Saturday, November 12, 2016

Bite-Sized Thoughts: Biryani

Biriyani: Indian mixed rice dish with its origins among the muslims of the Indian subcontinent. It is popular throughout the subcontinent and among the diaspora from the region. It is generally made with spices, rice and meat. Wikepedia.

I don't really remember the first biriyani I ever ate, but do remember it was contraband. I was living with my grandparents, my mum and my then-baby brother, and we had a shrine in our house. So non-vegetarian food could not be brought in. I believe it was Eid, and a lot of my grandfather's patients would offer biriyani which had to be turned away. One particular lady was especially persistent and made the smart move of appealing to the ever-hungry grandchild. I remember Karthyani, our house-help, smuggling in the large banana-leaf wrapped parcel. Gorgeous, masala-ed chicken biriyani that scented the entire room when it was opened.  And I sat in the outside kitchen and ate it. I have no idea what it tasted like. In fact, I am pretty sure it didn't taste as great as it smelled. But I still remember its orangey spiced glow in the dim light of the kerosene lamp, and the feeling of getting a very special, forbidden treat.

It was during my M.A studies that biriyani transformed from special treat to staple diet. Being in Hyderabad had something to do with it. The traditional Hyderabadi Biriyani, in my opinion, is tame and limpid in comparison to the tawny thalapakkatu biriyani of Chennai, or the bright and feisty achari biriyani of Delhi, or the deceptively delicate Malabar/ Thalassery biriyani. It was the other, more primal Hyderabadi biriyani--the kalyani-- that appealed to me. She was the raunchy, foul-mouthed, full-bodied heroine of the biriyani scene-- hot, dynamic, and usually way more than one person can handle. The proprietors of the Superstar, a local eatery, had perfected the kalyani biriyani to create an unforgettable palate experience.  Sorry for the digression, but it needed to be said. However, the best M.A biriyani memory starred a far more docile protagonist. Hyderabad House supplied a non-descript but tasty Hyderabadi biriyani. The biriyani was a gentle and comforting fare, and had rescued us from hunger on multiple occasions. You see, HH delivered affordable food long after other establishments decided to call it a day. It is one such occasion that comes to mind whenever I think of the beloved dish.

Second semester at Uni was a companionable pandemonium. For starters, the university was renovating the hostels. Consequently we were living with construction noise 24/7 and opening windows turned your living quarters into the first half of  'Interstellar'.  In a Hyderabad summer, this meant we were being baked alive in our rooms. Secondly, we thought we had finally figured out the cafeteria system, and foolishly bitten off more than we can chew. The general chaos of a full course load was heightened by one particular course 'The Early Cantos of Ezra Pound' taught by the amazing but exacting Prof.R (It literally cost a batchmate her right arm to finish the course. And she still did not receive an O grade). Those who had avoided this Scylla fell to the Charybdis of another course titled 'Aesthetics', whose succinct title should have given them a clue. In six months, we had picnicked at the edge of despair, practiced echoes in the gaping void, and had had staring matches with the abyss. And all this had made us closer. Misery loves company, after all.

During the month of the submissions, the hostel took on the appearance of a post-apocalyptic, art film.  The entire floor had taken to working in the relatively cooler corridors. Consequently, if you walked in, you would see rows of bleary eyed, haggard women hunched over laptops between piles of books and laundry wracks, stirring only to slap away mosquitoes or shoo away the errant dog. Sleep-deprivation was compounded by round the clock construction work, bloodthirsty mosquitoes, and the fevered knowledge that the deadline was fast approaching (and in some cases, too long past to pretend a technical glitch with emails). We lost track of meals, surroundings-- never time, because that slipped from between our typing fingers too quickly.

One step away from a psychotic break, someone had the sense to suggest food. By then of course the mess had shut its doors. What place would deliver at this time? Hyderabad House! Let's eat biriyani tonight! This baton of hope was passed along with the tube of odomos to each student in the corridor. Miraculously, a phone with balance, charge, and network was located! A mass order was placed and our flagging spirits gained some buoyancy. We typed furiously on our term papers counting the minutes and the word count.
No man had ever received as warm a welcome as that surprised delivery man. Cheers and cries of appreciation filled the air. The biriyani is here! The biriyani is here! As the delivery man stumbled off in a pink haze of female gratitude, we proceeded to distribute the bounty. And the unthinkable happened.
Two packets were missing.

