Breakfast at Changi

Changi airport is a personal favorite of mine. I have seen a large number of airports, but I must say this is one of the best run and homely airports ever. It does not signal aggression like American airports nor does it seem cold and aloof like the European ones. It is not chaotic like the Indian ones nor is it noisy like the Korean or Thai or other Asian airports. To put it all simply, I like it. And so after a long long flight from LAX, via Narita in Japan, yea! Finally I stepped foot on Japanese soil, if only for an hour, and then again it was another long leg to Singapore, the old colonial watering hole.
After a short rest, I went up to the Kaveri for breakfast. I knew that it was the confluence of all Indian visitors to the airport, it was where I assume they met kindred souls, smelt home and felt like at home. This time, there was a huge hoarding on the way announcing that Chutney Mary was on her way to compete with Kaveri. But she had not arrived yet and was expected by late fall. I marveled at the guy who created that name. Whew! Chutney Mary! What a name…It does evoke interesting ideas in one’s mind…I wondered was it meant to mean a gora angrez with blond hair and blue eyes and a lot of spice or chutzpah? Or was it our Malayali or a Goan Mary? I don’t know, but when you are on vacation and footloose, such thoughts fleet through your happy mind.
The guy at the counter was being harried by a queue of impatient guys who wanted to get their morning fix of caffeine and ‘nashta’. The regular staff was yet to come and he was doing his best to keep thing moving. A very pleasant man, I thought, after observing him. Well brought up, calm and dignified in his approach. I decided that he would go a long way with his attitude.
I placed my order for dosa and vada, the man was apologetic, he said, that the Filter coffee would be ready only after half an hour. I said that was quite OK (though it was not OK but you know how we are, we desi’s always say yes when we actually want to say no) and he wanted my name to call out when the order was ready. I knew what was coming when I said it. Normally Malayali’s take it on their stride, for they try their best not to show any kind of emotion (as Usha Didi explained once). I wanted to tell Usha Iyer, yes! They do show a lot of emotion, like when they hear the name Shakeela or the name Johnnie as in Johnnie Walker.
Anyway my name seems to evoke the strangest emotions in Tamilians. If it is a sales girl, they look coyly up at my face and quietly giggle, or loudly if a friend of theirs is nearby. Men take a long quizzical look and keep their lips tightly shut and the grin under control. Older men sometimes become effusive and make all kinds of great comments that make me go red. And when my wife is with me, I can see her happily grinning away, seeing my displeasure…Ah! I wonder, what made my grand uncle give me this unique name?? The chap looked at my credit card to ensure that I was not pulling his leg uttering the name (In the US, it is very tricky to explain, so I quickly say Maddy for short. Even that is not acceptable for Maddy is normally short for Madeline. So some write Marty or Matty on orders!! Anyway I have given up).
I was in a happy mood, as you can make out, so I complimented him for his lovely calligraphic handwriting and the young man beamed with pleasure. He must have remembered his dad or teacher castigating him in his younger years telling him things like ‘handwriting maketh the man’…all so silly & untrue in today’s world, where one builds up muscles on their fingers instead, typing furiously at key boards creating voluminous amount of text without any belying character and finally suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, instead of producing fine writing that will remain for centuries (just yesterday I was marveling at the handwriting of a 12th Century traveler, writing at Malabar). My children cannot even read cursive writing fluently and if I write with a fast flowing hand, I have heard people asking if it is another language. The world has changed, I say.
As I waited for my order to come, I observed all around. That by itself is a fascinating experience, if you are in the right mood, as you can imagine. The first person that caught my attention was the weirdest. He, obviously a south Indian, probably from Karnataka, was sitting with his wife and young kid. The lady was prattling away, the child was squealing about being hungry and the man was serenely nodding his head now and then and even replying at times. I could see that the lady was talking seriously and then I saw the silly aspect to the situation. This man had his Ipod (obviously a new acquisition) earphones, with the telltale white cords, well plugged into his ears. Now what on earth was going on? How was he able to convince his wife that he was indeed listening to her? Was he shutting her out and listening to Shreya Ghoshal singing a Mano Murthy song or perhaps his guru’s sayings? Ah! Who knows, I smiled and cast my eyes back to the busy counter. For Kaveri had lots to offer, Idli vada, sambar, roti chana, dosa…..and many people wer elining up for breakfast.
Now it was a Rowther or probably a marakkar wife, all burqa clad with just her eyes showing. She, with two kids in tow, was asking for Iddli vada, or anything that would fit within the limits of some kind of a coupon she had. It was indeed incongruous, a fully veiled and covered woman and right at the next table, a couple of European girls with those micro denim shorts showing super long and lovely legs and much more. I wished I had my camera, unfortunately even my phone was in the room. These extremes would have made a great photo of the times.
