Summers make me feel better. No matter how stressful the rest of my year has been, come summer, there is a certain lightness in my soul. I take note of the flowers, the way the sun makes everything smell and of course, I dream of mangoes. Not the suspiciously glossy, largely flavorless Californian/Mexican ones. The rustic, juicy and sweet Indian mangoes.
As a schoolgirl, I spent all my summers in Kerala, with around ten cousins, tall and short, boy and girl, young and very young. Mangoes were my snack of choice and utter laziness, the general theme of those vacations.
Of course, the build up to the vacation itself was as enjoyable as the two months I would spend in Kerala. The excitement officially began on the evening before the last exam of the year –English.
It did not matter, because mom and I would be on a train to Kerala the same evening. The thought was enough to help me maintain perspective of how completely useless doing well on the English exam was, in the scheme of things. In the face of heavenly mangoes. Compared to the hours and hours of board games and card games that awaited me on the other end.
Of course, Amma and I would have packed our suitcases at least a week before the trip (Amma as excited about going to her mother’s house as I was about eating my grandmother’s food). We’d pack Odomos, conservative clothes to wear to the temple and several of my school books, because I foolishly imagined myself reading in advance for the next year, preferably under a large guava tree. Amma tried year after year, to persuade me to leave my books behind and then just gave up. I was an optimistic child.
My favorite part of the train journey was in fact the preparation for the train journey. The entire house seemed to be upside down- clothes, plastic covers strewn everywhere, Appa making extra sure that the suitcases stayed tightly shut through the journey. And then, the idlis.
Let me tell you something about Train Idlis.. they are simple, steamed rice cakes that are smothered with this ridiculously spicy and delicious chili powder mixed with oil. It sounds like a strange combination on paper. But, it is the South Indian “train dinner” of choice, and is plain genius. The oil from the molagapodi (chili powder) soaks the idlis and turns them into moist flavor bombs. It is humble on the surface and full of substance on the inside. Kinda like a South Indian herself! If there is one dish that I would gladly be stranded on an island with, it is the humble “train idlis” in all its glory and resilience.
The train station would smell like fish, because the goods trains would also transport all types of fish. We’d pay (after extensive bargaining) a porter to carry our suitcases to the train. As a teenager, every summer I’d hope that I’d sit next to a handsome boy, who’d be shy but incredibly intelligent. I imagined this boy and me talking about Harry Potter and the philosophy of horcruxes. That never happened. Not even once.
Nevertheless, I’d pick up some Tinkle comics from the Higginbothams bookstand in the station and as soon as I found our seats and settled in, would start reading. I skipped the Uncle Anu portions of it. Blergh.
Amma and I would talk about this and that, and the excitement would peak when the train started to leave the station. Then, Amma and I would make polite conversation with our co-passengers or pretend like we don’t know each other, depending on language barriers or lack thereof. :)
Everyone who has travelled to Kerala from Tamil Nadu, would be able to accurately describe the moment they knew they’d reached Kerala. In Kerala, one would immediately notice three things:
a. The landscape is filled with lush and exquisite greenery vs. the generic brownish-grey of Tamil Nadu
b. The air smells and earthy
c. The sweet, sing-song tones of Malayalam
Amma’s brother, my Mama, always came to the station to pick us up in Kerala. We’d revel in the joy of having two months ahead of us to do absolutely nothing but be happy and content.
We’d take a cab from the station to our ancestral home in Vaikom, a small temple town. The pace of life would immediately slow down to a happy crawl. Men in lungis would amble towards the temple. Women would stand on the sides of the road to take the bus to a nearby town or school. Shopkeepers would fuss over the small, yellow bananas that hung from hooks like chandeliers in front of their shops. Bananas and newspaper, washed down with a cup of chaya were the quintessential malayali breakfast.
Our ancestral home is near the temple and it is actually a group of three homes, all belonging to my grandfather and his brothers. Taming of the wild green shrubbery on its premises stopped when my mother and her siblings left home. Now, green things just grew wherever there was space. Snakes hid in the said green things, hoping to avoid the noisy and careless children of the house.
I’d run into the house to meet my grandma and my cousins. Sometimes, they’d be in one of the other houses and I’d run between the houses to locate them all, round them up and plan the summer. Amma, her siblings and first cousins would leave the children in care of the other children, and start catching up on each others’ lives. We kids would assemble ourselves into groups, by age, (the 2 boys usually by gender) and go our own ways. The older kids would play badminton or football and the younger kids would draw on the cement floor outside, with colorful chalk. The middle kids would try to choose between the more interesting of activities. I was usually in the middle group with my cousin Amrita. We did things that ranged from utterly silly to slightly cool.
Utterly silly: fill up steel davaras with water, freeze them and watch the davara shaped ice melt when it came in contact with the sizzling hot cement floor.
Slightly cool: go to Quader shop and buy tie dye ink and dye our t-shirts.
Afternoons were for post-lunch naps and malayalam movies on Asianet. The mango trees near our house would bear the sweetest, most flavorful mangoes that I had ever eaten, and they’d be stored in the storeroom and rationed out to the kids after meals. The boys would get larger mangoes (patriarchy!), and us girls would get the daintier ones. I’d remove the peel with my teeth and squeeze the mango to see how juicy it really was. Then, juice dripping up to my elbows, would lick my fingers and the mango (one indistinguishable from the other by now) and eat the flesh till my teeth hit the hard mango seed. We didn’t stop until the mango seed was bone dry.
Invariably, post mangoes, we needed to shower because the juice from the mangoes were so ubiquitous that we would find some pulp in our hair later on.
The younger kids were quite willing to be hosed down instead of taking proper showers, because we had 3–4 bathrooms for 20 people and being hosed was a perfectly fun way to be clean. At night, since there weren’t as many beds as there were people, we’d lay our mattresses side by side in the living room, and whisper late into the night until we eventually fell asleep.
We played hide and seek, read and listened to music. Sometimes, during power cuts, the entire family lit candles at dusk and sat outside, chatting in hushed tones about events that were not meant for the ears of the children, while we all played, blissfully unaware of family politics and bad things.
We’d put on talent shows for our grandparents and aunts. Some would sing, some would dance and others would try to be funny. We’d run on the temple grounds, with random kids. Some summers, it felt like all the kids in Vaikom were in on a secret that only we understood. We bonded instantly over the general joy of summers.
When it was time for us to head back to our respective cities and lives, there were teary goodbyes and promises to meet every year. As we grew older, the promises turned into excuses. I have my board exams this year, and need to prepare. Oh! I can’t make it this year! I need to submit my college applications. Maybe next year.
The ten of us haven’t been back together since 2003. 15 years. I live in California now and my cousins live in other parts of the world. Even now, I am sure, each of us thinks longingly of the same things every summer, no matter where we are: the profoundness of joy we felt as children, the sweet-stickiness of Indian mangoes and the gift of guilt-free free-time.