Never judge a book by its cover, they say. Not for nothing, I say. One of those rare books that I picked up by seeing just the cover, did not even bother to read the blurb. The girl on top of a mini van, a dog next to her and a contemplative look on her face, a travelogue – the judgement was swift as the download. Little did I know the kind of journey I was getting into and what a journey it was!
Suleika Jaouad was like any other youngster, just out of college, figuring out what to do with the rest of her life. A career in writing as a foreign correspondent is what she wanted to be, her Tunisian heritage had more than a little to do with it. After a very short stint of summer internship at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, she…
If a girl who was just entering her teens could have killed her grandmother, she would have done it then and there. The old lady was a task master and a perfectionist at that. The girl, almost always lost in her dreamland, couldn’t understand why it had to a perfect round, it would lose its shape the moment it entered your mouth, wouldn’t it? Oh no, the food had to be savored with your eyes before being devoured in your mouth.
Grating coconut was another nightmare. The shell had to be perfectly clean with no trace of white and the coconut in the plate, not a trace of brown. The girl would have rebelled saying it is impossible, if the grandmother hadn’t shown it could be done. Not once, but again and then again, many times over.
She was my mother’s mother, ammachi to her children and grandchildren. A rare beauty, with perfect porcelain skin and a classy demeanor to match. Clad in starched, pristine white chatta and mundu she lorded over the kitchen, her home and in more senses than one, over the entire family too.
Summer holidays were always looked forward to. The day after school closed, someone would be promptly present at hour home in Alleppey, to take us all there. Those were days of dread and frustration too. For her, holidays were not meant to be enjoyed, but to learn things that would hold you in good stead as ‘girls from good families.’ My paternal grandmother was a miniature rowdy and I had inherited more of her genes. It was but natural then that each such admonition was begrudged, though silently. I wouldn’t have dared to voice my opinions outside though. Before she could have done so, our grandfather would have shut us up. For theirs was a love that was strange. Or so we thought.
I still remember one evening at the dinner table. Not sure where the conversation started or what the context was. She blurted out, “you always loved your mother more than me.” In place of a typical strong admonition that would have silenced her, he said in resignation, with a tinge of sadness “that’s true. She was widowed at a very young age. I considered it my duty to keep her happy.” Children understand quite a few nuances that adults normally ignore. There was no question in our mind about his love for her. Else, how did she have the latest household appliances even forty years ago in that village surrounded by water? Those exquisite cutleries that came out only on special occasions, the perfect bed linen that only esteemed guests could even sit on, the lovely lace curtains that adorned the numerous windows of that lovely old home. Love for us was quite material at that age. It took more than a few years and some distance to realize what their love for each other and for us was.
She was a legendary hostess. If guests were expected, the table had to be full, irrespective of which meal it was. If it was breakfast, appam, stew, steamed bananas, boiled eggs and a plate of sliced cake was the minimum you could expect. Lunch was a tale that had no parallels, a centerpiece of a whole duck roasted brown to perfection, a plate of carved vegetables adding colour at one end, karimeen fry, chicken roast surrounded by perfectly fried potato pieces, red hot fish curry, cabbage thoran, beef ularthu, cutlets and moru curry were the bare essentials.
Her sense of dressing was something to behold, it kept me captive even as a child. The white pieces of dress had to be soaked in boiling water mixed with some alkalic concoction, then dipped oh so perfectly in Robin Blue mixed in cold water in perfect proportion and dried in hot sun. The kavini was another story altogether. Once or twice a year, her favorite wandering salesman would arrive with two suitcases full of sepia toned pieces handloom pieces of cloth weaved so thin, you could fold it to fit in your palm. Only the ones with the most exquisite and authentic kasavu for her. Washing it was a ritual by itself. Gently cleaned by hand in lukewarm water, it wouldn’t be allowed to touch the ground. Two people would hold on to the ends and wave it up and down softly in the shade until it was almost dry. The edges rolled up perfectly, it had to ironed before completely dry. All these would go into the rosewood chest, and one set would be selected very diligently for the Sunday morning mass. Her collection of brooches was another source of wonder for me. She had the most exquisite ones of gold, diamond and other assorted stones. Wonder how and why I, her eldest granddaughter who got all the life lessons from her firsthand turned out to be so careless in this department. Some questions do not have answers, need not even be asked, I guess. Sigh!
