Friday, October 20, 2017

Anna's Story of Deepawali

Anna on one of the days when he is zoned out!
My dilemma over whether or not to burn crackers was easily solved. Anna was so zoned-out on 18th and 19th Oct that there were no patakas (fireworks), or for that matter, mithai (Indian sweets), or lighting diyas (lamps), or just about anything that needed the tiniest of movements or use of brain cells. Quite a dampener!


Amma's brass pooja diyas, were lit on all auspicious occasions
Many years ago, I had asked Anna why South Indians celebrated Deepawali a day earlier. He promptly told me to ask Amma, deflecting yet another question he didn't want to answer or did not know the answer to. Over the years, I have asked Anna this question in the days running up to Deepawali. One year I came up with the hypothesis that Lord Rama reached South India before North India when he flew from Lanka, and hence Deepawali was celebrated a day earlier than in the north! This story amused Anna no end!! 


Almost every year, I ask Anna the same question and when I don't get a response, I retell my hypothesis on how Rama reached South India before the north, much to his amusement.

Last year, after possibly 40 years, he tells me why.

An effigy of Narakasura. Picture by Gouthami

Anna: Deepawali is on Narakasura Chatrurdasi. The day Krishna and Satyabhama, in a joint venture, defeated the demon Narakasura and released 16,000 women Narakasura 
kept in captivity.
  

Really? Krishna and Satyabhama in a joint venture?? I didn't know.

Anna: Vishnu is more revered in South India than Rama. 

I am confused. I thought that Lord Rama was an avatar of Lord Vishnu. But I keep quiet, 'coz I want to hear the rest of the story.

Anna: Rama is seen as human, with many human faults and needs.

Pause.

Anna: You will like this story. It is about female strength.

Pause.

Oddly, most images I find online show Krishna
killing Narakasura,
when according to most stories I read,
 it was Satyabhama who killed Narakasura. Gender bias? 
Anna: Actually, it was Satyabhama who killed Narakasura. Krishna fainted after being hit by Narakasura's weapon 'Shakti'. Satyabhama was so shocked seeing Krishna fall, that she flung her weapon with immense strength, killing Narakasura.

Pause.

Anna: Narakasura while asking to be forgiven for his wayward ways, asked that his death be celebrated by lighting diyas.

I remember this story, as I sadly watch Anna sleep past his favorite festival. 

Today he is a little awake, so we celebrate by lighting diyas and eating mithai. 

Me: Anna, do you remember that yesterday was Deepawali? Pause. We did not burn any crackers yesterday, as you were asleep.
Anna: We can do it now.

Me ( pointing to the TV that is reporting unprecedented pollution levels across the country): Anna, it is way too polluted! Lets wait till the pollution levels are better. Which basically means, never!

Anna: That will be better. Any day you think is right, we will celebrate Deepawali.

He twitches out a smile and closes his eyes.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

I Don't Want A Green Deepawali



I tell Anna that we can take him home
from Neptune Hospital on 1st Oct 2017.
He is pleased.

I don't want a green Deepawali. Yet I want a reduction in air pollution. I am conflicted and am finding it hard to choose a side.


I truly, truly believe, and have advocated for, more stringent controls to improve the quality of air

I have to weigh the destruction of the environment, with wanting to give my father, my dying father, something that will surface pleasant memories. Pleasant memories, that I hope, have the strength to sweep Dementia fog away. It's all the more important now that he has just returned from hospital.

Anna was discharged from hospital on 2nd Oct. He had a severe bronchial infection, that  galloped from a slight fever to a compromised lung & wheezing in just 24 hours. It was so bad that I could hear him struggling to breathe from the front door. Thankfully, he spent only 8 days in hospital, all but 1 day, zoned out and unresponsive. He's back home now, 5 kgs less, stiff as a board, not eating much, and speaking about 10 cogent words in a day.

Anna in happier times
Each illness sets Anna back so much that I wonder whether he will ever recover and be his old self. Whatever that old self is, for it is not the vibrant, laughing man he was, before Parkinson's and Dementia kidnapped him in front of our eyes.