The Chettiar was back at the counter complaining, he had been waiting too long for his coffee. Looking at him, I could see how they had changed with time. Earlier days would have shown them in fantastic green & red bordered dhotis, silk shirts and great long gold chains. Gone are all that, now that was replaced by a loose and tailored white pant, white slippers (I am sure Jeetendra was his hero) and a shirt struggling to come below his great big tummy. He had the trademark Sindoor kuri on his forehead, lots of gold rings and now the latest cell phone brandished often in the left hand for good effect and lest I forget, a man Friday in tow following at his heels and taking in the orders.. The trader was getting ready for his day of wheeling and dealing, once he reached his destination, wherever that was - until then he had to use forceful arguments to get irritants out of the way, like the breakfast at the hotel, the guy at the counter or the flight or whatever. That was his hypertensive and pseudo masculine demeanor, I guess
The cute IT girl was next, with trademark looks – laptop bag – strap cutting diagonally across her bosom and accentuating the overall effect, tight jeans, a simple Kurti and short hair, no make up. She came by timidly, took a look at the menu, all the Desi crowd seated, first assessing her level to theirs and wondering if she should do the normal thing or what. After she hung around and had taken a few deep breaths, she built up her confidence and walked off, having made up her mind once again, to say no mentally - as this kind of Desi stuff is not cool, so walking next door to the burger king and surely, to order a ‘Veggie burger’ with medium fries and Coke.. Reminded me of the same lot in the US, after a month, they were desperately looking for desi food and desi shops having realized that ordering a veggie burger probably makes it even more nerdish out there. The rice burners - as Indians and Chinese are called in California
The Udupi man was next, I am not sure about it, but it must be, fair and looking like a Settu, he had a yellow shirt, was well past his 50’s and the shirt was inserted perfectly into a high waisted pair of chinos. The clean cut man, was waiting for his order, and then my look went to his feet. Man! he was wearing white sneakers. He patiently took out his brand new sleek digital 12Mp Exlim camera and took photos of the kaveri, the menu and the steaming Iddli vada in front him. For what I don’t know, and then he got his teeth into the idli..
Then came the clincher, a security guard. Immaculately attired, in the tight fitting black uniform, a glock ( I guess) pistol in the holster with the trademark leather strap, a taser or truncheon in another holster, I don’t know which, a cartridge case, and so on. The glock pistol was riding high on the right lobe of an ample butt, giving it a majestic air and lots of moving freedom. The boots were well polished, the belt was neatly buckled and there was only one jarring note to all this. The pretty and well built girl of Tamil origin wearing all this, had a big Kumkum – Sindoora pottu on her forehead. This, I thought, one would never ever see anywhere else. For a while I was lost in thought wondering about her story, as she finished ordering her iddli vada and came by to sit at the next table. I was half expecting the dialog of Quick gun Murugan – ‘Muthal –le sambar, appurama nee…mind it’.
She took out her phone and said in characteristic Malay Singapore English Tamil lingo, I assume to her kanavar – ‘naaa (short for anna) what la, reached office la?’ And their homely conversation went on. She was probably at the tail end of her night shift..
My food came by; the man with the great handwriting brought it personally to the customer who had started his day well. He apologized for having made me wait, but I could imagine, he was probably wondering “How on earth does this customer go around with such a name??”
The food was good, the vadas were great, the dosa so so and for once the chutney (not Mary’s) made with real coconut and not ‘thenga pinnak’ (the reminder of copra squeezed dry for the oil and which one feeds cows) or desiccated coconut. The sambar had plenty of ‘hing’, which was good though a little heavy for a breakfast breath. The masala tea was miserable, making me long for that filter coffee..
As I walked back to the waiting areas and to check out the shops, I saw that the IT girl was plugging away at the Xbox parlor. I cast one more look at the pretty security guard with the big butt and the gun riding high above it and wondered how she would react when faced with a real life situation, and had to shoot somebody. Who knows? She must be well trained I suppose. She was eating her ‘idli’ demurely, putting dainty little bits into her mouth and I thought back of the beefy and aggressive lady guards in the USA chomping away at massive double or triple burgers and washing them down with large swigs of coke, talking in very loud assertive voices…I could not but help compare, the interesting disparities of this world and I wondered how she would behave back at home in the evening with kanavan…I guess, I better stop here before I raise the ire of all the lady readers…
Off to Kochi and then to Palakkad…My vacation as you can see, has started, finally
Pic - thanks Murukku_stud

