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Kottuncheri

When something is lost at home, Mouma says that we can find it by praying to Goddess Kottuncheri and that when we do find it; we must please her by celebrating our joy.

Kottuncheri, like all rituals has a coconut, a vessel to keep it in, some beetle leaves, and five women. The coconut is made to fit inside the vessel, along with three adjoining beetle leaves. This is then put on a stool. The five women, of any age and size assemble around the stool. And when the eldest woman says start, they start running around the stool, like fire in the mountain, run, run, run. They run and while they run, they must chant loudly, ha – ha – ha – ha and clap their hands.

They do this for five rounds and stop. Mouma says that not all ghosts are evil and that some are even friendly and naughty, like children. These children -type ghosts like hiding objects that we are fond of. But they don’t like being laughed at and so, when we laugh loudly, it embarrasses them and they give up and return what they took from us.

I was 9 when I first saw a Kottuncheri. I didn’t mind not being part of it. I just wanted to watch these women clap their hands and say ha-ha-ha. Watching my mother do this was delightful. I’d never seen her body move around so much and she laughed so animatedly that I was sad when they stopped after the fifth round. I’d often lie and say I’ve lost my report card or my most important tie to be able to watch Kottuncheri. Mouma would sincerely conduct Kottuncheri sessions regardless of how well she knew my lies.

Mouma’s small, old body that I’m too afraid to watch even climb down the stairs hops from one side to another when she does Kottuncheri. Her shoulders sway when she jumps and claps on either side of her body.

Not all things that were lost have been found. But that’s not why they do Kottuncheri, I think. They just do it to clap their hands after a long time and laugh ha-ha-ha.

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Mouma

Mouma’s neck is wrinkly like her hands. If I put my hands around her neck, and give it a good squeeze, I imagine I can feel the soft wriggly mass of bloody veins inside. When Mouma uses fair and lovely, she rubs her palms over her face and the film never leaves her. Not even in the evening when she returns home from wherever it is she goes to. She likes body massages and facials so all us sisters have painfully sat through these sessions, rubbing her face with whatever cream we could find, sometimes even using toothpaste on her cheeks, having convinced her that it’s really an imported brand.

When I was small, I’d sneak into her room to look for hidden packets of vibhooti – ones she’d hide just for me – away from mom’s reach. These packets came in varied bright colors – orange, green, blue, pink – made of cheap papery material, but all tiny and folded eloquently. Opening these packets was never fussy in the way that opening packets usually is. The thin layer of vibhooti would sit in an even, rectangular film. I wanted to ravage it and also not because it looked strangely perfect. In no less than two seconds, I’d paste my tongue on the vibhooti and hold it there for a minute. After I was sure that enough of it had been taken in, I’d roll my tongue back and wait for the burnt carbony taste to take over.

After devouring the vibhooti, I’d stand in front of the mirror to adore the white traces left behind. And then my stomach would rumble and I’d feel sick from the ash taste in my mouth.

Mouma’s room always smelled different from the rest of the house. While the rest of the house baked in the warm afternoon sun, her room was never hot.

No matter what time in the day it is, in Mangalore, all houses smell of Dalithoy. When they put ghee into the pan to make Dalithoy, the smell is the strongest in the hall and the doorway. From here it escapes to the neighbours’ house just as their Dalithoy smells come to us. Like this, we all live in one giant Dalithoy pan.

Except in mouma’s room though – where it smelled a little of marie biscuits, vibhooti and mostly other temple smells. A TV and a big tape recorder sat in two different corners of the room. She only switched the TV on in the evenings to watch her serials. And the tape recorder was only used to keep other things on top of it. I was surprised to find out much later that it actually worked.

Mouma’s tirganos (underskirts) were, like the packets of vibhooti, varied bright colors – green, red, and orange. They were all faded and that’s the only item of her clothing that I saw everywhere in her room. Even though she may have owned only three, it always seems like she had more. Her sarees, on the other hand were plenty and yet I remember only the yellow one with the red dots that she wore. This is the saree that I don’t remember being folded at all. It was worn, washed and made to fall in the heap full of freshly washed clothes, where it was picked up from and worn again as if it never left her body.

