Virumthombal – Hospitality

It’s about hospitality within a South Indian family.

I think of the time in the mid-1990s when it was very turbulent in my life. But it was alternating; mixed, sadness, joy, sorrow and happiness.

We had moved into the newly built terraced house in Tamm, a Swabian city in Germany. These terraced houses in the suburbs were called starter houses at that time, which meant that the owners had to paste the wallpaper and paint all the interior walls of the house themselves. My wife took care of the family, took care of the daily routine, and I, as the sole breadwinner, took care of my work and the repairs and improvements in the house. As a traditionally thrifty Swabian and a trained house management teacher, my wife kept the household well and cheaply maintained.

I travelled a lot within Europe with my family. My wife was very good at planning and organising and we often used youth hostels. This way we got to know other families with whom we became friends. Our children learned self-reliance, self-confidence and communication skills on these trips. We could only afford a family trip to India every five to six years, but once a year I had to go home – not only to fulfil my duties there, but also to maintain my right as an active member of the tribe. No fulfilment of duties means no right to be a member of the society, otherwise you are just a guest, and that is still the case today.

Because flights were cheap at the turn of the year, one year I flew to India on Boxing Day for almost four weeks. During this holiday, I was the guest of my cousin Syahmala. Those days I spent with her family were very memorable and stayed in my mind. That is what I want to tell you about:

Syahmala, one of my elder cousins had instructed Kanthan to stop at the temple in the town of Sivapuram on his way to the coast and leave a message for me there. The message he was to convey to me was simple; however, he made it ‘Breaking News’.

I need to explain who Kanthan is and what he does full-time. Kanthan comes from a simple background, but he has the talent to get along well with all people. He makes everyone feel like they are the most important. Everyone feels comfortable in his company. However, as soon as Kanthan is out of sight, it dawns on you that you have involuntarily revealed something to him and you cannot prosecute him for it. It is a strange feeling. I wonder if that is why Kanthan had become such a successful Marriage Broker.

When I was at the Shiva temple on a Friday, I felt the priest staring at me intently and scrutinisingly after the Aarathi (worship). This did not bode well. After I received the prasaadam (offerings), he said in passing, “Kanthan wanted to meet you here.” When I enquired which Kanthan he meant, he said succinctly, “Kalyana Kanthan.” Kalyaanam means ‘wedding’ in Tamil. “What did he want?”, I asked. With a stern face, the priest replied, “He wanted me to tell you that your dear cousin from Parasala wants to arrange a nice Mandjarusi party for you.” I understood and rejoiced.

Mandjal means yellow and arusi means rice. Mandjarusi is a feast in honour of a family member you see again after a long time. It is a complicated recipe and includes all kinds of vegetables and a delicious dessert called Thänga Paruppu Payasam. This dessert is made with fresh coconut shavings, white lentils, butter, sugar cane, cardamom and ghee.

Syahmala and I had called it Mandjarusi party many years ago. Just the thought of this culinary event made my mouth water. Above all, the reunion with my relatives and the prospect of the many stories we had to tell each other delighted my mind.

As my mind lingered on Parasala, the priest said something strange: “They usually only visit here for a few weeks, but a suitable wedding date is only after the new moon in December.” At this he looked at me expectantly, waiting for an answer. I didn’t understand what he was trying to imply at first. After a moment’s thought, however, I guessed what the priest might have been making up. Since Kalyana Kanthan, the matchmaker, had delivered this invitation orally, the priest assumed that my cousin had found a suitable match, in this case a spouse, for someone. I had to laugh and enlightened the priest.

Akka means ‘elder sister’ in Tamil. With so many relatives in our extended family, there are many akkas and annas (elder brothers). The younger sister is called Thangatchi and the younger brother is called Thambi. To address one of the relatives properly, one says their name according to the degree of relationship.

But Syahmala Akka was too long for me and I shortened it to ‘Syakka’ even in my teenage years. She got angry about it every time and chased after me to pull my ears long. She never caught me, or only very rarely. In the end she usually gave up and in the end I was the only one who was allowed to address her so affectionately.

