Memory Trigger 20. Oil Bath.

In my community of Tamil Brahmins, the deepavali day starts with the lady of the house applying oil on the head of all members of the family. Everyone then goes to take a bath and comes out to partake in the festivities that would follow.

My late mother used to do this for us when we were children and after we grew up whenever she was with one of us, she would do the same. The last time that she did it for me was in 1998, the year before she bid us all goodbye.

During the mid seventies, I was posted to a company gated community where some young Management Trainees were housed in Bachelor Quarters and the ones from Tamil Nadu used to spend a lot of time in our home as ours was one of the two Tamilian homes in the compound.

One such bachelor of those days, parted company with my then employer in 1982 and dropped out of sight. Before that, I had visited him during a vacation at his home to meet his parents and have very happy memories of that visit when I was extended an amazing hospitality and gifted with a reed mat by his father which lasted for over forty years.

This friend from those days, suddenly rang me up last week after having obtained my telephone number through a very circuitous but persistent effort and threw me for a literal toss! After having caught up with all that had happened since then in our lives, we asked about verious people of mututal acquaintance.

Hearing from him after 35 years was an amazing experience and both of us went on a nostalgia trip talking about our days at the compound. He particularly remembered the two occasions when he had the privilege of getting oil applied on his head by my mother and spending Deepavali with us at home enjoying the goodies throughout the day.

Just another story to bring back old memories and regrets? No, the punchline is in the friend’s name. Mohammed Iqbal.

A First After 25 Years.

I have lived in Pune for near a quarter century and have been invited to a number of weddings, receptions, and other functions.  I have mostly sent my regret letters because I try and avoid crowds and because I am nervous about inadequate seating arrangements in public places.

Without exception, the invitations would be in English or in Marathi.  For the first time ever however, three weeks ago, I received an invitation in the traditional Tambram Tamil in the following format.


I was thrilled to receive this particularly since this was for the upanayanam ceremony for two young lads. Most young Tambrams have now stopped this initiation ceremony for their sons and to get an invitation sent my pride soaring that there are still some left who follow our traditions.

The invitation was sent by the elders in the family of a young lady alumnus from the Pune chapter, who has recently successfully published a novel and someone that all of us Alumni in Pune are very proud of. I promptly wrote to her to confirm that I will attend the upanayanam and made a particular point of informing her that I was happy to receive the traditional invitation.

I duly attended the function last Friday morning and became quite sentimental seeing the full ceremony which took me back to my own upanayanam ceremony in 1957. The same rituals and dodas brought back so many memories for me. The function was organised very well and the conducting priest knew his job well and I had a grand time attending the function and meeting some new Tambrams of Pune as well.

Here is a photograph of the lady in our traditional nine yard madisaru sari standing in attendance while one of the lads and the father sitting and performing the rites can be seen.   You can click on the image to get a larger resolution.  What is remarkable about this is that the lady is not a Tambram but has married into a Tambram family and has adapted herself to it so well that it was a treat for me to see her performing all the roles that this rite calls for from the mother.

The Papad And The Pickle.

pappadamThe Brits know it as Poppadum. Pappadum is a Malayalam word for the same food item with a unique local taste to it and it is inevitably deep fried in oil.  In Kerala, it is inevitably fried in coconut oil which gives it a local flavour whereas the same fried in other oils also serve the purpose well.  In the homes of relatives from  my maternal side, this is what we got as children and would fight over for extra portions.

appalam In the homes of my relatives from my paternal side, we got fried appalams, not quite as tasty as the pappadums but very much in demand nevertheless. The pleasure of getting full round ones and then breaking them into pieces to be mixed with other rice combination dishes is worth dying for.  Or should I say, living for?

roasted papad

What you get in most Tandoori restaurants however is a larger version of a similar concoction with powdered pepper giving it a special flavour. It is usually roasted over a fire before serving, and can also very successfully be roasted in a microwave oven.  This is what I have mostly in my own home now as I developed a taste for it having lived almost all my life in the Northern parts of our country.

Vadu MangaiLike the varieties of papads, the range of pickles that you can get across the country is simply mind blowing and for me right on top in terms of choice is what we call Vadu Mangai pickle. This is common to both my maternal and paternal heritage and both sides relish this. I still remember my childhood summer days when ladies of the household would shop for these special unripe mangoes to pickle for the rest of the year. My sister has just sent me a bottle with Ranjan and the packing itself deserves a Nobel prize.

Spicy Mango Pickle04 Another mango variety used to make pickles is the avakkai which is stronger with red chillies being the most important ingredient but more popular in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh than anywhere else, though the commercial varieties are now available all over the country to satisfy the diaspora.