While it was being washed, she wore a blouse that was too small for her and a tirgano, like a proper Malabar woman. She kept her hair open when she was at home. And when she went out, she wore a phanthi (wig) and coiled all of it into a dignified bun. She stole lipsticks and creams from her daughters and hid all of them somewhere in her room. She stole bras from her grand-daughters that no one knows where she hides. Let alone what she does with them.

My Mouma, my heroine.

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To Georgie

My grandfather had nice, white, round teeth that he removed every night and put in a tumbler of cold water before sleeping. We were only allowed to touch it when it was in his mouth. In the morning when it was all there, my sister and I‘d see him and ask him to smile for us. He’d laugh and my sister and I’d make plans again to wake up extra early the next morning to watch him wear his teeth. As it turned out, no matter how early we woke, it was never early enough to catch him wearing his teeth.

Maybe he never took them off. Maybe he waited for us to leave and put them back on before he slept every night. Either ways, the tumbler he put his teeth in came alive like a new story, only in the night. During the day, it stayed forgotten under the cot it was pushed.

He had the nicest smile. It was always a small smile that lasted no more than 5 seconds regardless of how well one knew him. The corners of his sometimes unshaven mouth would glisten under the heavy spectacles he wore. He had short white hair and soft blue eyes; blue of the Indian old people eye blue- blue; the silvery, agile blue that will stick to your finger if you are ever brave enough to poke the eye.

He lost his vision 5 years before he died and for 5 years, we saw many nurses come and go. The longest he had, stayed for 6 months. She was an unruly sort of a woman who yelled at him when she thought no one was around. She’d sit in the balcony for hours together fighting with her lover on the phone. On days that there was no spat, she was cheerful and sang songs that upset my grandfather.

When ma first told us that he couldn’t see anymore, I wondered what he’d miss seeing the most. The answer was simple. He had had the biggest crush on Preity Zinta. He’d miss seeing her dimples the most.

***

Ajja told us stories of The Ramayana and Mahabharata. In Bhadravathi, where we went every year for Diwali, the cousins and I’d gather around him and listen to the stories. He’d close his eyes, his palms resting evenly on his lap, his white Lux bunian and panche softer and warmer than ironed clothes. He told us stories about poor men who became rich, about greedy men who cut open a hen’s stomach to get golden eggs, about princesses who were sad, about housewives who watered fingernail trees, about crows, monkeys and other animals who fought and became friends again.

We knew the stories by-heart. We knew points in these stories where his voice would dim into whispers and the points where it’d rise into fury. When he narrated Sita’s tragedy, his voice quivered, when he spoke about Hanuman, his voice took charge of his posture, his hands flailing about imitating Hanuman’s. When he spoke about Ram and Lakshman, his voice was demanding and angry but never forceful in a masculine way. His story voice was determinedly and uniformly feminine.

In all the time that I’ve known him, I don’t think my grandfather ever wore creased panches. Dipped in a bucketful of water, I imagine they broke apart and came together like cotton. Not like the bunians he wore – torn here and there in small, bird-bite sized holes, sometimes near the armpit, sometimes near the middle of his chest.

***

In his quieter moments after he lost sight, Ajja would sit by the door, on a chair that was decidedly his in the Veranda, eavesdropping on conversations. At any given point, my grandfather would be the only man in the house to know why the women in the house were fighting. He was never one to dismiss these fights as silly. He took great interest in the things that happened at home. He knew the lazy maids by the shoddy way in which they swept and swabbed the floor. He also knew them by the days they wouldn’t turn up and this he painfully reminded my mother at the end of every month when she handed them their salary. He knew his wife’s moods by the kind of shit she watched on television. He knew not to ask for an extra helping of anything during lunch if the afternoon was still brewing in the warm remains of a morning fight.

When he agreed with the Udaya TV news on any given day, he’d loudly say Bhesh! When he wanted to decry what he watched, he’d shake his head quietly like an animal trying to get rid of flies. In any case, he took the news more personally than his marriage.

