Random musings of a wandering soul

A Family Is Born

Epiphanies come out of the blue, not when we are eagerly  looking for it all around. Focused on each ounce of the weight on my back and the slightest sign of discomfort on the feet, I missed looking around and losing myself in the glory that was unfolding all around, the first couple of days. I realize that in retrospect, while trying to gather the memories together. Just as in life. Our pains shift our focus so much, sometimes we have no clue what we  might be missing on the way. Anyway, let me get on with the journey.

Day 2. Morning.

The first sight that greeted me as I came down, Captain Sparrow.

“Did you sleep here? he asks, without words.

”Si,” I answer. One word I know in his language.

We smile and wish each other, “Buen Camino”

Buen Camino, ‘Good Way’ – a greeting that you will hear a million times on the walk, the meaning of which may take a lifetime to grasp.

The breakfast area reminds me of a women’s hostel. Ladies, behind the counter, in the kitchen , at the tables. A South Asian looking girl with a huge smile on her face, extends her hands,

“Hi, I am Melissa. Call me Mel. From Austraaliyah.”

The accent would have given her away anyway. She seem to be a human glue, binding strangers together. She knows everyone by name, reminded me of my younger self. When did I start closing myself in, I wonder for a moment. And then notice the next table. Mother and daughter? Yes. Sonya, from Germany and her mother, Ane. Mother’s third Camino, or was it the fourth? Daughter’s second. Both on the Primitivo path for the first time. Ane’s gentle face and frail looking frame obviously conceals nerves and bones of steel.

“We like to start early,” and they were off.

The next were a totally unmatched looking pair. Sisters, from Canada. Anne and Manon. All of us were off soon. In  pairs, by ourselves. At our own pace.

First action of the day. Off went the sleeping bag, in the hope that someone in need would get it. The weights we carry on our back, just in case. Thinking, what if we need it some day.

The wild path climbed slightly up on to an asphalt road, crossed a bridge and then turned into a village by lane. Stone houses on either side, not a single soul in sight. This was a peculiar phenomenon through most of the journey. You would pass through houses next to each other that were obviously inhabited. Chained dogs,cows, sheep and chicken inside the fence, well tended flowering plants, clothes on line, but hardly any human in sight. At any time of the day. Maybe elves lived there. The kind that came out at night.

It’s amazing how you find pieces of your homeland thousands of kilometers and a couple of continents away. ‘Horreos,’ the wooden granaries are so similar in looks and structure to the traditional ‘ara’ back in Kerala.  Both used for the same purpose, to store grain and other produce of the land. The only difference seem to be that these are raised from the ground on four pillars. The pillars are capped with ‘staddle  stones’ to keep the rodents out, says Wikipedia.

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The morning slowly turned not too different from the previous one. Climbing up and down, cursing myself and setting myself down by the roadside in sheer exhaustion. Seriously considering the option of hitch hiking, I happened to look up and across the road. My soul animal, definitely a sign.

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Snails on trees was something totally new.

Another hour, another stop. They had passed me by some time ago. The man and his dog. He knew no English, I knew no French. No worries. In a day and half I’d learned  that you didn’t really need words to communicate. He was French, started his walk twenty seven days ago from Irun, in France.  Most of the Albergues on the way do not allow dogs. They walk on until they come across a stream or even better a river. Pitch a tent, take a bath, wash clothes, cook something, sleep, get up in the morning and walk. They looked an extension of each other, the lean man and the even leaner dog.

”Buen  Camino,” they were off.

Solitude is refreshing, some human connect in between even more so, I was yet to realize. A lunch of some left overs from day one, and I followed his path. Melissa had gone ahead long ago, Ane and Sonya later and the Canadian sisters too.

The sun was shining bright and the wind had picked up. The path looked refreshing.

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The path crossed a tarred road  and  continued. The sisters were sitting in the middle of the road, their jackets spread on the ground serving as mats. I had company, obviously. Take a break, when you feel like it, where you are at.