One never turns down a cordial invitation to the ‘yellow rice party’, it is an honour and a happiness at the same time. I was determined to attend and sent her my message. For this, I chose the tried and tested old-fashioned postal route, as I did not want to use Kalyana Kanthan’s services.

As a German-Thamizhan-Citizen living in Germany, I had almost forgotten in recent years how to accept and accept an invitation in Tamil in a decent and respectful manner. That day, I was visiting my nephew Mohandhas. His wife Shantha is a lovely woman and shows her kindness by cooking good food for the people, and in large quantities. She is an excellent cook and knows recipes for delicate chutneys that she makes with medicinal herbs. However, it always takes her a long time to cook and prepare everything festively. Mohandhas helps her always.

During the preparations, I found time to go to the sun terrace to observe the adjacent temple and what was happening around it. Pilgrims in colourful dresses and costumes were arriving all the time. In front of the temple was a pond where Hindus washed their feet before entering the temple barefoot. While I was watching them, I thought about how I could write a short letter in Tamil. So I sat there for quite a while. Then I took a saffron letter pad decorated with Tamil Om signs and pictures of coconut trees to express my thanks and commitment. I wrote:

“AnbuLLa Syakka (Dear Syakka), when I learnt of your invitation, I was filled with great joy. I had already planned to visit you. You sensed my thoughts. At present I am staying in Kumarapuram. I have already been to the temple this morning and performed a pooja. I thanked God Ganesha for the blessed life we have. My family and the society around me are doing very well at the moment. I hope and wish the same for you. When I heard that you were going to host a Mandja-rusi party for me, I was overjoyed, Akka. Of course, I would love to come, but you should not exert yourself. Even a simple mandjarusi would meet all my expectations. The main thing is that we can see each other and talk about old times. On the next full moon, I will come to visit you and bring Topia-ka chips and cashmere apples. May the Goddesses Parvathi, Saraswathi and Lakshmi bless and protect you. Lovingly, your Thambi Suresh.”

Slowly I read through the letter again, correcting my writing here and there, and was too-satisfied. Suddenly I spotted a tray with a cup of ginger chai and murukku, a spicy nibble made from chickpeas. Next to the tulsi plant, I found two red bananas on an old rice millstone that functioned as a small table. I hadn’t even noticed that Mohan had brought them up for me. There were still five days until the Pournami full moon. But I still had to attend to some family matters and go to the magistrate’s office. In Germany, that only takes a few hours, but in India, it takes days. And that’s only if the officials are well-disposed towards you and the stars in the sky are aligned.

Syakka lives a little outside the city. It is not easy to get there. At first I wanted to take a taxi, but then I decided to go the conventional way by bus and auto rickshaw. During the bus ride, I got into a conversation with an old man. He asked me curiously who I was, where I was from, where I was going. I did not have the feeling of being questioned. On the contrary, it seemed to be an interested, friendly human being who offered me tips and suggestions about what I was saying. I did not mind.

When I explained to the rickshaw driver where I wanted to go, he just said, “Ah, so it’s you.” Nothing more. Nor did he want to have any further conversation with me. It was not five minutes before I was at Syakka’s. She came out, rejoiced, grabbed my hand and said, “Waah, waah, wan-thuttiyaa, romba santhoshem. (Come, come, you have come, beautiful, I am happy).” This is their way of greeting.

Syakka’s husband was a civil servant and had just retired at the age of 58, as is the custom in India. The two of them have a son named Murugan, whom they have spoiled somewhat with exaggerated warmth and care. Murugan has completed his Bachelor of Arts degree and is looking for a suitable job. He is good looking, thinks he is the spitting image of Shah Rukh Khan and acts like it. He is always waiting for the red carpet to be rolled out for him.

The three of us sat by the fountain in the garden and Syakka brought me up to date with the current situation in the family and relatives. As she went out to make me a South Indian Coffee, her husband told me that he was now retired and active in the Christian Association as treasurer. He asked me the standard questions one asks an expatriate child, e.g. about life in Germany, my environment, how I manage without decent food there and the cold. He told me that he had seen the snow chaos on the news.

