Aunt ‘s Jaunts

It was Varalakshmi Puja last week.  Memories of Manjula decorating the mantapam -covering the banana stems with samanthis= yellow and majenta chrysanthemums, making colorful kolam,  Amma getting the kalasham and the silver mukham of Lakshmi- with its own little ruby studs and nose ring, and a long hook which would go into the silver chombu, and all the stuff that goes intothe kalasham,

Being too little to be useful to Manjula or Amma, all I did was wander about the house,  from kitchen to the room where the puja was arranged,  eyeing the coconut-jaggery poornam that would go into the sweet kozhakattai, and my favorite, the kharam kozhakattai, the   daals for aamavadai ready to be ground. The kitchen smelled of  cardamom, nutmeg,  and chillies and hing.  From the  puja room (makeshift, to accommodate all the ladies who would come the next evening for manjai-kumkum.) wafted  the scents of camphor, ,  agarbathi, jasmine .

I suspect Amma and Varalakshmi had a conspiracy going. How else does one explain  the fact that the kozhakattais were perfect, the aamavadais crisp and golden on the outside and soft inside, and were all ready for naivedhyam in the morning, the puja done and all ladies in the house, Amma, Manjula, Dr Athey sporting the yellow thread with a samanthi flower (like a Rakhi, I think) on the right wrist to signify participation in the puja, and  have the most sumptuous spread read for the family.

I think one of the highlights of the day for her, was the arrival of Vimala Athey.  Appa’s younger sister, gentle,  niece-loving Vimala Athey whose  unexpected visits home ( she was a government school teacher, and  frequently her arrival at unusual hours when teachers and students ought to be at school-  heralded “good news” for  kids – someone died warranting the declaration of a holiday to mourn the loss to the nation, or at least to the State of  Karnataka. ) I  was an Athey-loving niece as well,  although a very quiet one, listening to Amma and Athey exchange news and gossip,  wondering when Athey’s vanity bag would open, and  treats like a  polly mango sliced into  finger-sized pieces with chilli powder and salt rubbed into them , which she had started to eat , or a packet of  glucose biscuits, or at lease a pair of Parry’s  toffee, would  tumble out .

On Varalakshmi day,  it was ordained , Vimala Athey of the divine voice  would sing  Sri Varalakshmi Namasthubhyam. Here is  MS Maami also of the divine voice, rendering  the song. (I wish I could google up Vimala Athey just as easily on youtube, but may be my cousin Anu (Vimala Athey’s daughter could help with that?)  For the nonce, let MS=Vimala Athey.

Since I have had  a nasty attack of nostalgia, and have successfully  passed on the  bug to Appa,  he let me in on his childhood days , growing up with Vimala Athey, his little sister.  Don’t get me wrong, but little girls are the best thing that ever happened to families,  I know, having been one myself, and being told by Amma how much she had wanted to have me long before I had been thought of.  So it was with Vimala Athey. and the Sardar High School  Headmaster’s household was hugely enriched and entertained by  little Vimala and her ceaseless chatter and endearing  attempts to be grown-up.

Her friends comprised an army of  kids from the servants quarters, all about her own age,  which she maintained with endless supply of
“putani”, from the kitchen, and occasionally  pieces of jaggery. They were all her yes-men  who could disappear like gnomes when they felt the coming of a   “grown-up” attack,  which usually manifested itself in the form of  her mother (my grandmother, Venkamma)  mildly asking, “what happened to all the putani?”

Cornered, the p-o-w,  deployed the ultimate weapon in a child’s armory-   a long wail  intended as a signal to any of the older siblings to rush to her defense,  and a loud lament “Ellam en thalai melai!”  — yeah, heap the blame on my head.. matching words with  action by tapping herself on the head- a tad too hard, as it happened,  and crying louder for the self-inflicted pain.

An amused mother,  brothers laughing till they got stitches in their sides,  didn’t help at all, and  calm prevailed for a short spell,  and the gnomes trickled back in one by one, and  a new  round of putani-chomping began.

The Old Days of Belgaum

One  summer day in the early 1930s,  a game of hide ‘n seek  began to be played on the  silent, abandoned-for the-holidays campus of Sardar  High School in Belgaum, and a boy names Sheshagiri  (S, from now on)  got himself a  really secret place to hide, and waited to be found.

The hostel was vacant, and the Head Master M.Ramabrahma’s  brood ( S, and siblings) had the run of the grounds.  The Joshi, Datar and Kittur boys came over most afternoons . A bunch of boys, grounds and garden, and nooks and crannies behind buildings– all the ingredients for an excellent game of hide ‘n seek. S  lurked in his hideout, and listened to big brother Pandurang be “it” and find the others. He wondered how long he ought to give Pandu before turning himself in.

Lost in these thoughts, it was a while before S  realised that  no one seemed to be about. There were no calls for him to come out, nor did  he hear footsteps advancing stealthily and getting louder as  the predator approached. He  stuck his neck out  round the corner and found he was quite alone. The game had moved, or  it was up !!

He ambled homewards to find Pandu and the others  loping about on the verandah,  and completely unsurprised to  see him. “Hey why didn’t you come looking for me?” S asked.

“Oh, we  looked everywhere, and when there was no sign of you, we decided you must’ve come home for a drink of water, and forgot to come back into the game..” Pandu said with a big brother’s  insouciance, and S  decided the next time he needed a hiding place, he’d head home!

Down Appa’s Memory Lane

March 12, 2012

Appa turned 89 today . When I woke up , around 5.30 am,  I could hear him pottering about, and went to be the first to wish him Happy Birthday. “The first birthday without Amma,” he  noted, and both of us paused to let the poignant moment pass.  I wondered what it must feel  like to spend 56 birthdays (and 56 wedding anniversaries) with someone, and  wake up one day to find there will never be a 57th  of the same kind.