Now, when Anna responds to me, I feel good. Tho' 10 softly spoken words are not much, it's better than nothing. I think he is looking sad, but he hasn't said anything. What worries me is that he wants to say something but can't. It's terrible. Just imagining it frightens me. It can only be worse, much worse, for Anna.

I decide to pep Anna up by telling him that Deepawali is around the corner. Deepawali has a special place in Anna's heart. 
First because of the lights. For days before Deepawali, we wheel Anna around the colony so that he can look at all the houses, bedecked with strings of lights - straight lights, dancing lights, bling lights, reflecting globes, strobe lights. Each house uniquely lit up and wanting to show-off a part of their owners' soul.

The second reason Anna loves Deepawali is because of the simple, childlike excitement of lighting crackers. Last year, like a little boy, Anna asked me twice a day, every day, for a month, when Deepawali was! He told me about how he and his brother made firecrackers in their childhood. This year there are going to be no stories. There are going to be little or no crackers given the Supreme Court's ban on the sale of crackers in Delhi.

Anna's favorite Vishnu Chakhra
I know we want to reduce the amount of pollution that will blanket the city. The pollution that will make our eyes water and throats dry. A living pollution that is killing us, inside out. 

But, Anna has a few pleasures in life and a few years to live. Maybe just a year. Is it really so bad for me to want to light 6 sparklers, 4 chakras and 4 flower pots to cheer him up? I have crackers left over from last year, and lighting them will just add a soupçon of pollution. 

I really want to burn crackers for Anna. 

But can I, in good conscience, given our air pollution problem? 

Should I? 

Will I? 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Sibling Fights

Anil's kids play at Anna's house
while their mother sweeps and swabs the floors
One morning, Anil, our major domo, regaled us with stories of how his kids are constantly fighting. He was looking at Sanjiv to give him some advice. Advice on how to prevent kids from fighting. From an only child??!! Nah! That was not going to be any good, so I shoo-ed Sanjiv away and told Anil, "Brothers and sisters will fight all their lives. There is no solution."

I further told him that siblings will fight well into adulthood. Actually, they never end. Some turn violent (ref our Mughal kings), some result in siblings not talking for years (like Anna and Padukaka), some are yelling matches, some involve a truckload of backbiting.

Being philosophical, I tell him that sibling fights happen in all households. All households have stories of legendary fights. Here is the most famous one from Anna's childhood. Anna was not personally involved in this one, but it is so ingrained in my brain with his childhood, that I simply have to tell it. One that we still mention and laugh about at large family gatherings.
Photo Courtesy: Nordic Store Iceland


When Anna's brothers (Padukaka and Krishnakaka) were quite young, perhaps in their early teens, a relative gifted the boys a muffler (woolen scarf). One may naturally ask, "Why would someone gift a solitary muffler to two boys?", and "Why would someone gift a muffler to children who stay in a town where the temperature ranges from ~24°C to ~38°C?" No one really knows the answer to these questions other than that some well meaning adult gave a woolen muffler as a gift, with love and affection.

That love and affection was not felt by the brothers. The issue that rose between the 2 brothers was not when would they wear the muffler, but who had ownership of the muffler. They fought over it for days. Each one claiming right based on any reason that they thought was a strong reason. Padukaka thought he should get it because he was older. Krishnakaka thought he should get it because he was younger. All types of criteria were used - height, weight, how well they did in school tests, who could eat more of what, or climb higher, or swim faster, or hold their breath longer. 

My grandmother, Ajji, tried all she could to get them to share it, dividing days between them. Then weeks. Then she tried dividing it between them based on the hours in a day. Then tried weather conditions. But they would not listen. Each of the brothers' wanted absolute ownership and rights. This bitter and often loud fight ended when Ajji, got so frustrated that she cut the muffler in half and gave each boy a piece. Both got absolute ownership and rights over half a muffler.

When we fought as kids, we were warned to resolve the fight, else we would be left with nothing of use, like half a muffler. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

When Life is a Bitch, What Else Can I Do But Laugh!..... Really??

That's right! "Try to laugh", that is. For life is a bitch. A real bitch! 

