Monday, December 31, 2007

Going back in time - Happy New year all the same!

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……..


Serendipity said...

Aww such a sweet story HHG , I pictured everything , the people and the conversation :)

Happy New year HHG , have a great year and heres wishing all the joy and happiness in the world :)

rajk said...

That was a wonderful post. Though I personally don't believe in Madi etc., having seen the negative side of it, but yes, there were a lot of good things in those days..It seems impossible to go back to those ways, doesn't it?

Hip Grandma said...

serendipity:Thanks and wish you and your family the same.

rajk:I used to feel annoyed as a child when my mother adhered to Tambram rule of 'madi'.But I do understand that the discipline it impied had its merittho'i wouldn't want to practise it because it is not feasible any more.What amazes me is that none of the ladies had any problem New Year.

Vishesh said...

lol....i have seen parts of those things too....fortunately in my house my parents aren't so "acharam"....

Mahadevan said...

The taste of Nangud tooth power (unlike the Monkey brand one), 'jodothuvalai',and cook 'Narayana Mama' certainly takes us back to forty years. How pleasant it would be to relive those days!So long us we have the memory to relive the pleasant past and the abilty to dream about the future, the present life would be meaningful.

Wishing you a Happy New Year.

Unknown said...

Such a vivid and beautiful post HHG. Do pen down all your memories in this manner . Lovely .

Squiggles Mom said...

That was a blast from the past. I enjoyed reading that. Happy New Year!

aMus said...

you brought so many memories rushing parents come from villages near mangalore and i was regularly taken there durng vacations to get a feel of life ther...

the 'madi' was a tough pill to swallow and i remember my mother panicking that i would defile someone by touching...

this was a 'wonderful post and a great read to start the new year with...:)

Wishing you a great year ahead and looking forward to reading more of your inspiration filled posts

Anonymous said...

wow. lovely piece. it reminded me so much of my mom's stories about her childhood - the strong sense of community, orderly life... it must have been tough for the misfits though...(the few there were in those days)

Usha said...

You took me back to my life as a young girl. I am copying this so my grandchildren know what our lives were like. :)
Hope there is more on the way.

Lavs said...

Wish you and your family a very Happy and Prosperous New Year.

Madhumita said...

Lovely post. So much has changed now - and its not all for the better. But a very Happy New Year to you ... hope you get your extra 40 winks everyday this year.

Hip Grandma said...

vishesh:acharam and anushtanam actually mean restriction and discipline.there has to be a disciplining influence at every step of one's life although the method may vary from time to time.

mahadevan:at our age we have a past to mull on and a future to look forward to.aren't we lucky?Happy New year to you too.

eve's lungs:I think I will add a few more experiences of a tambram existence based on what life was for me as a child.

squiggles mom:welcome here and thanks a lot.Happy new year to you too.

thinking aloud:you are mother did the same when we shifted bases from north India.The first thing she taught us was to pour water directly into our mouths without actually sipping it from a glass.she was afraid that we'd be criticized for not mastering the art.

apu:every susequent generation has challenged the rule imposed by the previous one and we were no exception.only thing we were less vocal and muttered under our breath most of the time.

usha:priya had told me once to record bits of my past for future generations to read.I was putting it off but now I feel that it is not such a bad idea.

lavs:same to you too.

madhumita:I agree that changes do take place and not all are for society's benefit but are inevitable.You must have guessed that I tend to pull my hubs legs every now and then.It is the energy tonic that sustains me.

Anonymous said...

Happy New Year! You've set such a beautiful tone for 2008 with this post.

Some of us have not been privy to these traditions, so it's nice to be able to read about them and imagine what that time must have been like. Your description of your grandfather's house is just the way I remember my grandpa's place in Kerala.

Jaya said...

Nice post HHG. You are very true about how much work used to be accomplished without anyone getting over burdened. I have seen village/small town life for a day or two till now. It has always been slow paced. So somehow, I used to get a feeling that even after all the grinding and cooking and washing and cleaning, there was still time left. Though I know it is the same 24 hrs in a bigger city, which seems to pass in a wink. Wish you and your family a fantastic 2008!

kurrodu said...