Amma died on January 24,  two weeks after she marked her 75th birthday. She had become quite forgetful, and barely remembered what presents she had received on her birthday. A pair of bangles ,  some money… having your valaikaappu at this age? I  asked, over the phone from faraway America,  and elicited a chuckle that proved to be the last.  A few days later I was on the plane to Bangalore.

In the weeks that followed,  we  often went into rewind mode.  Sometimes in our conversations, Amma was just away on a  long visit to Nellore.  Or in Amma Heaven, calling Ganesha Store  with her endless wish list of groceries so she could make everyone’s favorite dishes.  Her absence had become a Great Presence as the family grieved,  remembered and  then celebrated her.

I thought longingly of the divine chapatis that only Amma could make,  and Subri said now even a burned chapati made by her would be divine.   When an aval upma proved to be a disaster( because I didn’t let it soak long enough), Appa must have thought just as longingly of the ‘soft ”  aval upma that Amma always made, which translated, to me as “soggy”. Just now , what wouldn’t I do for a  helping of that soggy /soft “owl” upma, rustled up by Amma!

With mixed feelings we thumbed through the wedding album of “Mr and Mrs ’55”   and we were struck by how beautiful a bride Amma made, sans make-up , but  glamorous enough to give Nargis a complex. Appa, the same age as Dev Anand , incidentally, cut a dashing figure in the suit, in the picture (black  & white) taken by G.G.Welling.

“Tatha, when was the first time you met Pati?” Harini asked, and I  realised that the person who had answers to these questions, who always made  the ordinary stories    about all the uncles, aunts, cousins, once, twice-removed,  and totally removed courtesy-relations included  most fascinating,  and taught me to love them by knowing one little thing about each Chittappa, Mama, or  Tatha and Paati, had gone without answering that one!!

And we all looked at Tatha,  now the solitary source of  stories that ought to begin at  “Once Upon a Time”…………. and  go on “Happily Everafter!”

Appa at age 21, went to  Madras for the wedding of Cousin(s) Radha and Sitaram, and  there he first spotted his future wife, Thulasi, all of seven,  doing well, what seven-year-olds normally do at weddings.   Eleven years later, when Thulasi was 18, it was arranged that she should wed Sheshagiri . He went up to Nellore to “see” her,  accompanied by his cousin Baba,  and on his return,  his father ( Our Ramabrahma Tatha) pronounced, “you’ve got the best one of the seven sisters.”

I spent four months with Appa, and Bunty and we talked of many things, watch endless reruns of Ramayan, Shri Krishna and every mythological show that we could catch.  Appa is  89 years rich in history. of our family, of  our times.

He was 12 when Swami & Friends  was published, in 1935, and Malgudi arrived in our collective psyche.  Now  he is in his “anecdotage’. And we are hungry for stories of  his own Malgudi days.  Which makes for serendipity ( a word Appa loves to  insert into the conversation as often as he can, which is why the word is here)

He will be on rewind mode, to the times when there was neither TV nor remote, and pastimes were indulged in at a more leisurely pace, and kids could gaze upon camels and wonder at their purpose in nature’s scheme of things,  shout cheeky comments at departing British contingents, and live to tell the tale……witness the transition from petromax-lit  evenings to  electric nights…….

Appa is now the narrator and I, the scribe…………Heard that one before?


It takes two brothers to keep the bear from getting to the little sister, you said. But sometimes I was the baloney between the two slices of bread. Like when I screamed my head off ,  saying “Pedal Pannu!!”  as  you cycled down Seventh Cross, and I thought I’d fall off the cross-bar if  you didn’t pedal. You must’ve pretend-pedalled, to humor me, and prayed. Now I wonder why you let your baby sister tag along on these little excursions to Dr. Athey’s house.  To humor Amma?

I hated your (and Subri’s) short-cuts through Mohammadan Block, II Block and Rani Sarala Devi, and you walked the long round via South Circle , Kuchalamba and down , down, down the seemingly interminable Seventh Cross, protecting me from the bears, with Subri on the other side.

You told me I came out of  a Horlicks bottle, and I long wondered what use you could have for me,  a quiet little mouse way away from your universe of cricket, movies and outings to MG Road .. and cousins and friends and summer holidays under the blazing Nellore sun. I remember annoying you (and Subri)  when I insisted on buying  Amar Chitra Kathas in Kannada……. I wonder what you made of my solitary afternoons at Dr. Athey’s across the road,  curled up beside a pile of Sudha reading Ramu-Shyamu, Majanu.and Phantom……yes. in Kannada.

I confess there were times I thought I had two big brothers too many. But it worked out perfect, didn’t it?  All the bears that I was kept safe from. I think you were mostly proud of your little sis, and knew you were very special to her, indeed.  Though Iwonder if  I had become a bear to you lately,  I  like to think Idid take care of a few bears for you.

I shall watch “Yeh jawani.yeh diwani..” and remember Lalbagh as it once was .  The way you probably remember it as you take your place in the sepia-tinted memories of  your only little sister. When I bite into a khara bun, or hear the crunch of a Japanese cake ,  “vettu” a  potato fry, and rustle up a vengaya sambhar for a Sunday meal, I shall wait for  you to knock on the door and say…….”Ha! Did you think I wouldn’t come?”

And we’d talk about Sweetkharacoffee– You’d say “I have read your blog literature and admire your ability to write so well and so much . Amma yendare aeno thondare was a spoof by the famous Subri-Bunty team in the tradition of other music directors working in pairs. You may recall that Sweet,Kara and Coffee are banned items in our diet. However we will gorge on your blog for a regular supply of Virginia Pak,dose and cawfee!

Goodnight, Bunty.