***

Ajja

I realized that my grandmother did not talk to my grandfather only after it was pointed to me. For a long time, I was oblivious to their relationship. They seemed like any other old couple. They shrugged and nodded to communicate. She’d bang his breakfast on the table and he’d complain about the food loud enough for everybody to hear. I assumed that that’s how they always were.

I cannot picture them talking to each other, the way my parents do nor can I imagine them in the company of others – laughing and making merry. I learnt much later that what they did and how they went by without talking to each other was something that nobody understood but everyone knew about.

The eldest son my grandparents had was their favourite. When Ajja got his PPF money, Ajji told him to save it so they could buy a house for themselves. He refused to listen to her and gave his eldest son all the money. This, I am told, is the reason why Ajji stopped talking to Ajja and started a cold war that lasted well until his death 4 years ago.

I am also told that Ajja had great love for his wife that he showed only in moments. She was the stone-hearted one, they all say. But I’m inclined to believe that Ajji was well within her rights to be demanding. She is a fiercely independent woman who suffers even to this day from the curse of having far too many men around her.

Ajji’s harshest critic was her younger sister, Sumitramma — A husband- worshipping woman who wouldn’t let a day go by without attempting peace between her sister and brother-in-law.

Many years ago, the sisters and my mother went to watch a Malashree film about a family that is saved by the daughter-in-law. Savior AKA Malashree looks deep into the camera at one point and says something about Mangalya being the biggest swarga for women (Read: husband is heaven, god and all those things)

This is the moment that Sumitramma wisely chose to instruct her sister. Keldiya akka (Did you listen to that?), she asked her sister. Ajji calmly stood up and then walked off to sit seven rows away from Sumitramma. She watched the rest of the film alone. My mother who found the whole thing funny reported this to us with great, strong laughs.

***

From my father, who inherited his father’s baldness, I learnt that Ajja didn’t let him study Hindi in school. This is something that dad continued to hold against him for a long time. But ma thinks he’s far more upset about the baldness.

When they were travelling once – Ajja and my parents – dad told ma to breathe in deeply every time they passed a forest area. Ajja, needless to say, overheard and reported this to Sumitramma. Usradakku helkodtane. He teaches her how to breathe also.

Sumitramma only told him that he is after all, Ajja’s son – loves his wife far too much for his own good. When Ajja heard this, he walked off and never brought it up again.

***

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How I found out what Jasmine was

As children, we were taken to Bhadravathi every Diwali to celebrate Hiriyar Habba. It’s a festival to remember and honour the dead– in this case, my grandfather’s father and his father. We would leave Belgaum early in the morning and reach Bhadravathi by evening. All I knew about the place back then was that it’s a little after Shimoga and that there is a lovely little bridge at the entrance to the city. Year after year, almost decidedly, dad would point to the bridge and say ‘This is a Bridge. Under this are the rivers Tunga and Bhadra. That’s why the city is called Bhadravathi.’

But I have come to associate Bhadravathi with other things. Things like the smell of bhajjis being fried and the early evening throw ball matches. At the junction where we took right to get home was the steel factory. I still don’t know how and why my uncle chose to live in Bhadravathi. But I know he had a job over at the steel factory.

My favourite part about going home to Bhadravathi was the home itself. It was a pretty long house. Long is the aptest word I can think of because that’s what it was. It wasn’t big. It was stretched long. I could stand at the gate and peep into the veranda, all the way into the hall, the dining hall, and be able to see the choola in the kitchen. The kitchen was the darkest corner of the house. The bathroom was further away, in the back. The toilet wasn’t located inside the house. One had to walk around the house, behind the shed and the clothesline to find another small shed, which was the toilet.

A bucket full of water had to be filled from the small tank near the clothesline before going to the toilet. I grew rather fond of this little adventure until one time that I forgot to take a bucket of water and had to holler for help.

Once we had settled in, I would see mother only very rarely. She would disappear into the kitchen and I saw her only when the gang got tired of playing and one by one, we would make our way into the kitchen to steal alu bondas and eerulli bhajjis. We ran wild and mad, away from the screaming aunties to some tree or the occasional park. Mostly we locked ourselves up in a room, where we would settle down on a bed sheet and munch away till we were called for lunch.