Another hour, the cycle of exhaustion was repeating. “Where are all those voluntary refreshments?” I wondered. I had seen pictures of jugs of water or juice, bowls of fruits kept in front of houses or on picnic benches, for the pilgrims to take as desired. In less than five minutes, a miracle appeared to my right. This was only the first of the many in the days to follow. I think of, long for or need something, it appears. Not for nothing they say, “the Camino provides”.

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Tea, coffee, the place even had organic soap on offer.

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All they asked for was a donation, whatever the pilgrim could.

The path moved onto a sidewalk by a road, and finally turned left to a long bridge. It was evening by then. The bright yellow of daylight had turned into the golden glow of twilight that reflected on the river bed below. This pilgrim had to stand and stare, drink it all in.

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The sign by the road pointed me to another left, ‘Monasterio de San Salvador’. I’d reached Cornellana. River Narcea flowed by gently on the left. The church spire could be seen through the trees, somewhere by the riverside. It took another kilometer and half to reach the gates of the 11th century monastery. Founded in 1024 by Infanta Cristina, the daughter of King Bermudo II and Queen Velasquita, this was donated to the monks of Cluny in 1122.

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The place looked run down but soothing. Must have been the stones and the church bells that struck six.

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A sense of peace descended, that turned into delight as I saw some of the people who had checked in already. Mel, Philomeno, the Italian man in the Albergue from day 1, the man and his dog, Ane and Sonya, an old man from Canada that had passed me by the previous day, it felt like reaching home. An hour later, the sisters walked in. Beginning of the Camino family. Some would fall on the way, some would go ahead, new ones would be added. Just like any other normal family.

”You can cook here, there is a supermarket down the road if you want to buy some stuff, “ said Mihael, the host, in perfect Spanish. I understood it, in perfect English. Cook? On my vacation? No way!

The dormitory was spacious, the ceiling, high. There were eight beds, bunk style. The man from Canada was on the bed across. There was a cute boy on the next. I would come to know later that he was Alessandro, a medical student from Rome. Taking a walk before he starts his post graduation course. A beautiful girl sat on the chair outside. She looked up from her phone, gave me a smile that I could keep staring at for ever, extended her hand and introduced herself in perfect English, “From Russia, I am…..” Alas, I have forgotten her name. Not her smile, though.

An hour later Mel came looking, “Come, have dinner with us. Philomeno  is cooking.” The Camino provides, oh yes.

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There is something about Italians, I have to say. Do they have some magic in their soul that seeps out through the tips of their fingers? How else can a simple dish of pasta turn out to be so tasty? And those tomatoes, again. The stomach was full, so was the soul.

“Where are you halting tomorrow?”  asked Mel.

“Where my feet halts,” I replied.

After all, tomorrow is another day, as Scarlett O’Hara would have said. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Alleppeeyyahh!

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I do not remember when was it exactly that I met them first. There they were at the next dinner table one day. He was smiling broadly at me, as though we were old friends. We didn’t talk that day.

It was raining the next morning. I saw his wife pass me by first and then him. As is the norm on The Way, I caught up with him some time later. He had that broad smile again.

“India?” he asked.

“Yes, India,” I replied.

“Country? India?” he asked again.

“Yes, yes. India,” I told him again.

“No. India, country?” he repeated.

Ah, I got it now. “Kerala,” I responded.

His face lighted up as if a thousand watt bulb had been switched on inside.

“Kerala, Allepeeeyah!”

“You have been to Alleppey?”

I couldn’t believe my ears. For someone who had been searching for a fellow Indian on the path for the past few days this was like divine manna, straight from heaven.

He rushed to his wife who was waiting ahead and said something in a language I couldn’t comprehend. Later they told me they are French and is from Bordeaux.

The wife translated in halting English, “ Yes, we were in Alleppey many years ago. Beautiful beach.”

Now my face lighted up in reflected glory.

More French.

”We were there again two years ago. By the beach, huge bridge. Ugly” They were shaking their heads in disapproval.

Uh oh!

Some more French. He was gesturing at my face now.

“Your face told me you are from Alleppey.”

