Summer days such as these take me down memory lane – many a times. Back to my childhood days – because summer essentially is the time the kitchen in the household comes alive. Alive with stocking up for the year ahead in terms of vadaams, karuvadaams (also known as vadis in Marathi/Hindi), dried vegetables (in tamil known as vatthals) and of course, pickles. Summer, essentially, in terms of the kitchen and the activities therein, used to be a treasure trove – visually and of course to the palate. It also used to be the time of the year when all the ladies in the family invariably converged into one kitchen to cook up some of these storable delicacies. Atleast for those few hours, there would be total compatibility, friendly banter, casual chatter and no strife.
Just the other day, as I mentally revisited one of those days in my childhood when vadaams were being made, it did strike me that the only way my children would know the vadaam making process in all its glory, would be through my eyes, through my words. With commercialization setting in just about everywhere, almost gone are the days when ladies hunker down to dish out batch after batch of vadaams.
A vadaam making day always used to be preceded by a kind of palpable excitement among the ladies in the family. It was subdued but it was definitely there. It used to make its presence felt in the feverish activity that could be seen in the form of old mats (motthha paai) being taken down from the loft and cleaned, in large square pieces of cotton cloth being washed and dried, in large copper vessels being taken down from the loft and cleaned and the like.
Kerosene stoves would be readied, the wicks cleaned, crosschecks conducted to ensure that there was enough kerosene in the stove and more importantly, at home (in case the stove was hungry enough to need more kerosene). More crosschecks to ensure that the pump on the kerosene stove worked properly and that it would not turn into a bomb of sorts during the mela that was to ensue the next morning in the kitchen. Though, to be honest, I always used to feel that a kerosene stove exploding was a much milder scenario than that of the ladies in the family feuding with each other. That was totally something else !! A class in itself !! Modern day factories which eke out a living by making and selling earplugs would not have needed to travel very far for quality control tests !!! If those earplugs could block out the noise generated by a few hostile ladies disagreeing over something, then they sure as hell can block just about any sound on the face of this earth, out !!!
Ladies would consult each other about the amounts of rice to be soaked. How much of the rice would go in to the making of the plain white vadaams, how much would go into the making of the red vadaams – which were nothing but vadaams with chili powder in them.
The next morning would invariably dawn bright, clear and oh ! did I mention earlier – HOT !!!.
The men in the household would invariably end up with some extremely simple lunch boxes on vadaam day – cos the ladies would well have been taken over by vadaam fever by then. And the men knew better than to stray into the path of a whole bunch of thundering typhoon mamis. And the men cared rather strongly for their safety and well being, so much so that the simple lunch box packed by the mamis on Vadaam Day, would be carried away to office by the men without as much as a murmur.
Olden days, before the advent of mixers/grinders saw the batter being ground in large mortar/pestles (known as Aaatukallu in Tamil). Little wonder then that women then had no need for dumbbells and barbells and the like. The working on the mortar/pestle took care of that bit. And the sizes were industrial – of the mortar/pestle, of course. (and the mamis too) !!!
Once the batter was ready, the vadaam making contraption would be brought out with as much sacredness to the act as the unveiling of a deity in a temple. Each vadaam plate would be gingerly wiped with a cloth dipped in oil and huge vats of water would be set on the kerosene stoves to boil.
The mats and large square pieces of cloth would be spread outside the house – in the compound – and there they would lie in wait for batch after batch of steamed vadaams to be spread upon them for the “drying in the sun” part of the process.
In an atmosphere of ever before unseen camaraderie, the ladies would arm themselves with spoons and the vessel containing the batter would be the centerpiece of attraction and attention. Spoons would be dipped in the batter and with a deft turn of the wrist and a few more deft flicks of the wrist accompanied by the hand attached to it, that glob of batter would be teased and cajoled into a thin, flat smear on the vadaam plate. Once a certain number of plates were done, they’d be loaded onto the vadaam stand and the whole contraption would be set in the huge vats and covered to be steamcooked.
All the while, I could be found standing outside the kitchen, staring at the ongoings within the kitchen in what I can describe only as “wide eyed wonder”.
And the knowledge that my responsibilities, my rightful place in the Vadaam Making Process, were just about to begin !!! And it was a responsibility that I took very very seriously indeed !!. Strayed from my responsibilities a few times, I have though - when I took pity on a hungry cat (who was a de-facto resident of our building) and fed it a few pieces of steamed vadaams. But it was all for a good cause. The ladies would sure have thought otherwise, but then again, what they did not know certainly did not hurt them !!
Once the vadaams were steamed and ready, they would be peeled off the plates by the thundering mamis with a deftness that defied their sheer size and volume. It was very difficult to imagine huge hands attached to huge bodies, working so deftly and with such precision.
Once the steamed vadaams were placed on plates, the hollering would begin. I would be handed one plate of vadaams and I could be seen scurrying out of the house with the plate in my hand, out into the compound – to place the steamed vadaams onto the mats covered with clean white cloth. By the time my plate was ¾ empty, the holler would begin from the kitchen – asking me to come and pick up the second plate. There were many a times when I wondered as to why the vadaams needed to cook so fast – but they always did !!! Wheels on my feet would have done me a lot good then.
The going used to get better actually. In the heat of the midday sun, a small chair used to be set near the mats (which, by now, were full with vadaams spread on them) and I, being the only child, used to have the dubious distinction of having to perch myself on the said chair. The said chair, by then, would be hotter than an inferno itself and it used to make me think that my mom could get dosas made on the chair – cos it was so HOT !!
My job then was to ward off the winged birds of prey. Nothing dramatic. I’m talking about the crows which arrive by the hordes to feast on the vadaams set out for drying. For good measure, I used to be handed a walking stick too – supposedly to shoo away the errant crows.
Any stranger who saw me sitting on the chair with that cane in my hand during those hot summer days would have left the building with a new meaning to the term ‘child labour’. Such a young child guarding the entrance to the building – would have been the first thought, I guess. But no. That child was sitting there to shoo away crows, if any, that dared as much as approach the precious vadaams.
There have been many instances wherein people hesitated and then asked me if “so and so” was staying in that building. They probably mistook me for an underage chowkidar !!! Thank the lord then, that no one actually walked up to me and asked me why the water pump of the building was not working properly or some such question. Cos the chowkidar used to double as the water pump operator too !!!
It used to take just a few hours in that blazing heat for the vadaams to dry up. The ladies would again arrive by the hordes and stack away all the vadaams and take them back to the confines of the house.
There were ample opportunities to play “chowkidar” to the vadaams during my childhood. Those memories will forever remain cherished within my heart. More so, given the fact that one does not see it happen in each and every household nowadays. There is a high chance that my children will never have an opportunity to indulge in such “chowkidar” business – given the fact that vadaam making, as a family activity in each and every household, has more or less become a thing of the past.
This is something that is etched onto the canvass of my memory and it will remain that way. I just have to close my eyes to picture myself – busy as the “guardian of the vadaams” during my childhood days. Everything about that memory is very vivid, the clarity of the picture – crystal clear.
Like the saying from “The Wonder Years” goes
"Memory is a way of holding on to the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.”
And yes, these are memories I don’t want to lose. These are memories that I want to keep close to my heart, these are memories that, I hope, will help my children envision things – things that they’ve missed out experiencing, simply because of the fact that they were born in an era where commercialization rules.