Jackfruit. Chakka in Malayalam. It’s one of the few things left in this world that can bring a smile to my Grandmum Grumpy Face. Gmum where G stands for grumpy, has had enough of this world as she reminds us multiple times a day. But present her with the prospect of a jackfruit-related activity and she perks up like a politician seeing a TV crew.
It was no wonder then that the talk of this hallowed jackfruit began the minute I got home. Never mind that I had bought an exorbitant air ticket at the airport and waited all day to board this late evening flight. Never mind that I got home well past her bed time. And never mind the minor detail that the occasion for this emergency visit was my father being hospitalised. All she could talk about was the jackfruit.
She talked persuasively about the possibility of me looking into the plucking of the said jackfruit. It’s like the art of persuasion was child’s play to her. I don’t know how she does it. She never once asked if I would do it. But in the end I found myself in the mid-morning sun, staring up at the jackfruit tree, armed with a cane pole.
The night before Mission Jackfruit, she hunted down specific aluminum vessels of varying sizes for the much anticipated jackfruit disembowelment proceedings. Meticulous as she is, she had counted the number of fruits on the tree, called plavu in Malayalam. And there were 48. Guess Douglas Adams got the number wrong after all.
When the day of the jackfruit killing dawns, the excitement is palpable. Three of us, minions at her bidding, have emboldened her efforts. We are in a trance. Now she is shooting out commands faster than a machine gun. And now we are running around, willing ourselves to run for cover but involuntarily being efficient. We are mavericks prepping ourselves to go out into the big bad backyard and battle the plavu for a chakka.
For breakfast, Gmum goads us to fuel up with extra doshas and tea. When we reach the scene, we inspect the fruit hanging way above the rest, at least 15 feet above ground. And without further adieu, Mission Jackfruit, also known as the Chakka Murder of 2017 is underway. Being the only person under 65 years of age, I am entrusted with making the chakka kiss the floor. I have three supervisors, each one lower in rank than the next, with varied opinions on the best technique to tackle the situation. And I thank God for the extra shot of patience I took this morning.
Gmum cheers me on from the sidelines with an age old saying, Pennu Thuninjal Brahmanum Thadukkilla meaning when a woman decides to take action even Brahma won’t stop her. The minute I hit the chakka, my crew springs into action, like a school of piranhas, taking it apart and cooking it multiple ways, leaving behind delicious end products, all within the hour. This crew would make a stellar car stealing company selling spare parts.
If Gmum were a superhero, her wand would put both Spiderman and Harry Potter to shame. It collects sticky jackfruit latex called chakka mulanju. It’s primarily used for sealing pickled mango jars and she’s had it as long as I can remember. And if you wish to rain down the wrath of the Gmum on yourself, I dare you to touch this wand.
All parts of the chakka other than the core and the pokey rind are edible as Gmum has demonstrated time and again. She used to even salt and dry the covering of the seed (tholi), and the stringy covering of the flesh (chauni) and fry them as chips. Not one to waste anything, she would also use the inner layers of the rind in avial.
- Chips: As kids we grew up on endless supplies of chakka chips. I still gawk at the price of little packets of these in stores and imagine Gmum suffering a stroke when I tell her its price. Cut off the ends of the fleshy jackfruit segments so that you are left with similar sized pieces. Now make long slices of equal measurement so that they cook evenly. Fry in hot oil and stir till crispy. Then reduce the flame and add salted water. If the flame is high, the oil could overflow and catch fire. Gmum says “kilum kilum” is the sound chips make when they are done. I doubt we will ever get that sound right. And you can buy chakka chips online now.
- Moloshyam: Cook the fruit in water with salt, turmeric and chilly powder to taste. When they come together, add a spoon of coconut oil and a sprig of curry leaves. Chakka Moloshyam makes it worth the year-long wait for jackfruit season. This tastes even better when eaten with piping-hot kanji. Variations include adding a paste of coconut and cumin and occasionally shallots.
- Mezhukkupuratti: Another simple recipe is to crush shallots, whole red chillies and curry leaves and saute them with the fruit.
- Seeds: Chakkakuru added to both moloshyam and mezhukkupuratti make it yummier. But do expect some music from the rear.
- Chakka Varatti: If you prefer sweeter things, try chakka varatti which is essentially a jackfruit halwa. Made best with sweet ripened chakka, the flesh is cooked and then ground to a paste. Cook this paste with ghee and melted jaggery on a low flame. Starting with this semi liquid, stir till it darkens, leaves the sides of the vessel and easily forms a ball. Making this sweet is also a good upper arm exercise. This preparation can be stored for a while and be used in chakka adda which is a flat steamed/toasted rice dumpling filled with gooey jackfruit goodness.
