Friday, December 07, 2007

A story on Pazhampori

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.


pri said...

it is indeed a touching tale. Most of these tales do portray the life and times of yesteryears, much like malayalam cinema. reading such stories does indeed forces us to think beyond the actual words...
speaking of Pazhampori, i have heard that vendors of Shoranur railway station churns out the best mouthwatering hot, crisp pazhamporis in the state!
though i live so near, i never had the opportunity to try those.
while i was at college, a 'kalpathy maami' used to sell them along with a lot other snacks like parippu vada, bonda, etc. that was also very tasty.

indianadoc said...

Renu...thanks for the e-vite and all the best for the painting....

Pazhampori did leave a painful lump in the throat...I remember reading this story during my college days...yes it make us feel guilty abt our gluttony and the lavish waste of food that we often tend to commit...

Maddy said...

seriously you must write more - not just cooking

sra said...

Enjoyed reading your eloquent rendition of the story, Renu. As well as the commentary it came with. It reminded me of another story, different theme - if I remember right, it's a short story by K R Usha, and it's about how a mother/grandmother makes a whole batch of holiges (poli) for the family, but can only get hold of a few crumbs at the end of the day, and is greatly embarrassed when she's caught in the act - so typical of many homes where kids and others come first and the woman of the house often misses out on the choice stuff, if not the food itself!

ഡി പ്രദീപ്‌ കുമാര്‍ D.PRADEEP KUMAR said...


Ashish said...
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sajith90 said...

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kalyani said...

Hello Renu,

I loved your narration of edassery' beautiful story. Do you know if Edassery has written any other stories? Also, is it part of any compilation of stories book? I cannot get hold of malayalam magazines where I live but I would love to read such stories.


poor-me/പാവം-ഞാന്‍ said...

Hai friendee,
nice to meet you .please recite
daily before going to bed for asound sleep.keep in touch.
With warmregards
not so poor me

poor-me/പാവം-ഞാന്‍ said...

Its like pazham pori. irrrrrrresssiistttaaable!

Happy said...

good one..was searching for nendra to make pazhampori in vain..v keralites do miss are food very much..:)

sajith90 said...

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SriLekha said...

first time to ur blog and it is too good!
do visit my blog when u find time and join in the savory event going in my blog!

Prakash said...

nice blog.but being a malayalee ,I found it tough to understand various "english" ,"Hindi" names of various spices,vegitables,curry powders etc.
For eg: "dhania" powder.
It will be very useful ,if you ladies collect the meaning in malayalam for this things especially those from hindi name.


renuramanath said...

dear prakash,
did you find any non-malayalam spice names in this post !!!

The Balloon said...
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The Balloon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sajithkumar said...

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Akshay said...

A very touching tale. Most of the Malayalam short stories and novels portray the life of Kerala best. I love eating pazhamporis and I have mostly eaten it in the Mangala Lakshadweep Express. Anyway, I would really appreciate if you could send me the recipe on

Pradeep said...

I am amazed that such a unique system like marumakkathayam was in vogue in Kerala of those bygone days.

Can you enlighten me as to how it actually worked on the ground....for instance how were the sambandams contracted and how conflict and rivalry was avoided between the different males.

Are there any scholarly work on this subject published and available now?

Pradeep said...

I had sent you an email in reply. wonder if you received it. In any case my email id is psd1955 at

Thank you


Mishmash ! said...


I would like to contact you to get some info on a naadan palaharam but couldn't find your mail id here. Could you pls drop me a mail or let me know your id?


Murali RamaVarma said...

Dear Renu Ramnath,

I must congratulate you for this wonderful post brilliantly portraying the travails of the members of a "marumakkathayam" family of yore. Edassery's soul will bless you for introducing this story to a wider public who have not read the original or who are not adept in malayalam.

I also noticed that your "tastes" are refined both figuratively and metaphorically!


With kind regards,

s said...

well written poignant article

AswathiBabu said...

Thanks for the great attempt

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Asoka Kumar said...

Please visit .
All stories, plays, poems along with many essays are available for free reading.


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