I was in Kerala all last week. My mom wasn’t well and needed surgery. I found out Thursday, while I was in the middle of work (cos my parents believe that telling bad news is something that can be left to the last possible moment). I took the next flight out, at 4am. The week was spent running in and out of hospitals, mainly. There was a lot of waiting, a lot of stress, and a lot of suppression of emotions cos you have to look brave in front of mommy and act like everything’s gonna be okay so she’s not more freaked out than she already is.
Thankfully, it all did go okay. The surgery went well, and she’s recovering, though slowly. Before they wheeled her into surgery, she made sis and I promise that we’d participate in the Attukal pongala. Sis had already done it the previous year, with mom, but I’m not exactly religious. My religious practices revolve more around the eating of the prasad rather than the making of it!
If you’re too lazy to check the link, lemme give you an idea of what the Attukal Pongala is. It’s an offering of sweet rice pudding (or other stuff, this is what I made) for the deity of the Attukal temple in Trivandrum, Kerala. This ritual is meant to be done only by women (dunno why) and the prasad needs to be cooked outside, in a 5km radius around the temple. People flock to Trivandrum days in advance and reserve spaces around this 5 km radius to ensure that they have a good spot on D Day.
Fortunately, I happen to live around this 5km radius, and we asked our watchman to save a spot for us, so it was pretty chilled out for us, relatively. In fact, I think my aunt, sis and I had the easiest pongala ever cos we had a shady spot right beneath our building and could walk up to the apartment and back whenever we needed to. We didn’t have to go to our spots at 5am carrying all the ingredients (including water) and wait till 10:30 in the heat for when the ritual actually begins.
The payasam is easy enough to make -first add water and wait till it boils. Then add the rice. When the rice is half-cooked, add the jaggery and cardamom.
Towards the end, I added some grated coconut and chopped up a few small bananas as well. You can add other stuff like nuts and raisins, but I left it as is.
Pretty simple, right? The tricky part is doing this on a wood-fire, with an earthen pot propped on a “stove” of 3 bricks. The smoke from the fire makes your eyes water like crazy and you’re half-blinded by the tears and the smoke during the entire process.
In spite of this rudimentary method of cooking, I had a lot of fun. I was with my fun-aunt and my sis, and we shared a lot of laughs between us. Plus it was a relief to just concentrate on making the payasam instead of worrying about mom. It was somehow comforting to feel like I was doing something in an otherwise helpless situation. And it was a pleasure to see it all come together pretty easily into a tasty payasam. Everyone around me was doing the same thing (some people were making multiple pots even!), which kinda brought us all together in some strange way, even though I couldn’t relate to all the piousness and felt like I was a visitor in a Members Only area.
If you’re ever in Kerala during this time, you can’t escape the excitement for sure, but try and be a part of it, just for the experience. You won’t regret it.