Your vivid description is so photographic. I could relate to lakshmi, moopachi and narayana maama esp. the fight between the two.. lol. Pls do share more of your experiences. Madi sampradayam was sthg that I never knew before. Did you ever accidentally touch your mom before she finished the ritual? What will she do then?

Sumana said...

I belong to one of such families and i know how work gets done in the same way till date. i am talking about my village in Karnataka. The orderly methodical and simple ways of doing stuff, wow they were the managers themselves.
Thanks for reviving it.

Preethi said...

very nicely narrated.. i loved reading it.. and it took me back to my grandfathers house in a little town called Srivilliputhur in south India.. though, there werent these many rules... the setting was probably very alike..
Also brought back memories of when I started working.. I lived with my maternal grandparents for almost 1 year.. and my grandmom believed in "madi" during my periods!! It irritated the hell out of me.. and I was always raving and ranting about it.. :P

Anonymous said...

This was a beautiful post...

I am a regular visitor of your blog...
this blog made me delurk.....

It reminds me so much of my grand mother's madi and aacharam...

Happy new year!!

Anonymous said...

Lovely post. It perfectly captures how life would have been a generation ago.

Wish you a happy new year!

Sango said...

First of all a Very happy new year to you HHG.. :-)
Wonderful Post! Took me back to my childhood.. I just got reminded of an incident when mom had scolded me for something and i ran and hugged my grandmom who was 'madi'.. Were it someone else, there would've been so much of a chaos.. but she hugged and carried me and listened to my complaints against mom! :)
By the way, She did take bath once again though cuz her 'madi' was gone.. :-)

IBH said...

Such a lovely post HHG....first time here...and am i glad i found u or what....i hail from a tambram family that is very orthodox and we all lived in an agraharam hou8se before i moved to luck may have it i was one and only grand daughter of the house who attended her puberty in that house :)( coz i remember sleeping in a small room in the kollai area and for me to come to the rezhi was to walk an entire street to reach the front of the house or the 'rezhi'....ur post is nostalgic HHG as my childhood days were in an orthodox tambram family from madurai..lovely post again

Hip Grandma said...

chakli:Life in ancestral homes would be pretty much the same whether it is Kerala,karnataka, Andhra or anywhere in the north.The problem these days is that g'parents have lost touch with their native villages so the new generation of grandkids have missed out on the fun of converging in a rural set up.I feel soooo sad for my grand daughters

joy:There are definitely merits in the joint family system where there was someone to take over from where one left.We seem to have no time these days because there is no one to pitch in and help.Happy New year to you too.

kurrodu:I somehow thought that you would definitely relate to the description of a typical home in a small town in rural settings.As
for my mother, if we accidentally touched her,she'd bathe again if it was a special day of the week for instance Saturday for Balaji Bhagawan and Tuesdays for Lord Karthik or if it was an Amavasya,Ekadasi or a festival.This means that at least 20 days per month were special.On other days she'd let us off with a mild rebuke.

sumana:There is really much good in the discipline maintained in the name of customs and practises whatever the community one belongs to.But every rule also invites and involves breaking it by those at the receiving mother managed to follow her set of rules for quite sometime thanks to my sisters in law who adjusted to her ways despite flouting some here and there without her knowledge.

preethi:Srivilliputhur is a lovely place I hear.Those days the routine in tambram households were pretty much the same and the 'thollai' elders gave us during 'those' days was enough to put any one off1

sumitra:Welcome here for more comments.They sustain me and drive away the loneliness that manages to creep in after my children flew the nest.

lekhni:your reference in desipundit had found me new readers.Thanks and a happy year 2008

sango:very sweet of your grandma.Mine would start yelling even if i had the remotest chance of touching the edge of her saree.Happy new year to you too.

ibh:welcome here and how did you find me?i can completely relate to the pathetic treatment one received during 'those three days'.That is one thing about my childhood I'd rather not remember.

neha vish said...