The immense love that she had for us was camouflaged in those lessons of childhood, it was her way of teaching us to be prepared for life. It took us ages and our own trials and tribulations in life to understand where our fortitude and stoicism originated from. She was a mother who had lost three of her children in their childhood. Her livelihood depended on the vagaries of nature. A year’s crop that sustained the family could be wiped away in a single day of rain or a flash flood. Faith and love stood her through and faith and love she passed on to us.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, they say. But then mere sincerity doesn’t beget art, isn’t it? We could only aspire to her level of perfection. To attain it is a mirage that is always at a distance. While baking cake after cake, presenting a table covered with dishes of all kinds for guests, collecting the best linen and crockery for the house, I was trying to live up to her I know, subconsciously and sometimes consciously too. It is my sister that spent her some of her growing up years with her that has inherited most of her charm and traits. It is no wonder then that it is to her and her perfectly maintained homestead all of us tend to gravitate to now.
Ten years after she moved on to follow her eldest daughter and husband, the gap she has left in our hearts and souls are still deep. We know it is filled with her love and care. Each of us have our own special memories of her. If it was the guavas that she fiercely guarded from bats for me, it would be the perfect recipe and practice of the exquisite pineapple pudding that she made, for my sister. For yet another grandchild it would be the triangle shaped pooris that he used to take to school day after day after day, or the deep mauve pazham jam in old Horlicks bottles for another. For her children she was home, in all possible ways that one could think of. And I am sure all of us can feel the warmth from the skin of her palms tenderly caressing our cheeks, the scent of her loving embrace and the comfort of her voice even now. For she was pure gold, Thankamma.
And by the way, my doshas turn out perfectly round now. Well, almost.
A professor of mine tagged me on her thoughts on Women’s Day. As always, she made me sit back, reflect and think.
As I look back at life thirty years after passing out of college, what you have written here makes me smile, for I have gone through all these phases from getting into a domain that was still not a preferred one for women, being the only female in my department when I started my career, to putting a temporary stop to convert myself into a domestic goddess, realizing being just that is not my piece of cake even though I am the one who made it, getting back into corporate life keeping a relatively lower profile and then going guns blazing later in life, have seen most of it, I guess.
25 years ago, it was exactly what you mentioned above, women were expected to keep to their designated places, else you had to be ‘one of the guys.’ Have to admit I used to enjoy it then, the not so good side of it was you were not seen as a ‘woman.’ You had to develop a thick armor around you to be taken seriously. When I got into domestic life it was the other extreme, people expected me to fail, for how could a no nonsense, ambitious woman keep her home? There started the project to prove myself there, thankfully before long I realized that by itself would make me go crazy. After restarting my career , I purposely kept a low profile because I was pretty clear about what my priorities were. Now that kids are grown up what I do at work has become the first priority most of the time.
What I learned during this tedious process – there is no single, standard mantra, except for ‘listen to your heart.’ It will tell you different things at different times, which is exactly what it is supposed to do. What you do after that has to be weighed carefully. What you want at different points in your life will be different, that’s ok. There is nothing wrong in changing your course when you feel it’s not the right path for you.
Most important of all – be unapologetically you. Gain expertise in your chosen field, whatever it is. No one can beat knowledge added with experience as years go by. Put your foot down, keep your head high and your hands steady, when and where you need to. You might forego some brownie points, in the long run they will not be worth it anyway. Feed your soul, keep your girlfriend gang in tact, build new ones along the way. The support they provide will not have a parallel. Take time out for yourself, always. Your family and office will survive without you, however critical a role you carry. Don’t compromise on your values, your principles, not even for your family. Else it will eat you up sooner or later. It’s ok to make mistakes, fail, retract our steps, start all over again. No experience is wasted, if it doesn’t help us,it will help someone else for sure.
We do not have to prove ourselves to anyone, the earlier in life we realize this, the more peaceful our lives will be. Listen to elders, make your own decisions.
Vulnerability has come back with a vengeance, there is nothing wrong in acknowledging in public that you have set your limits, also that you need help from time to time. Ask for it, at home and at work.
