Shirley and I were called to the Principal´s office. Mother had taken prior permission for our leave for the entire week.
“What happened, Mom?”
“We need to rush to Angamaly. Ammamma wants to meet us. She fears that she will not be able to pull through till the summers.”
“Is she that serious?”
“She is 87 years, you know. And the doctors have given her hope for a year at best.”
As kids for Shirley and me, the summer holidays were the most awaited time of the year. Not only did it mean no school but also a two month long stay at Ammamma´s home in Angamaly, Kerala. Kerala was a wonderful break from Bangalore. Kerala, God´s own country is blessed with abundance in everything – lush greenery, colourful flora and fauna, misty mountains, serene backwaters, soothing waterfalls, romantic rainfalls, Ayurveda and more.
On the other end, Ammamma would also eagerly look forward to our arrival. Those two months were the best time of our lives. Ammamma followed a strict daily schedule which we had to abide by while staying with at her place. We woke up at 5.30 am daily to attend the Kurbana (The Holy Mass) at the near-by church. It was a surreal experience walking down the narrow lanes whilst listening to the glorious early morning chants of the birds. The Palli (church) would be packed with the monastery nuns, village laypeople and children. We would sit in the front, right on the floor, which was the usual spot designated for children. Reflecting back, I think this was a sneaky way of keeping a strict vigil on the children so that they don´t fall asleep during the Mass. Hardly a feet from the ground and surrounded by an ocean of penguin resembling nuns, I’d watch with awe the ´Achanmaara´ (priests) enter the church with their string of altar boys. The ´Vikaariyachan´(Parish priest) would preside over the proceedings of the ´Kurbana´ and rattle off a long preachy sermon in chaste Malayalam. While the ´Kannyastrikal´(nuns) would form the choir and belt the Malayalam Christian devotional songs.
The rest of the day, more than compensated for our early morning wakeup sacrifice for God. Ammama always made the best breakfast in the world. Now, Kerala breakfasts are truly unique. There´s ´Puttu´made from the wild red rice and it tastes like heaven with ´Nentrakka´also called ´Ethekka´ (Kerala variety of banana), hot ghee and sugar. You can also pair it with spicy ´Kadala´ (horsegram) curry. There´s ´Idiappam´ which is rice noodles. Ammamma used to stuff these with coconut and jaggery in the centre and it is simply delicious. ´Idiappam´ is also served without the sweet stuffing and with Kerala Egg roast or any savoury side-dish. There´s ´Palappam´ which pairs really well with Vegetable/Chicken/Mutton stew. There´s also the mildly sweet, fermented ´Vattayappam´. We relished our breakfast like kings and queens. There was a vast rubber plantation area behind Ammamma´s house where Shirley and I would spend endless hours playing amidst the rubber trees. Ammamma had a huge garden at the entrance of her home and an animal farm in her backyard. Shirley and I would be outdoors most of the time during the day. While we did venture on our own into the local town and make new friends, our best times were with Ammamma. We would play carroms with her and she would beat us hands-down every time, admonishing us for our general lack of aim in life. After lunch, it was our daily duty to massage her feet till she dozed off to sleep. After snacks, Ammamma would sit in the front porch and watch Shirley and me chase and catch dragonflies in her garden. We had to join her in the recitation of the Rosary every evening before dinner. At night, she would tuck us into our beds but not without reciting some fascinating stories.
It was Ammamma who taught us how love is not only kind but also cruel. She thought it to be her responsibility to raise us right. Ammamma didn´t have to do much when it came to discipline, her cane rod did the honours for her. We were given the choicest of spankings for any misdeed that came to Ammamma´s notice. Ammamma was a strict believer in the Bible verse: “Spare the rod and you spoil the child.” It was during such times when Shirley and I detested Ammamama. However, her love for us was more overpowering than our hatred for her and she won us back easily.
The train pulled slowly to the Angamaly Railway Station. We got into the white Ambassador car sent by Ammamma to pick us from the station and take us to her home.