Syakka came with lattes in three stainless steel cups, because there are hardly any porcelain cups in India. She asked me if I could take sugar, they were both diabetic and would drink anything without sugar. Then she said, “Murugan will be here soon.” “Has he called?”, I wanted to know. “No, I hear his motorbike,” she replied. Although the road to the house was downhill, the young man had let his motorbike roar and arrived with a loud roar. Then he parked in front of the house and dismounted elegantly like a film star. He came in and casually took off his sunglasses. Only then did he spot me and approached me joyfully. “Boy, you’ve grown,” I said appreciatively and patted him on the shoulder. “You are already here, Periya maahmaah, I thought you were coming tomorrow,” he said. “Why, today is the full moon, that’s when I’m coming, that’s what I wrote,” I replied. He too wanted answers to the standard questions. His father stood up and said that if the full moon fell on a Saturday, he would fast. He would go to the nearby temple and then do his voluntary work as treasurer at the church. Spoke it, got up and left.

I wanted to give the young man a few tips for his future, but he was not particularly interested. His mother instructed him to pick three large, undamaged banana leaves as plates for our lunch. He was also to tell the neighbour that his mother needed coconut milk for the mandjarusi dish. Murugan responded only after being asked twice, then reluctantly got up and went to the neighbour’s house.

I now sat alone in the garden watching the chickens and the cat. The cat stared at me from its safe corner. I stared directly into its eyes. The vertical line of the cat’s eyes fascinated me. The cat did not avoid my gaze. It was like a tug of war.

It was all different from what I had expected. The last time, two or maybe it was three years ago, there were so many relatives. They were all sitting on the veranda and often laughing loudly.

When the gate squeaked, I turned to look. It was a little girl, she was carrying a jug, which she carefully brought into the house. Syakka came into the garden, introduced me to the child and explained that she was the granddaughter of the neighbours. The child came over to me, looked at me intently and asked, “You are the Thambi of Syamala Aatchi ?”. I nodded and asked, “Do you go to school?”. She replied, “Yes, in the second class of Paandian School. I am the top of the class, I got 88/100 marks in Maths.” I congratulated her and before I could continue she said, “You are from Europe and you look like us. You are an old man, why don’t you have light hair and a red face?”. I had to laugh out loud and before I could ask how she got such an idea, the neighbour came to the dividing wall. She greeted me with a namaskaram. Then she asked the girl to come home immediately and do her homework.

Murugan came with his smartphone and showed me an Indian blockbuster that was on everywhere. He also showed other films and games, noting that the German Maahmaah had no idea about the current scene.

Only when Syakka called for lunch did I realise how quickly the time had flown. We sat together on the veranda, because there was much more space, and had lunch. We had the red unpeeled rice, which is famous in Kerala, and aviyal. Aviyal consists of at least five vegetables, it is a vegan stew and has mainly three flavours. It tastes sweet, sour and has a spicy ginger flavour. The ingredients are mostly cooking bannen (sweet), muringakaai (neutral) also called drumsticks, unripe mango (sour), shredded coconut (sweet) and aubergine. These five vegetables grow above ground. The other vegetables such as potatoes or cassava, turmeric or carrots grow below ground. Why the vegetables are only cut oblong is a mystery to me. Spices representing the five good spirits (Pancha Boodhaas: air, earth, fire, water and space) are added and cooked together.

More chutneys decorated the green bana leaf all around. It was a delicious meal. But there is something yellow missing, I thought, but the paruppu-payasam (sweet lentil dessert) distracted me from my thoughts of yellow rice.

We had just finished eating when Rasappan Aththaan, my brother-in-law, reappeared. He immediately apologised that he needed his afternoon nap because he had to go to church in the afternoon to fulfil his duty as treasurer. Besides, he needed his rest because tomorrow would be hectic as usual. His son-derly behaviour irritated me a little, but I smiled kindly as he strode towards his bedroom.

