Four Days in Mallangudi
Day One PONGAL
I arrived at 10 am, after having stopped a few times in Karaikudi to take photos of the beautiful and colourful Pongal kolams. I could have spent the entire day taking photos, for each home had an elaborate design on the ground, often geometric and often figurative, with multi-coloured pongal pots, sugar canes and flowers, but I told Suresh, my lovely driver, to keep going because I was excited to arrive in Mallangudi and to begin my four-day adventure. How funny that just living with the villagers and accompanying them in their daily activities (albeit during Pongal holidays) can be thought of to me as an adventure.
When I reached the village, Ravi (who I often call Thambi, meaning “younger brother” in Tamil) was waiting for me and he took me to his little house – the house I’ll be living in for the next four days. A bright Pongal kolam with “WISH YOU A HAPPY PONGAL” had been spread out on the ground at the bottom of the steps like a welcome mat. It was splendid and special and I knew that Jayaretina and her daughter-in-law, Indurani (who, by the way, is pregnant…baby expected Vaikasi masam, the month of May) had worked with great care to make such a superb and welcoming design.
After a tour of the comfort necessities of my stay (toilet and bathing room in the unfinished home they are building about one hundred meters away…it will be a bit acrobatic but I’ll manage), I walked around the village, exchanging Vanakkam with this person and that one, took some photos, ate sweet pongal and chewed on sugar cane that I was offered at each home. From my vantage point – I’m so much taller than everyone, so my vision is wider! – everything is beautiful and tasty and the people are warm and friendly and giggly. Light-hearted and simple, in the most respectful sense imaginable.
I had just the time to say hello to everyone, eat some fresh, light chappati and vegetable korma and drink a cup of very sweet tea when the pongal fires were lit…everyone began their preparations at different times so I was able to observe the same steps of pongal-making in a variety of ways. Most of the women (for it is the women who make pongal, and Jayaretina’s neighbour, a man, was the exception that proved the rule) used clay burners that they had stabilized on the ground with sand. Jayaretina’s burners were made from iron. The two clay pongal pots (one for sweet pongal, one for savoury pongal) had manjal (turmeric) laced around the necks, the leaves tied together like a chain with the plump turmeric bulb hanging down like a pendant. As soon as the water boiled over the rims, some water was skimmed out, the rice was stirred and milk was poured in. Then more boiling and the spices added: cane sugar and cashews, cardamom and sultanas and ghee, plenty of ghee.
Indurani made our pongal under Jayaretina’s guidance at about half past one. An hour later it was finished cooking and we feasted on the delicious rice preparations at three (this was to be the start of four days of eating, and eating, and eating…only in Jewish households is one ordered, constantly!, to eat. Perhaps that is why I feel so at home here!).
I was able to take a short nap on the platformed veranda in front of their home (still jet-lagged, but the worst, sleep-wise, was to follow) before going with Ravi and his brother Muthu (back from Singapore) to Kallal, an hour away. I understood it was to go to a temple there, but of course my poor Tamil created a misunderstanding (which, in fact, was not a problem at all, just a means for me to realize just how poor my Tamil is). In fact, Muthu dropped a friend’s wife in Kallal and on the way back we stopped in Tirumayam to purchase various puja articles for the next day (which, I was to learn only the next day when I participated in the event, was for the puja officially inaugurating their new house).
It was nice to see Muthu again. I had met him just once, three years before, when he returned to the village to prepare for his wedding. I hadn’t known he would be home for his annual leave while I was in the village for Pongal. In fact, he had arrived just a few days before I had and would stay for six months, the time to help finish building the new house and to be present for the birth of his first child. It was great to know that Jayaretina and Krishna had their elder son back home, that Ravi had his big brother in the village and that Indurani had her husband by her side. When I saw that Muthu was home, I was happy for his family but instantly worried about the gifts I had brought them. Earlier that day I had given Ravi a bag with beautiful new clothes (saris and blouse material for the two women and dhotis and colourful t-shirts with France written on them for the two men) for the whole family, or what I had thought was the whole family, not knowing that Muthu was home. I felt a bit embarrassed for having made a faux pas and wondered just how the men’s clothes would be distributed. I would find out the next day.
We returned home just before nightfall. Jayaretina was preparing dosais, and before I could pop them into my mouth, I heard “yuyuyuyuyuyu’s” from a short distance away. A sami-attam! Muthu took me to a small temple at the other side of the village (where I had been before, about three years ago, when the pujaris were trying get sami to come into a potential “candidate”/sami-adi)…I may as well explain now: in the village, one sami (god, in Tamil), I don’t know which one, had “departed”…in other words, the sami in question had stopped coming to the sami-adi (an oracle) who had “received” him for many years. The pujaris (priests) and villagers prepared a special ritual and four men were present who were potential sami-adi…many rites were performed and rituals done to entice the sami in question to come to one of the four men…I left before the end so I don’t know to whom sami came or even if he came at all.
A small crowd (two hundred people perhaps) was assembled by the time we arrived at the temple. Sami was already present (surrounded by five pujaris/assistants) and, aside from a woman singing from time to time, only Sami’s voice could be heard – I have never witnessed a crowd so silent before! Sami’s voice was more like a rolling whisper, low and velvety. He spoke to the crowd and called certain people to him by name and conversed one-on-one with each. The entire assembly listened to his every word. Once again, the collectivity was called upon to shoulder individual action. Something I witnessed at the Vengitagulam Pujari’s “consultations” as well as most of the sami-attams (“dances of the gods”) where sami speaks to individuals directly but with large groups of devotees not just listening but approving counsel or disapproving behaviour. I was spell-bound.
The dosais were waiting for me when I got back. Though they were light and fluffy, I excused myself after having eaten just one. I was beat. I made it back to my house and before collapsing on the bed, tried to think of words that could possibly express the reasons for the profound joy I feel in Mallangudi. And all I could think of is one word: playfulness. There is a playfulness here, in this village, in the relationships among the villagers, in their relationship with me, that goes to some place deeply tucked into my heart. The ambiance is gay and light. There is gentle chatter and good-hearted bantering in every courtyard, on every stoop. It is not a lack of seriousness but more an abundance of what really matters in life: family, community, friendship, sharing, love. The essentials.
Intro ← | → Day 2