Of Upma, Nostalgia and a Couple in Love

She was the new girl in class. New to the city, she lived with her grandparents. Super snooty was my first impression of her. 5’10” , nerdy looks and hair that had a mind of its own. She was rather quiet and from what I learnt later – she thought I was very snooty too. A chance conversation during our lunch break then led to more conversations, shared lunches , pajama parties, sleep overs,  secrets and a friendship that has lasted the last 25 years. Best friends since then, we’ve seen each other through the intense and the mundane, love and heartbreak, holidays and crazy moments and this friendship has spanned various cities and now continents. Looking back ,I marvel at how in our 25 years of being friends, we’ve been in the same city only for three years.

But this post is not about her. It is about the couple she lived with- her grandparents- whom we called Andappa and Andamma. Over the years, I’d pretty much adopted my friend’s grandparents as my third set of grandparents and they were an awesome couple and complete opposites.  Andamma was bossy, gregarious,loud,  full of life , temperamental and open and friendly when she wanted to be. Otherwise she had a glare perfected for people she didn’t like. Andappa was a soft-spoken man, stable, steady solid and very intelligent. Andappa’s was a quiet sense of humor, Andamma on the other hand could take sarcastic humor to a whole new level.

Andamma had a congenital problem with her heart and had days when she was unwell. Not that it ever stopped her from doing what she wanted to. She had immense will power and unflagging support from Andappa. Andappa was also the second person of his generation I’d met who defied all  gender stereotyped responsibilities. I think Andappa was the first feminist of his generation that I knew.  I watched him share responsibilities with Andamma, handle household chores and from the stories I’d heard – they’d shared everything-I watched him make sure she was comfortable, that she had everything she needed, and would make her coffee and this was not even a day when she was unwell. This was normal in this household. What always struck me was whenever I would visit- Andamma would want to know all my news- what I was doing, whether I liked my job, if I had heard from her granddaughter( didn’t matter that the said granddaughter would have called her that morning- the best friend always knew something more). Andappa had only one question for me- he’d ask me if I was happy. I don’t know why he asked that. He just always did. Andamma once told me that it was one thing that mattered to him. That his grand kids were happy. I was so touched.

That’s them, with my best friend. img-20161021-wa0016

My friend had moved to the US for higher studies and then continued to work there and I would drop in to meet Andamma and Andappa from time to time. It was one of those crazy hectic days and I was having a bad day. I was also going through a rather emotional phase. When a client call took me to their side of town, I dropped by to meet them. Andamma was having a nap and Andappa was recovering from a fever himself. But he welcomed me in. And took one look at my face and asked me if everything was alright.Apparently, a poker face is not something in my repertoire. I told him I was having a tough day, that was all. And he said “No, I meant – are you happy?”  I was very close to tears and told him I was just going through a tough phase. He waited a minute. I wasn’t talking. So he said he was going to make me some coffee since that would help and of course something to eat since I hadn’t had lunch. I followed him to the kitchen and told him I would make something . He refused and so I just sat on the counter watching him. He took some left over vegetables from the fridge, and proceeded to make upma (a semolina savory) for me. I didn’t like upma but I didn’t have the heart to tell Andappa anything. The way upma was prepared at home was completely different. I didn’t particularly care for the mallu version. Andappa’s measurements were completely different and he then served me some piping hot upma and coffee and sat with me while I ate what I consider the best upma I have ever had – to date.I used to hate upma before, but Andappa’s upma changed all that. And then he said   ” I don’t know what is troubling you. But I will pray for your happiness. Always. ” I would have started bawling there except that would have upset Andappa further. So I pulled myself together and told him I was really lucky to have him in my life. By then, Andamma had woken up and we then proceeded to talk about work and other things.

Andappa passed on a couple of years later and Andamma asked me to participate in certain rituals during his last rites since “I was the grand daughter”  who was there at the time. And I did. Shortly after, Andamma moved out of town since she couldn’t stay alone.