Murugan stood up, grabbed his cellp-hone, as he called his phone, and was about to leave. “Show your PeriyaMaahmaah where he can rest,” Syakka said. Her voice betrayed that she was serious and she did not give Murugan a chance to contradict her. “Waan-go, Maahmaah (Come, please uncle),” he said to me. Only then did I realise that I was supposed to lie down to nick in the afternoon. That is the custom in India. I remembered that and followed him to the narrow wooden staircase. Visits of only one day are not usual in India. If one is going to travel, then one should spend at least one day with the relatives or the guests. The ritual of arriving and saying goodbye also takes time. The guest room was sparsely furnished; a wooden bed, a chair, a beautifully decorated wooden tray on the windowsill with a clay jug and a cup next to it. From the window I could see into the garden and down the slope at the banana, guava and mango trees. On the neighbouring property, a boy was standing and trying to get a cow to go into the barn. When she lightly hit him with her cow tail to shoo him away, he was frightened and ran into the house crying.

There was no thought of sleeping, for I was wide awake and trying to process everything that was occupying my thoughts. I thought about what I had experienced until then and looked at the old, slightly dusty pictures on the wall. An old calendar from the previous year with a picture of the deity family Shiva and Parvathi was still hanging and fluttered every few seconds when the fan swung in that direction. I stood up to look at the old pictures and recognised some of my relatives. I didn’t know many of them, but the traditional costumes and the type of jewellery told me that they were all related to me. On the wall above the door, a gecko was moving along, trying to catch an insect or a fly.

I lay down again and suddenly remembered how I had to write an essay about these four-legged geckos1 as a schoolchild. Almost all households in India that do not have air-conditioning are home to these geckos. At that time, it must have been in the fourth grade, I drew and studied these geckos and got the second best grade in the class.

geckos1 – One thing to watch out for with lizards is that they carry harmful bacteria such as salmonella. These are transmitted through their faeces and urine and can cause serious illness. Symptoms include severe diarrhea, stomach cramps, fever and vomiting. For people with weakened immune systems, this disease can be fatal.

I suddenly thought of an experience. It must have been in the summer, in the early 1960s. The temperatures were unbearable and the electricity failed several times a day. My mother had decided to cook in the courtyard under the roof with a wood fire. Sambar, a vegetable dish, was simmering away. My sister and I played kuzhi, a game with shells and tamarind seeds. My father walked past us to do something in the courtyard. Suddenly he stopped, rooted to the spot, and called for my mother. “Leelaa,” his voice sounded worried. My mother came into the courtyard as my father was stirring the sambar dish in the pot several times with a kitchen shovel. Then he took the hot clay pot full of vegetable curry and dumped it on the floor in a corner. There was a hiss, steam rose, then silence. Neither of us said anything. My mother came closer, looked at the discarded curry on the floor and saw the broth running down the drain. My sister and I got up and walked over. A white dead gecko was lying right in the vegetable curry. We both said out loud, “Palllie (gecko).” “I heard a hiss as I walked by,” my father said quietly.

Our parents tidied up everything, cleaned the yard area and told us to take a shower and get dressed. We didn’t eat anything and went to the Ga-nesha temple. Our father explained to us on the way to the temple that the geckos were very poisonous and eating them could lead to death. The god Ganesha had protected us.

My mother wanted to know what my father had gone to get in the courtyard. Usually my father sat on the veranda at the front of the house reading the newspaper or talking to a neighbour. My father did not answer at first. He thought for a while, then said, “I can’t explain to you why I went into the yard. There was no particular reason.”

“Maahmaah, Maahmaah, Kaappi,” I heard someone call out. Without realising it, I must have fallen asleep after all. I now heard Murugan step through the door and say, “Uncle, wango kieLä, tie kudikke (Uncle, please come down for tea).” I must have slept for almost 2 hours and was completely sweaty. My nephew saw my condition and before I could ask, he showed me the way to the shower. I went to the outside shower, which was reserved for the men of the house and male guests. Women showered in a room by the garden which screened the view. There was also a well to irrigate the garden. I used this for a shower with cool water, after which I felt reborn.