😳😳😳😳

Well. You can take a girl out of her town, but not the town out of her, I guess 😀😀

p.s.

They were there again, a few bends in the road later. A pink phone in hand, taking pictures.

”I got myself a new phone just before the trip. The pictures come out so beautiful,” she said as if a magician had creeped into the phone and was churning out something wondrous.

”Can I take a picture of yours?” she asked.

”Why not?” I replied.

I had to agree with her. The pictures were coming out  beautiful indeed 😉

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Where You Fall, Is Your Bed

Oviedo to Grado, 25.5 kms, said the guide book.

I knew I was doomed even before I started. Out of Oviedo at about 10.30 in the morning, there was no way I could do that twenty five kilometers unless I walked until late night, that much was obvious. But there is the town Vega de Ano at 18 km, said the book. That I could do.

The stone pavement in the city turned to a gravel path as I passed the statue. A rustic signpost and a large sign next to it told me I was now starting the journey in earnest.

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The first sounds were the cow bells, then birdsong. Cautioning myself not to be over enthusiastic, one step at a time, I marched forward. To be fair, the climb was gradual but in less than two hours, I was panting. The ‘training’ I had done for the past few months was no way enough. A small stone chapel came into sight, the first of many that I was to see in the coming days.

Two energetic women were already there, airing their feet and refreshing themselves. The church itself was locked, however there was a small patio with a bench, a table on which there was a stamp as well. Now, this is an interesting part of the Camino. As a pilgrim , you are supposed to keep a passport with you, it has pages similar to what you would see in a normal passport. You are supposed to get it stamped on the way, in churches, tourist information centers, cafes, albergues, in short anywhere  you stop. This acts as a confirmation that you have passed through all these places. At the end of the journey this would be verified before a certificate of completion could be issued in your name. More about that later.

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The slow climb, again. First of all, I was totally out of shape. Second, even though I’d been walking quite a bit in preparation, I was no way equipped to climb, that too with a backpack on.  The gravel path gave way to asphalt somewhere in between and I started to feel exhausted, my legs and back were aching and I started cursing myself. I went and sat down in a side lane, walked again and then stopped by the side of a main road, totally exhausted. The backpack came down first and then me. The vertical position that my body was in slowly turned horizontal, the backpack turned into a pillow, the sun hat provided the anonymity that I thought was needed and I dozed off. By the side of a somewhat busy road, with vehicles going up and down, I slept. In abandon. What a liberating feeling it was, in retrospect. No one, literally nobody even slowed down to check who this vagabond was. Maybe they had seen way too many.

I woke up to see a familiar face dragging himself up the hill. I’d seen him in the Cathedral in the morning, he too was attending the mass. With a dirty bandanna around his head, he looked like a slightly less glamorous version of Johnny Depp as Captain Sparrow. He knew no English, and I knew no Spanish, the story of my life on the Camino. But his expression said it all, “tough climb.” That was enough to spur me on for the next few kilometers. Says a lot, doesn’t it? When you have fellow sufferers for company, life turns better all of a sudden.

Next stop, another church. Captain Sparrow was already there, on his back on a wooden bench. The sweet abandon of the Camino. The true pilgrims who find solace and rest wherever they can. Not wanting to break the tradition, I rested my back against another wooden bench there.

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It was past two and twelve kilometers behind me when a welcome sign came into view, ‘Albergue Esclampero’. The mind gave in immediately. This is it for the day. A character with a face that could have come straight out  of the Old Testament was sitting at the entrance. He knew no English, I knew no Italian. Same story, different language. No words were needed. The manager was not there, he himself was a pilgrim, I would have to wait. The body didn’t want to halt just yet. Ultrea, we went. The mind along with the body.

The breeze had turned slightly cool, the nature around was waking up from the afternoon siesta. And there were nectarines and peaches all around. It was like being back home during summer holidays. Trees full of green and ripening mangoes and the floor strewn with them in various stages of rottenness. No one seem to bother the fruits, they were left to their fate, to be picked or fall.

