Monday, June 18, 2012

Buttermilk, with love

"I've told you a million times not to go to the big house again, but then, I don't stand a chance against your 'real' family, do I?" Ravi was angry with Ammu, his reasoning and his pleas failing to change the way his mother lived her life. "Look how ill you are now! You think me or your daughter-in-law have nothing more to do than to tend to you all day?"

How could she do this to him? He was one of the most successful shopkeepers in the village now, and she knew he could provide every comfort his mother could think of, unlike the years that saw him growing up working odd jobs for meagre wages. Looking at Ammu's frail body, he softened a little. "I am going to the shop now. I know you like buttermilk during this heat - I shall get some from the shop. I will be back early today evening, and Bhadra will make you some special rice gruel. You will be better soon."

While he walked out, he could feel Bhadra's eyes burning into him. Bhadra, his wife of a few years, had always objected to Ammu going to the big house. She had seen only the good times, and she would never understand the bond that Ravi and his mother had with the big house. He walked out in a huff, leaving his mother sighing in despair, and Bhadra throwing a big aluminium rice pot into the sink.

It was unusual for Ammu to be lying in bed past sunrise on a normal day. Ammu had arrived into this quaint little town after her marriage, and had soon realized life was different after marriage. She soon took on the role of a domestic help in the big house with the red gate. While her husband drunk away his paltry earnings each evening, it was her odd jobs in the big house that brought food on to her table. A few days after Ravi was born, the matriarch of the big house had sent clothes, black bangles to ward off the evil eye, and some bright plastic toys. Ammu had not been able to stop crying every time she looked them.

Soon, when she resumed working, she brought Ravi along to the big house, so that she could keep an eye on the naughty toddler. With time, Ravi was more at home in the big house than his own home, laying claim to every one's hearts with his innocent babble and his incessant questions. The matriarch's loving hand forever sought to hold the wriggling child, and it was the matriarch herself, who had called Ammu aside and had instructed her to go with the other children of the house to the village school and enroll little Ravi into the smallest class.

When Ammu and little Ravi reached the big house each morning, Ravi's school lunch and mid day snack would already have been packed by the grumpy cook, and the other children would be waiting eagerly for him, so that they could run through the green fields and reach school before the second bell. Ammu could have written down her life for the matriarch then, had it been asked of her.

Growing up, Ravi was only eager to run errands for the extended family of the big house - gathering mangoes for the pickle, retrieving fallen coconuts floating in the huge backyard pond, pulling water from the well for the cleaning lady...... and the household became as dependent of Ravi as they were of Ammu.

Ravi finished school with the other children of the big house, and Ammu could see Ravi was soon going to want more than she could ever provide. The matriarch's death was a shock to all, but it also changed the equation that Ravi was to have with the big house. He was distinctly no longer 'family', but he had upbringing which taught him too much self respect for a servant. His decision was made when the matriarch's lawyer handed him a large folder with official - looking papers that said he owned a little square piece of land by the road; the matriarch was still looking out for him. He opened a little shop which prospered due to Ravi's gentle demeanour and his business acumen, both honed by good basic education. Life began to look up, and he went separate ways from the big house and the coconut palms he grew up in.

But Ammu........ Ammu was a different story. His mother never actually stopped going to the big house, each day. She had already been told that she was too old to be of any actual help, by the new lady of the house. But since almost all the grown ups in the household had, at some point in their lives been fed and bathed by Ammu, she was always welcomed into the big house. They knew her weakness for buttermilk, and would always keep for her, freshly made buttermilk, lightly spiced with green chillies and ginger, in the clay pot which kept it cool in hot summer days.

Many young members of the household, once pampered and cared for by Ammu, were now in various parts of the country, striving to make their lives more successful. Every now and then, there would be the young doctor, or lawyer or businessman who gave in to nostalgia and came back to visit his roots. They would seek Ammu out, bring her gifts, and some money to try and express their gratitude without using words that they so comfortably had used in their childhood. Ammu understood, and would never refuse any gift or any denomination. She would take it without a second glance, and hold the youngster's hand with both her hands, drinking in memories of their faces that she may never see again.

She sighed now as she listened to her daughter-in-law Bhadra cursing the heat, and the soggy firewood that would not light. This progressed quickly into complaining loudly about how her mother-in-law would rather work in someone else's house than in her own. Ammu knew this was for her benefit, and she leaned across and softly closed the door, lowering the volume of Bhadra's complaints.

