It was one of those days when you had to have mangoes in every meal; right from a lusciously thick milkshake the colour of daffodils, sweetened with honey at breakfast, to the tangy and sweet ‘pazhamanga kalan’ (a sweet and tart curry made with ripe mangoes simmered in a yogurt sauce) with which you douse your steaming hot rice for lunch. Mangoes always bring back memories of my paternal grandmother from whom I learnt the art of eating a mango without having to use a knife. We called her ‘valliamma’, which is a term ordinarily used in my mother tongue Malayalam for addressing one’s aunt, more specifically mother’s elder sister. But to us, her grand children, she was anything but ordinary. I can picture her still, sitting crossed legged in her starched linen ‘mundu veshti’ which smelt of talcum powder and mellow sunshine, holding the reins of my father’s sprawling ancestral home in her gentle yet firm grip.
|valliamma and her grand kids|
Valliamma always ensured that each of us children felt special. Whenever we visited, there would always be everyone’s favourite dishes on the menu, as if it was the most normal thing. Fresh succulent ‘poozhan’ (a river fish common to the region), crisp and fried to perfection for lunch; or a robust, rustic egg masala curry in a rich mahogany hued coconut gravy, which you could mop up with thick slices of crusty bread. There was always that special dish to perk up your meal.
I remember waking up in the morning to her soothing voice, as she sat at the foot of her bed, fresh after her morning bath, chanting prayers. I loved watching her get dressed, readying herself to face the day, and if I was particularly lucky she would let me help her. She would sit on her bed and call for her ‘vanity case’, an antique rosewood box which she would delicately slide, to reveal a mirror cleverly concealed within its womb. I would then play her ‘lady- in- waiting’, handing out whatever she asked for. She had a creamy porcelain complexion and I would watch her massage her face in swift, deft movements and there would always be a smidgen of cream for me to practice my massaging skills. Afterwards we would examine our glowing cheeks in the mirror, faces pressed together.
But it is during Vishu (the Malayalee New Year festival) time that I still miss her the most. Whenever I go through my ‘make-do’ Vishu preparations; buying yellow flowers to make do for the golden hued ‘konna flowers’ or getting a ‘instant’ payasam mix to make do for the creamy sweet ‘semiya payasam’ fragrant with cardamom and speckled with plump golden raisins and slivers of cashew nuts fried in ghee, I think of my valliamma sitting in her enormous pooja room and arranging an elaborate ‘vishu kani’ , with a large urli (brass urn) polished until it glistened like gold, brimming with seasonal fruits and vegetables, gold ornaments, an antique ‘valkannadi’ and ‘konna’ flowers.
The pooja room would be transformed into a magical place with flickering brass lamps and deities adorned with brocades and flowers. It was to this room that she would take us at the crack of dawn, one by one, with our eyes closed and we would open our eyes and take in this wonderful sight. What a lovely way to step into a brand new year.
One of the last memories I have of valliamma which I still cherish, is of us going through my wedding trousseau. Too frail and sick to actually come out for shopping, she insisted that I show her whatever I purchased. I can still picture her childlike glee as she opened each packet and fingered the rich silks and brocades. She passed away just after my engagement. I know she would have loved to see me as a bride and I would give anything just to see that look of love mingled with a tinge of pride, as I stand before her in all my bridal finery; the same look I had seen in her eyes all those years ago when we pressed our faces together to look into her mirror.