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A long forgotten ‘fragrance’ was getting familiar by now. Dung. Cows and horses. In a crowded city it would have been repulsive. Not here, it belonged to those country paths. The path was more or less level, vast green meadows on either side, a few cows, some sheep here and there and I was alone. Did anyone pass me there, I don’t remember. All that comes to mind is a sense of peace and resignation. There was a signboard for a hostel at every bend in the path that finally ended in an arrow that pointed in the opposite direction. A kilometer and half extra in the evening and next morning. The feet kept moving on.

Somewhere in between a crest and the next fall, a lone horse stood staring at me in solemn seriousness, a white mark on its forehead. It seemed to say, “why hurry, you will reach where you need to be. In your own time, at your own pace. Go slow, placidly. Enjoy the views and feel the breeze while you are at it.” How could I ignore something that sounded so obviously sane?

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The breeze was getting stronger and definitely cooler. Captain Sparrow passed me again by a brook with a muted ‘Buen Camino’ and a gentle smile that seemed to say, “this is just the beginning, my dear.” The legs had started aching, but the spirit was fresh. It had no choice. Forget about an albergue, there was not even the tiniest of village in sight. I had passed Vego de Ana somewhere behind, must have missed some sign, maybe a bend in the road. Going by the guidebook, I would have to reach Grado to find a place to sleep. The other alternative was what I had mastered that first day. Where you are, can be your bed.

The village path led to a fork where it joined asphalt again. There was music to the ears and sight for sore eyes. A glorious river rushed beneath on one side. A slow climb up, a turn and the most welcome sight – a few houses, surrounded by a riot of flowers. One of it had a board outside, ‘Villa Palatina.’ A new hostel, right on the way.

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The hostess, a beautiful grandmother, who dragged her naughty grandson along wherever she went. She knew no English, I knew no Spanish. Some sign language and google translate. We were set. A bath, clothes washed, I was ready for dinner and my first encounter with Asturian tomatoes.

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A little more than 21 kms. Not bad for day one.

 

 

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The official history of the pilgrimage goes that the body of St. James, one of the twelve Apostles of Jesus was discovered in a field in Galicia by a local shepherd , back in the 9th century. The Apostle gives the route its name: Camino de Santiago means the Way Of St. James who is also known as Sant Iago or Santiago.

We would need to go back to the 1st century to know how the Saint’s body came to be in Spain. As per Christian legends, when the Apostles divided the world into missionary zones, James’s lot fell for the Iberian peninsula. Apparently, he went back to Jerusalem after spending a few years in Iberia and was duly beheaded by Herod Agrippa I. Popular belief has it that his body was carried to the coast and put into a boat by his followers. An angel guided the boat to somewhere near Finisterre, in northern Spain. The local queen had the body drawn from the boat and had it buried along with the bodies of two his disciples in a tomb that was provided by her. And they lay there undisturbed, until the shepherd stumbled upon them a few centuries later.

The Way, and the significance of Finisterre  goes back to the years even before the bodies were found. There is evidence of a route that is thought to have been made following the Milky Way to the end of the Earth, which is what Finisterre was supposed to be. The name literally means end of the earth, ‘finis terrae.’

Coming back to the Apostle and the bodies, the discovery was first reported to the local bishop, Theodomir, who straightaway declared it to be the sacred remains of Santiago. He then reported it to the King of Asturias, Alphonso II. He had his capital in Oviedo and thus commenced the ‘Original Way’ or the ‘Camino Primitivo’. The king is supposed to be the first pilgrim to Santiago de Compostela, the resting place of the Saint, walking the path from his capital city of Oviedo.  He is also the one who built the original shrine to St. James.

Providence that I decided to start my walk from Oviedo, for it is said,

”Quien va a Santiago y no al Salvador, visita al lacayo y no al Senor” 

(He who goes to Santiago and not to San Salvador, visits the servant and not the Lord.)

For that is where the Camino Primitivo starts, the San Salvador Cathedral. The original one was built by King Alfonso II, the current one is the version that was rebuilt in the 14th century.