Those of us who choose to have kids – know that we are the biggest brand ambassadors of what we want as women. If not anything, that should tell us what we need to and should listen to.
Look around, all the well managed countries have women in lead roles. The world is changing, be part of that change.
She asked for it, she had it coming…blaming the victim, slut shaming, especially when the perpetrators are blue eyed fraternity boys. Anyone remember Brock Turner?
A 1988 movie starring Jodie Foster as Sarah Tobias, the victim of a gruesome rape and Kelly McGillis as Kathryn Murphy, the Deputy District Attorney who fights her case. Sarah was brutally raped by three men in a local bar while a few others looked and cheered on the perpetrators. Initially it goes the expected route of a settlement with reduced charges, but Murphy goes on to bring justice to Sarah.
Loosely based on the 1983 gang rape case of Cheryl Araujo in Bedford, Massachusetts, the movie apparently ruffled more than a few feathers while it was being made, not a surprise in a predominantly male dominated industry. It was two women and their determination that had this movie made, the way it is – Sherry Lansing and Dawn Steel who were the first and second women to head a major Hollywood production house, Paramount and Columbia respectively.
McGillis was offered the choice of either characters , she picked the lawyer remembering her personal story of being raped a few years prior to this. As expected, she was accused of being publicity hungry. No surprises there either.
The picture was highly controversial at the time of its release due to the highly graphic representation of the rape. All the actors involved in the scene were seriously traumatized, Foster apparently burst a nerve in her right eye at the end of the three day long shoot of the scenes.
Nothing much has changed more than thirty years later, as cases like that of Brock Turner in 2015 show us. He walked out of jail after just three months.
Must watch, for its gripping storyline, stupendous performance by Jodi Foster, ably supported by McGillis.
It was raining last weekend. In spite of the number of unread books lying around, you continue to scroll mindlessly down social media feeds. The tip of your forefinger and the crook of your thumb may soon have callouses. You strike gold, though don’t realize it yet. The name of a book, mention of a movie, both catches your attention. Download, check.
Anne – Lise finds a manuscript in her hotel room in Finistere, Brittany. She gets curious, as is her nature. There is an address in the book without a name, a quote in pencil on the last page. Off she sends a letter to the address, hoping it will get to the right person and she can hand it off to the author. But stories never end that easily, do they?
Yes, she gets to the author, but then he has written only the first half. Thus starts a whodunnit of the best kind. No blood and gore, only mere human beings with their weaknesses, foibles, regrets and hopes. As expected, they do unravel the mystery.
It was akin to recapturing one’s young days when you keep everything aside and just read. Started in the morning, finished by evening. A smile on your face, a sigh of contentment that came from somewhere deep within. Going back in time does that to you, maybe?
Then came the movie. Reminded him of ‘Salt and Pepper,’ and ‘Ustad Hotel’ said the reviewer. Food was the only reference that was needed to break my mental block against Korean movies. If you ask me why the block, I do not have a clear answer, the actors look too perfect with their silky straight hair and porcelain faces? Perfection petrifies me.
Long story short as the cliche goes, the plunge was taken. What a beautiful movie! The picture and I felt like rain washed green leaves in a forest.
A young girl returns to her village. Her mother had left suddenly, just before the girl was to move to town for her studies. She hadn’t done well in studies or in love. And she ‘felt hungry,’ all the time. The house is all hers and she is alone there now. As it is in a village, you can never be left alone for long. Her old friends show up, so does her cranky old aunt.
Connections, to people, to your land – things that nurture you. Growing what you need, preparing your food, cooking, the way you eat it, it’s all part of a deeper experience. Even meditative. It’s not all gentle and smooth, though. There are conflicts, fun and struggle. There is also reconciliation, acceptance and growth.
Every tiny bit in the movie is a sensory experience. The room, its spare furnishings, the clean and tidy space that the kitchen is, the eastern utensils, the manner is which the broth is added, the cabbage leaves are sautéed, the egg is broken over a cabbage pancake, the sugar is burnt for a creme brûlée, the seeds being planted, onions seedlings sheltered with strawmats, the storm bruised rice stalks being padded up, each moment is gentle, subtle and ever so beautiful.
Let’s see what connections serendipity is planning to bring my way this weekend 🙂