Sunday, 1 November 2015

God's Own Country

Yesterday I dreamt about Kerala; possibly because we are traveling to Cochin next week. I dreamt about the family, the aromas, the loud, happy conversations and the food. As a child though, I always looked upon our yearly holidays to Kerala with trepedition. We were always welcomed by a sea of happy faces. They laughed, spoke loudly, kissed, pinched my cheeks, forced food onto our plates, and enquired if I knew who they were. Over time I began to dread this question of whether I knew who they were. While I had the answers, I dreaded the sudden quiet that filled the room, while they waited for my response. “Yes”, I would mutter shyly and rattle out all their names in quick succession. They would all then smile and go about their chatter. Shy and inhibited, I would then retreat back into my shell.

Decades later, I'm nostalgic, as I remember those holidays with a sort of yearning. I think about my Dad and his brothers, who sat around my grandmother, sipping cups of black coffee and talking. While we kids were always engaged in some game or the other, we looked forward to the promise of hearing my grandmother's stories. And when she was free, she obliged. Looking happily at the big group of grandchildren huddled around her, as she would then narrate tales we'd heard several times earlier. As kids we would play, fight, buy little treats from a neighboring store, and listen in on all the conversations that the elders engaged in. I didn't always understand the jokes in malayalam, but I enjoyed the loud, uninhibited laughter that followed.

While we were having fun, the women would be busy chatting and cutting vegetables. The table was always filled with food that the aunts made with precision. The beans and cabbage were perfectly cut, and the curry always had the right amount of spices. My grandmother was a stickler for perfection and her daughters-in-law made sure she never had anything to complain about. So if the main meals were being cooked in the kitchen, trays filled with glasses of coffee and snacks were being passed around. They always thought I was a bit strange though, as I didn't take the jackfruit halwa or the little laddoos made with avalose podi. I prefered to take refuge in the loaves of bread that were bought specially for us. “Why would you eat dried bread, when you could get some halwa”, said an amused aunt. We sadly didn't appreciate any of the food; not even the tapioca with fish curry , the fried beef, and the turmeric infused butter milk poured generously over a heap of boiled red rice. We didn't enjoy the appam with stew or fill up our tummies with bananas either. Incidentally, I developed a taste for all of that (except the halwa that I still cannot stomach) as I grew up. If she'd been alive, my grandmother would have been proud of the appams I churn out in my kitchen today.

I remember Kerala being all about visits. We visited aunts and uncles and their families, before it was time to head back. And of all the homes we visited, the household I remember most is my uncle's. Tucked away in lush, green Alwaye, my uncle and family lived in a modest little home, that exuded the most warmth and joy. We were always greeted to the sound of my excitable cousin who bounced around excitedly, generously giving us all hugs and kisses. I was always shy at the beginning. So I would hide behind my mom, while everyone urged me to come forward. “Let's see how much you've grown”, my aunt would encourage me gently. My other cousin would then attempt to befriend me by making funny faces, while the grownups went in to catch up on all the news. My mom helped my aunt who moved swiftly in her kitchen, churning out some of the biggest spreads. Meanwhile my uncle and Dad would catch up on family news and Kerala politics. My uncle and aunt kept open house, where they welcomed everyone with open arms. The house was always swarming with activity. Relatives poured in from everywhere. While the men talked loudly amidst card games, the women gathered in the kitchen to help and chat. Meanwhile the kids played all kinds of games. There was never a quiet moment, and when it was time to sleep, there was always enough place for everyone, just as there was always enough food for everyone.

My uncle, my dad's oldest brother, was a man of extremes. If he never shied away from expressing his irritation, he also never stopped himself from tearing up every time someone or something moved him. Dressed in resplendent white, with neatly combed hair that was never out of place, he was a picture of dignity. He laughed as easily as he wept, and was forever willing to help. My aunt, his partner of many years, was the kind and gentle presence that completed him. She lived by her deep faith in God, and took care of the family with undying patience and love. As a child though I only remembered seeing her in the kitchen. She cooked and cooked, ensuring the table was never empty. She'd look away at regular intervals to ask us about our lives in Assam, and whether we wanted something to munch on. One of the best hosts I've known, they both lived a way of life that is so impossible in today's hectic world. Warm and welcoming, to them it didn't matter if you weren't immediate family. You could be a distant relative, a friend of the family or a friend of a distant relative, and still be privy to their hospitality.

Last year, we lost them both. My uncle passed away after a brief illness, and my aunt followed quietly, months later. Though I missed my aunt's funeral, I was there for my uncle's, and what a grand funeral it was. We got a glimpse into the man that he was, when we witnessed the outpouring of grief. Friends and family gathered from allover, to say goodbye to the man who had helped so many. I heard tales of his generosity and his big heart, alongside tales of his childlike temper. While people grieved, his widow sat by his body, looking frail and jaundiced. She consoled all those around her, assuring them that he was in a better place. She missed him terribly, but her faith assured her that they would be reunited eventually. Months later, she followed, leaving behind a huge void.

Going back to the house will now feel strange. It is a house that still reverberates with the sound of laughter and relentless chatter. However, it is a house that definitely misses two important figures. Nonetheless, I'm excited about spending time there. The deaths in the last year have only reminded me that life is too short. So while Kerala promises to be hot, humid and hectic, finally relationships matter most!