The Mystical and the Mythical

As you probably know, I’m Indian, though I’ve lived in Dubai most of my life. I’ve been to India too many times to count, and have even lived there for a few years for under-grad and then work. But every time I go there, I experience something new! It may be places I never knew about, food I’ve never tasted before, or customs and traditions that I never knew existed. 

For instance, have you heard of the Indian Devil Tree? In Kerala, they call it the pala maram. It is said that a yakshi (female demon) lives in this tree and likes to drink the blood of men and eat up children! At least, that’s the folklore I’ve heard. They  apparently have really long hair to hide their back, which is hollow and they don’t walk, but glide across the ground (which is lucky cos their feet are placed backwards :P). They are supposed to be really beautiful and lure the men in with their beauty and finally kill them (not sure why!). They come out of the tree when the flowers bloom and the smell of the flowers is supposed to be quite intoxicating. 

Now, my bedroom in my house in Trivandrum has a balcony which is shaded by a massive version of the Indian devil tree! Though I’m not usually bothered by the tree or any tree-hugging demon that may be living there, I occasionally wonder about all the myths and legends behind it, and then scare myself to the point that I can’t sleep at night! Yeah, I’m a wuss like that. It’s kinda also why I never watch horror movies! :P

So imagine my surprise when I saw this little procession walk by!

procession

procession

Mom said they looked like they were on a pilgrimage of some sort.

2

that guy looks like he’s covered in turmeric!

Then this wild looking guy comes up…

Then this scary looking dude came up

What’s going on?

… stops in front of the devil tree…

photo (17)

erm?

…and smears kumkum on it! 

!!!

!!!

 

photo (13)

praying?

I think he then said a little prayer, then they all walked away, still playing the drums and singing phrases I couldn’t understand. I asked my mom what was happening, and she explained to me that the yakshi was also worshipped as a goddess! There are even temples for yakshis in Kerala, which was quite a revelation to me! 

What is strange an exotic to some may seem absolutely normal for others. But in India at least, I can bet that even Indians are sometimes flummoxed by the traditions and customs that exist within their own communities!  

I guess that’s the magic and allure of India! The exotic and unknown awaits you, right around the corner, even if it’s around the corner of your own backyard! 

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An Unexpected Trip

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 pongalaSis 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.

reservation

This was a couple of days before the day

lining the streets

On the day of pongala

 

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.

Making the payasam

Making the payasam

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.

All done!

All done!

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.

 Pongala

My Parents’ Home

For the longest time, I didn’t really see what the big deal was about visiting Kerala. When people talk about going there as if it is an exotic holiday destination I find it slightly amusing, considering it is my parents’ home and I’ve always gone there as a kid during summer vacations.

Of course, when I went as a child, it basically meant spending half my time in a white ambassador, being driven around from place to place and visiting countless relatives and giving them “gifts from the gulf” (just call me Santa Claus! :P). I was used to getting pinched on my cheeks and them asking me if I remembered them from when I was 2 yrs old (I didn’t,duh!).

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy myself ! My grandma lives in the middle of a sleepy little village, in an old house with a lovely large verandah where you can sit and watch the heavens open up during the monsoon rains! The raindrops fall thick and heavy, and I used to watch the the earth soak it up and then overflow into puddles and little rivulets of brown water that eventually get soaked up by the thirsty trees. Guess that explains why the place is so vividly green!

The front yard was shaded by huge mango and jackfruit trees  and there were lovely bushes of jungle geraniums, hibiscus and fragrant jasmine flowers bordering the yard. Beyond the border was a tangle of wild trees and bushes and I was asked to never venture out there on my own (for fear of snakes!).  The flora and fauna spilling out of the place was amazing! For a kid who lived in the desert in a tiny little apartment where the view had nothing more interesting to offer than sand coloured buildings and parked cars, this was all very fascinating!

We had all kinds of fruits and vegetables growing in our “garden”. My aunt used to pluck pineapples from the heart of the thorny shrubs and make me the most delicious pineapple juice ever!  It was thick and pulpy (yeah, I like pulp!) and sweet as honey! I used to be on a steady diet of fruits there – jackfruits, custard-apples, guavas, rose-apples, bananas, mangoes… oh! the mangoes!

My granma’s sister who lived up the hill (a 2 min climb away) from her, used to have a little vegetable garden where she used to grow fench beans and tomatoes and chillies and root vegetables like yam and tapioca. She used to potter around the garden in the mornings after breakfast, to figure out what to make for lunch! I used to follow her around, see her pluck the fresh veggies and turn it into a lovely meal in the afternoon – delicious!

We used to keep chickens and rabbits and goats and cows, not to mention dogs… and I used to “help”  take care of them by “walking the goat” and trying to milk the cow (didn’t work!).

It doesn’t feel like that anymore when I go to Kerala. I feel quite the outsider – the stubbornly-single, independent(said in a bad way) girl whom everyone immediately places as ” not from around here”.  The endless questions that intrude on my personal space and defy the bounds of social norms – Why are you not married? Why is your hair brown? (! ! Born that way?!) When are you buying a car for your mother? (Why the hell would I wanna do that after the way she drove here?!)

We have a flat in the city now, which is where I spent most of my annual 2-week long trips there. Things are very different now.

But I get why people want to go there I guess. The place is beautiful, in a wild, untamed way. The beaches are still lovely,  the weather is balmy, the food is as amazing as ever. And the monsoons still beat down on us like it always used to.

I guess the major change then, is me.

monsoon in kerala