I recently happened to re-read a Malayalam short story. The odd thing, it was written by one of the well-known Malayalam poets – a few of his attempts at writing fiction. The writer is Edassery Govindan Nair, or just Edassery, for Malayalis. The story is now almost half a century old and its name is ‘Poricha Nanju.’
Now, I don’t know if these two words could ever be translated with equal force into English. Literally, it means, ‘fried poison.’ But, these two English words are never powerful enough to express the meanings hidden in the two words, ‘poricha nanju.’ While ‘visham,’ is the most commonly used Malayalam word for poison, ‘nanju,’ is more colloquial. But 'visham,' can never express the meaning that 'nanju,' can convey. And, the reference is to, ‘Pazhampori,’ (banana fritters) !
There you are ! You must have been wondering till now, what the hell has a Malayalam short story got to do in a food blog ? Yes, this is a story about ‘pazhampori,’ a favourite snack of many of our blogger-friends, I’m sure.
The milieu, as I told earlier, is almost half a century ago. The poet died in 1974. The story happens in a period corresponding to his own childhood. The protagonist is a young boy, barely ten years, even younger, may be. The setting is a ‘Marumakkathaya Tharavadu,’ in the central region of Kerala. Here, a few words for those who are not familiar with ‘Marumakkathayam.’
‘Marumakkathayam,’ is not exactly what the Western academics refer to as Matriarchy. It is matriliny, to an extent, but not exactly. Because it is male-centric, after all ! An exact translation could be - lineage / descent of the family name through ‘marumakkal,’ (nieces / nephews of a man through his sister), while ‘makkathayam,’ could be described as the lineage through offspring. In both cases, the issue at stake is a man’s descendants and the mode of continuing his family name !
However, ‘Marumakkathayam,’ extends certain concessions to women, who were, after all, carriers of the man’s family name and legacy. Unlike in ‘Makkathayam,’ they were not considered as unwanted births, to be ‘married off,’ never to return. They were conferred a higher social status, they inherited family property and the family home. They did not live in the eternal fear of being shown the door by an irate mother-in-law. At their husband’s homes, where they visited occasionally, they were treated as special guests. And their welfare was taken care of by the uncles, or the brothers. Well, that was it. It meant, their happiness was determined by the menfolk, just like all other social systems. Even sisters hardly showed their faces before their brothers. Even in rich households, Karanavar held the key to the store room, measuring out the day’s needs almost like a rationing system. He could make or break the lives of the womenfolk of his family. And, families without an elder male member still felt a certain sense of insecurity.
The system disappeared due to many reasons, and this is not the space to elaborate on that. Here, we have this story of ‘pazhampori,’ which turned out to be the fried poison for a young lad. But how ?
He lived in his tharavadu, with his mother, two sisters and elderly grand-mother. No uncles, or elder brothers. A male-less family, laden with all the associated insecurities. Both sisters were married and the elder one had a child, just younger than our protagonist. Though they were uncle and nephew in relationships, the two boys grew up like brothers, the younger one addressing the elder not as ‘uncle,’ but as ‘ettan,’ or elder brother. Now, the elder sister was estranged from her husband, not due to any discord between the couple, but due to some family feuds. This was common in those days, the writer tells us.
So, one day, following a slight skirmish between the two kids, the elder sister, without any reason, violently thrashed her son, apparently to give vent to her own tensions. The whole house fell into a pall of gloom. The next morning, the elder sister’s husband appeared on his way to office and handed over a parcel to his child. Again we are informed that though the relationship was almost broken, he was still allowed to give occasional gifts to his child. Apparently, the elder sister had sent word to him for this little token to compensate for the thrashing the baby suffered the previous day.
Now, the young ‘uncle’ knew the parcel contained ‘pazhampori,’ the most special treat those days. ‘Pazhampori,’ could be obtained only from the local tea-shop, and only those who had access to cash could afford it. He remembers the only previous time he had tasted it, and reminiscing the heavenly taste, hopes for a share of the treat. But, all the two pazhampori-s were fed to the younger boy, by his mother, who also wanted to vent her ire towards her own kid brother. The younger sister comes to learn of this. Childless, she harboured a special affection for her little brother. The next day, she sends the kid brother out with her husband, who buys him a parcel from the tea shop, with instructions to take it safely to his wife. But, the aged grandmother happened to see it and with extreme desire, pinched off a bit. The younger sister appeared dramatically and literally grabbing the parcel out of the old woman’s trembling hands, dragged the little boy into her room. As if with a vengeance, she force-fed both the pazhampori-s to the lad, who is torn between his never-ending craving the sweet treat and his longing to share it with his grand-mother and the young nephew. When he came out, the little boy, Ramakrishnan, found out what the entire racket had been about and started to cry his heart out, asking for pazhampori. The protagonist felt as if he had swallowed not the sweet pazhampori, but poison fried in oil.
I know that this is no way to do justice to a beautiful story, but I just couldn’t resist it, much like the little boy, who swallowed the last bit of the pazhampori, trying to forget his grandmother’s trembling hands.
I liked this story not for its craft alone. It sheds light into the social situation in a Kerala a few decades ago, which has become long-forgottten history for our present generation. It also reveals how rare was food, in general, in those days. And it also teaches us how precious were the simple treats of those days. These days, hundreds of pazhampori-s are gobbled up everyday at tea time across Kerala, at tea shops, bigger restaurants, offices, homes, everywhere. There is an over-abundance of food items all over the place. But I don’t think we will ever experience the taste of pazhampori like the boy in that Edassery story. The taste of scarcity.