Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Flavour of a New Year

Also on OS.

This year, I am told, the Tamil New Year is on the 13th of April. On Sunday, for the first time in nearly a decade, I will be consulting my recipe book because I need to know how to make the New Year pachidi that I have never made before. My recipe book is no ordinary one; it is a Mahabharata diary. That is to say, every page of the 1991 diary has a small story at the bottom with a line drawing or two. My mother used this diary – a few pages of it – at a rather fraught time in her own life, but abandoned her entries some time in April – around New Year, in fact.
Ingredients: 1 raw mango, peeled.
1 cup jaggery
2 sprigs of neem flowers
Mustard seeds, red chilly, haldi and salt for seasoning.
When I got married, my mother, worried that I would never learn to cook South Indian food, wrote out some simple recipes for me, starting with a few different kinds of payasam, some everyday stuff and other more complex recipes that involved elaborate preparations. In the last year or so, she has started to write out recipes for special occasions – Pongal, Rama Navami, New Year, Janmashtami, Adi Padhinettu, Deepavali. When I was married, she tactfully refrained from asking me if I ever made any of the things in the book, but when I returned home a few years ago, she was somewhat reassured by my ability to at least make sambar and rasam.
Women of my mother’s generation never had recipes written down for them. They learned in the company of their mothers, assisting them, helping out with small tasks and eventually graduating to the big stuff. Cooking was always a communal activity – especially during festivals when, for days, the most elaborate meals were prepared.
But my mother moved away when she married. Even a move to a neighbouring state can be a kind of exile: a different language, different films, different ways of dressing, different customs. And most especially, different food. Things that were everyday items on the plate became exotic and rarely found: banana stem, certain kinds of greens, shallots, even white pumpkin, which, in this other place, people only used to ward off the evil eye.
Peel and cut the mango into thin slivers. Boil in a little water with salt and a pinch of manjapodi. After the mango is cooked, add powdered jaggery. Let it boil for five minutes. Add rice flour mixed in water to thicken.
In time, my mother’s connections to her homeland withered. She hadn’t seen a Tamil film in decades; she could barely understand the Tamil in the magazines – she, who had studied in a school where the medium of education was Tamil. She hardly ever watched the Tamil channels on television because everything was becoming more unfamiliar with each passing year. Our own language was restricted by the limited use we made of it in our day to day functioning. If there was a reason any more to describe ourselves in a way that would be familiar to others in another state that seemed immeasurably far away, it was because of our food, its seasonal variations and celebrations.
Season the pachidi with mustard seeds, one red chilly and fresh neem flowers. The pachidi denotes that life is a mixure of flavours, so use the ingredients carefully. (Sometimes it turns out downright bitter, but may yet be medicinal and therapeutic!)
But this is all I have known. My life has always been circumscribed by this limited vocabulary, these few words of Tamil that I can read in my recipe book, the Murugan calendar that one tears off one page at a time and which gives my parents all kinds of arcane information, these forms of ritual that have no greater significance for me. It has always been enough. I’ve never known anything else so I’ve never felt the deep sense of dislocation that my parents sometimes feel.
It used to be that when my mother wanted my help with some elaborate preparation, I used to have a regulation fight that was as formal in its structure as any festival. Now, I watch her as she takes out the Mahabharata book after every festival and writes out recipes. And I realise how important this is for her. This is her instinct for preservation, this need to record what has surely already passed in her own lifetime. It is only through the blueprint contained in this book that I can lay claim in a small way to the picnics she must have had on Surplus, along the Mettur Dam. It is through the code of the recipes that I can infer the stories that stand like shadows at the margins of the page.
The book already contains so many stories: my mother’s own account of events nearly fifteen years ago and the stories from the Mahabharata. The page which holds the recipe for the New Year pachidi tells a story of the Pandavas in their exile, when Bhima kills Hidimbo and marries his sister. It seems like a curiously apt story to accompany the recipe, indicating as it does endings and beginnings, and auspicious occasions in the midst of travails.
On Sunday, because my mother is away, I will make the pachidi and payasam though I will leave out the vadai as being outside the limits of the effort I am willing to make. As I am making all of it, I will spend a little time considering whether I take these rituals of food for granted and what, if anything, its loss will mean to me.


MinCat said...

but havent you HEARD??? i was DEVASTATED! apparently varsha poruppu is now on PONGAL! ONE LESS FOOD FESTIVAL!!!! the bloody DMK!

luck with the food though! i have deicded to demand my food and rebel too. heh.

sumana001 said...