Specially for caregivers, for whom the alternatives of crying or running away or changing the situation, do not exist. Often, cries for help are not made, or when made, are not heard or understood.  Caregivers just have to learn that everyone believes their life is complicated and tough - taking on an additional responsibility or carving out time to help, is asking for a lot. 

Want to know what its like? Here's a quick tour of my bitchy-life's last 5 months.

April 2017: My father's major-domo, Tairas, goes on vacation for 3 weeks. I rearrange my life  and work schedules to be Anna's major-domo for that period. 10 days later, Tairas calls to tell me he is not returning. A 21-day extra-work schedule turns into a 7 week extra-work grueling schedule. The new major-domo, Alex, arrives May 23rd. Somewhere in the middle, I battle an infection that leads the doctor to ask me to have a punch biopsy. I wonder when I will get the time to do this.

29th May 2017: My father-in-law, Daddy, who is 92 years old, is diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia.




June 2017: We are told that Daddy has 3-6 months to live. Given his age and the progress of the disease, we decide that managing his symptoms and ensuring quality-of-life is more important. We have 2 hospital stays in a month - once via Emergency and once for a blood transfusion. Sanjiv, my husband, spends almost every waking moment caring for him. The tables are turned, as Anna is wheeled daily to meet my father-in-law.

July 2017: Daddy is visibly deteriorating. On 14th, I am conducting a program in Gurgaon. At 3 pm, Sanjiv calls to tell me that Daddy passed away. The next 10 days are a blur of arrangements, people visiting, etc. End of the month, my mother-in-law, who is 82 years old, spends 5 days in hospital with acute gastroenteritis.

Sanjiv lies in the same hospital room as his mother;
 separated by a few days


August 2017: We rush my mother-in-law to emergency twice. She spends over 10 days in hospital, 5 in MICU. Acute gastroenteritis again. And again, I spend the days at the hospital while Sanjiv spends the nights. Finally, she is back on 19th. On 21st Sanjiv starts a fever that sends him to Emergency on 28th with Dengue. Somewhere in the middle of all this, I manage to get my punch biopsy and it is clear.

September 2017: Sanjiv is released from hospital on 1st afternoon. That evening, my mother-in-law tells me she has bleeding piles. Off to the doctor I go again. By the time I am back home, I am literally teetering on my feet.

And thru all of this, Anna and his needs are the lowest in priority. Anna understands ~70% of why I can not be with him more often or spend time with him as I had before. For the 2nd time in over 3 years, I get angry with him and yell at him. And cry afterwards.

Sept 2015: I am so tired that I fall asleep,
while at a friends place, just after dinner



During this time:

  • Some family and friends do what they can to help. Offering vs being asked. And when asked for help, providing it and more, without hesitation. 
  • Some are downright insensitive and uncaring. I hear every excuse in the book, from "I have work to do" to "everyone's life is complicated, yours isn't special". 

So what can I do but laugh? And wish that the helpers never have to be in my situation. And the uncaring brutes? That they go thru a part of what I have, to know, really know, how bad it can be. I hope that it will make them more empathetic. Am I being uncharitable, mean, selfish, and a bitch. Yes, I am. It feels right!  



Chances are, that you know of at least one caregiver in your family / circle of friends. A parent or sibling, a cousin or an uncle / aunt, or a friend. You probably get a small view of their world when you visit them or call them (if you call at all!). That caregiver, is slowly dying without you knowing it. Worse still, is that they themselves aren't aware of parts of them that are dying. And dying they are. 

As you battle with the challenges of living a full life & leaving a legacy, your caregiver's battle is with death. The death of the patient. And their own death - the stresses of care-giving have been known to shave off 10 years from a caregiver's life.

Few people can understand the stresses and strains of care-giving. Even caregivers themselves will tell you that their stint is unique and different from others. But you can make a difference, if you really care. Really. Care.