A list of 15 memorable books

Jina Joan DCruz with the sizzling mind and fiery brain cells recently tagged me on a favorite subject, reading books - Fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you! Now this put me into a quandary. There is always a top list in everybody’s mind, the top favorites. But what if the list is well over 15 and you cannot decide? So as I was thinking and thinking about it, I decided instead to just make a list of 15 ‘relatively good and memorable reads’ and not the usual all time greats. Some of these books are rather unique and are listed as they caught my fancy. Many of these have been covered in detailed blogs by me previously so I will summarize and link up to them, as for the others provide a short set of comments. Hope those who enjoy reading give at least some of these a try, they may turn out to be equally interesting to them. Readers may note something strange here – many of the books seem to be accounts of young guys in bewildering situations. Now I wonder after making the list, how come I selected these? Reliving my childhood memories perhaps? I don’t know – probably..

Shadow of the Wind - Zafon
One of the most fascinating books I have read in recent times. It actually is about a boy named Daniel in Barcelona during the 1950’s who discovers a rare book by the same name. The book is a mysterious one at that, so is the author of the book in the book, who goes by the name Carax, The blurb says it all - Hidden in the heart of the old city of Barcelona is the “Cemetery of Forgotten Books”, a labyrinthine library of obscure titles that have long gone out of print. To this library, one cold morning in 1945, a man brings his 10-year-old son Daniel. Daniel is allowed to choose one book from the shelves and pulls out The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax. Captivated by the novel from its very first page, Daniel reads the book in one sitting. But he is not the only one interested in Carax. As he grows up in a Barcelona still suffering the aftershocks of civil war, Daniel is haunted by the story of the author, a man who seems to have disappeared without a trace after a duel in Père Lachaise cemetery. What begins as a case of literary curiosity turns into a race to find out the truth behind the life and death of Julián Carax, and to save those he left behind.

Nalukettu – MT Vasudevan NairI must admit that I would be one of those rare Malayalees who had not read it until recently, for most know of it, talk of it, dream of it and again talk and talk about it. But well, I purchased it recently and read it with gusto. Even though every scene plays out like it is from your own house, it was captivating. The characters, the prose, the simplicity of the textual flow are to be experienced. It is something that anybody who can read Malayalam should read. I am not sure about the English translation by Gita Krishnamurthy, but go for the original if you can. Naalukettu ( 1958) is the story of a young boy Appunni, set in a joint family (tharavad) of the Nair caste in the author's native village, Kudallur(Palghat), Growing up without a father and away from the prestige and protection of the matrilineal home in which he belongs, Appuni spends his childhood in extreme social misery. Fascinated by accounts of the grand 'naalukettu tharavad' of which he should have been a part, Appuni visits the house only to be rejected by the head of the household. With vengeance boiling in his heart and the pain of disappointed love a lingering ache, Appuni claws his way up in life to reach his goal which is ……I will leave it here for the reader to find out.

