Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Once Upon a Summer Day

Maavichiguru tinagaanee…koyila palikenaa…”
(Soon as she eats the tender buds of mango, the koel sings...)

The famous Telugu song of yester years, stirs my soul. I lay languidly on the couch, entranced by the effect the song has on me. I drift dreamily into the idyllic days of my childhood…summertime. Coming from one of the hottest places in India, Vijayawada, I don’t have any memories of discomfort the heat had on us children. With the temperature hovering around 45 – 49 degrees, it was pretty easy to succumb to a heat stroke. Sans ACs, sans cold drinks in the refrigerator, the summer vacation passed amidst fun, frolic and two months of absolute bliss.  But thankfully my granny always had a vessel full of buttermilk and kids were encouraged to drink a lot of it. It was that part of our lives when we were living in our ancestral house, the headquarters of our family network. We would look forward with almost a painful impatience for the annual exams to get over and the vacation to start.

Watching the mango trees in our yard go through their seasonal changes was fascinating. The fragrance of the flowers in full bloom assured us that summer was ‘just round the corner’. The heady essence of the flowers in the air would leave us pining for summer holidays and with it the mangoes. The flowers finally gave way to tiny buds of green tender mangoes for which we fought with equal fervor along with the greedy parrots and the ‘innocent’ squirrels. The elders’ repeated warnings against eating the tender mangoes, seldom had any effect on our strong determination to eat them. These episodes were soon followed by sore throats and coughs and would temporarily make us ‘repent’ our arrogance. But a couple of days in bed, we were up again lazing around in the heat of the summer afternoon under the mango tree.

The rising temperature also brought with it the most eagerly-awaited summer activity – making pickles. My fondest memory of pickle-making was watching the men and women in the family join the process with great excitement. My grandmother, the head of the family (and the keeper of the secret family pickle recipes), would make a few quick calls to the local grocer for the required spices (chili, mustard, fenugreek) and the mango vendor to check whether the raw mangoes have finally arrived in the market. While the men were involved in the more laborious activities of plucking the mangoes, washing and skillfully cutting them into surprisingly similar sizes, the women got busy with the drying, grinding, measuring and mixing of the spices with the cut mangoes and oil with precision. And finally it was time to taste. First the fresh pickle was mixed with the right amount of hot, steaming rice, with a generous amount of ghee added to it. The rice was then blended uniformly taking care that each grain of rice is well coated with the red pickle before it was ready for tasting. We would feel amused watching the adults judge each mouthful with a groan or a grunt and comical expressions of rolling up their half-open eyes or twisting their mouths 360 degrees before they proclaimed whether their effort was successful or not.

While the grown-ups were busy with the seasonal activities of making pickles, papads and desiccated vegetables, we kids would make cunning plots to steal salted mango pieces from the terrace, where they were laid out on transparent plastic sheets for drying. A couple of successful attempts would increase our greed for more and one of us would fall prey to the ire of the cook or my grandmother. But much to our delight, after a few ‘scolds’ from both the women, we would end up getting a handful of mango pieces as a double treat. Years later my grandmother confessed proudly that the joy of making pickles wouldn’t have been as memorable if there were no mischievous children hovering over you. 

Summer vacation brought home a bunch of cousins from other parts of the country. There was a silent understanding between the boys’ gang and the girls’ group to stay away from each other’s mischief. While the boys tried hard to ignore the girls, they would finally give in to our jollier and more entertaining activities that we indulged in with our constant innovative games. One popular pastime was to whip up interesting ‘recipes’ in our miniature cooking set (we had a box-full of these). We would make plans even before the start of the vacation to collect a little money and stock up on ingredients such as honey and phutana dal while sugar, rice, and dal were supplied reluctantly by our mom. And the magical ingredient to anything we whipped up was the good old baby mangoes. The boys, noticing that playing with us was more profitable, would be eager to help us and sometimes were employed to steal stuff from the kitchen for our gourmet cooking. The result of all this excitement was when we had to taste our concoction. While most times we ended up with a fabulously tasty preparation, on the rare occasions when the cooking indeed horribly went wrong, we would each try to desperately gulp down the retch that threatened to spill out.

Sleeping on the terrace was another exciting part of the vacation. With the floor of the terrace heated up during the day enough to fry an egg, we would try to cool it down with buckets of water poured on the floor. The hot ground steamed with the touch of cool water and soon, with a few bucketfuls more, the floor was ready to be used for our post-dinner activities.  Dinner at 7:00 was soon followed by setting the stage for our mini-theatre. The older kids in the gang always got to choose the themes and plots of our plays. Then they would carefully decide who would play which character. With a few last minute alterations, we were ready with our parts and so went the evening amidst squeals of laughter.

Now far far away from those times, summer still tickles me with the same eagerness and pleasure it always did. With two daughters at home, the excitement that summer vacation brings with it has not changed at all. Our pretend plays and fun times with cousins are now replaced by my kids’ summer camps, sleep overs with friends and a constant stream of summer parties. I relive the moments of my childhood with the same childish fervor.

As I gaze out of the window enjoying the cacophony of the squirrels, koels and the chattering parrots perched on a thick branch of a mango tree, I couldn’t help notice a quick mischievous wink by the koel, singing what I thought was 

Gunnamaamidi kommameeda…”
 (On the branch of a ripe mango tree…a popular and old Telugu film song)

P. Jyoti Kiran
Lecturer in English


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