- Pappadam: Grind cooked chakka to a paste along with cumin, pepper and salt. Spread in circles on cloth and dry in the sun. These can be stored and fried as required.
This is all in a day’s work for Gmum. She is more than half a century older than me but she still does more work in a day than I do in an entire week including crossfit. When we were both younger, I remember how she used to work like a horse from four in the morning to ten in the night; in the kitchen, around the house and in the backyard. Now that she is unable to work like that anymore, she has taken to employment generation for her minions. We are currently considering nominating her for the post of employment minister for the nation. She would give Make In India a boost that no one saw coming. If that’s not available we could settle for head of Vigilance or CBI, for such is her skill in triangulating information from seasoned evaders. Watch this space for more on these appointments.
The Technology of Love
The Love of Technology
Pedro has seen one fifth of the world. We meet him standing outside his cozy Voyager’s Cafe in Gwangju, South Korea in his signature beret. He is a tall, lanky man with retro spectacles and a dreamy smile. We had booked Pedro’s house for the night based on its Lonely Planet recommendation. Once we land in Gwangju, we stop for dinner at Ashley’s, a Korean-American buffet diner. Soon my phone rang. Pedro was checking up on us wondering if he could help us find our way to his place.
It’s the middle of the day. Max is asleep splayed out on the living room floor. He reminds me of my grandfather. Come to think of it, just like Max, I knew my grandfather only as an old man. He retired before I was born. I’ve never known him as the strict father, the dedicated son or the naive lawyer that he was. To me he was the strict but loving grandfather who always bought me vanilla flavoured Joy ice cream and vada with chutney parcels.
Soon Max will wake up and begin whining, a performance he reserves exclusively for me, apparently because I pay him more attention. In the last two days I have learned to ignore the whining. Often it escalates to barking. Ten minutes into that performance is my wit’s end. I am wired to be an impulsive person and patience for me, is a rational response. And rationality is the first out the door when I am overwhelmed by noise. Usually I stop working and pace around the house with Max in tow. In no time, he is pacified back to sleep. I’m pacing lesser and he seems calmer with every passing day. After all, we’ve known each other only for one work week.
By the time I got out of college, my grandfather was in his late eighties and would sleep intermittently all day just like Max. Instead of getting a job, I stayed back home so I could always be there when he woke up. He would call out my name with the same three requests; to know the time, to go to the loo or to make tea. Sometimes, just like Max, he would wake up angry or not know where he was. And I would lie down next to him, hug him and talk to him like he was a baby. By then his memory was failing but our bond only grew stronger. Even when he had trouble remembering names he would call out to me; all day and all night. At night, I would leave both our doors open and be by his bedside if he called out even once. For years after he passed I was a light sleeper, my mind tuned to that call in the night.
Our relationship was not one of respect or love. What we had for each other was overwhelming affection that knows nothing but to comfort. He carried me in his arms before I could walk, taught me the words I know and how to use them, fed me when I fussed or even when I didn’t. Now that he couldn’t walk, talk, eat, think or remember I was offering him the same comfort. I was saying, “I don’t know what you are feeling but I want you to know that I am here. We are in this together”.
Truth be told, I was anxious about adopting an old dog. I had never had a pet and I didn’t fully understand what being a pet owner entailed. But as I rang the doorbell to meet Max, out came a nose that burrowed into my hand to be petted. He circled me and sought out my love till he was sated. He then left to plonk in the middle of the living room and be dead to the world. And that put my mind at ease. Max is a well-behaved gentleman who avoids entering the kitchen and bathrooms. He is friendly, mild-mannered and hassle-free. In under a week he has reminded me how much love I am capable of and trained me in playing a responsible adult.
Like my grandfather, I have not known Max all his life. Max is over 11 years old now. He has lived a life full of experiences I will never know. I will never know why he doesn’t like other dogs, why the doorbell is the only noise that startles him or why he doesn’t like children touching his face. But since our lives collided last Sunday, I’ve learned that he is ticklish near his tail, does not like carrot sticks for treats and that he likes my attention over anything else. Soon we will learn to coexist. Beyond my awkwardness and his confusion, there is a life for both of us where we are connected by the bridge of overwhelming affection.
“Domlur?” she said, hailing down a rather new looking auto. As the automan slowed down and came to halt in front of her, he asked, “Route gotha, madam?” “Yes, yes, I know the route”, she said. It was Thursday and they were in no hurry to get to work. She sent up a thankyou! to the upstairs person for letting her off easy in this May morning sun. Finding an auto at 9 am had the reputation of teaching one patience.
