With everyone looking forward to Year 2008 I plan to take you back in time to my grandfather’s place some 45 years back. Yes, to life in a Tambram household that seems so different to the life I lead now.
“Mmmmmaaaaaa……….” Lakshmi the cow calls out almost simultaneously with the milkman’s call from the gate. It is nearing 5 o’clock in the morning and Lakshmi has sensed his presence.
My mami or mother would open the gate for him and the day has just begun.
As a child I’d try to keep off all sounds from my ears to catch a few more minutes of sleep. No way. The entire neighborhood has woken up and one has no option but to do in Rome as the Romans do. With sleepy eyes we look for the ‘Nanjangud’ tooth powder with a slightly sweet and refreshing taste and proceed to the inner courtyard or ‘mitham’ where a specific corner is marked out for the purpose. A huge brass vessel called ‘jodothavalai’ has already been properly cleaned with tamarind pulp and filled with water from the well. Till date I wonder how the ladies of the house, so methodical in their regular duties, could start the day with such energy. Between you and me, I need the coffee provided by my husband to even think of what has to be done on a particular day. I secretly hope that he sleeps an hour longer but no, the man is up at 5 in the morning and starts waking me up as if I am a school going kid who needs to get ready by 6:30 A.M. But I’ll keep that for a later post.
So, where was I?? Oh yes we were brushing our teeth with Nanjangud tooth powder and coffee is already ready. Mama would buy coffee powder, freshly ground in 250 gram packs, every alternate day so as to have fresh coffee in the morning. School going children would be given milk and my mother would begin calling out to my brothers who needed no wake up call. They would have had a bath by now and with a broad band of vibhuti smeared across their forehead have already started memorizing their tables.
“The boiler is on. Will the next one go for a bath? The water will turn cold. Don’t forget to pour a bucketful of cold water for the next person. And shove in some dried palm leaves to keep it burning.” calls my mother who has already had a bath and with a wet sari wrapped around her frail body she has started the tedious process of filling water for cooking and drinking purposes.
The motor is on, Moopachi the servant maid has arrived with her brood of school going grandchildren to assist her and our cook Narayana mama has started cooking on the firewood hearth. It is just around six in the morning and the day’s news paper has just arrived. My grandfather and the older cousins who shared his room on the first floor have arrived on the scene.
With around ten school going grandchildren vying for their slot in the bathroom my grandfather opts to bathe by the well. He washes his clothes himself. Moopachi would monitor the activities of her grandchildren treating them to a slap or two as occasion demanded. They would clean up the cowshed gathering cow dung in a bamboo basket to be made into cakes for use as fuel. They would then soak the vessels in water after having emptied the left over food in vessels of their own and take care of the sweeping and swabbing of the house. Moopachi would wash the portico and the pathway leading to the gate and finally sprinkle a generous mixture of dung and water at the gateway and finally call out to one of us to adorn it with a massive rangoli to welcome goddess Lakshmi into the house. We dared not disobey her or delay our response. She had as much authority over us as with her grandkids.
“Which mother in law is going to put up with your lazy ways?” she’d demand. “A little house work will not harm you.”
Since I’d be there on a vacation from school or college I’d be regularly treated to a piece of her mind. She would expect me to help her with washing clothes and send me to supervise the granddaughter who swept the rooms in the first floor. I felt that my brothers and the other boys had an easy time at her hands for they were never assigned chores. She’d wash vessels and spread them out in the sun, brass vessels sparkling like gold and steel ware would appear as though they were up for sale. Clothes would be dried out without a crease and her grandchildren would breakfast on left over food before leaving for school. Such was her loyalty and managerial skills that she’d never put up with shoddy work and would make them do the work all over again if it was not done to her satisfaction.
Finally the war of words between the cook and Moopachi would begin.
“You call this coffee?? Worse than gutter water. How does he expect the children to eat this food? No taste at all. I wonder how the master manages to eat this kind of food?”
The cook would rush out ladle in hand.
“Do you think I am being paid to cook for your grandchildren? Who asks you to bring them any way? The entire family feeds on our left over food and look at their cheek. They have the audacity to criticize my culinary skills. I’ll see to it that you are thrown out.”
“We’ve been serving this family for more than forty years and you new comer ……….pooh! what would you know about our loyalty? Try filling the master’s head against me and you’d be thrown out before you know it.”
“I’ll deal with you later after the master leaves for court.” Narayan mama would finally give in.
In the meanwhile the ladies of the house would divide work among themselves. The one who bathed early would help in the kitchen and the others would get the children ready for school. The girls would line up to have their hair oiled, combed and plaited tight. The mother or aunt who sat down with oil and comb would run her fingers across the forehead of each child as a sign of blessing so it was customary for us to turn around and let them do it before getting up. Breakfast would be curd rice and pickle usually tender mangoes in salt water. I remember the principal of our school attributing the intelligence of Tambrams to the curd rice they consumed for breakfast.
Vessels washed by the servant would never be stacked without being rinsed with water filled by the lady of the house after having bathed. Her sanctity was complete only if she wore clothes hung out of reach on a wire tied to nails or hooks that almost touched the ceiling. A bamboo pole was used to dry out and/or remove clothes from their aerial position. As children we’d feel depressed at not being allowed to touch our mothers till she had recited her slokas and offered food to the Gods. This self imposed quarantine was called ‘Madi’ and my mother being a strict follower of rules would confine herself to the kitchen and pooja room till she had her food.
“May I touch you?” I’d ask even as a sixteen year old as if I wanted to sleep on her lap.
Children’s clothes washed by the servant could be dried out by her but she’d leave my mother’s clothes as well as that of my mami to be rinsed again in sanctified water and dried out by them. Initially we had to ask for water to drink because we’d never be sure as to which vessel contained water that had been used for cooking. We could not drink out of it before food had been duly offered to god. Later my mother would fill a brass pot with water and leave it in the dining area with strict instructions not to immerse spittled glasses unwashed hands into it. We older ones were expected to take care of these things. In my enthusiasm to learn to cook I sometimes offered to relieve my mother or mami of duties in the kitchen after Narayan Mama passed away and the family decided not to replace him. I wasn’t easy to remain confined to the kitchen for hours and I kept forgetting that even if I entered the drawing room or bedroom I was not supposed to sit on the sofa or touch bed linen.
Meals would be served at ten in the morning and tiffin at two or three in the afternoon. School going children would come home for lunch and be treated to a filling evening meal on their return. In a way there seemed to be a continuous routine being followed one merging into the other. Modern gadgets were not available and grinding, cleaning etc were done in the afternoons. Yet there was no indication that the women were over worked. Division of labor was such that they took turns to relax. They would do embroidery work, prepare papad/vadams pickles and still have time for an occasional social visit. Lessons of adjustment and peaceful co existence were easily imbibed and the journey to an independent existence had already begun albeit in an insignificant manner.
True, demands of society vary with time and all this may not make sense in the 21st century but a glimpse into my past has rekindled fond memories and makes me wish to go back in time. If only that were possible……..