Life of Pi – Yan Martel
There are reams of articles and critiques on this very special book. It is very different indeed from the normal fare. This book is a fantasy adventure. In the story, the protagonist Piscine "Pi" Molitor Patel, an Indian boy from Pondicherry, survives 227 days after a shipwreck, while stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean together with a Bengal tiger. Interestingly it is a product of hard work for the Canadian author spent days interviewing the director of the Trivandrum Zoo amongst others and explored the urban settings of South India, taking voluminous notes before he started the work. Greer a reviewer puts it succinctly - Yann Martel keeps the story of Pi's long voyage moving at an interesting pace. You know from the beginning that Pi will survive, but at times you wonder how he will overcome each challenge he faces. Martel doesn't allow Richard Parker to be anything more than a dangerous Bengal tiger and Pi never to be more than a desperate boy lost at sea. As Pi's long days at sea take a toll on his health and mind, the story begins to strain credulity. Martel then challenges the reader at the end to disbelieve it all. In the end, it becomes a matter of faith.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night time – Mark Haddon
I watch a pretty decent tele-serial these days; it is called ‘Aap ki Antra’ – the story of a little girl afflicted by Autism. I enjoy most of the episodes, but this is not about Antra, but an Autistic (actually Aspergerism – a cousin of Autism) boy called Christopher. A simply fascinating account of a boy, who sees a murdered dog and decides to find out the story behind it, and even more, to write about it. So, well, that is the complex route you take with Chris once you get the book in your hands. Sometimes you even wonder, Is Aspergers a boon? Anyway as he progresses, he is drawn into the complex non-Asperger world…and this bewildered boy’s, orderly and mathematically assisted quest becomes the engrossing tale! Read my old blog about this book for more details

Londonstani – Gautam Malkani

Another book that caught my eye and bowled me over. It is again the story of a boy and his friends in today’s London desi crowd. Set close to the Heathrow feed roads of Hounslow, Malkani shows us the lives of a gang of four young men: Hardjit the ring leader, a violent Sikh, Ravi, determinedly tactless, a sheep following the herd; Amit, whose brother Arun is struggling to win the approval of his mother for the Hindu girl he has chosen to marry; and Jas, who tells us of his journey with these three, desperate to win their approval, desperate too for Samira, a Muslim girl, which in this story can only have bad consequences. Together they cruise the streets in Amit’s enhanced Beemer, making a little money changing the electronic fingerprints on stolen mobile phones, a scam that leads them into more dangerous waters. Read my blog about this book for more details

The Lost German Slave Girl – John Bailey
This one is about a slave girl, not a boy. But probably one of the best reads of recent times. What a superb book this is. It tells you the strange story of a slave girl who lived around New Orleans, the real story of a young Sally Miller who left Germany with her parents bound for better luck in America, during the black days of the second decade of the 19th century. Read my blog about this book for more detailsl

Chowringhee – Sankar
When I met an old pal of mine with similar reading tastes, recently, he recommended that I read Chowringhee, a book about Calcutta, for he had been fascinated by it. Well, I finally found a lone copy after a tedious search in Gangaram’s on MG road Bangalore and have since then finished reading this glorious book. What lucid writing it is, and more than that, what a fabulous translation work from the original Bengali. It was simply impossible to put down the book. You enjoy the story telling, meeting and getting to know each character in the book, be it Sankar himself, or Bose or Sutherland or Connie or Rosie….Read my blog about this book for more details

A Town like Alice – Nevil Shute
This book has never left my mind. Even after reading many great books, this simple tale by the master story teller remains in my mind as a perennial favorite. I have never been to Australia and I do intend to go, but when I do, I must try & see the place called Alice Springs. This is an old fashioned but a superbly crafted novel. It tells the story of Jean Paget; as a prisoner of war in Malaysia during World War II and then her return to Malaya after the war where she discovers something that leads her on the search for romance and to a small outback community in Australia where she sets out to turn it into 'a town like Alice'. Some may not find this too interesting, and some people tell me that going to Alice Springs is not like going to Sydney or anything, but it remains in my mind and came up again, just now, for me to jot it in this list.