1997 was not a particularly memorable year of what was my awkward childhood. However, a single memory stands out in all its pre-teen awkwardness. It was November, my birthday month. Being 11 still felt new against my skin.
It was a Children’s Day like none other. That year, 14 November fell on a Friday. And our Principal had had an English-medium brainwave! What does one bunk school and do best on a Friday? Watch a movie, of course. And it was decided that the entire school would watch, not just any movie, but Star Wars Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back, which had just been rereleased. In our small town, as an upper primary kid, no one asked me for my opinion or interest. Things were decided, we were told and obeying came naturally to us.
That’s how the entire school landed up at Jos Theatre that Friday morning at 9:00 am. We were sorted into batches and filed into the huge standalone theatre, which little me thought seated well over a ‘thou—uuu—sand’ people because that was a huge number back then.
Days leading to this momentous event buzzed with excitement. S-E-X! That was the word my classroom was channeling. An English movie—most of us hadn’t watched one. The ones who had were all sniggering, chuckling, whispering or acting important. Of course you were a lost cause if you didn’t know English movies were all about sex. Thank god I knew that much! The collective intelligence of 11 year olds wondered what had gotten into the adults to take us to an English movie!
I wasn’t entirely sure what everyone was excited about. Of course it was uncool to admit that. Back then, I didn’t know what sex was. There, I said it! I believed that when men and women reached a certain age, they got married and babies were born as a result of them sleeping beside each other on the same bed. Years later, when I was told the unique fitting required to make a baby (why else would you have sex? We are Indians!), I was sure I was being misinformed. Goes without saying that it took me a lot more years to QED why sex is awesome.
Anyway, when Children’s Day finally dawned and I wore my brown box skirt, I had no idea this movie was going to change my life. Once we fell in line, began a long wait—of standing, shuffling, staring and inching to get all ‘1000’ of us, some too young to understand anything useful in English, seated. Two hours later, we were finally in the cool darkness of wilful suspension.
By then I was bored to tears. And then the movie began. I wasn’t sure I understood anything. I strained to catch all the accented English floating around, but to no avail. The most disturbing question for me was—what is sex in this? I was sure I understood all the actions the actors were performing. I was equally sure that I hadn’t missed anything. If I understood all the actions, it automatically meant that none of that was sex. So if all English movies were about sex, I had understood all actions and hadn’t missed anything then…things weren’t quite matching up. Asking my classmates for confirmation was out of the question. I didn’t want to be ‘that’ kid. I was beginning to get anxious.
The movie was over 2 hours of concentration, frustration, disappointment and confusion. Then it was over as abruptly as it started, and we were waiting for our journey back into the real world to begin. When we escaped that air-conditioned cocoon, I was supposed to become a butterfly, colourful in my knowledge of what sex was. But my mind was still racing to find the answer.
And I did. In the 25 steps of madness from the theatre to its gate, where our school uniforms ran into the ocean of movie-goers, I became a woman; in the most practical sense of the word.
A hand broke the cover of my skirt and reached firmly into me. That unfaltering finger knew where it was going and what it was doing, though I didn’t. It was crowded. Anyway, why would anyone want to touch where I pee?
I turned around to look behind me. I expected someone to be smiling or waving or looking embarrassed — basically acknowledging the act. Well, that’s how young I was. When nobody owned up, I went back to wading through the humanity.
There it was – the hand … in and out and … again.
This time I was sure someone I knew was playing with me. So I didn’t react immediately. I waited for it to happen again. There … and … just missed. I couldn’t place the prankster.
I tried that stunt twice more. There … again.
By now we were in the middle of this quicksand of people. I was a child who happened to be a girl and not a girl who happened to be a child. And that’s when innocence left me. I didn’t know what ‘this’ was called but I knew ‘this’ was intentional.
Should I call out to Amma to check what ‘this’ is? In that rush … can’t it wait? I can see that she is trying her best to get me out of here. Shouldn’t I behave and tell her once we are back home? There it was again.
In those 7 minutes it took us to get to the front gate, everything changed. I, who knew nothing about sex a couple of minutes back — even after watching an “English” movie — suddenly knew what violation felt like, long before that word joined my vocabulary. Long before there were names, I knew who and what to protect my sex-less body from, but not why. I knew I didn’t want anyone making me feel as confused as I felt that day.
Those minutes slowed into hours over the years, as I began processing that event. All the way into my late 20s, I continued to ask myself — what should I have done that day? Deep in my consciousness, I know the answer; no 11 year old should have to know.