By now, you would have come to the conclusion that I am very fond of both the papads and the pickles and you are right. I love to have them with my lunch and these are always available at home for not only me but also for all guests who care to take off into orbit.

I have however taken a lot of pains to write this blog post to inform those of my friends who have always thought that I was nuts to have these two elements in my food without fail, that there is a sound medical reason for their popularity. “Papad works as a digestive; pickle works as a therapeutic culture of gut-friendly bacteria and both are super yummy. They are part of a wholesome meal and if you learnt the art of making them from your granny, you would also know the right way (proportion and quant­ity) to eat them.” I know how to make both, but have not made in decades simply because excellent quality homemade varieties are available in all food stores all over the country.

Don’t believe me? Just read what Rutuja Diwekar has to say about these two wonderful inventions.

Chennai, Madras And A Bookshop.

I was born in Bombay now known as Mumbai but after my younger brother Arvind was born a year later, our family moved to Madras now known as Chennai. Though my family moved back to Bombay for a little over a year when I was in Fourth Standard, I was left behind in Madras with my uncle to study there. Till I finished school in 1958 I therefore lived in Madras during my formative years and though I moved to Hyderabad I returned to Madras again for a few years till I left for good in 1965. I have never lived there since then, but have been visiting regularly almost every year and on some occasions more times too.

I have family and very dear friends who live in Madras and I enjoy going there. I always return with my battery fully charged, though I really wonder if something like air conditioning the whole city cannot be undertaken for that beautiful city.

Madras was established way back in 1639 and Madras now Chennai is right now celebrating its 375th birth year with a great many events taking place there.

My post is however to talk about something else altogether. When I was there for a few days last month, I bought myself a book at the airport on my way back based on a recommendation made by my nephew Jai. Here is an extract from that book. The context is the Chola Empire which can authoritatively be dated back to 300 BCE and which lasted till 1300 CE.

“…..The Greeks referred to the region as Damirica, possibly a corruption of the word Thamizhakam – abode of the Tamils – and had some interesting notions about South Indians. The great Herodotus had this to say about them;

These Indians whom I have described have intercourse openly like cattle; they are all black-skinned, like the Ethiopians. Their semen too, which they ejaculate into the women is not white like other men’s, but black like their skin, and resembles in this respect that of the Ethiopians. These Indians dwell far away from the Persians southwards, and were not subjects of King Darius.

How utterly inaccurate. As any resident of the region will tell you, intercourse is not only rare but almost universally forbidden across most South India. Instead, locals are encouraged to spend their time in prayers and IIT coaching. ………”

Fantastic. I love the writer’s sense of humour.

Apart from thoroughly enjoying reading the book, the name of the book shop at the airport took me down on another long nostalgia trip.

Can you imagine the fun this name would have generated for generations of Madrasis? This was Mecca for all book lovers of Madras when we were young and Higginbothams had branches in all railway stations in the South where the only entertainment that travellers like me had was available in the widest possible selection. To buy a book from another Higginbothams branch was like icing on the cake to round off a great visit to the city that I still like to call Madras.

Before I leave my readers, here is a recommendation to my Indian readers. Please get a copy of the book The Sceptical Patriot by Sidin Vadukut and read it. I would rate it among the best that I have read on India. Since I liked his writing style so much, I have also bought his three fiction books for my Kindle. The reviews are good enough for me to indulge!

The Post.

I rarely get letters and those that do find me are usually appeals for funds or circulars and of course the appeal for votes from candidates for various elected bodies with which I am connected like my clubs and some societies.

So, I was quite intrigued to find this ancient symbol of Indian Posts, a postcard in my mailbox.

The interesting aspect of this postcard is that it is unaddressed, so someone must have come over to drop it in my mail box. I suspect that it is one of the two postmen who have been delivering mail to our place for the past almost quarter century and who I get to meet only when I get a Registered Mail or a Speed Post but most certainly every Diwali.  I wonder if the Post Office has decided to use this as a marketing gimmick!

I wonder if this has been dropped in every mailbox in our part of the world or whether whoever dropped it has been more selective. I wonder because I decided to accede to the request to watch whatever it was that “Ippadikku” would show me. That word is in Tamil and that was why I was intrigued.

When I went to the site I found that it led me to this Youtube clip.

Now I am more intrigued because the clip shows Pune and some shots of its life, and three characters who speak English, Hindi and Thamizh, the last being my mother tongue just like in my home. The odds that my mailbox was selected for this particular qualification is so low that it must be the greatest coincidence ever!

A nice mystery to be solved and I shall now wear my Sherlock Holmes hat and go looking for Dr. Watson to assist me.