  1. Give the caregiver a break. Not a day or a week. Give them at least 3 weeks off where they can go somewhere and really wind-down. 
  2. Know the patient and their care-giving requirements well so that you can provide hospital stay relief when needed. A good night's sleep does wonders for a caregiver.
  3. Ask caregivers how they are. And listen. Their health, both mental and physical is important, and they will ignore it. Help them improve their health. Take them to a doctor, commit to exercising with them regularly, take them for a movie or a meal. There are at least 50 things you can do to help.
  4. Commit to help. Be consistent. Don't pull back after telling a caregiver that you are ready to help. That is cruel; like offering a drowning person a life jacket and then pulling it back when they reach for it.
If you care, then reach out to help a caregiver. Today!

'Coz laughing ain't gonna help.

And life is a bitch. A real bitch!


Monday, August 7, 2017

When the Lions Roamed Free

July 2017: Anna retells the story of lions roaming free to 
Ananya, my niece, and Mamta, my sister,'
to much laughter and encouragement
A few months ago, Anna was quite the chatty Cathy for a few days. That is an oddity, given that most days he is quiet, only responding to direct questions. With his eyes closed. So, him being chatty is a treat. When I say chatty, I mean that that he could talk for 15 mins at a stretch without falling asleep or losing his train of thought. That's really chatty for him.

Anna: Lions are majestic.

Me (looking at the news, confused): What lions, Anna?

Anna: The lions in Africa. They roam around freely.

Me (I think he is referring to something he has seen on the National Geographic channel that he loves): Yes they do Anna. Specially in grasslands, and open forests.

Anna: They roam freely amongst people. They don't harm the people at all.

Me (wondering if this is a hallucination, or if he is telling me about a dream, or a story): Really, Anna?

Lion Staircase, Bardo Palace, Tunis
Photo Courtesy: E. Selmaj
Anna: The stairs have lions on either side, too.

I am totally confused, wondering what lions are doing roaming freely on either side of a staircase that people use.

Me: What staircase, Anna? Where is this staircase?

Anna: In Tunis. At the Palace. It is a beautiful staircase. The lions each have a different expression.

Me: Anna, when did you go to Tunis?

Anna: A few years ago. I think it's been over 30 years since Anna has been to Africa.

Me: Anna, what were you doing in Tunis?

Anna: I went to see Nagarajan. 
Anna has known Uncle Nagarajan for ~70 years.

Me: What was Uncle Nagarajan doing there?

Anna: He was working at an oil refinery, in Algiers. The Americans had set up refineries and they needed technical people, so Nagarajan went.

Algiers? I thought we were in Tunisia at the Bardo Palace near where Uncle Nagarajan was working?! But now Anna had moved to Algeria in the blink of an eye.

From what I can make out Anna saw lions in Tunis. Were they alive and roaming free or were they stone statues? I am confused. But that's kind-of becoming the norm for me - being confused and logical at the same time.

Anna: One evening, while Nagarajan was working on the bubble cap columns, he saw movement from the corner of his eyes. He thought that it was a "herd" of dogs. But it wasn't. How could dogs all be the same color? When he asked the people around him, they shone their lights where there had been movement. That is when he saw them! The lions of Algiers. Roaming freely around the refinery.

Me: Anna, wasn't Uncle scared? Wasn't it dangerous?

Anna: No. It seems that it was quite normal for the lions to roam the refinery. The lions came and went as they pleased. More in the evening time when it was cool. Pause. They also roamed the village nearby.

Me: The village nearby?

Anna: Yes. We went there and met with the headman. When we asked him if he had seen the lions, he told us that the whole village had. The lions roamed freely between their huts. No one harmed them so they didn't harm the villagers.

All eight editions of Perry’s Chemical Engineers’ Handbook
Pub. Date2008, 1997, 1984, 1973, 1963, 1950, 1941, 1934
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
I am fascinated by this story and ask him questions about the location of the oilfield, bubble cap columns, the refining process. He answers all my questions, even advising me to read Perry's Handbook to understand the distillation process better!

Me: Anna, did you see the lions roaming free in the oil refinery? Or the village?

Anna: Unfortunately, no.

Pause.

Anna: You know, they don't need boundary walls for protection. Not for the refinery. Not for the village. Pause. The lions protect the refinery and the people. Roaming free.