When my time-traveller stopped responding one fine Sunday morning, much jet fuel was burnt to get me home. My giant carbon footprint seemed to be stuck in my throat. On the ride home I prepared myself to console my marshmallow matriarch, the time traveller’s better half, who stood to be dulled by the death of her beloved. He was the breadwinner, she the breadmaker. They had been for 61 years. I was their bread-eater, have been for 28.
What was it like to lose the one you shared your life’s journey with? Without him would her memories fade? They had always stepped out with a purpose. A walk was to the temple, a taxi ride to visit her sister, a train journey to complete the circle of life. Their stories of travel, never little escapades, never a holiday, filled my ears for years; they still do.
It was soon after my parents got married that the duo went to Kashi. A town along the banks of the Ganges, a visit to Kashi is said to bring life full circle — a sacred pilgrimage for Hindus. In my bedtime tales, following the homemaker avatar of grihasthashrama, sanyasa always saw people denounce their families and go to Kashi to find God.
My grandparents just took the guided tour. They called it a pilgrimage, came right back home and it’s been 30 years since. A trip to be taken and thought of in utter piety, always and only reminds my marshmallow matriarch of the filthy narrow roads of the temple town and its omnipresent cows. How the betel-stained mouths of priests accosted them at the railway station making deals to perform the last rites of our ancestors!
They brought back Gangajal, holy water of the Ganges. I’d say Gangajal has a tough life, even in a bottle — nothing short of salvation is expected from it! My time-traveller was duly administered the same. She jokes that one could die solely of drinking that dirty water because of how polluted the Ganges is these days.
She was the memory collector, if he were the time-traveller. She grounded him. He’d go to her when he couldn’t remember and she would recollect till he caught on.
If you didn’t go anywhere and the world travelled to meet you, would you be well-travelled?
It’s been 68 years since her younger brother, at the age of five, had one of his kidneys removed. World War II had incapacitated even the far-away world they lived in. Without reservations available on the train, their father had held him in his arms all the 600 kms to Madras. The ‘Madras to be bombed’ rumour loomed large over them and they returned – after 45 days of blank noise- in a bullock cart from the railway station because their home wasn’t on any bus route. Operation successful. She never mentions that he went on to become a renowned cardiac surgeon. His life, all of it, as she experienced it, through hand-me-down details, is incredible and its destination was never the point.
If your experiences are only as good as your memories, and you are a memory-collector, could you be well-travelled?
Catalogued under his experience but with full retelling rights resting safely with her, the story of her nephew’s Rajasthani wedding is a marvel. The groom’s wedding party consisted all of 11 members which included my time-traveller and my marshmallow matriarch’s sister. Rajasthani weddings are all about sweetmeats. The story goes that after seven days of sweetened food, my marshmallow matriarch’s sister’s daughter, who was four at the time, finally pleaded with her uncle, “Please get me some good old rice and curd, please don’t make me eat another sweet, please!”. Our heroine wasn’t at this wedding. However, her sister who attended retells this story with these exact details; and that’s how memories travel – through storytellers.
Could the well-travelled bring back from faraway lands only perceptions that reinforce their beliefs?
On a visit to Chandigarh, they stayed over with a relative. The morning they were to leave, she offered to make them Upma, an easy semolina dish, for breakfast. Chandigarh is one of India’s only planned cities. From this hub of town planning, she chooses to remember this: that the lady realised there was no semolina at home when she got to the end of preparation and the water began to boil; that she sent her husband scurrying through the well-planned roads of Chandigarh that Sunday dawn, in search of semolina; that they had toast for breakfast.
If yes is the answer, if the world could travel to meet you, if travel is a collection of memories and if your perceptions rarely change, then it all makes sense. ‘They’ is no more. It’s been a month since my time-traveller left her to curate their memories.
Jasmine, that’s what our house smells like.
It’s not an urban jungle, my garden. Giving the jasmine company is the long-ish bed of some plant I like to simply call spinach (for no reason) with delicately coloured pretty flowers.
We made dinner with loving hands, hungry voices and happy noses; we sat adjacent to each other and ate from our porcelain plates. Now, washing up has stopped being a chore, and so has cooking. We walked off our dinner along Champak-lined streets, its fragrance seducing my fiesty curls. The beauty of repetition dawns when we walk arm in arm, the way we know how we fit. Our bedroom smells of Sampige too, thanks to the thoughtful Chembakam outside our window.
On lazy Sunday afternoons, I make small talk with all our bookshelf people, though of course I like mine better than his. They watch me, like an audience, from a world of their own. Neatly overflowing, my books always find their way back home to the bookshelf. His books are elite and you cannot open one at random; you need a certain standing in society to mingle with them.