Kite runner – Khalid Hosseini
I had heard about the book and so I purchased a copy, but that was about when my son kept telling me that I should actually listen to the audio book. He had finished the audio book and insisted that the audio book in this case gave a better feel to the words, place and persona…With great trepidation, I started on this audio book for the first time, complaining all the time that I could listen to the book only when I was in the car, that I could not go back & check things now & then, that I could not feel the pages and all that (or drift away into my own world between words). My son would not let go, he pushed and pushed. It took me two chapters to get into the groove and then I was hooked - to Khaled’s own voice narrating his touching novel ‘Kite Runner’. Thus it was during the many miles back & forth between home & Carlsbad that I got acquainted with Kabul, Freemont, Amir, Hassan & Sohrab. The miles flew by and the story grew in my mind. Gone were the half sleepy & dreary rides back home, as I heard the book, I was looking forward to getting behind the wheel each day and hoped that the drive stretched a few more miles, as I neared the destination. Sometimes I had teary eyes, and the paper seller at the Vista traffic signal who met my eyes on more than one occasion would have found it pretty odd, I think…Read my blog about this book for more details

On the beach – Nevil Shute
What might appear to be a pessimistic tale actually turns out to be a fabulous document about hope and love. The story is set in what was then the near future (1963, approximately a year following World War III). The conflict has devastated the northern hemisphere, polluting the atmosphere with nuclear fallout and killing all animal life. While the nuclear bombs were confined to the northern hemisphere, global air currents are slowly carrying the fallout to the southern hemisphere. The only part of the planet still habitable is the far south of the globe, specifically Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, and the southern parts of South America, although all of these areas are slowly succumbing to radiation poisoning as the fallout continues to circulate southwards. A group of people living their last days, tell the tale of human fallacy…and soon enough the world goes dark for them too. It is one of the finest in the list and one that will remain in your mind for a long long time.

A Painted house – John Grisham
All his books are great, no doubt about that, though the recent crop are not at the usual levels. This one is different, is set in the late summer and early fall of 1952, and its story is told through the eyes of seven-year-old Luke Chandler, the youngest in a family of cotton farmers struggling to harvest their crop and earn enough to settle their debts. The novel portrays the experiences that bring him from a world of innocence into one of harsh reality. An only child, Luke is introduced to two migrant groups, the hill people and the Mexicans. His childhood is turned upside down when they interact with the Chandler family. As usual, suspenseful, and is a record of the times, when the people of America faced different challenges than the ones today.

To Kill a Mocking Bird – Harper Lee
A classic in American literature and one great movie is how I describe it, if you ask me. I am not sure which is better, the movie or the book. But well, go for either, it is upto you. As before, the story narrated by a little girl, the narrator, six-year-old Scout Finch, lives with her older brother Jem and their widowed father Atticus, a middle-aged lawyer. Jem and Scout befriend a boy named Dill who visits Maycomb to stay with his aunt for the summer. Atticus is appointed by the court to defend a black man named Tom Robinson, who has been accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a young white woman. Although many of Maycomb's citizens disapprove, Atticus agrees to defend Tom to the best of his ability. The story takes twists and turns and tells you the travesty of justice meted out to Tom Robinson and how Atticus argues it in court.

River God - Wilbur SmithSome purists find Wilbur Smith books just not right. I remember discussing this with a colleague of South African descent while living in the UK. When I told her that I enjoyed Smith’s books and the Courtney family’s adventures, she scoffed at me. She said, ‘he writes crap, that is not real Africa’. Maybe she was right, but River God is about the times of the Pharos of Egypt and the tale of a young pharaoh and his eunuch teacher Taita. Pure escapism at its best, it will take you merrily along on a trip up and down the Nile for many weeks. Set some 2000 years before Christ, this book became very popular, but naturally being a fast paced adventure story, and has three sequels, Warlock, Seventh Scroll and Quest.