Ammamma looked serene and beautiful as she sat on the veranda, waiting for our arrival. It was unbelievable to see her look so beautiful at 87 years. We hugged Ammamma as she ushered us into the dining area. A lavish home cooked spread that awaited us – Wild red rice, Aviyal, Meen curry, vegetable thorn, thaiyyar and pappadams.
After lunch, our mother was asked to rest while Ammamma called Shirley and me to her bedroom. She wanted to have a quiet time with just her grandchildren.
“So, how is college going for you, Shirley?”
“It´s going well, Ammamma! I am planning to specialise in forensic science next year.”
“I see that the going is good”, said Ammamma, pointing to Shirley´s Skrillex haircut.
“Oh that! I plan to grow it out by summer next year. Did´nt anticipate this sudden trip to Angamaly”
“You don´t have to try so hard sounding apologetic. I like it! Reminds me of my college days when I went completely bald for one term.”
“You did?”, Shirley asked looking visibly shocked.
“How about you, George?”, Ammamma shifted her attention to me, ignoring Shirley for a while.
“All is well, Ammamma!”
“Of course, it will be! He has a girlfriend, you know, Ammamma!” said Shirley before I could pinch her and stop her from opening more can of worms.
“Hmm! Looks like my caning didn´t do you any good.” Ammamma looked at me seriously.
“Hey, that was so unfair, you know! I still get the shivers when I remember the time when you caught me whistling and called me to your side. Only to be greeted by ten whacks on my palms.”
“I am not sorry about that, young boy! You know I was around 14 years when I got eve teased by a group of boys in their twenties. They thought it was great fun to single out young women on the road and harass them by cat-calling at them. I lamented their upbringing and vowed to raise my boys right.”
“But, I was just whistling with no malicious intent. And, I was only seven years.”
“Catch em´ young, as they say! That´s the right age to correct wrongful behaviour. It´s too late in the day now. So, tell me about her? ”
Even though I found it odd to discuss my love life with my grandmother, I opened up about Anjali that day to her. Ammamma listened in rapt attention to every word I said. I found a marked shift in her behaviour.
“Just being around and listening to you two makes me nostalgic. George, you remind me so much of Appappan. He had the same style of wooing girls when he was your age. Thank God, he stopped at me else he was slowly but surely earning the reputation of a serial womaniser. He had good taste for women and I don´t doubt the same when it comes to your case as well. ”
Shirley and I couldn´t believe our ears. This was our Bible bashing Ammamma who we were talking to. As if reading our minds, Ammamma said-
“What do you think? Your Ammamma was a saint in her heydays. Nonsense! The more things change, the more it stays the same.”
She handed us an old black and white picture of her donning a flowery mini-skirt and wearing large over-sized round sunglasses.
“You look so très chic, Ammamma!”, Shirley said in delight.
“You mean I don´t anymore now?”, Ammamma winked at us. “ I´m so glad you two could make it to Angamaly even in the middle of your academic term. I don´t know if we will be able to spend the summer holidays together like each year. It´s been a good life. Before I go, all I want to tell you both is that you live life only once. Live it well. Be wild but also wise.Try everything at least once. Enjoy each decade of your life and be grateful for the little blessings. Remember that friendship is the cornerstone of a good marriage. Stay united. Eat, pray, love and all will be well.”
That evening, we went for a boat ride on the slow backwaters as we watched the sunset together. We left for Bangalore the next week. Two months later, Ammamma passed away from this world.
Looking back, I now realize that Shirley and I have a lot to owe to Ammamma. Ammamama is the strongest woman we know. Mother is a mere reflection of her. There was a quiet strength, dignity and an aura of regalness to her that added to her beauty. She taught us so much wisdom that is hard to find today by her mere example. We felt blessed to have been around her during her last days and see her transform from the strict grandmother to a non-judgemental friend.
The summers will never be the same again without Ammamma. While she may be no more, Shirley and I still go to the Angamaly home every summer to relive our carefree days with our respective families.
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