Paru Mami of my village was, to quote a Hindi saying, Garib ki Joru, Sab ki Bhabhi—poor man’s wife, everybody’s sister-in-law.
Her husband, Nanu Jyosyar’s income as an elementary school teacher was insufficient to feed the family of five daughters and one son. Though his surname (Jyosyar—a version of Jyothishar or astrologer) referred to the family’s age-old profession, that line of work ended with his father. Nanu Mama had no clue whatsoever of astrology; otherwise he would have supplemented his income to make up for the shortfall.
Consequently, the family was often in arrears on rent for the house they lived in. The owner, also a resident of the village, didn’t evict them on sheer humanitarian grounds, and compromised by collecting the rent in bits and pieces.
Wives and mothers in other houses in the village mitigated Paru Mami’s misery to the extent their own situation permitted, ensuring simultaneously that Paru Mami’s dignity was preserved. Whenever there was any family function, the lady of the house would request for Paru Mami’s assistance.
On such occasions, instead of telling Mami to bring all her children for lunch and giving her the feeling that such an invitation was being extended more to alleviate her suffering, the lady of the house would gently come up with a request: “Ha Paru, can I also request that your daughters give me a helping hand to cut vegetables, grind different pastes, pound spices, and fetch water from the well? And, ah, in between your tasks, please tell them not to rush home to prepare meals; prevail upon them to join us.”
This was the most honorable method the elderly ladies deployed to save Paru Mami from having to light the hearth at home. As for Mami’s husband, the ladies made sure to pack enough for his dinner on such occasions. Four or five functions a month gave Mami some respite.
As children, this gesture, when it occurred in our house, did cut into our own quota of appam, vadai, or payasam, but for some strange reason we felt elated watching Mami’s children having a rightfully earned hearty meal along with us.
Most houses also sought Mami’s services for the annual pickle event—mango, lime, naarthankai (dried lime) or veppala katti (curry leaves mixture). And every lady relied on Mami’s hand to add the final heaping of salt and spice for two reasons. First, she moderated the quantities of spices depending on the blood pressure level, or ulcer or other problems plaguing the members of the house in question. Second, the ladies believed that under any other hand the pickle would sour and develop fungus sooner than later. At the end of her labors, Mami would be gifted with a jar of the prepared product, and sometimes betel leaves, arecanut, haldi-kumkum, a blouse piece and money.
Thus, Mami had a good collection of pickles on hand. Sometimes driven to despair the family made do with a bare minimum meal—rice and thin buttermilk. On these occasions Mami made up for the absence of a full course with an offer to her children to choose their own pickle: Karikkar Mami’s mango pickle, Karimasseri Mami’s lime pickle, or Kolathu Mami’s hot kadugu mangai (whole mango pickle). This effort to divert her children often worked—they forgot what was missing on their plates in their eagerness to grab a pickle of their choice.
The visit of a son or daughter from Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta or Madras on holiday was an annual or biennial occurrence in most households. It was a custom that when they returned the mothers packed them a tin of savory—murukku, thattai, ribbon pakoda, or thenkozal and some sweets: laddu, or mysorepak. Mami would be commissioned to prepare these snacks.
Mami’s murukku chuttal, the art of maneuvering the raw rice paste into twisted rounds of five and seven circles was as perfect as Picasso’s symmetrical rounds. She was the best in the village, if not in the town.
However, it must be admitted that her mysorepak was a trial and error effort despite her years of experience. The outcome was as unpredictable as any One Day International cricket match. This however is not to suggest that on the not so successful occasions the product turned so bad as to be fit only as glue forNavaratri Kolu decorations. It could still be eaten, just under a different name.
Thus Mami carried her domestic show with great aplomb and self-respect. If at any time she had to draw temporarily a measure of rice, or cooking oil, it was just from our house—and our house only.
While on an official visit to Calicut decades later, I visited Mami who had moved there with her only son and his family. The four daughters were all married by then.
Two of Mami’s daughters also lived in Calicut, one of them running a pickle business as a cottage industry enterprise. I called on her. After offering me coffee and snacks, she said: “We hear your uncles are selling the ancestral house. I would be keen to buy it, just to perpetuate my childhood memory. Can you put in a word to them, please?” I promised to convey her wishes. Yes, at that time all members of our family had moved to cities, and the house was vacant, and on the verge of dilapidation. My uncles were seriously thinking of selling it.
As I prepared to take leave, she asked me to wait. She went inside and returned with a shopping bag full of assorted pickles—easily 12 bottles. I had a tough time convincing her that it would be a problem for me to carry it either as a check-in luggage or as cabin baggage.
I couldn’t help admire the wheel of time. The family that had endured hardship in the village were keen to own a house there, and we, who had nothing but pleasant memories, were trying to sever all connections.
But then that is what life is all about, I thought, as I packed the pickles with my clothing and headed to the airport.
V.V. Sundaram retired from a U.N. organization managing their publications programme. He taught Sales and Marketing for a book publishing course and, as a hobby contributed to Hindustan Times and Times of India.