Our TV watches, him, me, and everything we do, through her omniscient eye. She wants us to know that she is ready to play a movie, any movie we fancy watching. She wants us to watch her channels perform but she knows that’s out of the question. Hence the offer we can’t refuse. Him, me and her end up sharing our suspension of disbelief. On a sofa, the right one, on whose purchase we spent quarter of a year, we sit comfortable, curves melting, bones cushioned, ready to fall asleep at the stench of the movie turning lousy.
As I lay there, an aside in my brain processes the things in our storeroom. I have two kinds of pickle, with another one waiting to be made. I have three homemade attempts at winemaking in different stages of completion. I could bake a cake this evening with a touch of improvisation. I take stock of supplies, the ones I need to use and the ones I need to buy. I don’t wonder what his brain is up to. The joy we sought has been found, like a dual-sim phone, we live together but still keep our heads separate.
We pay no maid because we love playing house. The chores aren’t divided between us, no one is responsible for anything but it’s an understanding that these need to get done, no matter who does it. Another understanding is that the other will step in without a word when required. We step out during the week, for beer, movie, play, fair or for an occasional mandatory sighting. We don’t have children yet, but we talk to them, about them. Our Future stands at earshot, listening.
The love has stabilised, it’s within the limits of expression now and our hearts aren’t bursting out of our chests. We are not a perfect match, we are not the dream partners, we don’t understand each other or share common interests. The respect, however, has grown, so has the camaraderie. Love is too commonplace to be mentioned. There is a sense of fitting well, a feeling that I previously thought only a pair of jeans could provide. We have our fights, of loudness so deaf followed by silence so loud. But we are both eager to make up and we are glad to have fought because the fight seems to have filed away yet another sharp edge. We fit better making our hugs a national convention of skin.
There is work, family, friends, bad drivers, opinions, things each of us doesn’t like to do, things we are forced to do, duties we forget, meetings we don’t make it to, points we cannot convince each other on and things we don’t appreciate to exasperate us as a couple. But, we seem to be gliding, our only surety that of being attached to the glider; me-mine-him, he-his-me. That everything can be dealt with as long as we stand by each other. That we are each other’s strength and weakness.
Distance has always been a part-time friend; the best part being the dream I could invent. Whatever life with him serves up now, it wouldn’t upset me for I have lived my tame Jasmine-scented dream. I am ready for my chaotic reality. This is how I smell a dream.
I’ve met once a time traveller, during one of my many sabbaticals from life it was. He was like a peaceful child, unperturbed by the loud world around him. The blind world that shouted at him as if their disability were deafness. And he listened to it all, all the curses they send his way, all the orders at odds, all the cruel jokes and other manifestations of stress. I’ve often wondered the source of his peace and it is clear to me now, clear yet heady like vodka. It is their high levels of stress that fuels his travails in time.
He was in his sixties last Wednesday. A fun time to be in life, I imagine-settled, retired, relaxed-I wonder what he sees, I can only hear his replies. Future or past, wherever he might go, it’s an uncomfortable feeling-like eavesdropping-listening to someone time-travel. But he doesn’t leave me a choice, I have to stay with him at all times and he leaves without notice.
He met an acquaintance the other day. He wanted to learn her whereabouts in real time. Our efforts fell to their beautiful death like autumn leaves because I couldn’t travel with him but the intriguing dimensions I reconstructed of his reality were beautiful. I am into reconstruction, big time. Mainly because he doesn’t take me with him.
Seated next to me on an old bed that sagged like a soaked slice of bread, he could see not the nondescript lane outside our window but a life lived in another eon, equally commonplace, even more so. Instead of the room lived in by our lives, he saw a clinic with sloping rooms fit for terrace farming. He met with children who stood atop the tube light and he was quick to caution the man who stood inside the table fan. When the cupboard was opened, his eager voice wanted a nameless someone to get ready on time for the chauffeured car that would soon be sent to get them.
One day he was a magician who had lost his pouch of gold dust in his handkerchief and on other rare days he was a positively resigned old man in purgatory. On a usual day, he would stop feeling generous and want to account for all ten of his wife’s gold bangles. Quite a wife, to own ten gold bangles! He led an expedition far and wide to search, count, pat down and account for every one of those ten bangles and didn’t want to stop till every inch of his vast empire of an entire bed was turned inside out.
Such information did alarm me before I knew he was a time traveller. Now I roam mindless, my ears always alongside him on his trips, mesmerised by what his mind’s eye conjures, from the shackles of his bed and I imagine I am with him, holding his hand, seeing what he sees. He used to be my grandfather, before he was a time traveller, now he always will be…