Over the past few months, I’ve been a frequent visitor of a couple of Camino forums on FB. The most prominent caution there was about the weight of the backpack. Whether to add the weight of a book to read was a constant argument with myself that I’d been having during these months of preparation. The book lover in me had finally relented and added one, ‘The Crossway’ by Guy Stagg to the pack. There were a few knickknacks as well that I thought would be needed. And Devaky had sent her love in the form a few packets of spices. While flying from Marseille to Oviedo the previous day, I’d realized that some weight had to be offloaded. So the first visit on 18th September was to ‘Correos,’ the Spanish post office.

The infrastructure and the facilities on the Camino are amazing. They have factored in for all kinds of pilgrims and their requirements. The main one, of course are the Albergues, or the pilgrim hostels in the villages that typically mark the end of a stage, or the day. Many of the villages in between also have these facilities so that you can decide where to make a halt depending on how much you feel like walking each day. The other facility is the transport and storage of your luggage or backpacks. You can chose to send your luggage straight ahead to Santiago. People who have extended holidays usually chose this facility, for while on the Camino, it is three pairs of hiking dresses and a jacket that you carry long. Lesser the weight, easier the walk. I assessed the stuff in my backpack and decided to send a few things ahead upfront. Off went the book, the spices and  few other unnecessary stuff that I didn’t want to throw away.

For the official start of the walk, I walked into the cathedral that was still dark inside and deserted. Walking around inside, I noticed a small chapel on the right side. A mass seemed to be in progress, there were a few people on the benches and six priests at the altar. Glorious organ music  welcomed me as I gingerly opened the door. What a blessed way to start my journey, I smiled.

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You notice the official start of The Way as soon as you get out of the cathedral and turn right. A sign and the legendary shell on the floor.

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Another legend, the shells. Apparently, after reaching Santiago, the pilgrims of the past would continue their journey to Finisterre. They would collect scallop shells from the beach as a proof that they had completed the journey. And the shells thus became an icon for the journey.

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The entire Camino, whichever one you chose to walk, is marked by the signs of a shell or an arrow or often, both together. You find this almost anywhere, on the pavement on the streets in cities, on trees, on official stone markers, on the walls on the way, on trees, I found a couple even on trash bins. They work as an effective GPS. In fact, I walked almost the entire way following these signs, having decided to avoid technology as much as possible.

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Trudging across the street with my eyes down, searching for the next shell, I finally reached the last square on the outskirts of the city of Oviedo to this beautiful statue. The hills were in some distance, peeping out of the clouds. Having adjusted and readjusted the backpack a few times, I was all set. Little did I know what was in store just a few hours later.

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Just Another Pilgrim

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serendipity (noun) : the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for (Merriam-Webster.com)

October 2015. I checked one off from my list in the bucket – Shakespeare and Company Bookstore, Paris. In the rushed one hour that I had, one book fell into my hands – ‘Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way Of Saint James’ by David Downie. The first time ever I heard of this beautiful pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. People travelling over several weeks, even months, from different places in Europe on foot, by cycle, even on horseback to the Cathedral of Saint James there. Interesting, I thought. One day, was the soliloquy and the plan went into storage, somewhere in the deep recesses of mind.

A few years of roller coaster life rides, the longing for some alone time had turned visceral. And there was this special friend calling from the shores of Mediterranean, “come, visit.” ‘The Way’ had not come into the forefront yet. On one of the routine visits to the local library, the daughter unusually picks up a book from the shelf and hands it over, “maybe you should read this.” Out of the blue. ‘Two Steps Forward’ by Graeme Simson and Anne Buist. Another book on the Camino. Serendipity.

Life has taught me by now to pay heed to signs at least when it is stuck right on my nose. Three weeks of vacation from work sanctioned, the search for the route started. Both the books were on the French route, the Camino Frances. That would take me at least 35 days, if not more. The other option would have been to take it in stages, two weeks this year , a few weeks whenever an opportunity comes next and so on. But then, life has also taught me that opportunity seldom knocks twice. If I had to do a complete Camino, it had to be the Primitivo, the Original Way and considered to be the toughest. Statistics say less than 5% of the pilgrims take this route. Good, I’ll have my solitude in abundance. People complete it in thirteen days or even less, so I should be able to, at least in fifteen days. As for the ‘tough’ part, how tough can a walk be, especially if I train for a few kilometers daily for a couple of months before that, right?

