Last project for son was Natural Disasters. Thinking and writing about nature, as always, takes me back home and the wonderful childhood that we had. Those days, we never had environment as part of a project or even as a subject. Now I wonder whether that was because, environment was actually a part of lives. Our lives were so entwined with the nature around us that we never had to learn about it in class rooms.
The fondest memories of childhood and summer holidays are the baskets that would be ready in a line for us on the veranda when we get up in the morning. There would always be a small army of kids and morning ablutions were always in a hurry. Competition started early those days. The baskets were for collecting the mangoes that had fallen from the trees in the night. The one who collected the most would get a twenty five paisa coin from our grandmother. Those days, it was a treasure. There were almost twenty mango trees, each a different variety, all planted and nurtured lovingly by my grandmother. It was not just the thumb, her whole body was green. She did not have a life that was separate from her land.
Once the mangoes were accounted for, the next process was extracting the juice. We hadn’t heard of juicers then. Each of us would be given a “muram” – sort of a large sieve. The mangoes were grated in the sieve and the juice taken and handed over to ammachi (that’s what we called our grandmother). She would mix some rice flour and then some ingredients and spread it out on a mat to dry in the sun. This process went on for days, a new layer added each day, till the mango paste was thick enough. Once dried well enough, the mats with the pastewould be rolled and safely kept in huge earthen pots. Ammachi would give us tiny pieces to taste saying when mangoes are available now, have that, and when the season is over, she will give us the preserve. That was first lesson in saving when there is plenty and using the savings when there was none.
We had lots of chores in the mornings. Next would be the cinnamon tree. We had to scrape out the bark and this had to be done in a precise and delicate manner so that the trunk could heal properly and give us more bark next year. Another lesson – every hurt will heal, it is just a matter of time.
The ‘parambu’ (yard) was a mini forest. There were so many fruits which I doubt my kids will ever see or even if they do, would enjoy gorging on as we did. There were jack fruits, guavas, lololikkas (not sure what this is called in English), chambakka (water apple), ampazhanga, wood apples, pomegranates, there was even an orange tree which bore pea sized oranges. The huge kambili/bumbloose naarakam(pomelo fruit – just googled it, never knew its English name )tree bordered the pond, the fruits of which were the last resort for us if nothing else was available. The vegetable patch yielded everything that was needed - ginger, chillies, yam, bitter gourd, bottle gourd, string beans, there were even coffee plants. Plantain trees across the yard waved its leaves in the afternoon breeze. The plantain jam that ammachi used to make was just out of the world. I still think of her words when I now buy it at 40-50 rupees per kilo – “you will not realize its value when you have it in plenty”. Doesn’t it apply to everything in life?
Another high point was the chicks and ducklings. There would be at least 3-4 hens hatching eggs. Did you know hens were used to hatch duck’s eggs as well? We would eagerly wait for the hen to shift her position to see whether the eggs were breaking. The sight of a tiny beak slowly pecking its way out of the shell and the wonder in its eyes while they turned their head around and slowly stepped out into the world is something else. The hen that hatched the ducklings would be the most hilarious one. The consternation on her face and the desperate cackling when her ‘kids’ jump into the water left us in splits many a time. We have watched these hens and ducks being killed too. All of us would run after the one that was identified for the guest of the day and sometimes the poor thing would just give up out of sheer exhaustion. Life and death were so much a part of our lives we never felt anything wrong then. Isn’t life also sometimes about who outruns who?
Lunch would be what and how much was served in our plates. I have no memory of any one of us having a say on the menu or even stating our preferences. No one was allowed to get up without finishing everything that was served. When we were slightly older, we had to wash the rice for cooking, help in chopping the vegetables and whatever little we could. Even a single grain of rice or the tiniest piece of vegetable was not allowed to escape in the process. All these were lessons in utilizing the available resources to the maximum and with absolutely no wastage. My grandmother would have cursed me to hell if she spent even a day in my kitchen today.
I have mentioned in a few of my earlier posts about my home – it is one of the 50 places that you must visit before you die according to National Geographic. Nestled between Kottayam and Alleppey districts in Kerala, Kuttanad is an area that lies below sea level. Blessed with waterways of all shapes, sizes and names, how can a holiday be complete without the frolic in the river? We learnt swimming holding on to the trunk of plantain trees that would float. We have even made rafts out of it and rowed to the other side of the river. There would be a forced rest of an hour after lunch and then all pairs of ears would be on the old clock to strike three. And off we would jump one after the other into the water. We were so wild that after two hours we would have kicked up all the mud which in turn would deposit on our bodies. Dirtier bodies would come out of the river and run to the bath room to have a proper bath.
We learnt to share, work and play together, be independent (most of the activities would not be monitored by anyone, but we were expected to be perfect), fight and make up, hurt and heal, in short a miniature version of most everything that we would have to go through later in life. What I have put in words here is a very small part of these experiences and the emotions that I go through whenever I think of those days. There were visits to our relative’s houses, they would come visiting, there were family gatherings, functions, festivals in the church, the days were packed and there were never a dull moment.
I remember reading somewhere that plants too have emotions and feelings. No one in my family would need proof for this. Remember the mango trees that were brought up with utmost care and love by my ammachi? None of them flowered the year she passed away!
(all pictures courtesy – google images)