I have a love and hate relationship with January. It’s the month I turn another year older, both in age and also by the stress lines due to the exam season. But this quarantine has changed everything for everyone, hasn’t it? So here I am, at home, without any worry about the pandemic nor the exams, sipping the bittersweet jaggery coffee one fine January evening. The cold breeze is rich with the earthy scent of the coffee drying on the veranda. There is also a distant hint of the marigold flower’s scent left behind by the previous festive month. It’s the season of floating dandelion seeds and stained fingers from coffee picking. It’s the time the elders have partial naps because of the skeptical black clouds that sour the sky with a promise to soak the year’s hard work of neatly spread coffee beans for drying.
The month is not that harsh on everyone. It’s the time for the feathery friends of native and foreign lands to find their destined yet temporary other halves. Honey bees buzz from one sweet and early mango blossom to another. Red weaver ants build their leafy nests and crawl the coffee branches in search of the scarlet juicy goodies.
Enough with the weather already. Because today is all about the person sitting beside me, sipping coffee from her steel glass with shivering hands. My Avva ( Grandmother) Seethamma, AKA doddavva, the eldest person in my village with an age of probably 98 and still counting. Sometimes it keeps me wondering how easily her grey hair deceives her lively soul. Because a couple of swollen feet and joints, cracked and loose skin, and deeply sunken eyes protected by dark circles is not what defines my Avva.
Instead, it’s about her deep voice reminding my mother about the boiling milk left unattended or to remind her to boil the leftover curry. It’s her ability to catch random English words with assumed meanings and to phrase them into sentences with a poor accent. It’s her ability to keep track of the to be spoilt vegetables and to cook a meal, no heaven can surpass. It’s her ability to know the medicine to any ailment, from a headache to dysmenorrhea. It’s her ability to walk all over the house with an overly used but faithful bamboo cane irrespective of her bent stature or wheezing lungs. My distinction at +2 is nothing compared to the person with the sharpest memory I’ve ever met. Of course, she’s a woman who lived a life before the toothpaste.
Life in Kopatti in the late ’30s for her was confined within the house and the estate. There were no means for private transportation. A bus carried passengers to Madikeri in the morning and came back late in the evening. She remembers seeing tar roads in the late ’50s. After losing her husband and left with 8 children, her daily routine was to wake up early, milk the cows, feed the children, and set to the estate. She came back home late in the evening while the elder sisters took care of the house and younger siblings. Window shopping was something out of her dictionary and it still is. How exactly did they survive without Netflix or nutella?
Any normal human being, like me and you, would start cooking up stories of the Neanderthals. But her answers made me question the NCERT textbooks I’ve been mugging up my whole life.
” We had no access to company oil at that time. We simply made it on our own. Right before the paddy fieldwork started we set off to the forests in search of Paali kayi / ಪಾಲಿ ಕಾಯಿ ( Palaquium ellipticum). This seed has a lot of oil content. We carried along sickles/ ಕತ್ತಿ and the bamboo baskets/ ಪಚ್ಚೆ, with feet smeared with ಹುಲಿ ನಿರು and salt to avoid the pesky leaches. Men often carried along guns to hunt down deers and wild boars for a hearty meal. While the women and children collected the fallen ಪಾಲಿ ಕಾಯಿ seeds.
The seeds are sundried and then roasted and crushed into a coarse mixture. This mixture is boiled with water. The oil because of its low density floats on top and is strained and separated. This oil is used for cooking. The debris left is a waxy material that is used to make candles. There are other types of oils we extracted too. The seeds of ನಾಗಸಂಪಿಗೆ ಮರ ( Ceylon ironwood) and ಕೈಕೋಳ ಮರ ( Trichilia connaroides) is used for making oil for the lamps“
ಹುಲಿ ನಿರು or Huli niru/ kachampuli is an important part of Coorg cuisine. It is extracted from the fruit pulp of ಪಂಪುಳಿ/ Garcinia gummi-gutta, which are dried. The dried pulp is soaked in water overnight. This water is strained and boiled with constant stirring. You are looking for a thick black liquid with a sugar syrup consistency. Let me warn you though, it does not taste sugary at all. Taste only a drop lest your teeth will take a quick tour to the Himalayas. This is a very important condiment you’ll find in every Coorg household, mainly for marinating meat.
Cooking oil is also extracted from the Garcinia seeds. The same procedure is followed and the oil is extracted. The debris that is left in the process is no waste, but can be called as Vegan ghee. It is equally tasty as Ghee and is used as the same.
A fun fact: The Garcinia species is heavily exported for its cholesterol-reducing ability. So can we conclude that my Grandma’s homemade cooking oil is equally or healthier than an extra virgin olive oil? Let me know in the comments. Now the spotlight’s back to my Grandma.
” The soaps that we got for washing the clothes were hard. ( Got no clue of what she meant by that) So we made our own soaps. We collected the barks of ಬಾಗೆ ಮರ ( Albizia amara ) and crushed them to a powder. This was used for washing clothes and bathing.
The best time was when the bamboo flowers bloomed, once every 100 years ( Depends on the species). As soon as the flowers bloomed, the ground below would be swept and a layer of cow dung slurry is applied. This gives a neat finish to the floor, satisfying any dancing lunatic. The bamboo seeds are collected and crushed in an onake to get Bamboo rice. Dosa is made from the batter of the bamboo rice which is said to be as healthy as it is tasty. “
Irrespective of the generation, the era, or the presence or absence of beauty pageants, the woman always wants to look pretty. The only difference is that my grandma had a slight gruesome method for beautification compared to my stick of Lakme colossal kajal.
” A species of small bat’s blood was used to make Kajal. After hunting it down, the blood is smeared into a white cloth and dried. This is later coiled into a bathhi/ ಬತ್ತಿ. This is lit in a lamp. A plate of copper or thamra/ ( Commonly used at that time for having food) is kept upside down over the lighting lamp. The smoke collected forms a thin black layer on the plate. This paste is mixed with butter and applied as kajal.”
Irrespective of the absurd ways, my grandma has lived an absolutely healthy life. She remembers the Ramayan series characters better than I remember the last episode I left on Netflix. My chemically whitewashed teeth are in no comparison to her finger countable ones which can chow down on any chicken piece easily. The secret? The toothpaste they used was the dried and powdered bone of the black pepper bunch along with salt.
A lifespan or nearly a century is something unimaginable to some and equally rare. Is it the food? The constant labor? Or simply a connection to the nature. It kept me wondering. And I know that it has to you too. So that my friend was the left before Toothpaste.