Drifters – James Michener
A book I read ages ago and still possess. Most of the thrillers or other books have changed hands or been disposed of while traveling across the many continents and living in all kinds of places, but this one, I kept safely. A very interesting tale about a time in the 70’s - hippie’s, drugs and the such. I love most of Michener’s books; they are meaty and will keep you occupied for weeks. This one was an eye opener and pretty interesting. I did not read it again but I think for those who remember the 60’s and 70’s, it could be a great book to peruse. Sinclair, a reviewer summarizes- "At the height of the Vietnam War, young men had to make decisions too complicated for them to know the repercussions of their actions. Should they evade the draft, or take their chances of avoiding the war by becoming professional students? The protagonist makes his decision to make a run for it. His heart's broken, but so is his future if he's drafted into the Army. He travels around the world, and along with six runaway drifters join in an orgy of dreams, drugs, and a dedication to hedonistic pleasures of every kind. "

Suzanne’s diary for Nicholas – James PattersonNot heralded in such lists ever, many would wonder why I put it up here. Well, try reading it and you may figure out the reasons, it simply caught my fancy, maybe the time was different, the mood was right or whatever, I liked it. Patterson usually writes crime thrillers and is most famous for his ‘Detective Alex Cross’ novels, which are great by themselves, but this one is completely different. Trinkle reviewing the books says - Katie Wilkinson's boyfriend Matt dumps her; not a total cad, he leaves her a gift, a diary kept by Suzanne, his first wife, for their son Nicholas. Though it's not exactly the diamond ring Katie was hoping for, she's unable to make herself destroy the diary--against her better judgment, Katie begins to read. Patterson sustains suspense through clever plotting and by Katie's wondering about the fate of Suzanne and Nicholas; what's finally revealed pushes her, and the novel, to a bittersweet conclusion…

I must admit that I would have liked to list my usual favorites from RK Narayan, Ayn Rand, Leon Uris, Jeffrey Archer, Ken Follett, Bill Bryson, Irving Wallace, Kipling and so on…but this will then become a dreary and long list of the usual suspects, It is now close to midnight and time to see if I can get some sleep. But for the courageous, there is one other book I would recommend, especially to kids who want to go to medical school – the ‘House of God’ by Samuel Shem.

And finally if you want to remember one for a long time to come, and a testament of our times, the widely aclaimed and powertful 'Flowers for Algernon' - Daniel Keyes

Next week, I am off to Kerala for a couple of weeks, and will be back in Sept. Until then, keep the comments coming and enjoy the summer…I will be back with more tales, soon

The cookers

No, I am not writing about the prestige or the Hawkins varieties or the newfound space age stuff which one sees these days. I wanted to actually introduce to you a very special variety of people, the ‘Dahannakkaran pattar’ of Palakkad. Of course many know of them after the lovely Kamal Hassan movie Michael Madana Kamarajan where he and his father represent one such cooking team. Here is a small youtube video (The Palakkad pattar enters the scene after 1’30”) to introduce their special Malayalam and mannerisms, half Tamil, half Malayalam.

We see movies of Malabar weddings, we see movies of North Indian weddings, but a real Palakkad wedding is incomplete without this cooking team, and I myself cannot forget Parthan Pattar and his entourage. When a festivity was planned in our Nair Tharavad, our family matriarch, i.e. my grandma fondly called Amma, a slightly stentorian person herself, would send the Karyasthan to summon Parthan the cook, the previous morning. Parthan would then be seen hurriedly ambling along the road destined for our house. A lean man, with a slightly discolored dhoti, umbrella in one hand and a set of cooking implements in his other hand all the time, he was one who walked with a worried countenance, Parthan in spite of his busy life, was in reality a humble chap and would come through, pushing open the creaky front gate with peeling blue paint and walk across the gate pillars with twin elephants into the Nalu kettu. Sometime I wonder how those elephant statues got there, maybe a symbol of lost glory of the Tharavad, perhaps. It was in that area, many centuries ago that a wealthy Nambuthiri Illam existed.

My grandma, who was arthritic, would be seated in her chair on the portico, grandly overseeing the activities around and Parthan would stand in front of her, arms crossed. She would say, ‘Parthan we need all the usual for the feast and plenty of snacks (Palaharam), laddu, jilebi, mysore pakku, murukku, muthuswaram, thenkuzhal, etc for the snacks. What new things have you learnt for the main courses?’ And Parthan would come up with something new each time, after all he had to innovate to stay in business, and the crafty man always did that, learning all kinds of new things from his Bombay connections. He would come up with some new type of sweet like Badhusha, or some multicolored vegetable biryani, pulav or chana masala - poori and so on - all exotic vegetarian (only vegetarian fare has ever been served at home) stuff to the wide eyed people of a land around nowhere, Pallavur, somewhere in the shadows of the Palghat Western Ghats section, some 12 miles off the town, as the crow flies..