Such a lovely post. Though it makes me realize that I have a much easier life than women a generation or more back. But some habits die hard - I still can't sleep in beyond 7 AM. And can't drink "weak" coffee. :)

The Reading Corner said...

grat a book!! enjoyed it

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Brilliant. This one's a keeper.


Hip Grandma said...

neha;welcome here.yes we do have an easier life compared to the homemakers of the 1950-60 but then the demands of society was not so hectic.If one practised 'madi' these days the husband and children would have to leave home without breakfast.

ITW:glad you liked it.

J.A.P.:welcome here and thanks.i feel very encouraged.

Prats said...

Surprisingly, such traditions exist even today. At my Father in laws' parental home...its very strong, though none of the residents there can even remember what each item in the house is meant for..but who are we to change their ways, so we just follow their customs.

You've brought back the past and filled us in with so many detailing....could imagine the courtyard style houses, the water filled vessels, gleaming in the sunlight..but they had more energy, compared to us. It was their attitude towards relationships, I guess. And like you said, my brains don't start functioning till the Tea starts flowing down my throat.

Unknown said...

A ps tp my earlier comment - my ma in law , who is considerably more progressive than a lot more in her very orthodox Bengali Brahmin family , nevertheless practices what you call "madi" - not touching allowing anyone to touch her for fear of defilement between her bath and her puja .

Hip Grandma said...

Traditions were earlier meant to divide work among family members and to rotate duties among them.Later it became a way of establishing one's superiorityand adopting a rigid attitude added fuel to fire.The three days of isolation during periods was practised with vehemence by ladies who ought to have been more understanding.The actual purpose of starting it was different.But one behaved as if it was sinful or something equally bad.I hear that this was practised in muslim communities too.I wonder if it could be confirmed.

eve's lung:That was useful information and yes,I've also heard my friend's mother an elderly Bihari brahmin woman asking her grand daughter not to touch her as she had not finished saying her prayers.I think the whole of India practised it and we south Indians took a longer time to let go.

Jayashree said...

Very nicely written.....I've read your blog from time to time but this is the first time iam commenting here.

Hip Grandma said...

Jayashree:Welcome here and do put in your views.They provide encouragement.

Jam said...

Hey there,

Coming from a TamBrahm family myself, I probably could relate to all the events on this post. Although I haven't been part of it myself, coz my Dad moved out into a Nuclear Family immediately after his wedding, I've heard similar stories from his childhood days.

This is vintage Malgudi Days all over again. Sheer brilliance, this post, it's amazing how your words conjure up such brilliant images in my head.


dipali said...

Wonderful post! Really evocative.Many communities practised some form or other of 'madi'. Even in UP families whoever was in charge of cooking would wear a sari that was 'sky dried'(they would normally spread starched cotton sarees on the ground, but for these a special line was used) and wooden slippers (kharaoon).Since meals were usually served hot in the kitchen, there was a line which the diner was not allowed to cross- the person serving would also ensure that her serving spoon never touched a 'joothha' thaali. Water was drunk the way you describe coffee being drunk- without the lips touching the cup/glass.
I'm glad we don't follow all these practices today, but...people seem to wash their hands a lt less these days. (Or is it just boys, or have I morphed into my mother?)

Hip Grandma said...

Jam:welcome here.Men normally have it easy.It is the young girls in a rebellious mood that have a tough time at the hands of their mothers who feel that their girls need to be properly trained to fit into the set up of their new homes.-(BTw it is an honor to be compared to the legendary R.K.Narayan.I hope he doesn't take offence in heaven.Jokes apart I love his narrative style and his way of making simple everyday events sound special.

Dipali:'people seem to wash their hands a lt less these days.' is what you say.I feel they don't wash their hands at all.They use spoons or paper tissues when they eat with their hands.Also we've started eating in front of the TV holding the plate in one's hand and using the left hand to scoop out food.Yes we have metermophosed not into our mothers but grandmothers!