Note to anyone who values their good health: Never enrage a hungry woman.

The miraculous phone was retrieved from where it had been tossed in happiness. Angry fingers jabbed out the number and people took turns berating/lecturing/ guilt tripping/ abusing the receiver until he finally begged them to stop so that he could deliver the biriyanis again. In a great show of solidarity, no one ate until the missing biriyanis arrived. An outsider might ask, why didn't you just share. No. There is a principal to these things. It's like the Alexander the Great and the bowl of water story. Besides, who shares biriyani, dude!

When all the parcels finally arrived, we made the delivery man wait, gave him a lecture as well and then sent him off. Biriyanis in hand, we gathered together in a reasonably cooler room, planted ourselves in whatever space was available and opened our fragrant parcels. An uncharacteristic silence fell upon the group as each of us savoured our individual treats.

Like that once upon a time biriyani, I don't remember how this one tasted either. But I remember the image of all of us sitting on the floor, shadows under our eyes, books all around and smiles on our faces. We were so happy with our small mercies.We were  so young, so ready, so sure that all it took was hard work, and that all we needed was a plate of hot food at the end of the day.

Some guy said, "In small measures life may perfect be.". I think he meant plates.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Roots and Rituals

Sifting through the past couple of entries, I realise I have been gravitating towards traditions and rituals. Which is ironic because, I am not particularly ritualistic, as my beleaguered mother-in-law will tell you. But I think it is because of this that I find it necessary to talk about the few rituals I do follow. They feel so singular. And the thing about rituals in my family is that they are largely coloured by personal preference. Consequently, the symbolic gravitas of the ritual is largely submerged in the family bonding. This is best captured in a tradition that is unique to my family-- the biannual Devi Pooja.

Twice a year, the ancestral abode hosts a two-day event of piety and devotion, which doubles as an unofficial family reunion. This tradition is close to the heart because it was my grandparents who initiated me into it. The pooja was there before them, obviously. But it was in their time that the doors were truly flung open. Everyone who could would come. It was in their time that the trust was formed to conduct the pooja.  And when they passed on, the rest of the family realised that the Pooja didn't happen just by itself. Then, of course, the whole thing became a semi-formal affair with sponsors, and a second maintenance fund, and a whole lot of paperwork. But all that doesn't stop it from having its unique brand of familial strangeness.

The pooja is technically about paying respects to the Goddess, but for us I believe it is more about paying respects to a great grandmother.
Legend has it that the earliest forbearers of the family were childless and the resident Namboothiri was in danger of being kicked out of the Menon household in favour of a more fecund gentleman(check out the Nair matriarchal system for clarifications). In desperation, the couple set out to pray for children to the benevolent Mookambika Devi and began a journey to Kollur. Given that this was 500 years ago, give or take a few decades, the trek was an arduous one, to say the least. Several miles into the journey the Mister and Missus paused in their trudge to partake of refreshments.
Look! A young girl on the wayside! Such a radiant child! She doesn't seem like an ordinary sort of girl. Hello. Oh look, you have hurt your foot! Poor dear! Where did you come from? What? You have no family? Oh you poor thing ... Wait-- perhaps you are the answer to our prayers.We have no children, why don't you come with us, little one? 
The girl murmured an assent and she was hoisted into the caravan. (This was, of course, long before randomly picking up children off the pavement became a criminal offence.)The couple returned home in high spirits. They were thrilled with their foundling. Mother and father ushered her into an antechamber, the machu,  to freshen up and went about preparing a hot meal to welcome their new daughter.
The banana leaf was laid, the payasam prepared, but the girl was yet to come out of her room.  Maybe she was feeling shy? Mother went up to her door and called out, but received no reply. Once again she called her, only to be greeted with more silence. The reticence did not seem normal. The mother entered the room and promptly fainted.
For in the place of the little girl, there now remained a short sword and shield and a long length of blood red silk.
What could this mean?
That night the Goddess appeared in the elder's dream,. She was pleased with the love that the couple had offered her in her guise of a child (pedantic aside-- 'Durga' can also mean nine year old). To reward their kindness, She declared that no woman born of the line will ever be childless, and that She will stay on in their house, fulfilling the role of their adopted family. In return, all She required was that a daughter of the house keep a lamp burning for Her. 
'Muthashi' is the malayalam word for grandmother. Muthashiyar is what my family calls the Goddess. 