I have not verified this story with Uncle Nagarajan who is 91 or 92 years old.
Anna has also narrated the story to my sister and niece.
Pretty much word for word.
I believe that this is a true story.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Changing Language of My Mother Tongue

My father, Anna, can speak English, Kannada,
Tamil, Malayalam, & Hindi
with varying degrees of proficiency
Photo Courtesy: theodysseyonline.com
When people ask me, "What is your mother tongue?", I say Kannada. But that is not true. If mother tongue refers to the language I grew up speaking, then my mother tongue is English (I duck to avoid the imaginary spears of anti-nationalism being flung at me as I write this!)

My father was born and brought up in Tamil Nadu and hence reads, writes, and speaks Tamil fluently. He learned English in school, Malayalam when he was posted in Kerala, and Hindi, when he was required to pass a mandatory Hindi test to get a Central Government job in the '50s / '60s.

My mother was born and brought up in Delhi and hence was fluent in Hindi.

As we are Kannadiga Madhwas, we all speak Kannada (me haltingly, often searching for words in desperation!) Most of the time, I speak with Anna in English, our primary language of communication.


My parents, sometime in the early 70s

I learned Hindi only when I was 9 or 10 years old. Till then, Hindi was limited to the Bollywood songs my mother listened to on the radio. At that time, we thought our father spoke great Hindi (it sounded so much like the songs we heard!) We still laugh when we think of how impressed we were when Anna said, "कलम में स्याही है" ("There is ink in the pen") - his earliest recollection of learning Hindi was not the alphabet but this sentence. It was only much, much later that we realized that Anna's Hindi was South-Indian accented with a very limited vocabulary.

Anna has a great sense of humor, and is a master of the art of quick repartee. This is not just the pride of a daughter, you are reading, but something you will hear from almost anyone who meets him. Before Parkinson's Disease and Dementia stole his ability to be quick and nimble with his words, Anna was the center of attraction wherever he went. Whether the gathering spoke English, or Kannada, or Tamil, if you heard laughter, you were sure to find my father holding court!

Parkinson's Disease and Dementia, now lets us experience only a small percentage of his wit and repartee (as you may have gathered from my blog-stories at Parables of a Parkinson's Patient). But it is still there, and it is still communication, whether in English or Kannada or Tamil.

10 July 2017: One of Anna's "not all there" days

Where once our language of communication was words strung together in any which way we pleased, we now often speak gestures and facial expressions. A language that involves more than a soupçon of detective work based on a long relationship of shared experiences and oft-repeated stories.


I now hear Anna tell me of his pain in a frown, or his confusion in the wrinkled lines of his forehead. I see his happiness in his toothless smile and his childlike excited chatter in the twinkling of his eyes. I hear him struggling to find the right words in his tired frown and the slight upward movement of his pupils.

We don't know them all
but
We owe them all
22 July 2017 at Saket Select Citywalk
I know he is asking for his head to be scratched when he repeatedly tries to raise his fingers to his scalp. A half-raised arm means he wants to wipe his nose or the drool from the side of his mouth. I can now distinguish a Parkinson's-induced twitch of a hand from the gesture that points to an object to ask what it is. I know he is stiff when I can see his weakened muscles strain under his paper-thin skin. The slight shifting of weight from one buttock to the other tells me that he wants his back rubbed or scratched.

A lot of our language of communication are these long-duration macro / micro-expressions. A language I have learned without any formal training, and one that I am teaching his attendants.

This new language is not my mother tongue but is starting to feel just as familiar.

There is no appropriate name for this language - perhaps we can create one!

Do you have any suggestions?


Saturday, June 17, 2017

Confessions of a Daughter

Feb 2017
Anna cranes his neck to see something on my phone :-)
Dear Anna,

This Father's Day, I thought I would jazz it up a bit and write you a letter. I know as a family we didn't really celebrate "days". The most we did on a birthday or anniversary was to eat ice cream. No presents. No special dinners. No flowers. After all, it was just another day. But every now and then, I wish someone would throw me a surprise birthday party. Or give me a present, or send me flowers or take me out to dinner. Just like that. For the fun of it!

So, Anna, out of character and tradition, this year I am going to tell you things I have never told you before. All in honor of Father's Day.

