Friday, January 28, 2022

The Homecoming

A long summer journey led to an ancestral house in Kerala, a patch of woods and the embrace of a grandmother.

Written by Smita Nair |
June 12, 2016 12:00:51 am
Time travel: A gathering of relatives at the Kurupath house. Time travel: A gathering of relatives at the Kurupath house.

My childhood summers during the 1980s and early 1990s involved a long-distance train. Minus the pantry. Even before the sun was up, my parents’ favourite pastime was checking the reservation status of our tickets to Jayanti Janta Express. The long train started at Victoria Terminus and ended its run at Kanyakumari, covering a patch of Kerala in its last lap.

On the eve of the journey, our house in Bhandup, Bombay, wore the atmosphere of a military camp . My mother was the commandant; my father and I were at her mercy, packing soaps, orange tins of Cuticura powder, sweets and cotton cut-pieces for our relatives in Kerala.

For every family, we bought a batch of two large soaps (Lux “because it stood for luxury” and it was always the chalky pink one because my mother doesn’t understand other colours), and sweets were always the thin, paper-shaped Bombay halwa. I recall one summer we even packed three dozen cloth hangers as someone had asked for it. On our return trips, we had packs of Kochi red halwa, banana and tapioca chips and a year’s supply of lungis for my father.
Tiffin was always lemon rice,

with eight portions packed in banana leaf – “We cannot be rude to our co-passengers in the compartment” – a whole bag of boiled eggs and bits of fried Bombay Duck – “What if our neighbours are non-vegetarian?”

There was a separate section of idli, nool puttu and steamed adas for breakfast. By dinner time, the food had connected strangers, a little beef here, a little chicken there. The Malayalis were on the move.

The writer with her aunt and the dog, Blackie. The writer with her aunt and the dog, Blackie.

But the most prized Bombay export was the single crate of Ratnagiri mangoes most families carried under their seats. In our case, they were picked and packed to ripen fully on the evening planned for the family reunion in our ancestral home.

The other highlight always was the manner in which my father would point out every state and its corresponding local delicacy – the salted cucumbers as we travelled through Maharashtra, the peanut chutney served atop a local mixture in Andhra Pradesh and the lovely parippu vadas that one could have down south, just when the train crossed the Tamil Nadu border.

Once in Kerala, I waited for the first sight of my maternal ancestral home, the Kurupath house in Vadavannur, Palakkad. I can see it now as I write. The large, silver-coloured iron gate, on which I have sat many summers, sometimes accompanied by my uncle, watching the world. I once even fed the local elephant from this height. The large expanse beyond it, outlined with yellow and red hibiscus plants. Then there was the red tiled house, with red and white pillars, red oxide floors, and an inner courtyard that opened up to the sky and sunshine.

My father’s home, the Kottiel House, a few kilometers away, had a different charm to it. My grandfather ran a big eatery and a bright board welcomed everyone with the message: “Evide rashtreeyam padilla” (Politics is not allowed here).

My holiday began with the softest of hugs from Ammuma, my grandmother. Meeting her was always the reward – no season felt good without her. In a fresh, white mundu veshti with a green palakka pendant on her neck, she always looked grand. She sat in her teak chair, the matriarch giving instructions to everyone in the house. I earned my brownie points pretty soon, as I routinely smuggled mangoes, chilli pickle, extra gunpowder and everything forbidden for her age, from the kitchen to her room. Together, we would sneak into her room and eat between giggles.

With our family always the first to arrive, my initial days were always spent alone in the thodi, as we called the vast green woods, quietly inspecting the trees. I had names for them and had long conversations with them. Some were bratty, others noble. I imagined coconut trees as stubborn and with a mind of their own. Then there was neem, banana, the local teak, a line of jackfruit trees, the wide-bodied drumstick trees and my favourites, the two mango trees, whose branches almost hugged the house. There was a joy in climbing trees, jumping from one branch to another, filling the bottom end of the frock with fruits, leaves and twigs.

The thodi was my ground-where I stood firm, where I made the rules, and where, except for Blackie, the family dog (he was a handsome black stray), no one else would venture in.

During one vacation, I took Blackie to the middle of the thodi, away from the murmur of adult afternoon gossip, and applied a full tube of Fair and Lovely on him. Blackie was forgiving but my meema (maternal aunt) wasn’t – the evening saw Blackie and me grounded.

When my mother was a child, the day included a moochi and maav session, where the children were allowed an hour to climb trees, followed by a long hour to pet and feed the local dogs, who visited the house gates in the evening.

In the evening, the women and the children walked to the middle of the thodi, where sat our family deities. A big snake was supposed to guard the idols. I didn’t believe it existed. Till one day, a gang of cousins racing to reach the gates first froze at the sight of a long and thick snake, flicking its tongue. How we ran-we broke all our old records that day.

My favourite ritual was early in the morning. Women and men would wake up early and apply coconut oil all over their bodies, and then pack the day’s clothes inside a long white thorthu (towel). Together, entire families would walk a kilometre towards the Maaram kolam, a community pond. The baths were a pure joy, clothes being washed to rhythmic beatings on the black stone steps, everyone competing on who could jump the highest and swim the farthest.
The nights too were legendary. It always ended travelling to Thangaraj Cinema or Ootra to watch Malayalam actors, with thick moustaches, romancing beautiful women, who always walked with an umbrella and handbag. While we all travelled in buses, we had to walk back at 10 in the night, a distance of 8 km. The last state bus plied at 8 pm, with no regard for our cultural jaunts. We would mimic the dialogues as we walked, trying to lighten the distance with humour.

A long way we have come from those summers. The ancestral houses have been brought down, there are bathrooms in the village, and my Ammuma and Blackie are no more.

This summer, my father spent the better part of his reading hours in Mumbai, tracking the Kerala elections and a new regime. Evenings are now spent watching Malayalam movies at our Mumbai home and marvelling at the landscape and the new conversations. The latest movie had a French-styled cafe where the actor meets the girl and even offers her a red velvet cake he baked.

Our travels and destinations have changed, but every once in a while, I long for that yatra, where my father waits for a berth, my mother packs lemon rice and we travel between our houses, between Bombay and Vadavannur.

As for me, my summer was a migrant’s journey. I was looking for a patch of land that I could call home.

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