The house has been around for 500 years or so. Before you archeological hair-splitters get on my case let me clarify, it has had it's fair share of renovations. It's present state is largely the work of the Madras grandfather-- the  head of the household two-three generations past. After the inevitable property divisions and such, the original ettukettu had turned into a naalukettu with a single open courtyard called the nadumittam in the middle of the house rather than two. Madras grandfather took it upon himself to rebuild the partitioned property into a habitable dwelling.
When my grandparents moved there, the house had no electricity, running water was possible only in a couple of rooms, the entrance from the road was perched at the peak of steep steep steps that no car could navigate, and a kingdom of bats ruled the mysterious attic. They poured their meagre savings and their love into making the house habitable again, and getting Muthashiyar's pooja back on the calendar. It is the pattern they put into place that is still being followed now.

The nearest family representative,  and others who can make it  earlier, arrive a day or two before the big day. To them falls the task of organising whirlwind clean up, making sure the resident civet cat (which has ousted the bats to great extent) has not strayed from it's domain in the attic, delegating the acquisition of the pooja items to the ever-smiling and hard of hearing Kanakkarai, picking up groceries and back up items for the next  three days, ordering pedestal fans for the sweltering May sessions, managing last minute repairs to the house, and clearing the yard to construct the make shift shamiana where lunch is served on the two days of Pooja.My grandparents-- grandmother in particular-- were famous for their hospitality and went out of the way to make sure anyone who attended the pooja felt welcome and well fed. (Our family believes the clearest way to make some one know they are loved is to feed them silly.)  The food was so systematically supplied that for the longest time, the attendees actually thought that their hundi donations went into the funding of the meal. In reality it was the fruit of our the hosts' painful budgeting and stringent economies. At times my grandparents had to forego food to serve the guests. Thankfully now it is taken up by another branch of the family.That said, the organisers need to eat. The uber-efficient Karthyani is a cook of superlative skill (it is ironic that the only thing she consistently fails at is coffee/tea brewing and maggi making) Under her care, we are always one step away from a food coma. Menu planning is a special part of the pooja run up.

Sleeping arrangements are another interesting quirk of the pooja process. Mattress airing (sometimes repairing) and pillow location are tasks specific to the pooja preps. Then, there is room allocation. The older people, the recently injured (yes, this is a usual category), and  little children too spooked to go upstairs, are put in the ground floor bedrooms (the ones with actual beds). The rest of the able-bodied folk fight for the privilege of sleeping on the thekinithara. Everyone loves the TT. Why? It's cool even in the most scorching summer, the open nadumittam just across guarantees ventilation. (Unfortunately, it also lets in mosquitoes, but what are tortoise coils for?) The new sons or daughters in law, and the menfolk who can climb stairs/lost out on the thekinithara are shifted to upstairs bedroom. And once the bedroomers retire, the mattresses are spread out on the TT, the lights turned off and every one lies down... and talks, and talks, and talks. By the time the talking finally moves into a symphony of snores, it is time to wake up. The bathrooms-- which are always case studies for the Law of Marginal Utility-- need to be negotiated so that everyone is bathed brushed by the time the sun is out. 

As Pooja day dawns, the first task is getting the prasasadam of  the Ganapati homam at the Kaavu near by. Meanwhile, the hanging lamps and flowers are added to the sanctum sanctorum. By 7:30-8:00 the first guests begin to arrive and the bad-tea service begins. Socialising has to be carried out while keeping an eagle eye on the door way for the arrival of the priest. This is an actual task because by the time the gentleman arrives, the house will be chock a block full of people. Once he enters the pooja is officially begun. The interim is punctuated by standard exchanges and sights like 
-Everyone telling everybody else that they have grown fatter or greyer (apparently offensive personal statements are favourite ice breakers)
-Older people accosting younger ones with demands to recall their name ("Hello XYZ! You have grown so fat! Do you know me?" *Awkward pause*)
-Young people being recruited for lamp lighting, prasadam distribution, errand running purposes,
-Little children risking death by trampling
-People getting up to date with each others lives. 
Through all of this, is the running theme of returning home to Muthashiyar.

