mom of all trades

mom of all trades

Friday, September 11, 2015

The memory keepers

"Has my aunt come?” she enquires. I notice a rare glint of excitement in her eyes. Trying not to show the rising panic in me, I reply in an almost bored voice, as if she has asked me what the time is. “Ammumma*, we are in Chennai, at my house, remember?

“Of course, don’t I know it” she snorts. I’m grateful for the snort, for the semblance of normalcy it helps create. She and I sit in silence, afraid to speak about that which is so apparent, that which no amount of snorts can erase.

“It’s slowly leaving me, like most of my loved ones” she says, more to herself than me. I hug her, letting her sandal infused scent permeate my senses and diffuse my despair.

Ammumma and I
I take out some photo albums from my childhood. She figures in most of them. She fingers each photo, running her fingers lovingly on the sepia toned sheets. These albums are her babies. She has painstakingly filed each and every stage of our growing up years; a true custodian of memories.

She tells me, how I used to cling to her as a little child. I tell her, I wish I still could.
I tell her, how much I loved the lovely dishes she used to cook. She tells me, she wishes she still could.

I take her hand in mine and tell her that my sister and I, are her memory keepers. We will fill in the gaps and put names to blurry faces. We will help her relive her moments of joy and grief, as long as we can. She tells me with misty eyes, that she wants to remember this moment forever.

I want to thank her, for all the lovely memories she has given my sister and me; for loving and cherishing us, as only a grandmother can. What better way to do it than by carrying on her legacy; creating and preserving memories, to last a life time. In the sieve of life, memories are all that remains in the end; the rest gets sifted out slowly, but surely.

* Ammumma: Grandmother, in my mother tongue, malayalam

Friday, July 17, 2015

To see in colour again

We meet almost every afternoon, when the unforgiving heat shrouds us like a thick blanket. He arrives before me, most of the time and would already be seated in the colorful plastic chairs lined in the school’s waiting area. Every day as soon as he sees me approaching, he gets up and offers me his chair and every day I smile at him and politely decline his offer.

We stay that way, in a state of suspended animation; two strangers with nothing in common expect the fact that we are there, to collect our respective wards, him his grandson and me, my son.
We attempt to make small talk, conscious of the silence that lies heavy between us; relieved when other parents start to file in. He is always immaculately dressed as if he has just stepped out of a corporate office, slightly stooped, a newspaper in hand and a little red phone which he looks at from time to time, fishing it out of his breast pocket in one deft movement.

 Ironically it is the insignificance of the phone, a tiny, shiny red Nokia 3330, that catches the fancy of his ‘grandparents group’. The grandparents’ group is a force to reckon with, tech savvy and boisterous. They tease him for carrying an ‘antique piece’. He tells them that it was gifted to him by his son at a time, when owning one of these was considered an extravagance, a luxury by many. But then he concedes, his son has always pampered him, smothering him with gifts and love in equal measure.

“He talks to me about things, my little one; when I tuck him into bed at night” he tells me one afternoon. Slightly amused by my expression, he explains “ever since my son, his father, passed away 5 years ago, he has been in a very delicate emotional state”.” “His mother works in a different state and visits us for festivals.”
“My little one was telling me the other day about you. The way you smiled when you spotted your son among the crowd of little boys, the way you wiped a bit of pencil lead off his face, the way you held his hand while he chattered to you about something in school.” 
"It was then I fully realized” he continues “My wife and I can only be ‘sister to the real thing’. Life is like a game of snake and ladders. I’ve slipped down to the bottom and starting over again. I have to be strict like a father, even though I’m aching to pamper him like a grandfather”
I nod, no longer bothered about the tears welling up in my eyes. “You know my son, was a doctor. He collapsed while examining patients, a massive cardiac arrest. He was all of 39. This little phone he gifted me, makes me feel connected to him”

“When he was a child” he continues, lightly touching his knee, to indicate that the child only came up to his knees; as if by telling it out loud, the child would magically appear before us. “He would always pester me to complete his work, an unfinished coloring or the last problem in the home work series. My reward would be a big kiss with a “I love you appa”.
“I tell my wife, during our moments of inconsolable grief, that he has left us his unfinished work, and as I put my grandchild to bed at the end of another long day filled with struggles, I can almost hear my son whisper ‘I love you appa”.

