To Be or Not To Be

A little kingdom I possess,
Where thoughts and feelings dwell;
And very hard the task I find
Of governing it well.
-- Louisa May Alcott.
...........hmmm....that more or less describes my situation !!

~A Wise Man Said~

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.
-- Aristotle

Saturday, September 18, 2004
Been to Mangalore for a few days. Quiet, restful days before the hustle-bustle of life begins again in full swing. It's strange how this dearest of places affects me everytime I visit it. I still enjoy Mangalore for its beauty, but the people, the things that made it what it is for me, are missing or scattered or unrecognizably changed...

My maternal Grandmom's (or Mai's) place, my most loved house, is locked ever since my Grandmom passed away. How eager I used to be to get there once I set foot in Mangalore.

I remember, little girl though I was, I would ensconce myself in the middle of where the elders were having a conversation and be all ears. I was called "vodlimai" (Grandmother) for this naughty habit and any visitor to our house would be duly informed of my nickname.

I remember sitting by the grinding stone, watching mom or aunts rolling the stone and churning the rice or coconut mixture to a paste, and begging them to let me try my hand at it. As I grew older, I was given the opportunity, but it didn't turn out to be exactly fun after the first few minutes.

I remember scampering around the trees and other greenery in the back of our house, pretending I was a village belle and singing Hindi songs. Come rain and I would run around for Mango treasure. Jackfruits I couldn't pluck even though they were at arm's length, but knowing my partiality for Jackfruit, no season passed when I didn’t get to sample them. Juicy, yellow Jackfruit. The seeds were boiled and eaten later or added for flavouring into some vegetable dish. Most kids were supposed to be fond of them, but not me.

I remember the cows mooing in their shed. My favourite cow, which I used to feed with all sorts of leaves and flowers I reckoned might be edible, was called Booky. Next year I asked aunt which one was Booky among the similar looking cows and she pointed one out to me. Later, I learnt that Booky had been sold and that was a new cow.

I remember the fisherwomen passing by our house, carrying fish-baskets over their head. Grandmom would holler to them across the street and they would come, place the basket on the ground, and show off their wares. Crabs, prawns, clams, mackerel, dried fish...Grandmom would select something and then the haggling began. It would sometimes get awfully heated and the fisherwoman would simply pack her basket and march off snootily. Later, Grandmom would ask aunt if they should have settled for it after all.

I remember, in the middle of the afternoon, when all would be fast asleep, I would go wrap myself in aunt's sarees and make-up and play house-house with my sister. The ice-cream man would come at around this time, blaring his horn. We would usually wake up Mom and she would either scold us for disturbing her or ask us to go get it and leave her in peace. The ice-creams were never as scrumptious as what we usually have, but there was a peculiar pleasure for us kids in having those. One of them was a "brown-candy", smelt of jaggery; my favourite.

I remember we used to have dinner by 8.30. We would all say a short prayer just before. I used to feel thankful it was short, unlike in my paternal grandparents’ place, where it could go on and on with no end in sight. The prayer would be in Konkani, and even though I understood Konkani fairly well, the prayer would sound strange to my ears. Prayers are complex, I would think. I would sing "Mogal Putra" in the end with the others, though whether it was because I loved singing or because I knew it was the end, is another matter. Then we would go to each elder member of the family and ask blessings. Grandmom first! When we were very little, they would actually pick us up and lift us into the air, blessing that we may become soooooo big.

I remember early in the morning we would all be excited about breakfast. Grandmom and aunts usually fed us with special traditional delicacies and we never could tell what they might get up to. Sometimes we would even get something from the small restaurant opposite the house. My favourite item was "biscoot ambade".I usually used to be chosen for the errand and told what I was to say "in Kannada". The restaurant owner knew me, I was Grandmom's Granddaughter; he had seen me ever since I was born.

I remember in the evenings, I used to sit on the boundary wall surrounding our house and watch big boys play football (or was it basketball?) in the small open maidan next to our house. Sometimes my sister and brother would also join me (I stuck at Grandmom's house while my sister and brother flip-flopped between houses with my parents).

I remember an "Aata” would be organised in the maidan at times and if I were lucky, it would be in the summer. An Aata was a drama in the open, as far as I could tell; it is also called Yakshagana as I find now and similar to Kathakali in Kerala. It would have people (only men) in colourful costumes, wearing paint all over their face and body, and heavy jewellery. My favourite costume character was the one I also saw on T.V...with a huge round crown-like thing over his head, face heavily painted in blue and black, and wearing something like a saree-frock. The best part about the Aata was that it started late in the evening and ended in the wee hours of morning. I could never make head nor tail of the drama, except that it must be very dramatic, with characters looking angry, dancing wildly, wailing loudly or invoking the heavens. But it was nonetheless great fun to watch.

I remember Grandmom and aunts would do what we call "eer-vodche" in the idle evenings. Piles of coconut leaves would be brought into the frontyard, everyone would sit on the cement floor and take up small sharp knives. Each leaf would be held in a certain way and the leafy sides sliced off smoothly, so that only the mid-part, the soft thin stick remained. These sticks were collected together and tied to be used as brooms. I would ask for my share of coconut leaves and a knife and sit among the ladies. This activity usually stimulated gossip among the party. Who died, who ran away with whom, who's house was broken into, what's the world coming to...never could a classroom session be so informative and interactive. I of course, wouldn't have missed the learning for all the world.

I remember Grandmom waking up at exactly 3.30 in the afternoon to milk the cow. I would run behind her and watch fascinated. Much though I was tempted to, I never mustered enough courage to try my hand at it. My brother had once been kicked by a cow while attempting this feat.

I remember, as the days would go by, my heart would sink lower and lower, knowing it will soon be time to leave. Tears would well up in my eyes just thinking about it and I would go into the dark room, where Grandmom hid jaggery and goodies from my all-searching eyes, and cry away. How I would miss everything...Two more years before I would see my beloved place again (we visited Mangalore every two years). Two long years.

Soon, both my aunts got married. One year when I went there, Mai suddenly looked very old and unwell. Aunt was taking care of her, but intuitively I could see in her eyes that I would see her no more. It was inevitable. It almost felt as if all those years had been a wonderful dream and that dream was breaking before me. I cried out to God in my heart to not take away my Mai, take away me.

After a few months, we got the news that I would have given anything not to hear. But time heals all wounds.

Mai's memories have a sacred shrine in my heart, but everytime I go to Mangalore, I wish I could catch a little scent of those memories. I look for familiar faces, familiar things...biscoot ambade, eer-vodche, mango picking in the rain, gossip in the kitchen with aunts, ice-cream man, fisherwomen, Mai's voice calling "peerti"...all missing or scattered or unrecognizably changed.

The house is locked now. I stay over at my aunts', uncles', paternal grandparents'...Mangalore is as beautiful as it always was, just that it has never been the same for me...