To keep a long story somewhat short, I took a leap of faith even before thinking of looking. And what a leap it turned out to be!

15 days and 315 kilometers. On foot.

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Yes, this inanimate human being that can be found crouched on a couch or in some form of contortion on a chair, huffed and puffed, up steep hillsides, even steeper downs over loose stones, held on to hiking poles for dear life, watched wild horses frolicking, almost got swept off her feet in winds that battered the mountain top, learned to sleep by the roadside in broad daylight, peeped into centuries old ruins that once sheltered ancient pilgrims, listened to the cool wind making music on the leaves and branches of age old trees, lay on her back on wooden benches peering through rustling leaves at clouds passing by in a hurry, stayed in bunk beds in rooms shared by other seven strangers, ate Italian and Spanish dinners prepared by real life chefs in communal kitchens, met some wonderful people from around the world , watched a beautiful ballet performance in a cathedral square, was taken for a Portuguese, Brazilian, Mexican and at times Indian and finally reached the Cathedral last Wednesday.

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On the way back, looking for a place for dinner I walked into a Spanish palli perunnaal (church festival) with beer counters, DJs, processions with witch like figures and a mind blowing music show by a Celine Dion look and sing alike. Winding up with a one day visit to Avila, the home of St. Teresa of Jesus. That nun and I have a history, but that’s a story for another day.

The experiences? I am still ruminating  over it, distilling it in my mind, gathering the random scribblings, collecting the rainbow of emotions and will share it slowly and surely.

Was it easy? Half way through the first day and all through the second, I was cursing myself, loudly. There was hardly anyone on the path to hear me, anyway. What masochistic streak in me had set me on this way, I berated myself. By noon on the third day, I checked myself into the best hotel in the small town of Salas, having given it up for good. A couple of good meals and a coffee with cognac, I gave myself another day and just walked on from there.

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The die hard foodie in me keeps ruminating over all that I had. The first and the best that comes to mind – the Asturian tomatoes. Seriously. You pick a piece with your fork, keep it on your tongue, close your lips and scrunch. An explosion in your mouth – the luscious center, the crunchy outside and the sweetness. Oh my God, the sweetness!

The ultimate afterthought so well encapsulated in my current read,

“How little we need to be happy. How little we need to survive.”

– ‘The Crossway’ by Guy Stagg. A walk from Canterbury in England to Jerusalem. Serendipity? You never know 🙂

 

 

An Ode to Duck Roast

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The room and the table. Whether the room was built for the table or the other way round would be a chicken and egg story. The truth was they were a perfect pair, made for each other. Just enough space for people to walk around it in comfort, the table lorded over the room. On a normal day, ten people could easily sit around it. And on special days another four could be squeezed in without much ado.

A bottle or two of pickle made from home grown mangoes or lemon, a jar of rock salt and a few glasses were permanent residents there. Others would come and go depending on the time of the day and who was sitting around it. Puttu that felt like fluffy pieces of cloud was an infidel. Her partner would change according to the fancies of the queen of the kitchen. If it was egg roast one day,  it would be the turn of kadala the next day. Ripe palayamkodan or njaali poovan pazhams mashed to an almost liquid state at times, honey or paani at others, sometimes even treasured pieces of meat or fish pickle from the store room, boredom was never associated with this beauty. Appams that were as soft as the skin on my ammachi’s face and stew was a Sunday staple. For ordinary minions like us, it would be chicken.

Fish was a staple for lunch. River fish was the choice of flavor, anything else would be blasphemy for a race surrounded by water. The usual concoction would be red in colour and the inhabitants a kaari or a manja koori. These species are apparently extinct now. Anyway, coming back to the table, the king of all, karimeen used to make its appearance quite frequently. The normal avatar was either a fried version or a mappas.