We sit once more side by side in a state of suspended animation, but the silence between us no longer feels heavy and I decide to do what Angela miller has so beautifully put into words.

My child died
I don’t need advice
All I need is for you to
Gently close your mouth,
Open wide your heart and
Walk with me until
I can see in color again.
                              Angela Miller (

ps: A big thanks to  uncle for letting me tell his story and being kind enough to pose for a photograph.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Double digits

I remember, that I forgot to ask the kindly doctor who helped bring you safely into this world, whether you were a boy or a girl. What I did remember to do through the thick haze of pain and drowsiness, was to count your toes and fingers; brushing my finger on your unbelievably delicate skin, which looked like gossamer silk. I remember being astounded that you were so perfect, like a work of miniature art.

I remember during open day in your kindergarten, as your class mates were collecting certificates for perfectly colored pictures and handwriting,you clutched my fingers tight, mortified that you had somehow let me down and whispered, “Are you sad amma?”

I remember that I forgot the twinge of disappointment I had felt a moment ago and whispered back, “I’m proud of you. You have started to enjoy school. The handwriting and coloring can wait” .What I will never forget, is the look of sheer joy on your face as you smiled back shyly at me.

You are now entering into the ‘double digit’ age, and soon you will be leaving your child hood behind, in a series of pictures, keepsakes and beautiful memories. With each passing year, your world will expand and I must let you fight your own battles and slip away into the side lines. Like Kahlil Gibran said, I must give you all my love, but not my thoughts, for you have your own thoughts.

Like every other mother, I think about you when you are not around. I wonder what you are doing, I worry if you are safe, I hope that you are happy..every single day. My challenge is to ensure that my affection for you acts like a catalyst for your growth ,rather than curb it.

Happy tenth birthday Kanna. Welcome to the world of double digits.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

This time,there

mom's lovely garden
25/04/15; 8:00 am: My sister and I sit in the little patio in my mother’s house, which looks out to the garden, with its emerald green grass dappled with buttery golden morning sunlight, sipping tea and chatting. Ammumma my grandmother, reads us little snippets of news from the Malayalam paper, which catches her fancy. Amma pops in to ask if she should start making dosas, and it seems to me at that moment that “God is in His heaven All’s right with the world” (Pippa’s song by Robert Browing)

02/05/2015; 11:30 am: I am seated on the wide kitchen counter biting into the sweet yet slightly tart baby mangoes, which my aunt brings for us every summer, from her garden. Our cook, who has been with us for over 30 years, is peeling the mangoes to make a ‘mambazha pulissery’* while chatting with me.He stews the peeled mangoes whole, along with a couple of slit green chillies, a pinch of turmeric which clings to his skin like gold dust and some salt. He then adds a silky paste of freshly grated coconut and some earthy cumin seeds, brings it to a boil and takes it off the heat. Then comes a splash of some whipped homemade yogurt.
 He deftly heats   up some coconut oil and splutters mustard seeds some dried red chillies and fresh curry leaves from the garden which he pours on top of the curry. I close my eyes and inhale the fragrance which permeates the kitchen as the spice infused oil hits the tangy sweet sauce and completely agree with Harriet Van Horne who said "Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all."    

15/0515; 5:00 pm: My son and nephew are engrossed in a game of cricket with their grandparents. You can hear their excited shouts all the way down the street. Someone hits a ‘sixer’ and the ball is tossed out of the compound onto the main street. A lady on the street, whose head the ball missed by a few inches, politely asks my dad if he should really be playing cricket at his age. Amma meanwhile is busy pretending to field, while trying to photograph the boys, who seem to defy gravity, as well as their their mothers'. 

Ammumma is trying to coax the tulsi plant not to wither away with water and words in equal measure. I stand apart, etching this scene into my memory, forcing my brain to take in every detail, the neon green cricket ball, the tinkle of ammuma’s bangles as she waters her plants, the look of love glazed with a tinge of pride in achan’s  eyes, when one of the boys bowls well, and I want this evening never to end.