She did not realize she had drifted off to sleep, but the heat woke her up. The sun outside her window shone as though it was afternoon. She turned to pick up the little alarm clock that one of the visitors to the big house had gifted her, and saw that it was nearly two. That meant Bhadra had chosen to go to Ravi's shop with his lunch, without waking her up. She must be really angry this time, Ammu chuckled to herself. The front door creaked open, and Ammu called out "Who is it?"

A few seconds later, she saw a little foot pushing open the door to her little bedroom, and little Suja walking in, carefully balancing a vessel in her little hands. All of eight, Suja was what you could call a happy, boisterous child. She was here for vacation with her parents, and had quickly made a bond with old Ammu, who was the most willing storyteller Suja had seen. Her parents had obviously welcomed the distraction that Ammu had provided, giving them more time to do 'grown up' stuff instead of spending lazy afternoons with a bright-eyed child with endless curiosity.

Ammu had told her the story of the local deity - when Lord Shiva created an image of himself, by throwing a lock of his hair on the ground. This deity, Ammu had promised, would kill all evil people in the world. Ammu had also explained to her why the squirrels ran away when they heard a footstep, or why the koel always replied back to you if you called out 'Coo-cooo' to her. Ammu had answered her questions on why she couldn't eat so many mangoes, or how the tender coconuts had so much water inside them.

"Suja mole!" Ammu almost jumped out of her bed. "What are you doing here? Did you come here alone? Do your Amma and Achcha (Mom and Dad) know that you are here? And what are you carrying?"

Suja smiled naughtily while she placed the vessel on the table and sat down next to Ammu. "You ask more questions than I do." She laughed while throwing her little arms around Ammu. "Yes, I came alone. I am a big girl now - you know I turn 9 after a month, no? And Amma - Achchan are both out meeting someone. And you did not tell me the story about the snake temple in the backyard - you promised." she declared with a little pout.

"Suja, my child, I am not well today. I will come tomorrow, and tell you the whole story - I promise. You have to go no, or everyone will be worried." Ammu was already up and holding the child's arm to take her to the big house.

"No wait! I can go back - I know the way. And you can watch me from this window all the way back to the big house. I know you can, because I could see you from my room there, and you were sleeping the whole day" she said pointing to the big house, a little down the road. Ammu looked dazed as she started to understand little Suja's explanation of her visit.

"And remember you told me that buttermilk is the best thing for this 'wretched heat'? I got you some - its from the clay pot, so its cold. You must drink the whole thing and get well soon, Ammu-amma...... I miss you" And with a quick hug, she skipped out of the room, into the bight sun, with Ammu's moist eyes following the child all the way into the big house with the red gate.


  1. Now that's a beautiful story :) Couldn't help smiling at the simplicity of life.. Buttermilk with love indeed :)

  2. buttermilk indeed is the best for wretched heat :) going on a tangent reminded me of those days back home when the ladies in the house would get up early morning to manually (i dont know the word now) .. nowadays we have machine .. to churn the milk and all to get butter :) and the LAssi yummmy


    1. Oh yes! I am sure your household would have been typically filled with doodh-malai-makkhan.... thanks a lot!

  3. Replies
    1. Thank you Kanthu, fo coming by! And glad you liked it.

  4. :)
    The story touched an extra chord, because Ammu is what I'm called, with love, by everyone. :)

    1. Ammu is what my little niece is called too! Thanks!

  5. yes, and i am enjoying butter milk here when the temprature is @45+.....and it does help in refreshing me up in this hot day......
    BTW the story is beutifully penned...thanks for sharing..:)

    1. Buttermilk is the original low-cal health drink cum thirst quencher - i love it too. Thanks for coming by.

  6. Nice one, Nirvana .. really enjoyed reading it.. I'm kinda amazed n happy with the way u've blossomed into such a great writer, Nirvana :)

    I loved ur food reviews earlier n now, ur short stories r really endearing.. u hv a very, very cool writing style.. just try reading 'Malgudi Days'.. think u might just like it maybe..

    Great goin, Nirvana!!!

    1. Thank you so much Raj. And Malgudi Days is one of my favorites - the language is easy on the reader, but the content is much deeper than what shows out on the surface .....