Little Mantra – Recapturing my childhood

Little Mantra by Shalini James

I don’t ever remember being little. In my head, I was always big. At two, I was big enough to be taken for a walk down the boulevard in front of Essendene- one of a triad of old colonial bungalows in Nanthancode, a residential corner of Trivandrum. At three, I was big enough to realise that the most important man in the room was my grandfather and scrambling onto his knee, I had the perfect vantage point to deal with the rest of the world. You couldn’t mistake Pappaachan-a portmanteau of papa and achan-for anyone else. He was the towering man in crisp white who strode down the carpeted corridors. I would look up at him when he stood in the portico, atop the tall flight of stairs, his jubba sleeves swept up his elbows and his starched mundu  cracking as he deftly flicked it aside to get into his car. As I ran up to him he’d look down indulgently, and tug at my nose with his knuckles, smiling; a gentle smile that belied the power he wielded. It was easy to see that he was the epicentre of our universe. Things happened around him.  People circled around him, and, when perched on his knee, around me. I liked that. By five, however, I was divested of the last-mentioned notion. Big enough to find my own chair, I had to relinquish a favoured promontory and its associated benefits.

By seven, I was big enough to discuss politics.  I’d heard enough from behind the blue damask curtain, even when relegated to the adjoining room.  Strangely, Pappaachan didn’t seem too keen. He chose instead, to teach me ‘twenty eight’, a game of cards he was adept at. In the rare moments of quiet at Essendene, we’d sit at his table in the ante room that overlooked an oval walkway, and play twenty eight. I don’t remember winning. But that didn’t bother me because losing to him had a sweet aftertaste.  After every card session, with unfailing regularity, a family pack of strawberry ice cream would await for me in the freezer. At nine, I was deemed big enough to trim his toe nails- a task I attended to with proprietary gusto. I revelled in getting the curves smooth, lifting the corners, filing the edges and buffing the cuticles. Last of all, I’d dab his favourite Old Spice lotion onto a ball of cotton and swipe each nail, with a flourish that would have given the pedicurists of the day a run for their money. For Pappaachan, kingpin of a political party, his mind, body and soul belonged to his people; but there was no denying that his toe nails were all mine.

I must have got my love for all things little from my grandmother. Pretty little roses sewed tightly on to white bed linen, tiny little prayer books tucked under the pillow; tidy little bottles holding spices all in a row, perky little fish cooked to succulent perfection in kokum soaked coconut peera; shiny little steel tiffins packed for school, and dainty little flowers on Swiss voile saris — Ammachi’s favourite things.  In those days she could sing like an angel: centuries-old English hymns in classical soprano, and hot-off-the-pan Malayalam ones set to the tune of popular Hindi melodies – both relics of convent education in the late forties. She’d have a song on her lips as she walked around barefoot in the backyard. Teak, jackwood, banyan, she’d reel off as she walked past them, promising to show me cashew apple and butter fruit trees when we visited her mother in Aranmula. I’d follow happily, close on her heels, picking the odd manjadikuru strewn in my path.  And, when she couldn’t recollect the English name of a tree with dark purple fruit, she broke into song instead— kaadu poothello, njaavalkaa pazhithello… I’d jump gleefully at the spirited rendition of the famous number, making a mental note to introduce the tall and lanky njaaval to my friends.

Ammachi’s eye for detail was legendary. The several hundred bottles of kadumanga pickle, chakkaupperi, chammanthipodi and many more delicacies that were churned out of her kitchen, and their unchanging taste over the last forty years, bear testimony to her penchant for perfection. When I chose to pursue fashion much to Pappaachan’s chagrin, it was Ammachi who sat up with me for my textile projects, making handmade templates and pinking tiny squares of fabrics with my new pair of shears— applying to the task a focused precision that was normally the reserve of her vegetables. Though she never said as much, her tacit approval for my choice of career meant a lot to me. She’d look over my shoulder as I dabbled in colours intently. She would never admit to liking pink though, her stated favourite colours being white, white and more white.  Dark brown too, she’d say when I nagged, softly rubbing the wooden rosary beads hanging down from her waist. Pink was too worldly for her. Years later though, on a Sunday morning outside church, my heart skipped a beat seeing an errant pink peep out from below a pristine white hemline. My fuchsia flip-flops! The years had added a dash of worldliness to a familiar picture of celestial white and brown, and I was the happiest to see it.

Working on Little Mantra brought home memories of a near idyllic childhood spent with my grandparents- two individuals who moulded my thoughts and fashioned my spirit in ways manifold. Even later, whenever the vicissitudes of life overtook my path, it was the strong gust of grandparent-love blowing my way that held me together. Dedicating Little Mantra to Pappaachan and Ammachi is just a miniscule token of the boundless affection, gratitude and respect I hold in my heart for them.

Shalini James

August 2, 2015

 

 

Little Mantra by Shalini James

 

 

Little Mantra by Shalini James

 

 

Little Mantra by Shalini James

 

 

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Little Mantra by Shalini James

To see more photos from the ‘Little Mantra’ look book, please click here.

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