I loved that you were goofy with us when we were kids. The only father we knew of, who would scare the the living daylights out of his daughters for fun, or read Asterix, or specially drive kilometers out of the way, so that we could experience a bumpy ride.

I was in awe of your ability to crack a joke on any subject, and be the center of attraction at any party, solely because of your wit. I was and am in awe. And definitely, jealous.

I still remember that you called me aside and told me to stand up for myself, when my siblings stole my share of treats from the fridge. I did learn to stand up for myself. And now I often find myself in the corner of the underdog in a fight.

I still shake my head with disbelief that you think that "idiot" and "fool" are curse words! You would admonish us gently with a "Don't use dirty words!" when we did.

I do not know where the picture I dislike is!
I am irritated that the photo of me that you like is a shot of me leaning against a lamp-post, sulking after being rudely awakened from jet-lagged sleep. I was a child. And I had to lean against a pillar, to sleep while pretending to be awake. Hollywood Boulevard be damned. Couldn't you have liked one where I looked cute?

I cringe with embarrassment when I recall how you would interrogate every boy I introduced you too. No question was too personal. No relationship left undiscovered.

I thank you for the wonder of travel. Every home-country trip, we saw different countries and experienced different cultures. History came alive. Geography showed her beauty. I think I have little wings, invisible wings, under my feet, like you had.

Oh! how many times this wonder of travel worried me! Even in your 80s, you and Amma would disappear on a trip and not tell me. I had to track you down like a detective.

I am amused that though you have flown around the world many, many times, you are still nervous to fly. As children, we liked making you shiver with fear, when we loudly wished for the adventure of being hijacked! Sorry.

I appreciate that you made my dark colored skin inconsequential. Specially in a family of fair people. To you, I was pretty. A "pretty" that meant practical, intelligent, confident, logical, respected.

I cry now to see you helpless and so dependent on people. And I lie when I tell you it doesn’t matter. It does. And it hurts. Physically hurts.

This is what Anna looks like
 after eating a jalebi :-)
I feel guilty and I wonder if I am a bad child, a cruel child, when I wish that your life would end, peacefully and quickly. I think 10 years of suffering is enough. And these three years have taken the mickey out of both of us.

I love the way your face lights up with a toothless smile when I ask you if you want to eat ice cream, or jalebi, or mysore pak. I sometimes ask you this, just to see you smile. A smile that is infectious and makes me want to skip like a little child.

I don’t know how to end this letter other than to say that I both dread and look forward to every day with you. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Shaken, Not Stirred

Sir Roger Moore in 1973
when his first movie
Live and Let Die was released
Yesterday, when I heard of Sir Roger Moore's passing, all I could think of were the James Bond movies we watched with Anna in our childhood. Anna was a big James Bond fan. He took us at an early age to watch James Bond movies, so that we could "build a real appreciation" for them. I must have seen my first Bond movie in the early 70s - with Roger Moore as the suave and sexy 007. I am sure we saw other movies, like Jaws and Close Encounters, but it is the Bond movies that I remember the most.

Here is how one of our movie outings would play out in the Murthi household.  

We'd be eating dinner at 8pm on a week night. Anna would suddenly ask us what movies were currently showing. One of us would interrupt whatever morsel of food was finding its way into our mouth, and go fetch the newspaper (I believe that the first thing I learned to read in a newspaper was the schedule of movies!). We would specifically read out the name of the movie running at Chanakya - the defacto favorite theater for English language movies.

Chanakya Theater
Photo Courtesy: Indiancine.ma Wiki
Anna (and Amma) would ask us if we wanted to see it. Of course, we did! What tweenager or teenager would say no to a trip to the movies in the 70s and 80s?

The six of us would finish eating, clearing the table, cleaning the kitchen, changing clothes, closing windows and doors, packing snacks for the movie hall, and locking the flat in record time. Anna would bring the car and keep it idling in the porch of our block of flats. We would run down the stairs too excited to stand still in a lift with Amma, and tumble into the car with no argument on who got the window seat. 