20/052015; 9:30 pm: We are all in the bedroom, our little sanctuary from the unrelenting summer heat. The room is cool with a bed big enough for 5 people to lie down quite comfortably. My sister and I are getting our daily soap fix with big bowls of amma’s tender coconut pudding. Ammumma is on one corner of the bed, her fingers busy combing out my sisters hair. The boys are huddled together in another corner of the bed with my father enthralling them with one of his hugely popular stories and amma is blissfully asleep, curled up like a kitten. I look around the room and realize  that this is one of those rare moments where I am, exactly where I want to be.

“What would we have been doing there, at this time amma?” asks my son tears threatening to well up in his eyes, barely a day after we have returned from my mother’s place. I hold him close and whisper “we would have been creating memories, one second at a time.”  

*mambazha pulissery:

Thursday, May 14, 2015

A bit of summer, pickled and preserved

“Nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it.”
― L.M. Montgomery, The Story Girl

I am standing in the vast courtyard lined with sun warmed brick tiles, the warmth seeping into my bare feet. It is late evening and a gentle breeze tugs at my skirt, bringing with it, the unmistakable scent of mango blossoms. I am flanked on all sides, by my cousins and we are engrossed in an exciting game of ‘L O N D O N’ London. My aunt, sitting on the wide granite steps leading to the courtyard, calls out asking us to come in for our bath as dusk slowly pulls its dark, velvety cap over the twilight sky. Her hands are busy stringing tiny fragrant jasmine buds, freshly plucked from the thick jasmine bower, into pretty garlands. Later she will weave small lengths of these into our plaits so that by bed time, our hair smells of jasmine and mellow sunshine.

Kunjimalu, who seems to us as ancient as the house itself, glides across the courtyard, holding   a tiny brass lamp in her gnarled fingers, to be placed in the tiny triangular groove on the ‘tulasithara’*; a dainty ritual of officially acknowledging the twilight hour. She stops next to us, smiling her toothless smile holding aloft the lit lamp, a signal for us to freeze midway though whatever we are doing and rattle off a few lines of prayer.

We rush off for our bath. Warm water in huge brass urns and crisp, sundried, ironed clothes are kept ready for each of us. We never bother to find out how these things magically appear at the appointed hour, we have better, more important things to do.

It is now when I look at it though the eyes of an adult, that I often wonder at these ‘little’ things. Sumptuous meals punctuated with an incessant supply of snacks, which seemed to appear like clockwork depending on the time of the day, request for ‘special’ dishes, which was always accommodated on the menu. Little treats for kids, like chilled sweet lemonade or thick slices of tart raw mango, smothered with a mixture of fiery red chilli powder salt and a dash of oil, available at a moment’s notice.

Summer fun with the cousins!!
After bath, valliamma (our grandmother) summons us for prayers and a ‘warding off the evil eye’ session. This session is presided over by ‘patti amma’, an in house soothsayer if you will. She brings out a fistful of the ash grey ‘bhasmam’* and circles it over my head and the length of my body, all the while chanting some strange incantations and blowing the ash with a dramatic ‘psh-phooo’ on my face, leaving me coughing and spluttering and pronounces me satisfactorily free of evil eye.

After dinner we file into the bedroom, which is ironically called the 'poomukam’ (drawing room) . The mattresses are already  lined across the length and breadth of the room . We slowly drift off to sleep amidst giggles, whispers and snatches of horror stories.

Tomorrow looks promising, with a swim session in the emerald green water of the kulam*, arrival of more cousins, lovely poozhan a local river fish, spicy, crisp and fried to perfection for lunch, as promised by the cook, and many more happy memories to create.

I remember it quite often, the days I have spent in my father’s ancestral home. The memories come to me without any provocation or reason; like it were a live thing, with a mind of its own. It is a kaleidoscope of colors, scents, textures and faces rather than events. 
It is a bit of the golden summer days of my child hood; pickled and preserved, to be savoured when the world looks bleak and dark.