The afternoon sun provided pleasant warmth. Syakka and Rasappan were sitting at the tea table in the garden. The two were engrossed in a conversation about the temple festival. There are thousands of reasons for a festival in the temple. When they saw me coming, Syakka got up to get the chuk-ku kaappi (ginger milk tea). Rasappan asked me if there were any temples in Germany. I was about to tell about the temples in Hamm, Heidelberg and Berlin when Murugan interrupted me and told me that he had seen German Hare Krishna devotees in Hindu costumes on Youtube. His father listened attentively, finished his milk tea, got up and informed us that he would be back for dinner around 8 pm and left. The three of us sat outside in the garden for a long time. After 6 pm it gets darker faster than in Europe. I know this process in the evening. The sunset, the associated natural spectacle with the waning light, the return of the birds and their songs, and the softly barking dogs – this natural atmosphere is beautiful.

Rasappan came a little earlier than announced and said that the church leaders had invited me to the service as a guest from Germany. Dinner consisted of chappathi (dark flat bread) and boiled murungaikai leaves. To drink, there was lightly salted and diluted yoghurt. I excused myself because of my jet lag and went to bed early. As I still couldn’t fall asleep immediately, I leafed through magazines and journals to catch up on current India. A pleasant breeze and the soft mantra chanting from a distant temple must have eventually rocked me to sleep.

Bright and piercing sunrays in the morning woke me up. I heard voices and laughter. As I sat up and stretched my arms, I spotted two little boys, aged 4 or 5, peeking in the door. When they saw themselves spotted, they ran away giggling.

As I descended the stairs, I saw a family, a man, two women and two young boys. One of the women was wearing a blue sari and I thought I knew her. They were in a flurry of activity and fell silent for a moment when they saw me coming. Then one of the women said, “Wanakkam Annatchi, eppadi irukkuriengä?” (I greet you, elder brother, how are you?) It was only through her voice that I recognised my younger second cousin. I had not seen her for five or six years. Back then she had been newly married and slimmer. Her husband smiled kindly. He too was noticeably plumper than the last time we met. “Reshmi, Thanktchi?” (It’s you?), I replied. “I didn’t recognise you right away. I am glad to see you again. Are these your boys?” The other young lady tilted her head shyly and stared down at her feet. She was small and had a pretty face. Reshmi introduced her as a kind of nanny and at the same time said that she was somehow related to her husband around three corners. That is typically Indian, I thought to myself, every human is somewhere, somehow related to other humans. This philosophy is called Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam in India. The term contains three words, Vasudhā (the earth), ēva (this is how it is) and Kutumbakam (a family).

After my morning yoga stretch and shower, I went back downstairs. There was already the usual South Indian breakfast with idly and sambar ready for me. I was allowed to have breakfast alone, as the others had already finished. That was fine, but what I didn’t like was that they were all there asking me questions about this and that during my breakfast. How can you still enjoy your food? Syahmala wanted to know if I wanted another vadai (chickpea cake). Of course I wanted another one. Suddenly we heard a great-aunt come in with two other people. Immediately, space was made in the kitchen, the plate and the table were cleared. Then a wooden chest was pushed over to serve as a seat.

I wondered what had happened to my vadai, because I had not received the chickpea dish. After greeting us and answering the usual standard questions, which took a good hour, Syahmala Akka asked us to go into the garden. She needed the kitchen to prepare the famous Mand-jarusi Chaappaadu, the yellow rice dish. As usual, men are not allowed in the kitchen. Many things are discussed there that have no place outside the kitchen. Here, the women make decisions, marriages are arranged or cured, and healing and delicious food is prepared on the side. The recipes are, of course, hotly debated. Outside in the garden, the aunt urgently instructed me to teach my children the Tamil language and the millennia-old traditions. The fact that my children live in Europe and my wife is European hardly interested her. Along the way, vegetables and other ingredients were prepared outside, and then the women disappeared into the kitchen again. At such family gatherings, people not only talk about families and celebrations, but also about healing recipes, rules of conduct, obligations and other, not always pleasant, topics. The hours passed and soon we noticed the pleasant smells of the delicacies from the kitchen. Three benches were pushed out and disposable plates of dried leaves pressed into plate shapes were provided. Then there was turmeric rice with various curries cooked in ghee (clarified butter). The apples and moniok chips I had brought were also nicely arranged. Syakka mentioned twice that I had brought these goodies and that I had not even forgotten the old way of writing letters in Tamil. 