Beautiful post, Sridala!
I loved the interweaving of the two narratives – both quotations, one from the pages of a mother’s diary, the other from memory, both imbued, strangely, with the sense of “loss” with which the quotations close. (Also, the “Mahabharata diary”, immediately, brought to mind the story of another woman, who was capable of feeding a god with a grain of rice – Draupadi!)
Your (radiantly awkward) self-deprecating tone makes it clear to me, perhaps once again, that if there really is a mother-land, it is the kitchen, to which we return time and again, most often in imagined journeys, whether at ‘home’ or away from it. It is the tongue, then, on which history is built, and it is the tales of the tongue, too, which become sites of public consumption, in narratives we can only euphemistically call ‘food history’?
Lovely post!

Veena said...

For a moment there I thought you were going for the "nostalgia for things that never were" angle and was getting a little worried. Should have a little more faith, I guess :)

Btw, weren't you supposed to do a post on the evocation of redolent mornings and all that jazz? Whatever happened to that?

equivocal said...

What a lovely essay. Makes me ever jealous of that ancient, collaborative recipe sharing tradition (and its modern incarnation) that you women have going...

equivocal said...

I regret falling into the use of the word "lovely" above, though it is also that. I meant, in addition, "brilliant".

dipali said...

This was so moving, Space Bar.
Truly, 'the past is a foreign country'.

Cheshire Cat said...

Mmmm, the New Year pachidi. Must you torture us?

P.S. I love how "manjapodi" is used instead of "turmeric". Thus, we adhere to our roots, by their finest threads.

Also, I've never understood why exactly the most delicious preparations, such as maambazha pachidi and paanagam, are reserved for rare occasions. It might have made sense in "olden" times, when resources were scarce, but now? Sheer perversity.

km said...

The past is a foreign country and they don't hand out visas.

Space Bar said...

Mincat: Oh well, I'm not sure anyone's paying any attention to that. All Manga Pachidis happening today.

Sumana: Thanks. And good to see you re-emerge!

Veena: Oh ye of little faith! What redolent mornings? I don't remember but then I promise so many posts that I never write...

Equivocal: Thanks. And at the risk of taking this back to other discussions, imagine what would happen to us all if we didn't collaborate on food.

Dipali: Thanks. And like km says...

Cheshire Cat: What's more, it was written in Tamil. Like I said, the few words I can read are those I find in recipe books.

Oh, and tomorrow being Rama Navami, there's panagam and neer mor. Eat your heart out!

km: That accounts for why there are so many illegal aliens around.

Happy New Year, all!

Banno said...

Happy New Year to you too! I loved this piece, it combined all my favourite things, food, the kitchen, mothers, daughters, stories, memories, loss.

SUR NOTES said...

beautiful post spacebar.
have read it thrice today...and still dont know what more to say other than- beautiful post.

swar said... is marvellous how things never turn maudlin in your hands.

Extempore said...

A simply gorgeous post - rich and delicious. Sigh... I wish I'd been invited to a New Year's meal, esp given that I'm in Madras right now! :-)

Space Bar said...

banno, sur, swar, extempore: thanks.

swar: overwhelmed! :D

extempore: why weren't you?! you shoulda invited yourself.

neha vish said...

Such a beautiful post. I got all misty eyed and went and made pongal. It's what my mother makes for me every "homecoming".

Jabberwock said...

Nice. This is the same diary you mentioned in the comments to my diary post, right? Also, I think any Bhima story would make an apt accompaniment for a recipe.

Space Bar said...

Neha: Hey there! Pongal on New Year? :D But homecomings are different. When I used to come back home for vacations my mum made everything I liked even if it was out of season, the wrong festival, no festival (you listening, cat?)

J'wock: No no...those were my grandfather's diaries. It seems to run in the family. And yes, Bhima and food kinda go together, no?

??! said...

you know what I forgot to do while I was in India? Hunt down a copy of your poem-book and buy one. Gah.

Lovely piece this.

Space Bar said...

??!: (if you're still checking this post), afraid you wouldn't have got a copy even had you looked. Not unless you had hiked to the Maharashtra Granth Sangrahalaya in Dadar. They're only available in the Sahitya Akademi outlets. Don't ask. Oh well.

??! said...

I suspected as much. Although I was in the vicinity, so that makes it worse. Sowwwy.

And I always check up on open comments.

tangled said...

This year was actually the year that my mum handed over the making-of-auspicious dishes to my sister and me. :) Very heartwarming 'twas.

Space Bar said...

tangled: heartwarming, yes, how did it turn out but?!

tangled said...

Erm. I know this confession will lower me in the eyes of a million people world-wide, but -
I don't like maangai pachidi.

My sister said it turned out very well, though. :)