* Thulasithara:

* Kulam:


Friday, April 17, 2015

Twinned for life

I don’t have the faintest recollection of ‘meeting’ the twins; just like I don’t remember ‘meeting’ my sister or cousins. They were always there, an integral part of my growing up years.

They were my first friends, I suspect my sister’s too.  We lived in two separate countries, in a time, where video calling and whatsapp might pass off as a science fiction movie. They came each year, when the fat bellied dark monsoon clouds gathered in the skies and the land was covered in a lush shade of green that is at once startling and calming, a shade of green that is unique to Kerala.

The twins and us
We have spent countless happy hours talking, playing or watching movies together. My favorite game was the one we played with their amazing collection of dolls. I always chose Jane, who in my eyes was the most beautiful doll, ever made. Her long silky ebony black hair combined with her emerald green eyes gave her a mysterious, exotic beauty that left me mesmerized. The dolls came with a wardrobe collection, which looked straight out of a high end Parisian boutique.
 Then came the miniature furniture; the little kitchenette, with its brightly colored cooking range, crockery unit with an inbuilt plate rack with tiny yellow plates, the color of egg yolks. I loved setting the table which was shaped like four pizza wedges, which could be put together to form a circle with inbuilt grooves for plates and cutlery.

In my mind the twins have always been a singular entity, like a coin with two sides. It was always, “Let’s go to Susan-Sandra’s house” or “Did Susan-Sandra call? It was in conceivable to think of one without the other. Their beautiful family was generous to a fault, letting us into their lives so that we felt like one of the family. We loved the sleep over sessions, where we would stay up late into the night, snug under a warm comforter gossiping and giggling. Then there would be make over sessions, where we would smuggle cosmetics from their sisters' room (they have two beautiful sisters, who we were in awe of) and preen at ourselves in the mirror, our faces slathered generously with all available items of makeup.

We would then sleep late into the day and tumble out into the kitchen, where the twins would make us breakfast. My sister and I watched in wonder, as they deftly cracked up eggs and mixed it with milk and sugar and dipped thick slices of bread into this mixture, which looked like liquid sunshine.

 I can still picture Susan by the stove, flipping over the French toast sizzling in a glob of butter, filling the kitchen with its mouth watering aroma and Sandra laughing at something we said, pouring out chilled orange juice into tall glasses.

Now although we are scattered all over the globe, the memory of those  beautiful monsoon days filled with laughter and the innocence of youth, scented with fragrance of friendship, binds us together.
We are twinned* for life.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Where are you, Shyamala amma?

I haven’t seen her in quite a while; my mother. My sister and I call her Shyamala amma; calling her plain amma did not seem to do her justice. You cannot miss my Shyamala amma in a crowd; she is strikingly beautiful with her long ebony black hair which she always wears in a thick plait, creamy porcelain like cheeks, which feels like butter when I press my cheek to hers, a single solitaire diamond nose stud, glinting in the sun.

She bakes the most delicious cakes, soft and ‘melt in your mouth’, even when there is no occasion to celebrate. She loves to doll us up in pretty clothes and surround us with books and stories, so that it becomes a vital part of our daily lives. She laughs a lot, my Shyamala amma, a delicate tinkling laughter that reaches all the way to her eyes and assures us that all is well in our little world.

The lady in my family home is her, my logic assures me. But Shyamala amma would never sit still for a minute, and she would never have greys in her hair, argues my heart. I love this lady fiercely, but I’m always searching for traces of my Shyamala amma in her. I expect her to bake for me and am puzzled when she says she is tired. I want her to call me every day and ask me if I have had breakfast. I don’t want her beauty to be veiled, like a mirror foggy with steam.

I love this lady in a whole different way; I understand her ways, and her emotions better now. I know she doesn’t skip a step and dash upstairs, but stops at the landing to catch her breath. I notice how things seem to slip from her memory and her laughter is punctuated with deep lines on her face.

 I imagine her at my age; her dreams and her fears.  I look into the mirror and see my Shyamala amma smiling back at me, a single diamond solitaire glinting in the sun. 

I know then, that I had been looking for her  in all the wrong places.