These Bombay connection pattars had relatives in Bombay. As time went by and the temples and Tharavads became poorer, the need for pattars for festivities and other matters were shrinking. Many migrated to Bombay or Madras, though mercifully Parthan did not. Some families did well and did not want their fathers to continue in this ‘useless’ low level business. And so, this was a dying breed even in those days. But for us in Pallavur, we had the great cook Parthan (though he lived in the neighboring village – Kudallur), a genius who could cook for a few hundred people with his two to three man team. When elders crossed on the road and talked of the upcoming festivity, the question always was, ‘who is cooking, is it Parthan?’ And the wise karanavar would nod his head in the affirmative.

The Pattars of palakkad are a special breed as I explained already; I need a whole blog to write about them, how they came, how they settled in a few gramams, the connections with the Zamorin and so on. It would be interesting only for certain people though. I must also mention here in passing that the community produced so many famous people that I can think of. Remember Sheshan, MS Viswanathan, and now Vidya balan? And for a select few who like history there is a wonderful history teacher and writer. My uncles had been his students and he wrote the books ‘Zamorins of Calicut’ and ‘History of Kerala’ the renowned teacher of history at Zamorins College Calicut - KV Krishna Iyer. I still have in my possession an autographed history book he gifted to an uncle, and by the way, he was from our part of the world. I guess, that after him, and probably my uncle, very few have shown interest in history of Malabar. I hope I am doing some justice to Iyer’s memory at least blogging on historic topics…

Ah, I am digressing, but just one more line – Sheshan mentioned that Palakkad has a number of pattars, they make the best bureaucrats and cooks. The Palghat Brahmins, said Seshan another time, came to excel in four fields, as civil servants and musicians, cooks and crooks. I wrote some time ago about the last variety by introducing Swaminatha Pattar. But now I am finally back to the topic, the cookers of Palakkad.

The next day Parthan would arrive early in the morning. It took me a while to get into his good books; normally kids just flashed by grabbed some snack and vanished off the kitchen area before Parthan could react, for they knew their home territory better than this cook. Having seen this at every house he cooked in, he came up with his own crafty plans, he would put the vegetable cutter near one door and the other at a second door doing murukku or something so that the area was well cordoned off. Parthans implements that I referred to were simple, they were a collection of knives, long handled stirrers, Janghri karandi for lifting cooked stuff from oil or making boondhi for laddus. I can still picture them at work, Parthans veggie cutter sitting at the muttu kathi and slicing away. It was awesome for me, this guy was sliding the vegetables across the razor sharp vertical blade between his legs, not even looking at it. They dropped at a blurring speed on the tray below, to be hefted off into the boiling pots…Parthan’s Sambar and rasam or lime pickles are the standard, I guess, if I were to set one.

Oh I forgot, the previous day morning, he would have given a long list of provisions needed for the feast and naturally conducted a lengthy argument with my grandma on why so much of each was needed. Grandma would then ask the second level Karyasthan cum cart man to get the bullock cart ready and head off to Alathur. Now some of you may not know the place, it is about 5-6 miles from Pallavur and has a market and some shops. So Eaacharan the cartman would head for this area on the cart, slowly humming under his breath and talking to the bullocks. I had the good fortune to be permitted once to go in the bullock cart for that purchasing spree. There he would take me to the chips shop where a Koya made heavenly coconut chips ( It has been a bone of contention with my wife who is from Calicut – she says Calicut chips set the gold standard and I would maintain that the Alathur version is in no way inferior – actually I would say they are better). Now after many years, we have agreed to disagree, but the secret was that this Koya had come from Calicut in the first place. OK, where were we, ah! I would be given a small sampler packet with 50 gms of chips to munch. One or twice I tried to get the bullocks to try a couple of chips, but they looked away in disdain (probably hated coconut oil) and dripped saliva all over my chips making me throw them away with much sadness.