Slowly, I don’t know how but the boys and girls would start fighting and this would always lead to a throw ball match. Dad would be on their side and occasionally, on ours. N and H were always good at throw ball so the girls didn’t have to worry. They were our pillars. N manned the back and put H and me in the front. They gave the boys a hard time. Sometimes the boys would win, but we won the last and the most important match.

If they won, we wouldn’t talk to them all evening. They would snigger first, laugh next and eventually somebody would cheer us up into talking to them once again. While lunch was a festive occasion, dinner was grand. A section of the children’s room would be cleared out to make room for the photographs of those deceased. One by one, the girls would be sent to bring in the food and boys were sent to bring fruits, flowers and incense. Older uncles would stand in a corner and debate brands of alcohol. ‘Not for us, for them’, was whispered every now and then. I don’t recall being stumped by this back then. It’s only now that this detail interests me. Alcohol and beedis were brought and kept in the middle of all that food. Nobody looked embarrassed and it continued to sit there, looking like a showpiece, all innocent.

When I asked once, I was told that it was to please the dead people, to make sure that everything they liked to eat and drink was given to them. After the pooja, we would all leave the house and wait outside for five minutes so the dead people could come, eat to their heart’s content and go.

Later in the night, we wouldn’t sleep. We would stay awake to talk. About what? Nobody cared. But we did.

On our way back to Belgaum, mom would tell us everything that happened in the kitchen. The funny bits would keep my dad chuckling for weeks. The funniest so far was my older aunt saying that the darkest man in the family was the younger aunt’s husband. The younger aunt didn’t pause for a moment before saying, ‘ya, your husband is one nandi-battalu-hoova no?’

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Runaway Granny!

This is a story that I have wanted to tell for some time now. I didn’t really know it was a story so I didn’t bother looking there all this while.  It became a story this morning when I eavesdropped on a conversation that my mother and sister were having about my grandmother. My father has always thought that I am like his mother. It’s like this general consensus that I’ve grown up listening to. Now that I think about it, everytime I expressed a stubborn desire to do something that nobody approved of, I was told that I am like her. For the longest time, in fact even until before 2 months, this was offensive to me. This comparison. Everytime someone wanted to make me feel bad and  wanted to make me stop ‘wanting’ something I could not have, either because I was too young or because I was a girl, I was told that I am like my Grandmother.  It was said in a tone to put me back in my place.

I don’t remember having spent much time with her except for our long morning walks together in Belgaum. My grandmother is the quietest person I have met.  Too much has been said about her in the houses that I grew up in. Too much more has been said about her in the houses of my mother’s sisters. Stories of torture and stubbornness and arrogance and my mother’s silent battle against this woman who made life hell for her. This is the story that was told to me by everybody who knew her. I see another story here though. I don’t know much of her past and whether or not she was happy in her marriage, whether or not she liked her children but I do know that she liked being on her own. She wasn’t much of a talker, didn’t like small talk, ate on her own, watched TV on her own and stuff. And these were things that she was constantly being judged for.

Women who like their space are never liked in this family. It’s only now I realise how strong she was/is to stand up to all these fellows. Now I can see why my father and I have issues. He’s trying hard to tame me and I am trying harder to run away. Everybody hated her for how often she wanted to run away everytime there was a fight at home.  And god knows how much my mother wants to silence of the lambs me everytime I mention wanting to live alone. It scares them.  When women in my family think of running away as an option, scares the crap out of them.

I think my granny was unhappy  because she couldn’t be by herself and when I think of how much she could have had if only she was born a generation later; it makes me want to hug my parents so I immediately stop thinking dangerous things like that. I look at what I have now and how much more I can have, if only I stop being a lazy chicken and start work on my escape plan.

I think she was fond of me but she liked my sister better because she was the good one.  See, that’s the crazy thing. I don’t know how these things work.  Anyhow, think how much she would have loved to have a room of her own.  Think how many more people she could have pissed off if she had lived alone, just the way she wanted to. Especially my father. Strange strange family. I have daddy issues and he has mommy issues. But she actually has no issues.  She would have been a happy person if everybody just left her alone! If only she could have run away.