Visits to Bangalore were more sedate, because my maternal grandparents were very different from my paternal grandparents. They were very disciplined and strict and their house was quiet. We had to be careful not to make any noise.No other kids lived nearby so it was just me and my sister who is six years younger, and not much company at that age for me. I used to raid thatha's library - and he had a superb set of hardbound books brought out by the Times around 1920, of the world's best detective stories, a condensed version of the world's greatest novels and so on. I read the unabridged version of Oliver Twist when I was around six, and reading and re-reading these books was pretty much the only recreation.
Ajji was somehow even more forbidding, even though we knew she loved us. She was highly orthodox, which meant all kinds of rules to be followed. We had to leave our slippers inside the front porch of the house. In the mornings, she'd rise very early, around 5 am, and have a bath. Every day, she'd wash out her saree for the next day, along with the blouse and petticoat and hang it up on a really high set of rods - they were set at about 8 feet high and ajji was only 5 feet tall, so she had a long pole she'd learnt to manouevre expertly to put her clothes up there. No one was supposed to touch these, because they were 'madi' or cleansed. After her bath, she'd enter the kitchen ( never before), brew coffee for everyone and then do her puja before she made breakfast. No one was supposed to enter the kitchen before they had bathed, and no one was supposed to touch her before she was done cooking for the day.
We as kids were always a bit confused about the rules, and when we could approach her and when we couldn't, which worked to put us at a little bit of a distance from her. She on the other hand was a traditional south Indian, which meant she was reserved about expressing her emotions. Her love for us kids would mostly be expressed through a series of strictures about obeying our parents and behaving well, which we found kind of boring. The other way she expressed her love, which I came to understand only much later, was through cooking.
Ajji took incredible pains over cooking for her grandkids. Inevitably when we reached their home, we'd find that ajji had made coconut burfee - a sweet concoction with fresh or dry coconut, sugar, cardamom etc. We all loved ajji's coconut burfee, and even today when she sends me a care package, this is usually one of the things she puts in. She used to make a potato palya with very finely cubed potatoes - they were barely 3 millimeters in width and height. It used to take her hours of slaving over a medium heat stove, stirring constantly to bring them to the perfect state of crispness, and she unfailingly used to make them whenever we visited - a real labour of love.
One thing she used to regularly make for breakfast was uppittu. This was thatha's favourite breakfast too, so we'd have it at least twice a week. Uppittu is made with semolina, and ajji used to find really fine grains of mustard seeds to flavour it with. The final dish the way ajji turned it out was fluffy, warm, mildly spicy and somehow tender with the love she had for all of us. Whenever ajji visits, I still ask her to make it every few days, and it has been a favourite of every one of her 7 grandchildren, and her great grandson - my son. Though I do make it for breakfast myself, somehow I feel my version lacks the secret ingredient ajji puts into it - a lifetime of love and sacrifice for those she loved.
Years later, after I'd had my son, ajji and thatha came to visit and help out with their first great grandchild. We shared stories as wives and mothers, and I came to know the person behind the name. I heard her backstory and learned to appreciate the quiet strength as well as the adventurous nature of this 78 year old who still walked or took buses everywhere. She had travelled the length and breadth of India on bus tours, all by herself, way back in the 50s. The woman who wouldn't eat watermelon because she thought it was red like meat was also the one who climbed up the mountain to Vaishnodevi on foot at the age of 65. The traditionalist who always followed the rules was first in line to dance in my cousin's baraat.
I sometimes wonder what she would have done given the freedom and opportunities we have now. Despite her quiet exterior and her fragile appearance, she's a woman of great strength, and in some way, the strength comes from the fact that she has always been about giving. I just hope by the time I get to her age I have even half her grit, her ability to give and her enjoyment of life.
1 cup slightly coarse-grained semolina ( available at any Indian store - ask for sooji)
800 ml water
2-3 green chillies, finely chopped
1 tsp fine black mustard seeds
Curry leaves - 1 sprig
1 tsp urad dal
1 tbsp groundnut oil
Handful grated fresh coconut
Salt to taste
1. Put the water on to boil.
2. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a bandley ( wok).
3. Add the mustard seeds and wait for them to crackle and pop.
4. Add the urad dal and wait for it to brown slightly. Quickly add the green chillies and the curry leaves.
5. When the curry leaves turn crisp, add in the semolina and salt and stir to mix. Roast for 4-5 minutes until the semolina starts giving off an aroma but before it browns at all. By this time, the water should have started boiling.
6. Working quickly, turn the heat all the way down on the burner which has the semolina mix. Pour the hot water on top of all the ingredients in the wok, stirring to mix using a long handled spoon. (The mixture will dance around the pan like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever). There will be hissing sounds and the mixture will spit - just ignore the sound and fury and make sure the water reaches through the mix to the bottom of the pan. Cover the pan with a tightly fitting lid and let cook for 2-3 minutes.
7. Remove the lid and stir to mix the uppittu. Don't worry if there are grainy, uncooked looking bits of semolina in the pan. When you mix everything up together, they will get cooked.
8. Top with the grated coconut.
Serve hot, garnished with finely chopped coriander leaves, if you like. We loved eating this with homemade curds ( plain yoghurt) or sometimes with a dash of lemon juice.
This blog was sparked off by a wonderful reminiscence event by Vanilje's kitchen: Apples and thyme (http://vanielje.blogspot.com/2007/10/apples-thyme-celebration-of-mothers-and.html)