The only wealth , (apart from the Telugu translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana) that Mamidipudi Ramakrishnaiah aka Chamanna left his large brood of grandchildren was the 16 children he had with Indiramma. How rich we 29 cousins are in aunts and uncles who babysat, played with us, got us icecream and took us to movies, and were willing accomplices in the many capers that were wrought by the young ones , gamely taking the rap, or skillfully concealing the entire op from the authority.
We were all lucky it never mattered which aunt was in charge of an army of cousins. No one felt the lack of their respective moms, and happily demanded whatever was needed from the aunt in charge. At Saraswathi’s there was always the aroma of great sambar wafting from the kitchen, and there were tons of M&Bs to be found . You could see serious conversations between a 4-year-old and an aunt/uncle,in Nellore, or at Rohini’s and it would be hard to say who was the grown-up there. At Jani’s you could expect some sharp scolding if you didnt eat your vegetables, but as much snacks and junk food you wanted to munch on while playing, if you did eat your vegetables.
Everybody calls each other by name, the raucous arguments often unfold when the clan gathers , the side-shows wher secrets are traded and uncles (as in the spouses of the aunts) commandeer a passing kid to massage their legs, and a great game of Monopoly is played. There are aunts cooking up a storm in the kitchen, and an impromptu contest is announced to judge who, Thulasi ( my mom, she’s been gone four years now) or Jani (Janaki, also gone , for a long time now) makes the best masala dosa. There’s Rohini, our youngest aunt, whose adventures in North Indian cuisine is my introduction to cooking with basmati and garam masala!
Rama went two weeks back, to join her parents and eight siblings, who now reside in our hearts, and memories. And we who know ourselves to be so rich in aunts and uncles, are feeling suddenly bereft of a presence that was many things- the one we went to when we needed an old myth verified. the juicy details of an old , forgotten scandal, or trying to untangle a hopelessly knotted branch of the vast family tree. She was the aunt who generously gave of her affection to all her nieces and nephews, cooked the most delicious anything , excelled at embroidery and crochet and a host of other crafts, and somehow ended up being the spare Amma to all of us.
I wish it was possible to remember when you realized your mom was your mom, or the first time you met an aunt and began a beautiful relationship in which you got most of the fun. I remember that fun part. A summer holiday when I was may seven or eight. Venky, Sekhar, Vimala, brothers Subri and Bunty and I, were all sent to Rama’s house -the mansion on Poes Road. Her mother-in-law, also Athya since she was Chamanna’s sister was there. Venky and Sekhar winkled a permission to raid the mango tree and divest it of the season’s best, only to be roundly chastised, by Athya, who was under the impression that she had said they could gather the fallen pieces, and was quite devasted at the loss of a couple of bottles worth of avakkai in this caper.
I was quite taken with the collection of Chandamama , all bound , 12 issues to a book , that were upstairs, though I think they were Telugu, and i could barely read a few words. Athya , I remember told me the story of Little One Eye, Little Two Eyes and Little Three Eyes.
There were cats. and they loved ompodi. We knew there’d always be ompodi, and as long as there was enough for the cats, we could help ourselves, which we did.
Subri tells me that one afternoon, the Rita Icecream cart came by. Everyone ran out, and Rama said she’ll fetch the donnes ( cups made out of palm leaves) . By the time she returned, everyone was done eating icecream, and Vimala informed her, “we are done already, you can take the “donti” back “. Rama went, laughing
Kids that we were, none of us bothered to consider where the money to pay for the icecream came from. When she went to doll-making class, she asked me to pick which kind of doll I wanted. I asked for a Japanese doll, and soon enough a 10-inch Japanese maiden in rich orange and cream brocade arrived, to delight me for many years, sitting on top of the showcase. I wish I’d kept it.
