Achamma had been denied her role in the household when I started at school without her consultation of the Panchangam, the holy book with the auspicious times and dates.; she was disgusted. Her rituals were normally directed towards invoking the blessings of a large pantheon of Hindu gods and warding off evil eyes and spirits. This much-venerated book, the Panchangam, was about the positions of planets and stars in the firmament at any given moment and what configurations would provide the most auspicious time to do anything special. Achamma’s copy was quite old – the Panjangam prophesied for five years at a time, so it tended to be consulted well beyond its disintegration. It was a thin book with yellowing pages, the tiny print and crammed lines making up for the lack of paper-space. Our copy smelled of old newspaper and incense. The booklet generally rested behind the plaster statue of the blue Krishnan, which was the centrepiece of our indoor shrine in the padingitta.
That shrine was also the centre-piece of our life. When we children came in from play in the evenings, and washed, we had to sit in front of the shrine and recite our prayers and incantations. ‘Ramaramarama’ fifty times was one of them. We did it at break-neck speed, Appuettan, Mani and I lined up in front of the lighted nilavilakku. Another was a hymn to Saraswathy, the goddess of education and prosperity. We were not fed till after our prayers and we had put sacred ash on our foreheads. The ash, gritty to the touch, was kept near the Krishnan-image in a brass tray, which always had a few burnt-out matchsticks in it. The place smelled of gingelly oil, ash and sandalwood.
Crepe paper in many colours and shiny gold and silver paper cut into moon and star shapes, as well as calendar pictures of Saraswathy, Shivan, Krishnan, and all Achamma’s Gods (and there were many) decorated the prayer corner, where the nilavilakku, the sacred lamp, was lighted at dawn and dusk. That familiar smell of sulphur, oil and ash would mean the beginning of another day. During the scarcities of the war years, it would be just one valiant wick instead of the customary five in more prosperous times
If I behaved myself, Ammamma would let me help cut the crepe paper, but I knew I wasn’t good at it. For us, at that time, a few sheets of card or coloured paper was a huge luxury. These days, I look at my granddaughter’s store of stationery: cards of many hues, colour pencils by the dozens, even some for the dog to chew, markers, stickers, glue of different kinds (we used rice-paste), and I think – all this and I-phones too. Not to mention sleep-overs, day-spends and trips into shopping malls. The nature of school-life has changed. I think the nature of grandmother-hood has also changed. My perspective is troglodyte.
I remember begging over-cooked rice from the kitchen and mashing it with my fingers into paste; the nuns at school used flour. If we needed foolscap paper for homework, Ammamma would give us a quarter-anna for one precious sheet. As for colour pencils, I remember one, half blue, half red, so that the two ends were two different colours.
And sleepovers? Nice Malayalee girls were not allowed to spend nights at some other family’s home. What if the father was a drunk? Or beat up his wife in front of the children? The question of shopping malls did not arise because the concept of shopping as a leisure activity did not exist. We didn’t have pocket money either. You bought only things that you needed, and in the days of plastic-less existence, apart from textiles (no ready-made garments then) and minimal beauty products, what was there to buy? I remember Cuticura powder, which was our sole aid to beauty, and the pottu and kohl. D I Y Chandu for the pottu was made from rice flour, and kohl was created from a clean rag dipped in lime juice and burnt on to a piece of clay. The soot was scraped off and mixed with gingelly oil to form a hard paste. We depended on the flowers in our hair, long before Aung San Suki, to make us sparkle.
When Achamma heard that I had started school without benefit of her selection of auspicious days and times, she hawked and spat red betel juice in frustration. But she didn’t dare raise it with my father; she knew he would have no sympathy for her. Achamma muttered and murmured her displeasure for a whole day and took to her bed as a protest. Achan did not notice, but Ammamma reminded her gently that Achan did not believe in the Panjangam and wouldn’t notice her sulks anyway. When my father was ill with bronchitis, as he often was, she would stand on the bottom steps of the staircase to his bedroom and do the casting away of evil spirits and envious eyes. It had nothing to do with his smoking according to her. Of course.
Did my achamma know of the diverse paths my religious education took under the nuns at Sacred Heart? If she did, she would have been horrified. For prayers, we were taught Hail Marys and the Lord’s Prayer. Most Wednesdays we were led around the Ways of the Cross in the beautiful little chapel in the school-yard. There was Angelus twice a day, when the special bells would ring out alerting us. Then there was the Act of Contrition. If you failed to say it before you went to sleep, the devil would get your soul. And if you died in your sleep, the hell-fires awaited you.
Limbo was the destination of the unfortunate infant who died without informing the church of his existence and getting baptised. What a God! And, in Limbo, there was no remission for good behaviour – you stayed there to eternity. All of us had one slim chance, in spite of our sins, moral and venal, after a long and unpredictable wait; there would be a second coming and we could be forgiven and by-pass purgatory, to go straight to heaven. Sisters defined moral and venal sins to us in great detail so that we understood some sins were more vile than others.
Sister painted graphic pictures of the devil, with flaming torso, waiting to engulf all the feckless Hindu girls who went home and changed faith, back to Ramaramarama and the many depraved Gods of the Hindu pantheon every day. I was comfortable oscillating between the two religions, and today, I find that that early accommodation to any religion that comes by, sustains my sense of the ludicrous regarding all of them.
Then there were the Jesus-pictures, which we were encouraged to collect. Like collecting match-labels. The nuns must have made a decent profit there.
Our first lesson every morning was Moral Science. It began with Catechism:
“Who made you?
God made me.
Why did God make you?
To love him, to obey him…”
Sounded like a training scheme for Kerala wives.