Anna would get us to the theater by 8:50 pm so that we could buy tickets and be seated in time for the 9 pm show. We never missed an ad or a trailer. Even now, I hate missing theater ads and trailers.

Parle Poppins
I loved the red ones
At Interval, snacks would be taken out of various handbags and consumed with gusto. Those were the days when we could carry oranges, peanuts, chocolates, roti rolls, poppins, & water into theaters and have a picnic. 

Quite often, Anna would take our friends out for James Bond movies too. Since all of us could not fit into a Fiat, the elder kids (with one girl to ensure we could get tickets quickly by standing in the Ladies Queue!) would catch a bus. The younger kids would be driven by Anna and Amma. So well-known is Anna's love for James Bond movies that one of our friends gifted him with a CD set of all James Bond movies for his 80th birthday.

Now, often when we push Anna's wheelchair over rough potholed roads, I joke with Anna and ask him if he is feeling "shaken, not stirred". Anna doesn't normally get it the first time. Then I ask him how James Bond likes his martinis. I can almost hear the wheels of his memory grinding.

"You are shaken, Anna, not stirred. Like James Bond's martinis". He smiles every time. Not in the first telling as he used to, but in the second telling. In the second telling, he smiles.


PS: I haven't told Anna of Sir Roger Moore's passing


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Making Snake Gourd Vegetable (Padvalkai Palya), Anna Ishtyle

Goddess Lakshmi
Photo Courtesy: Goddessgift.net
My father and his two brothers were 3 male offspring of 10* born to my grandparents.  Ajji and Tatha, as they were called, celebrated each daughter's birth as the gracing of their homes by Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, Fortune & Prosperity. That meant a lot, given that they were poor. Tatha was a village schoolteacher who owned some land, but that didn't go very far to feed the 12 mouths in his home. 

Anna told us that in his childhood he often had to wrap a wet towel around his stomach, to dull hunger pains, before sleeping at night.

I believe that this was the reason why Anna could not stand it if one of us said that we were hungry. Anna would ensure that we immediately got something to eat - a banana, a biscuit, some peanuts. Anything really. Just to stop us feeling the hunger pains that he remembered from his childhood.

Padvalkai Palya. 
Photo courtesy: Raks Kitchen
Even tho' there wasn't too much food, Anna and his brothers, learned to cook in their childhood. As was the tradition in south Indian Brahman families, women were not allowed into the kitchen to cook (among other things) when they were menstruating. Also, as the cycles of women in one household often synced, there were days when Tatha had to cook. Simple, two dish meals, made of whatever could be afforded, at that time. As the boys grew older, they were pressed into service, to clean, cut, and cook meals for the family.

One of the dishes Tatha would cook at these times was padvalkai palya (snake gourd sabzi / vegetable).
Watch snake gourd being made village style
Tatha would sit on the kitchen floor, with the boys around him, pealed snake gourd at his feet. He would use a vegetable cutter and coconut scrapper (a curved knife with a circular scraper head at the top, mounted on a leg of wood) to cut the gourd. Tatha would cut the snake gourd horizontally, into circles, and give it to the boys. Anna and his brothers would then meticulously poke out the seeds from each piece with their little fingers! Each circle would be examined by Tatha (his eyes becoming magnifying glasses) to see that there were no stray seeds left. The boys felt like they were waiting for school exam results! Once he was satisfied, Tatha would cut the de-seeded circles into small pieces and then cook the palya / subzi.

Cleaning, de-seeding, and cutting snake gourd
Photo Courtesy: Kurinnji Kanthambam
Anna thought that poking seeds out of snake gourd was the only way to de-seed a gourd for many, many years. After all, his school-teacher father had taught him so! It was only when one day he saw, Amma, my mother, slice a snake gourd vertically in the middle, and take out the seeds in one single swoop, that he realized that he had not been taught the most efficient way!

He has told us this story time and again. Laughing at the time and effort it took him and his brothers to poke out seeds with their little fingers, waiting with bated breath for Tatha to examine each circular slice!

Even now when I recount this story to Anna, he smiles. It seems that his Parkinson's and Dementia fogged brain recognizes and appreciates old stories!

*There were 11 offspring, one died in childbirth.