At some point the unforgettable day came to an end. In the evening, the four of us sat on the sun terrace and contemplated the sunset and the slowly rising full moon. The relatives were already on their way home to their villages. We had hardly talked about what had happened, because we were overwhelmed by the experiences and feelings.

The next day after breakfast, Murugan wanted to show me his beautiful motorbike. I looked at it with interest and should have left it at that. Murugan, however, wanted me to get this wonderful riding experience on his motorbike too. He ignored the fact that I could not ride a motorbike. He told me that it was “so easy”, it was like riding a bike without pedalling. Since I wanted to do him a favour, I let myself be talked into this stupidity, something I still regret today. So I sat on the bike, he stood there and pressed the kick-starter. A school bus passed close to us and I could still hear the bus driver honking his horn and swearing as he passed, because we were standing in the middle of the road with the motorbike. Murugan now explained to me that I should release the clutch slowly, then release the handle lightly….

I don’t remember what else he wanted to explain to me, because suddenly it happened and everything happened very quickly. I only remember that the front wheel shot up and the bike lunged forward in a flash. I braced my legs against the ground and before I knew it, I landed on the road. Somehow I got up again and had to laugh at my stupidity at first. Then Rasappan came running out of the house and saw Murugan and I standing there and that the motorbike was in the ditch. Murugan looked shocked. I heard Rasappan talking to the neighbour about a miracle that nothing worse had happened. He also said that I had great mental strength because despite all this I could still smile and did not complain. I had indeed been very lucky, apart from abrasions no scrapes, broken bones or cuts.

But the night was bad. I was plagued by severe pain and could only lie on one side. Going to the toilet was hell. The next day I decided to go to the hospital and have an X-ray. At the hospital, muscle strains were diagnosed and I was advised to be treated by a Siddha Waithiyar (healer).

Murugan, who had accompanied me to the hospital, knew exactly where to find these healers and took me there by taxi. The taxi driver was a good acquaintance of Murugan and they both talked about how the accident happened and what could have happened.

The Siddha Waithiyar, a gaunt guy, only examined me briefly and then gave detailed instructions to his masseurs on how to handle me. One of them was unappealing to me with his distinctive sharp-edged face. He didn’t look real, had perfect teeth, gaunt hands and his expression was stern. The golden coloured herbal oil smelled intense but pleasant. The healer did not speak much and only gave instructions to his assistants. They hurt me, even though I knew that was part of the healing process. Eventually they wiped the oil off my body. The ruffian, who I didn’t like, told me to get up and sit down again. I sighed and straightened up, then he said something in his dialect and in a strange slang. I didn’t understand anything, but somehow it sounded as if it didn’t mean anything good. Did he say “don’t complain”? No, it couldn’t be, and no, I didn’t want to know, I didn’t care. “I want to get out of here, I don’t like it anymore”. These thoughts were running through my head.

Murugan was standing on the other side of the road, engrossed in a conversation with the taxi driver. The taxi driver saw me walking across the road and was amazed that I could walk normally without an assistant. Muruganturned around and said in amazement, “Maahmaah (uncle), you can walk again.” It sounded relieved and happy. He quickly ran over to me, offered his arm for support and couldn’t believe that I was well again. It was somehow strange for me too. Nevertheless, I wanted to have my hip and leg x-rayed again. You never know. The hospital nearby didn’t want to do it at first, but when I offered cash payment, they x-rayed me immediately. Thank God, there was no fracture or anything like that.

However, the pain came back in the late afternoon and the night was not an-pleasant but bearable. Syakka was very worried but avoided showing me her concern. Her face showed that she had been crying. I had to comfort and reassure her. I stayed with Syahmala for another day, reassuring her that everything was fine and that I would soon be back on my feet, and continued my journey.

By the time I reached other relatives, they knew all about my motorbike stunt, but I had to recount everything in detail, and the neighbours were also allowed to be present.

I was told that I had overcome a kandam (important negative episode) in my life and that I should perform a puja at the Shiva temple on the next occasion and express my gratitude. I thanked them for their good wishes and recommendations and assured them that I would go to the Ganesha temple on the way. No, I should go to the Shiva temple. When I asked, they explained that God Shiva was also known for such foolishness. He would protect me in the future.

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