By the way some years back I had written about the incredible trip that this very bullock cart took from Pallavur to Tampa in Florida. Those who are interested may check this out.

And thus the laden cart and we retraced the steps to Pallavur, the metal lined wheels grinding the tar road and the rhythmic tap tap of the bullock’s iron shoe clad feet lulling me to sleep. Sometimes it was the sonorous or was it tunelss nadan pattu from Eacharan who had a quick swig of Kallu(toddy), which did it.

Soon we were back and the sacks were put in the kitchen. The women cleared the kitchen by 6PM the previous evening. Parthan came by in the evening and set up some of the stuff for the next day and did some of the grinding work etc. I would sidle up to the chap and ask questions, how much chilli, how much color or sugar and so on. Soon he found me harmless enough to let me into the kitchen as he and his assistants cooked. He would ask me about Calicut where I had studied. Parthan always wanted to know about these new places. But he himself strayed only some 10-15 square miles around the village in those days.

The next day, at the stroke of dawn, or shall I say the first rays of dawn, Parthan would come, accompanied usually with two or sometimes three understudy’s. Soon they would get to serious work. I do not remember anymore the exact progression, but I think they made the sweets first, Boondhi, Jalebi or Jhangri and Mysore pakku. Then he made the hot mixture and started with the Thenkuzhal, Murukku and Muthuswaram. Later he experimented a bit and he would try out some banana chips, some quarter banana chips, sharkara varatti chips and so on (I would be nearby asking questions, chattering away and sampling the cooked stuff. Strange as it may seem, all my life I have loved watching cooking and I am a reasonably good cook as well). After all the Palaharam work was done, he would start with the special dinner items. Sometimes his commission ran into the next day and he had to make breakfast (Medu vada, Iddli, chatni, Dhideer Upma, Poori masala and so on) and the grand lunch – usually a marriage reception under the shamianas in front of the house for a relative where the entire desham attended (Some other day I will tell you about my own wedding and my wife’s thoughts of all this, coming from a more modern Calicut city atmosphere).

Parthan was indeed a fantastic cook, he cooked for probably two or even three of our generations, I am told he still is going strong and even doing parallel wedding sessions with his brother and two or three ‘shingidi’s’.

Parthan’s modern experiments were Ok, though not spectacular. The people of Pallavur who were so used to his food of course liked the change, but for us who came for Parthan’s originals, the badhushah or the stiff jalebi were a disappointment. We would end up complaining to grandma and she would bawl at Parthan and Parthan would sulk, casting a forlorn glare at me since I did not support him. Ah, all those memories, grandma is gone, my mother is no more and the Tharavad nalukettu stays locked. All we are left with are fond memories of many a great festivity in that home and people like Parthan who enriched and enlivened it. Parthn’s story is typical of many nice people who worked behind the scenes, and made all our memories richer. Little did we know about their own lives or families, guys spending day & night in kitchens and hot firewood stoves, bleary red rimmed eyes and sometime a racking cough from the smoke & dust…The thin and gaunt frame, the bent back and the man on a trot, Parthan actually came up in my thoughts when I read Abe’s blog on Anna Chedatti – the village savoury maker.

These were the people who brought Tamil cooking to Palghat and Carnatic music to our daily lives…The priestly class who were not allowed to conduct poojas & prayers at the temples by the Namboothiris, living a special life in their small and dark agraharams and madams.. Ah so many stories on them…but another day. I will tell you about my trip to Palani to attend a Brahmin wedding..

And now something about the Ambi community – Let me first introduce you to Shenha’s blog a Palakkad Iyer herself talking about them, or read this lovely piece from KV Krishnan.

So they are the cookers – Sorry guys, this is a classic unstructured rambling, please forgive the style, but it was just that I felt like it…Think of it like you hear it from an old and wheezing uncle you met after many years…Some might ask why I titled it cookers, the reason is the following, I heard somebody, some visitor from some other god forsaken village (of course), ask Parthan what he did as Parthan was sitting at the table after his efforts and eating the food like some other late comers. Calmly he answered ‘naan oru cooker aakum’.