Paru mami of my village was, to quote a Hindi saying, Garib ki Joru, Sab ki Bhabhi – poor man’s wife, everybody’s sister-in-law.

Her husband Nanu Jyosyar’s income as an elementary school teacher was insufficient to feed the family of five daughters and one son. The surname Jyosyar, astrologer, referred to the family’s age-old profession which ended with his father. Nanu Mama had no clue whatsoever of astrology – otherwise he would have supplemented his income to make up the shortfall.

Consequently, the family was often in arrears on rent for the house they lived in. The owner, also a resident of the village, didn’t evict them on sheer humanitarian grounds, and compromised collecting rent in bits and pieces.

Wives and mothers in other houses in the village mitigated Paru Mami’s misery to the extent their own situation permitted, ensuring simultaneously that Paru Mami’s dignity was preserved. Whenever there was any family function, the lady of the house would request for Paru Mami’s assistance.

On such occasions, instead of telling Mami to bring all her children for lunch and giving her the feeling that such an invitation was being extended more to alleviate her suffering, the lady of the house would gently come up with a request: “Ha Paru, can I also request that your daughters give me a helping hand to cut vegetables, grind different pastes, pound spices, or fetch water from the well? And, ah, in between their tasks, please tell them not to rush home to prepare meals; prevail upon them to join us.”

This was the most honourable method the elderly ladies deployed to save Paru Mami from having to light the hearth at home. As for Mami’s husband, the ladies made sure to pack enough – for dinner too – on such occasions. Four or five functions a month gave Mami some respite.

As children, this gesture, when it occurred in our house, did cut into our own quota of Appam, Vadai, or Payasam. But, for some strange reason we felt elated watching Mami’s children having a rightfully earned hearty meal along with us.

Most houses also sought Mami’s services for the annual pickle event – mango, lime, naarthankai (dried lime), or veppala katti. And every lady relied on Mami’s hand to add the final heap of salt and spice for two reasons. First, she moderated the quantities of spices depending on the blood pressure level, or ulcer or other problems plaguing members of the house in question.

Second, the ladies believed that under any other hand the pickle would get sour and develop fungus sooner than later. At the end of her labour, Mami would be gifted with a bottle of the prepared product, and sometimes betal leaves, aricanut, haldi-kumkum and a blouse piece, and money.

Thus, Mami had a good collection of pickles on hand at any given time. Sometimes driven to despair the family made do with a bare minimum meal – rice, and thin buttermilk. On these occasions Mami made up for the absence of a full course with an offer to her children to choose their own pickle: Karikkar Mami’s mango pickle; Karimasseri Mami’s lime pickle; or Kolathu Mami’s kadugu mangai (whole mango pickle). This effort to divert her children often worked – the children forgot what was missing on their plates in their eagerness to grab the pickle of their choice.

The visit of a son or daughter from Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta or Madras on a holiday was an annual or biennial occurrence in most households. It was a custom that when they returned the mothers packed them a tin of savoury – murukku, thattai, ribbon pakoda, or thenkozal – and some sweets: laddu or Mysorepak. Mami would be commissioned to prepare these snacks.

Mami’s murukku chuttal, the art of maneuvering the raw paste into twisted rounds of five and seven circles was as perfect as Picasso’s symmetrical rounds. She was best in the village, if not in the town.

However, it must be admitted that her Mysorepak didn’t stand by her always. It would be a trial-and-error despite her years of experience. This however is not to suggest that on the not so successful occasions the product turned so bad as to be fit only as glue for Navaratri Kolu decoration. It could be eaten – at best under a new name.

Thus, Mami carried her domestic show with great aplomb and self-respect. If at any time she had to draw temporarily a measure of rice, or cooking oil, or pulses, it was just from our house – and our house only.

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While on an official visit to Kozikode decades later, I visited Mami who had moved there with her only son and his family. The five daughters were all married by then.

Two of Mami’s daughters also lived in Kozikode, one of them running a pickle business as a cottage industry. I called on her too. After offering me coffee and snacks, she said: “We hear your uncles are selling their ancestral house. I would be keen to buy it, just to perpetuate my childhood memory. Can you put in a word to them, please?” I promised to convey her wishes. Yes, at that time all members of my Thatha’s family had moved to cities, and the house was vacant, on the verge of dilapidation. My uncles were seriously thinking of selling it.

As I prepared to take leave, she asked me to wait. She went inside and returned with a shopping bag full of assorted pickles – easily 12. I had a tough time convincing her that it would be a problem for me to carry it either as a check-in luggage or as a cabin baggage.

What a wheel of time. The family that had endured hardship in the village was keen to own a house there, and we, who had nothing but pleasant memories, were trying to sever all connections.

But then that is what life is all about, I thought, as I got her to agree that I would accept just one bottle (my favourite) and headed to the airport.

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Sundaram Venkatesh

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