were blue-blooded Palghat Iyers and we kids spoke the dialect and were brought up almost entirely on Palghat cuisine. An occasional puri-masala or chapathi or paratha was of course thoroughly relished.

But after my marriage I settled down in Pune – in a cosmopolitan campus. Naturally my boys preferred North Indian food. When my conservative in-laws moved in with us, I had to maintain a balance and satisfy both the generations – a Herculean task. My husband and I would eat whatever was convenient. My sons came to terms with some of the ‘koottaans’ (gravy curries) – so they would be included in the menu at periodic intervals. Soon I had almost forgotten the rest of the ‘koottaans’ prepared by my mother. Whenever I visited her she would specially prepare them for me and I would slurp it all with relish.

When I visit my children in the US, I still make North Indian stuff mostly. Back home it is still a North-South mix. But recently all those abandoned Palghat recipes have been revived – the spicy North Indian food has started getting a bit harsh on our aging digestive system. And what a revelation! There are so many of them resurfacing! The menu is easy on the stomach, it is not spicy, it is good wholesome diet. Also by choosing the right menu on the various days of the week, we can eat right and eat healthy. I suddenly realized the danger of those recipes becoming history. I’m sure there will be many who have relished them in their childhood and would love to revive their taste for them.

The collection of recipes for authentic Palghat meals is for all those and for genuine foodies! Rice is the staple food of South Indians. My parents’ generation would have a three-course meal – now one-course has been slashed – what with our fascination to eat less to maintain our figure and health! The first course is rice mixed with ‘koottaan’ (‘kozhambu’ in Tamil) with a ‘thoran’ / ‘mezhukkuvaratti’ (‘poriyal’ in Tamil) as side dish. The second course is rice with ‘rasam’ (sort of sour lentil soup) along with the same ‘thoran’ and ‘pappadam’ or ‘karuvadam’ (fry-ums). The final course is rice with curd/buttermilk with a pickle. A good combo of lentils, vegetables, coconut, curd…. supplying a variety of nutrients. And very little spice and oil. Some ‘koottaan’ will have a good amount of coconut but no lentils, some a good ratio of lentils and negligible coconut and yet others with neither of them. Most of the ‘thoran’ and ‘koottu’ have coconut but the ‘mezhukkuvaratti’ has zero coconut but then oil content is more. The ‘cholesterol-conscious’ ones and the ‘weight-watchers’ are bidding goodbye to coconut even in the ‘thoran’ but foodies like me definitely miss the taste!

One more thing - for a meal either the ‘koottaan’ or side dish will be sour. You have standard combos which are unbeatable! I guess a lot of science has gone into these recipe-combinations.

For any religious function, there is an elaborate feast – but of course! The menu compulsorily comprises – kichadi, pachadi, thoran, mezhukkuvaraty, koottu, kaalan, olan, avial, pappadam, injikkari / pickle, vadai, payasam, rice, paruppu, sambar, rasam, buttermilk…… plus some more if they wish!

Wait - I think I have forgotten to tell you something very important. This cuisine does not have any trace of onion and garlic! The only exception is the‘onion sambar’ which has snoozed its way into the Palghat Iyer household of my generation as an occasional delicacy.

Ok then! Enjoy the different tastes!

© Copyright 2011. Brinda Balasubramonian.