They may have passed on, but they left a lasting impression on me. There were things from random conversations that stuck in my head. Andappa telling me that marks and grades were important but not as important as doing what you needed to do in life. It was just a tool to get you going on the path you wanted to. Or Andamma telling me stories of her sisters or her looking at some over the top actor on TV and moaning the fact that he wasn’t wearing any make up (sarcastic) and promptly following it up with ” Not that it would help.” I don’t think I have ever heard anyone else use the term ” patti pudichavan” other than Andamma. Her penchant for making pickles and kondattam. There was always some vegetable soaked in curd and drying in the sun in the balcony.The week before diwali, Andamma’s house would smell of muruku , cheedai,  mixture and mysore pak. Andamma’s odd combination of her zest for life with a certain crabbiness that was all her. There was a lot of love and immense amount of patience (Andappa’s forte), lot of laughter despite tough times.

A couple of years down the line, on a completely crappy day in another city, I tried to replicate Andappa’s upma from memory . I was close. But it wasn’t perfect. But the husband loved it. That’s my version of Andappa’s upma.


It is the week before Diwali. My house smells nothing like Andamma’s. But I am making upma for breakfast tomorrow. I still make it, the way he did that day- with vegetables  and I use ghee as he had recommended.  And every time I do, I think very fondly of an old man who always was rooting for my happiness.


Stranger than fiction

Vishu is the Malayalee new year  and the first thing you see on this day  are signs of prosperity- food grains, fruits, money, gold, new clothes and of course Lord Krishna.

Here’s a scene from Vishu at home this year.

wp-1470031672589.jpg  My grandmother was full of stories. My cousins and I were the avid audience. Sometimes , I wish I had recorded all those stories. A few years ago, we were  all sitting around post lunch, talking of our plans for Vishu and my cousin said that as long as he didn’t have to see any blue bums on Vishu, he figured it would go well. He was of course talking about a scene from the movie Meesha Madhavan where the villain is pranked by a bunch of guys who paint their bums blue and bend over  so that it is the first sight that he would see on Vishu.  😀

My grandmother laughed  and said that that was nothing new.  She proceeded to tell us about the random crazy pranks that she’d  seen or heard of over the years from her aunts and Achama(my great grandmom and her mom in law). We belong to the malayalee brahmin community and in the olden days  we would offer shelter for the night to other brahmins who were travelling. This was way back in the 1920-30s. Some were distant relatives, some were friends and some were strangers. There was this one guy who was some distant relative of Achama’s and someone whom she considered the visitor from hell. He was constantly on her case, pranking and annoying her and every time she got mad, it would just encourage him to figure something that would annoy her more. The night before Vishu, she prepared the kani ( all these signs of prosperity) . The next morning she was supposed to wake up first, light the lamp and then wake up all the other members of the family.

At this point in the story , my grandmom would double up with laughter while her grinning audience would wait for her to carry on with her telling.

So Achama  woke up the next morning, kept her eyes closed and walked to where the kani was kept. She opened her eyes and instead of seeing all these auspicious signs of prosperity, she saw this idiot relative of hers,  bent over, with a bright red hibiscus flower in his butt hole!!!

Half the house was woken up that  Vishu hearing Achama giving this guy hell and it became public knowledge that the gentle brahmin lady had a vocabulary that would put a sailor to shame.

And way before Dilip & Hari Sree Ashokan ruined Jagathy Sreekumar’s Vishu in Meeshan Madhavan in 2002 , sometime in the 1930’s some idiot relative got to hear every bad word my Achama knew . And every Vishu after I see the Kani, I think of my grandmom  and this story and start my year with a big smile. It’s strange how an incident that happened over 80 years ago still brings so much of laughter and has become a part of the family folklore.

True stories from another time are sometimes real hard to believe. And sometimes, stranger than fiction.


Writing as a part of team Blue Lagoon.