The whole table would change its form with the appearance of guests. The stature of the guest would decide who the new actors would be in place of the usual ones. Puttu would make its way for appam irrespective of which day of the week it was. Duck would replace chicken in the stew and metamorphoses itself into the tastiest of roasts. Potatoes dunked in just the right amount of salt , fried into perfect rounds would form the border in the serving dish. And additional course of bread and fish molee would be added to lunch. The karimeen fry would retain its royal space at the center of the table along with crisp and spicy beef cutlets. Thinly sliced onions and green chilies vigorously rubbed with pure kallu vinegar gave them company. The dessert, inevitably the delicate pineapple pudding, turned upside down with a perfect deft of hand and swaying coyly in an equally delicate serving dish. In fact, turning this into the dish without even a tiny crack was a test every newly wed bride that came into the family had to pass, to be accepted as a worthy member of the brood.

And then there was the legend. Once, at the most twice a year. Specially made with love, care and uninhibited pride. A favorite brother in law, a pair of newly weds that had to  be impressed, the revered priest in the family, you had to be a certain level above the cut to be honored with this. Hatched at home, brought up on the best of feed, an ugly duckling that turned into a prince with its shining green head and white, black and gray plumage, its day had arrived. Catching it was child’s play. Unlike the chickens that roamed around, the ducks were always cordoned off except in the evenings when they were led to their customary frolic in the canal.

The duck would sense its destiny, for there would be a trail of shit on the way it was carried. One of the house helps would place its head on a stone on which the knife was sharpened a few minutes ago. A nick, and off the head would go. The next step was to dunk into boiling water and then pluck the feathers. These were stubborn ones, and unless you were quick and thorough, new ones would come up. Yes, they had a life of their own. Cleaned to perfection, it would now be handed over into ammachi’s expert hands. I have no clue what happened there, and no one in the family seem to have, either. Maybe she guarded the secret with her life. Some chilies, ginger, garlic would be crushed, the hero’s body would glisten with home made butter. Potatoes cooked, mashed and mixed with some concoction would be stuffed into its belly, the open hole at the rear stitched together with a twain, and the legs would be tied together in a submissive pose. The poor thing would look as though praying with for mercy with folded legs.

The Racold oven with its teal coloured door would be hot and ready by then. In would go the duck, placed on a large tray. And the wait would be begin. After half an hour so, the noses would start tickling, even the most insensitive ones couldn’t have missed the heavenly aroma. The door would be opened in between, the duck turned around, some more butter splashed on top and the baking would continue.

The oblong porcelain dish, decorated with artistically arranged chopped tomatoes and fried potatoes would be ready by the time the pièce de ré·sis·tance was brought out of the oven. The dish would be placed ceremonially at the center of the table, only after the guests of honor were seated around it. And it was only ammachi that had the right to that royal procession  from the oven to the table. All the karimeens and cutlets of the world would be forgotten for the next few hours. Yes, meals those days were ceremonies that lasted for hours.

Ammachi’s whole duck roast was the stuff of legend our childhood was made of. As we grew up and she grew old, its appearances were few and far in between, until it finally stopped. By then, ducks had also become a commodity that was bought instead of being reared at home. None of her progeny even dared to make an attempt at it, but then, even an attempt at replicating perfection would have been a poor form of imitation in this case. The legendary stories went on and we continued reminiscing about it. The taste, the prefect shade of brown every single time, how the potatoes inside came out without even a small lump in it, how the juices would ooze out thick, never flowing like water. We almost lusted after it, trying to rebuild the taste on our tongues and in our minds. Until the last vacation.

