May 16, 2020

Pori unde

“What have you brought with you?”

I ask my grandmother, but already, I know the answer when she wriggles out of my tight hug.

Her simple cotton saree smells of cardamom and jaggery, the morning breeze caught in its many folds and creases. I can also identify the dreamy fragrance of Ponds talcum powder coming from the neat handkerchief that she reserves for her train journey from her home in Dombivli, to Thane where we live. When she feels hot, or pauses in her thoughts, she will reach for that kerchief tucked in her waist. She will pull it out, careful not to unfold it lest its powdery contents spill out, and she will run it around her face, the bridge of her nose. Refreshed, she will sigh and insert it by her waist again.

Pori Unde. You like them, don’t you? Here. First, get me a plate or dabba from the kitchen….to store these.”

Sweet kurmura. kurr-murra. crunchy kurmura, murmura. Call it what you want. I snatch the packet from her. Four huge balls of puffed rice and caramelised jaggery. I open it immediately and bite into one of them, its’ sweetness floods my senses. I realise that it’s not really my favourite of sweets, but it’s made by my favouritest person in the world. I politely finish my laddoo. The rest, I store in a round stainless steel container.

I don’t know this then, but years later, like, now, I will remember this taste, every crunch, every bite of that puffed rice laddoo. And there will be a deluge of every memory associated with her. I am not here and now. I am there and then.

Inside this memory of my ammamma: she’s crouched on top of her kitchen platform – all four-feet of her, as she roasts the rice puffs in her huge aluminum kadhai on the gas burner, and melts a mix of chopped jaggery and cardamom powder in a pan on the other. When the jaggery melts and froths, she will take them both off the heat. Carefully, she will step down on to the big stainless steel dabba that easily takes her weight, and shoo us away if we stray too close to the cooking area. With the concentration of someone who is creating life, she will pour the hot liquid into the bowl of puffed rice, bring them together. Satisfied, she will smear ghee on her palms and roll the hot mix into quick tennis-ball-sized spheres. With each unde, her body will relax. Then tense up again as she rolls the next one, her hands acting quickly.
“It is important to take the jaggery off the heat at the right time,” she will shake her head and remind herself aloud, “a little more or less heat and the balls will just not form.”

Behind her, and engrossed in our own little game of name-place-animal-thing, eight heads look up at her for a moment and chuckle silently. As her grandchildren, we’re accustomed to her talking to the vessels around her. This time she’s chatting with the four containers she has washed and dried for each of her four daughters. She wipes her hands in a clean, old piece of saree cloth recycled to be her kitchen towel, runs her wrinkly fingers around the containers’ insides, checking they are completely dry and shiny. To make doubly sure, she wipes the cloth around them once again, and repeats the cycle. She shuts the four lids and twists them open, checking they will remain air-tight. I know what is going to come without looking at her. Her face is calm now. It looks like the dabbas on their part have reassured her that they’re ready to collect the pori unde. Wiping the individual containers one last time, as if one was sending a child to school, she mumbles something to them again, and calls me out to distribute them.

Radhoo, idhar aati hai kya re zara?

I run to her. I’ve been waiting all along. 

May 2, 2019

An English chembarathi

Last night
I was surprised
to see
amid a potted jungle
at M&S
the sharp
est green
and rusty red:
our very own

who do we have here?
I said.
So many miles
away from home,
all alone,
are you too,
with a droopy head?

Were you born
here in England?
Or did they
pluck you
from your family
you were little?

Do you remember
the earth at home
the smell
on misty mornings
the sound of bells
the marble floors
the incense
the fingers that gently picked
your full, flowy flowers
for the glowing

How can you bear
to be away?
Barely wrapped
in this weather
so cold
a plastic pot of soil
not Indian, I’m sure
and a fancy lined
gunny sack
just to display
your exoticity.

So thinking,
I sadly caressed
a leaf or two, a bud
stirring, open,
It bobbed at my touch
and lifted
its curious head.

Ah, at last,
a brown face
the voice said.
I am not alone,
why do you think so?

Look around me
the bonsai, the palm,
the orchid, and more
everyone here
is an outsider
as much as me,
as much as you

Don’t you remember
the rich, red mud,
the songs from home?
They remind me
of who I am.
help keep me
alive too.

I hugged
the plant
jute bag and all.
let me take you,
I said,
I’ll look after you,
and you, me.

Together, alone,
let me
give us both
a home
from home.