Around mid-April, many years ago, we would have been bristling in anticipation of what we would do when we went on our annual May holidays to my mum's maternal home in Dharwad (then Dharwar), in Karnataka. It was the high point of our school year. We left for our Dharwad right after the last examination, so there was often a small tingle at the back of our minds while on holiday, as to what the results would be. But frankly, my dear, I didn't give a damn.
Papa worked in Indian Airlines, so we used to get free air tickets. Sadly, he could never join us on this annual vacation — though he took us on a zillion other vacations — because it was the airline's busiest season. So it was my mum Indu, sister Sarayu, and me. We flew from Mumbai to Belgaum, took an "eshti bus" to Dharwad station, then a tonga home, opposite Ice Factory, just off Kittur Chenamma Park. My sister and I would always sit in the front of the tonga, alongside the driver, our feet planted in sweet-smelling hay. The first thing I'd do, is tell the driver sternly, "Chaabuk do" and grab his whip. I hated it when they whipped those elegant horses. Clip-clop we'd do, like in those old Bollywood ghodagadi gaane, the horse's mane flipping this way and that.
My aunt, grandmother and two grand-aunts lived — all widows — in a sprawling bungalow, with a huge garden in front, an enormous mango orchard at the back, and a well nearby. My sis and I ("Bombay girls") were always disappearing into the mango trees. The kairis, (raw mangoes), were tart and delicious, and we were always racing to get them before the landlord types, whose hired men would harvest the fruit with long bamboo poles with scoopy nets. As for the guavas, we raced to get them before the parrots did.
Mum's family pampered us with delicious aamchi (Konkani) dishes, including ambat, ghashi, saar, tambli, and aambya sasam. Lunch was always first offered to the gods as naivedya, then a sampler on a leaf for the crows and sparrows waiting outside, before we could settle down for a meal. And there were entire cupboards of homemade goodies. When I was too young to pronounce the names of my favourite goodies, I'd ask for "ek goda, ani-ek goda, ani michkal" (one sweet, another sweet and mixture; usually besan ladoo, rawa ladoo and chivda-sev-papdi). Luckily, the owners of the Ice Factory were also friends, so we were always treated to ice creams and ice candies for free.
My granny would rise early, spread shan (cowdung) thinly in the front yard to settle the dust, and make rangolis over it with rice powder, so that ants and insects were also fed. At the door, there was always a sack of jowar, a brass cup of coins, a chembu of water and pieces of jaggery, so no beggar was turned away empty-handed.
Mum had worked in Karnataka University library before she married, very modern she was, so we'd visit the University and her friends. My aunt worked at All India Radio, so we would sometimes go watch studio recordings. Dharwad is, of course, famous for a number of singers who performed there, including Gangubai Hangal, Mallikarjun Mansur and Bhimsen Joshi. At home, the radio news at 9 pm meant lights off. The news was always rounded off with the Anacin ad — "Tale novu? Hogi bidthu. Vandu Anacin!" (Headache? Gone with one Anacin!).
I shall discreetly avoid describing the toilet, but the bathroom was wonderful. Bath water would be boiled in a bhan (massive copper vessel) on a wood fire, and, as there was a skylight in the roof, smoke curled up languorously in a shaft of sunlight, as you bathed with wonderful woodsmoke-scented water and Mysore sandal soap.
Those were kinder, gentler times. I feel sorry for city children who grow up without a family link to India's interiors. They think milk comes from plastic packets, and are horrified to learn that it comes from cows, because the only cows they see are those champing at garbage dumps. Thank you for the good times, Amma — and Aai, Kanna Pachchi, Vatsalakka and Radhapachchi, god bless your souls, wherever you may be.
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at email@example.com.
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