Thanks to Rama, I discovered the Woman & Home and Woman’s Weekly, the British magazines that she subsribed to, and had also collected and bound. They were passed on to Vimala and me later, and for many years I treasured mine, reading and re-reading the serialised romances of Iris Bromige, Lucilla Andrews, Lucy WAlker whose stories were located in Australia. In WW, the royal photographer Cecil Beaton wrote a column, and this is why I think I know a great deal than I am supposed to about life in Buckingham Palace, in the 50s and 60s. Again it is courtesy of these magazines, that also had knitting and embroidery patterns, and recipes that I pretend-cooked and today, know that I will never feel lost in London and its neighbourhood if were to be left to find my own way around that city.
When the news came that Rama had left us , on Jan 26, the first thing that hit me was that I would no longer be required to rustle up sweetcorn and vegetable soup, and make a bowl of dosavakkai because Rama was coming to visit.
There would no longer be little deceptions practised over cooking egg at home. Rama’s fuss over eggs was legendary, and everyone learned to walk around , well, eggshells on this matter. Eggs made a hesitant entry into the diet in some of our kitchens on account of “doctor’s orders” due to some of us kids being underweight, and it was an open secret that some kitchens in the clan had become “eggstraordinary”.
She once refused to eat an eggless cake that I’d baked, saying ” cake means egg”. Later, Patta ( our Mama) said of her, ” now she’ll eat anything that has a green dot on it”.
Our aunts and uncles have taught us to laugh at ourselves and laugh with each other. Rama’s loud crack of laughter at some joke, her delight at a baby nephew’s cheeky line, her trademark habit of clutching her forehead with her thumb and little finger, which she would then flap vigorously, meaning that she thought someone (among us) was being annoying, a thalanoppi in fact, has amused us always, and everyone uses it now. It could become sign by which we cousins can recognize each other, across the globe like Freemasons !
SOmetimes Amma would keep the battered little nonstick pan in a corner of the kitchen, and it would be pointed out to Rama and she’d be told, ” don’t use that Rama, it’s for the eggs. She’d nod , and we’d avoid eggs while she was visiting. and instead, get her to make her famous vankaya koora with podi, and kandhi patchadi and any Nellore specialities that we fancied.
I called Srikala, and we spoke tearfully of Rama, and Srikala announced she’d make Dondakaya koora Rama style in her memory. Venky has said he’ll frame a peice of Rama’s crochetHe ha and hang it up in the living room. He spoke reminiscently of ompodi , and cats and one summer of mango-picking.Nandini remembered the summer holidays in Nellore, and Rama’s excellent minimula pachadi and kathrikai curry.
Appa, and the aunts and uncles, have seen Rama suffer many tragedies, and much misery. Yet, she was always cheerful, never dwelt on her own problems, Appa says, and I agree, we never saw her brooding or moping.
The oldest cousin, Mahesh, who grew up in Nellore, and Popy, and I spoke long about what Rama meant to us. How well-read she was, and well-informed – she always read the paper from masthead to imprint, and could discuss politics like a pro. I remember some years ago, when Bangalore had a brief outing with floods, Chief Minister Kumaraswamy came visitng houses in the Kamakhya neighbourhood, when cousin Sheeli lives. Rama was visiting at the time.
He looked around, and asked them if they were ok, and then Rama asked him , “do you know Alladi Jayasri, she’s with The Hindu?”
Mr Kumaraswamy, who, it so happened had heard of Alladi Jayasri, and had a few days earlier called up personally to thank her for the story on his interaction with women prisoners that was telecast be Doordarshan, said he did.
With pride Rama told him she was said Alladi Jayasri’s aunt.
Rama our little aunt who had boundless affection for all her nieces and nephews, and enormous pride in what they did, and enjoyed being among them, as they laughed, played, argued and fought together, sometimes with her. She’ll be missed much and for long.
Picture (Rama in glasses, and it’s our Indira Paati with her back to us) courtesy Vagiswari. She tells me it is from the wedding of Mani and Jayanthi. The others are Vagis’ parents and siblings.
She wrote long letters, filling the entire blue inland letter with her neat handwriting, with news of the uncles and Pati and visits and trips and asking when Amma would come.