(A little busy at the moment, so here's something I wrote a month ago but never got around to posting.)
Growing up, my family celebrated every festival – religious and otherwise - with great enthusiasm. I loved it. It meant new clothes, an extra special lunch and usually a day off from school. My own levels of participation were kept at a minimum - in fact, my greatest contribution was just keeping out of the way. I was not skilled at the kolam and kaavi as my sister was (which an Uncle of mine recently attributed to the fact that I was not an engineer and hence unable to comprehend parallel lines), my ma yelais always drooped and sagged, and I could never remember the lines to the bhajans I had been taught.
As I grew up my mother insisted I get more involved. So I was appointed chief underling – ordered to fill sombus with water and bring the neivediyam without popping any of it in my mouth (applications to be the resident Pillaiyar were all turned down).
Marriage brought with it more than the obvious retinue of husband, mother-in-law and hawkeyed athais. I suddenly had to learn to cook, differentiate between patthu and non-patthu and learn how to drink coffee from a dainty china cup without sipping. I was also initiated in to the custom of Varalakshmi Nombu.
It was all well and good while we lived in Mumbai. Matunga is a mecca for displaced Mamis like myself – replete with its own Giri Trading. But then a year and a half ago we moved to London. And things haven’t been quite the same in this Mylaporean’s life. Where does one go for vethalai and vazhai thandu?
Now as much as I hate to admit it, in the last year I’ve fudged my way through most festivals. Deepavali was celebrated with payasam (pieces of dried fruits floating in a sea of condensed milk), Karthikai was marked with a few lamps (the ones outside the front door removed in compliance with strict fire hazard regulations) and I nodded at Pongal with well… pongal. But for some reason my conscience revolts against attempts to do the same with Nombu. Perhaps because it’s a tradition I’ve taken on through marriage and a small part of me thinks my Mother-in-law will get to know of any crimes and misdemeanours I commit.
So Varalaksmi Nombu is carried out to the letter. Well, as much as living in a north western suburb of London will allow.
The day before Nombu, I sweated it out on the Metropolitan line in a trench coat that seemed like such a good idea that morning when it was a good 10 degrees cooler and went over the shopping list I had foolishly written down in my head.
Nallennai (and not the horrible Chinese one), jaggery, flowers, saffron and coconuts. Coconuts. Coconuts???
Where does one go for coconuts? What if one cannot find coconuts? After all this is London – I’m more likely to bump in to a bushel of blowsy roses than a palm tree.
So I speed dialled my Mother in Chennai who was understandably irate at being woken up. Her annoyance deepened as I asked what would be considered a suitable substitute for a coconut. I was told rather snarkily to use an apple but not before having to hear how it was amazing that I know every shoe store in the greater London area but was unaware of the location of a single coconut vendor.
An hour later, loaded down by all the items on my shopping list (apparently our local Indian Grocery store stocks coconuts - I had just never bothered looking for them) I was carried home aloft a cloud of gloat. If only it had taken on the weight of my bags too.
Performing Nombu in a foreign country isn’t all that difficult. Perhaps the lack of – or should I say my lack of awareness of – so many things immediately eliminates them. The vaadyar is replaced by a cassette which I realised required a few sessions on the system before being used (I had more luck deciphering what Aretha Franklin sings after the whole R-E-S-P-E-C-T bit). So I appointed myself in-house vaadyar. Rahu Kaalam would be calculated at GMT and since staying hungry till my husband got home in the evening was not an option he was woken up earlier than usual with a cup of tea and the BBC. On mute.
There are other aspects that one finds hard to tackle. Madi for example is impossible to maintain when every square inch of ones home is carpeted. And I do mean every inch – bathroom included! Unless one is capable of levitation one should not attempt it. Also tying a madisaar is not for the faint hearted. 9 yards of silk with a mind of its own can be a dangerous thing. You’ll either end up strangling yourself or looking like something out of the Mummy Returns (oh how hard it is to refrain from calling it The Mami Returns). And where does one hang a madi pudavai out to dry anyway? Sadly, we are not living the middle class dream in a detached mock Tudor home with a sprawling faux South American jungle-garden in the back. Would our stoned patio do? A cursory glance revealed that it had been turned in to something of a giant ash tray by our upstairs neighbour. As cigarette butts and a madi nightgown are a criminal offence under section 220 of the Madi Penal Code I opted to wear a new sari instead (when in doubt, wear something new).
Neivediyam is an entirely personal matter and depends on one’s skills and to some extent the gastric stability of one’s family. Being possessed with reasonable levels of both, this year my standard menu of payasam (see above for recipe) and vadai made space for kozhakattais. (Secretly making space in my fridge for Marks & Spark’s Indian delights)
Poornam and a large white lump of maavu before me, I sat cross-legged and in a state of semi-madiness on the floor and began making my kozhakattais. As I moulded the dough in to little shells and placed the poornam in the middle I fancied them to be little oysters hiding pearls of coconut and jaggery and allowed myself to drift off in to nostalgia. My grandmother would sit in her trademark Kalakshethra nine yards on our kitchen floor in Chennai, her wrinkled hands nimbly making one kozhakattai after the other. A seventy-year-old assembly line that seemed to require no oiling up or servicing and that could work endlessly. My sister and I would beg for a chance to try our hand at making one and she would always acquiesce, softly instructing us and placing our large, uncouth creations on the tray next to her tiny, perfectly formed masterpieces. The poornam always looked like they had been wrapped in the finest of muslin. Rubbing my eyes I looked with dismay at my plate of kozhakattais and hoped God didn’t think they looked like wads of rolled up Kleenex too.
Varalakshmi might accept my misshapen offerings but the sumangalis I had invited over that evening for vethalai paaku might not have been as forgiving. The list of invitees totalled a grand 2. The wife of my husband’s boss and a dear family friend who had lived for over 20 years in England had both promised to come. Both had to be impressed. After all, I couldn’t jeopardise my husband’s career by over salting the sundal. And the latter was something of a Queen Bee in the Kenton agraharam and had the ear of all the best realtors in town. The pressure was immense. What would I offer for vethalai pakku? I had no vethalai, no manjal and no pakku unless saunf was permitted.
Thankfully, the Gods were in a munificent mood. As I rummaged through my puja bag (a giant Selfridges carrier stashed with a years supply of sambrani, kunkumam and poonals – our Romanian house help Mikhela often discards the ones left lying around by my better half. Perhaps she thinks they’re giant reams of floss) I found three blouse pieces, some manjal and silver articles gifted to me by family that were yet to be used. This is London. Rethink. Re-use. Recycle.
Vethalai pakku ready, sundal perfectly salted and thoughts of M&S party food as neivediyam firmly pushed to one side, I was ready. My Amman mugham was mounted on the kalasam and decorated in a rani pink pavadai with matching roses from Tesco. Archanai pookal came in the form of daisies and the air was redolent with the fragrance of ‘Spiritual Flower’ incense (I needed all the help I could get). As I read from my prayer book and as my husband tied the sharadu around my wrist – I felt a sense of being home again.
The chief underling had been promoted.