There are three poojas per  day-- two in the morning and one at night. And each pooja's completion is signal by series of three bells. At the third bell, the devotees line up to pay their respects to the deity,  pass the camphor lamp to each other and partake of the prasadam. Disband and reassemble when the next set of bells ring, and then the big lunch with the prasadam paayasam as dessert . The family members take turns to serve each other and make sure the older people who cannot negotiate steps are served inside. There is a short lull after the lunch break where the tired nap, the reunited chatter, and the industrious infrequent visitor make quick jaunts to other places they haven't been to in ages. The organisers meanwhile take this opportunity to take stock, check finances and quickly pick up missing essentials to meet the needs or demands of the later arrivals, and arrange transport for return trips for those who need it. The evening pooja begins with the lighting of small earthen lamps all around the house to mark the Karthika star. The morning's rituals are now carried out to the background score of bhajans being sung and the chanting of the Lalitasahasranamam--The Thousand Names of the Goddess. Disbanding happens faster because there's no group dinner on offer , plus it's late and everyone wants to get home. Once this happens, we regroup, discuss the days events. We share the myriad changes in the regular pooja goers, pooja highlights and eat ourselves into a stupor. But the stupor will have to be put aside, in favour of  accounts. Expenses and donations need to be tallied, and bills organised. Inevitably we end up with a ludicrous figure that defies mathematics. Eventually we put it aside and all fall asleep. 

Day two follows the same pattern only we now include a trip to the bank to keep aside whatever was collected in the donation box in the Trusts account along with the few donations to the scrawny maintenance fund. Everyone is busy gathering phone numbers, talking about how they really have to get back, how it's such a shame the house is shut up for the rest of the year. By the end of the afternoon pooja most of the out-of-towners would have left and the evening pooja will be very sparsely attended. That evening's prayers have a quieter tone, everyone is aware that we have to leave and the talk is tinged with regret and distraction.Inevitably, it all winds down. The accounts are finally tallied. The donation and payment amounts put into their respective envelopes, the mattresses piled away. The fans returned, the cooking vessels put away, the lamps dismantled, and an unsettling, sombre quietness curls arounds the walls... the house knows it's going to be alone again, forgotten again, waiting again. 

Work's crazy! Holidays are sparse and saved for that special trip to some exotic place. The kids feel so awkward in Kerala. There is this other thing that's happening at that place. The bathrooms in the house are so old! October-November? Ooh Thanksgiving!  
Everyone's got somewhere to be. Even me. Somewhere inside me there is a nine year old girl who knows there is another unaging nine year old girl who waits in the Machu, for someone to light a lamp. And I can't face either of them. And that's why I am writing this. Muthashiyare, I miss you. I am sorry I can't be there to light you your lamp. And as I sit alone in this lonely world, I wish I could have you hold my hand across the rungs of the machu door as I have so often imagined you doing. You must feel lonely too.
But I am thinking like a mortal. God is not confined to a room. And Muthashiyar is above such pettiness. But I am glad I have a ritual that gives me a grandmother to go back to, long after my mortal one passed on. Insufferably human as it is, it makes me feel better. And I imagine that Muthashiyar , indulgent and tender, finds our games and little dramas entertaining enough to not grudge us our human fallibility. Thank you for being there.
I will come home soon.

Recommended Aside-


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KUXGRxjPNQ

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Only Seven Miles From the sun

I wanted to do a  New Year's playlist, but 2015 was too chaotic a year to deign to fit into anything as organised as a list.

In truth, 2015 wasn't the nicest year. It was a like maths problem. Technically all the numbers tally and the answer ought to be clear cut, correct even. But, if you were like me, the path to all those answers was a lot of frustration, tears and not a little heart ache. And at the end of all that effort, what you thought was the right answer was... not.
It's not easy being positive through an unreasonable year. 
2015 refused to let you figure it's rhythm-- mixing the sweet languid thumps of a jazzy blues tune with discordant dubstep, and shifting gears to smooth R'nB then jerking you into an unfamiliar reel; with every intention of making you fall in an undignified, broken heap. 
2015 turned me inside out. It broke my heart.
But it also put steel in my soul and warmth in my heart.
While kicking me around, 2015 also assuaged my fears and reaffirmed my ideals on multiple counts. I am earning, I am finding my feet, I am learning, and I am moving. 
A wise woman once told me never to give myself completely. She also observed that it is impossible to be anything other than you. In the midst of all the madness, for the first time I am truly on my side. The world is too big, too beautiful to let one weight pull you down. You learn to carry it, run with, in time forget it. And remember that there is so much more. That there is love, opportunity, hope and forgiveness. And that is, The World According to ME.
I come out of 2015 tired, but ready. Like the song goes-- The battle's almost won, we are only seven miles from the sun.
2016, let's go.