As always, the bedroom was the place we congregated. The whole family would lie criss cross on two beds, like packed sardines. Uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, children, grandchildren, there was no hierarchy there. Those who couldn’t find a place on the bed would be spread on the floor, no pose was uncomfortable. Inevitably, the conversation would wind its way to food. How the fishes of old days had disappeared, how the readymade spices couldn’t hold a light to the ones grown, dried and powdered at home, how the ducks no more tasted the same. And then the whole duck roast. As we eulogized it for the umpteenth time, one of my cousins dropped the bomb, “Chechi, do you remember ever having a piece of it?” Looks of confusion, consternation and utter despair passed on from one face to another. None in our generation, not even the eldest grandchild that I was could remember having it. We had devoured it with our eyes, inhaled it in like the headiest of perfumes, salivated after it until our mouths turned into an ocean, but a piece of it passing our lips and stimulating our taste buds for real? Never.

The revered guests wouldn’t leave even a crumb of it. Ever.

 

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Gayathri and Myshkin. Mother and son. Freedom and love. Letting go and lingering on. I am no longer surprised at how certain books happen to jump right out of the library shelf and land into my soul. Anuradha Roy’s ‘All the Lives We Never Lived’ was the latest. At a time when memoirs and thoughts of vulnerable women holds a  coveted place at my bedside, why a piece of fiction, I’d wondered. I should have known better by now.

Myshkin, a sixty something old man, reminisces about life before and after his mother. Nothing romantic or heartening as the death of a young mother that orphaned a nine year old boy. She ran away With a white man as people around him would never let him forget. The fact that the man was German never mattered, all that was important was the colour of his skin and that a young wife had the audacity to leave her ‘progressive’ husband and a small child go fend for themselves.

Gayathri was a young girl pampered by her doting father. He wanted the best for her, wanted her to be the best, in art, dance whatever she chose to do. He had taken her on a trip abroad, crossing the seas, meeting none other than the great Rabindranath  Tagore. Years in Shanti Niketan is what she had dreamed of. And in the manner of a typical Indian movie, the father dies on her, leaving her at the mercy of her elder brother and mother who had fixed notions  on what a girl’s life should be. A learned professor, years older than her is infatuated with her and offers to marry her.

She feels stifled in her marital home. Her husband ‘grants her the freedom’ to pursue her passions, as a hobby. Her spontaneous dance in their courtyard was talked of by the family for years. It is to this joyless existence that the German guy Walter Spies and his friend makes an appearance. She had met him years ago on her trip to Bali along with her father. Their bohemian life, with no apparent restrictions, the freedom to do whatever they felt like, whenever and wherever they wanted to, reawakenes Gayathri’s spirits and aspirations that finally leads to her leaving her home.

Myshkin lives his life in the eternal hope of his mother’s return until a bunch of letters finds its way to him, telling him stories that he longed to know. How he missed leaving with his mother by just a few hours, and her life after that. Maybe, if those letters had reached him a few years earlier, his life might have turned out different.

More than the main story or the exquisite manner of writing ( though the details made me skip more than a few lines), it was the underlying questions that disturbed me. I don’t know whether disturbed  is the right word. I was reminded of the Malayalam actor Manju Warrier’s so called come back movie ‘How Old Are You?’ and the question that the movie was centered around,

”Who decides the expiry date of a woman’s dreams?”

For argument’s sake you may counter it’s not just for the woman. Maybe. But the fact remains that more often than not, the moment the knot is tied around her neck, she is expected to instantly reincarnate herself into a capable, efficient and obedient home maker. You may argue times have changes, however the norm remains more often than not. There are modern minded men, of course. Most of them are like Gayatri’s husband, though. He, who takes pride in moving with the times realizes late that

‘her freedom was always with his acquiescence.’

Looking at many a woman who have passionately gone after their dreams, their journey seem to have been a lone path. There are some who have spread their wings after years of keeping them tied down, some willingly, most with a seething defiance within. And the ones who break free, their journeys were never smooth. Life was tougher by all practical means, much different from the ‘protected’ life they were used to. But if you ever get to ask any of them whether they would have gone back to what was, I’m sure the answer would be a resounding no. For they know the past would have been far worse than anything that came after.

I guess that is what this story was finally about. What could be, and what could have been. Jumping down a precipice with your eyes open, all sense keenly aware. Who knows, there might be a parachute on your back that you never knew about. But then, you would have to make that leap of faith to really know, wouldn’t you?