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.