Friday, September 7, 2012



‘Malligai en mannan mayangum ponnaana malarallavo’, ‘malligai, mullai poopandal’ ….numerous are the film songs about the fragrant jasmine varieties – during a recent trip to Bengaluru, I got a visual feast of huge balls of stringed flowers - of pristine jasmine and  bright orange 'kanakaambaram' and pink flowers. ....

Like any typical South Indian, I LOVE to deck my hair with flowers – 3 ‘mozham’ – approximately 3 feet length of stringed jasmine would be great – I could make four equal folds of it and pin it on to my hair. That would look great some 30 years ago when I had an enviable long and thick braid. Now I sport shoulder-length hair held with a clip – so I have to be careful not to look silly with strings of jasmine longer and thicker than my hair. Not that there is any chance for that – living in Pune, I manage to get jasmine flowers only for a couple of months during the summer. And I try to make the most of it then! I don’t care for the non-fragrant white ones available during the monsoons.

I had this ‘gajrawala’ who would land precisely during the season and regularly supply fragrant gajaras every day. It was pretty affordable at three feet-length of gajara for Rs. 5 till a decade ago. The cost soon doubled. But I didn’t give up my fad. This year it doubled again and gajaras were sold at Rs. 20 for the same length! I had to restrain myself to an extent! One day the florist didn’t have gajaras – she had just opened shop and she just had fresh jasmine flowers – unstrung. I decided to go for it – bought loose flowers for Rs. 10. She wrapped the flowers in a piece of newspaper and wound a long string around it and handed it over to me. I came home bubbling with enthu. Yes – I was going to string the fresh jasmine flowers myself – how long since I had done so! I unwound the thick thread and kept it aside carefully. I transferred the jasmine flowers on to a plate and sprinkled water on them. I wetted the string and started stringing the jasmine ….as my mind weaved nostalgic memories of the bygone years ……….

My father was on a transferable job – Bangalore and Pondy and Madras satisfied our craving for flowers – yes my mom and sis too shared the same love! But other postings were not so benign! My dad was posted to Port Blair way back in 1965 and I was packed off to Kerala to my grandparents’ and aunt’s to pursue my studies - ninth standard! Yes there was no High School in Port Blair then! Hm…Kerala – I went crazy with the dizzy fragrance of ‘malli’ / ‘mulla’ poo. There was this neighbor who would send – yes – three feet-length of jasmine flowers every day. I’d use half of it that evening and wrap up the remaining in a wet cloth (no fridge those days) for the next day – for school. Most girls too would wear flowers, so you can well imagine the pervading fragrance in the classroom!

Next Pondicherry! Whoa – it is a cousin of Madras – rich or poor I cannot say! So no dearth of flowers. An added advantage was our maid ‘Lakshmi’. Bless her soul – she was a head-turner alright – but for a different reason! She was just in her early fifties. Lean, dark, with tobacco-stained-giant protruding brown teeth that became more prominent when she giggled – which was almost always. My teenaged brother would snap at her, “Don’t show your ‘thenga thuruval’- pallu! (coconut-grater-teeth)” and she’d burst out laughing at that - exposing them even more! Ok, why I remember her at this juncture is – she was our 'flower girl'! Yes – she had a friend who was a florist and she’d frequent her at the end of the day and bring a huge ball of strung flowers or at least a big packet of loose flowers for a pittance. And all of us ladies would sit and string them – that was when mom taught me and my sister this simple yet useful craft. My mom also instructed us how to wet the dry ‘vaazha naar’ (thin bark of banana tree), make thin strings using a safety pin – and use them to string flowers. It took me a while to learn how thick or thin the bark should be so that it isn’t too sharp to cut the flowers being strung. Of course nowadays who has banana trees at the backyard? So a thick thread will suffice. Sometimes Lakshmi would bring jasmine alone, at other times even ‘kanakaambaram’ (the lovely orange non-fragrant flowers). I’d choose my sari for college as per the flowers available – an orange sari to go with ‘kanakaambaram’, a white one with

Sometimes there would be ‘maru’ (the ‘hm…so-fragrant’ tiny leaves) too strung along  with jasmine and ‘kanakaambaram’ and I had this special tri-colour sari to go with it. Very rarely we’d get violet ‘December’ flowers – so you can guess what color sari I’d wear with it. Ah yes – it was – ‘saris only’ in the early 70s for collegians in the South – not even salwar-kameez!

My parents moved into their own house in Madras after father’s retirement and they had a lovely garden. You guessed it – with my mom’s passion for flowers, how can it not boast of a beautiful and bountiful garden?! My dad’s evening routine included plucking jasmine and pichakam (jui) flowers (without missing a single one) – even using a chair to get those beyond his hand’s reach. My mom’s job was stringing them watching some programme on TV. There was never any time of the day she didn’t have flowers on her hair! When we’d go there on vacation, we’d join in the plucking and stringing activities and share the flowers – by ‘we’, I mean me and my sis – both of us have sons only – so there was no one else to share the flowers with! Some consolation?!.........

I have never strung flowers for a decade and a half! I felt good as I finished stringing them and took a look at the thick ‘gajara’. Even more so as I sported it and went for my walk – I could make out that my fragrant and extra-thick gajara made many heads turn. My friends took the liberty of scrutinizing and complimenting it. I made it a routine – buying loose jasmine flowers and making ‘gajras’ at home.

It has just struck me that this art which every South Indian girl of my generation is adept at, will soon be lost forever. My daughters-in-law don’t get a chance to sport ‘gajras’ – being in the US. I thought I should impart this skill to my six-year-old granddaughter – just for the heck of it! She is game for any craft – last time we visited her, we went crazy looking for craft boxes for her and finally got her a ‘bracelet-making kit’. I know what craft can be imparted to her the next time we meet - I’ll teach her and my youngest granddaughter too - to string flowers! YES!!

© Copyright 2011. Brinda Balasubramonian.