(Image courtesy : penciljammers.com via Google)
Remember the newborn we welcomed in the earlier post ? For those of you who haven't read Part 10, here's the link.
Well, among the first (of many) customs in a TamBrahm family is the Kaapu ceremony. Though I haven’t been enlightened by the elders in the family as to the pertinence of this function, I would think it is something that is done to ward off evil eyes or some such thing because the very name Kaapu suggests “protection” – protection from evil eyes, that is. Better to be specific because “protection” can mean a lot of things nowadays.
As all TamBrahm ceremonies do, this function too involves colourful Kancheevaram saris, blingy blings everywhere possible and of course, good food (for everybody else except the new mother who is on a strict no-nonsense diet, remember ?).
Since the new mom and the newborn baby have set camp at the maternal grandparents’ place, it is the paternal grandparents’ turn to make a trip over. As with all TamBrahm functions, the entire family is usually present for the Kaapu ceremony too. It is during this function that the newborn is adorned (for lack of a better word – because I can’t say asked to wear and I can’t say made to wear) with three different kinds of kaapu. There will be a pair of gold bangles (yes – for both boys and girls), for, you see, there is this natural affinity between the TamBrahm community and gold. That now, is an everlasting relationship. Always has been, still is and always will be. It is mushy enough and a bond strong enough for someone to write a Mills and Boon - on the everlasting love relationship between a TamBrahm and Gold !
Hinduism has festivals like Karwa Chauth in the North of India and Nombu in the South of India – where women pray for togetherness and for the husband-wife bond to stay strong. Gold, on the other hand, doesn’t have to go through any such rituals or hardships. It is like one of those VIPs that people pay to encounter and it’s bond is rather secure without any fasting or tying strings around trees like Vat Savitris.
Getting back to the newborn baby, there is usually a pair of silver anklets too (the thin variety, fortunately not the kinds Kannagi used to wear) and apparently the most important one is the third pair – the Muppiri Kaapu. Now the automatic question that arises is “why is this the most important, of the three ?” To be honest, I haven’t been able to get an answer from the elders in the family. These rituals are pretty much like the others, handed down from generation to generation and no one has quite bothered getting answers or clarifications. So this question of mine remains unanswered till date. The only thing I can possibly think of is that since Muppiri Kaapu is made of three metals, it probably works on the same theory as the modern day magnetic bands do. Or, maybe these three metals that go into the Muppiri Kaapu are said to have higher protective powers to ward off the evil eye (since that is the whole purpose of the kaapu function). If anyone reading this post has an answer to the above question, please do post it in the comments section.
No TamBrahm function is complete without a particular food item being a specialty for that function. For Karadayan Nombu, there are the adais, for Thiruvadirai, there is the Kali and the Kootu. Similarly, for the Kaapu function, we TamBrahms have what is called the KaapuArishi. (Ari means rice). This KaapArishi is made by the maternal grandmother and the paternal grandmother (the success of every TamBrahm function is this innate competition, you see) and then, quite obviously, there would be divided opinions on whose kaapu arishi was better. The Chief Guest in question a.k.a the newborn baby would be blissfully unaware of all these formalities being carried out in its name. Good on you, baby, good on you. Babies do the best thing one can do during these functions – sleep !!
Now I’ve always maintained that there is some age old connection between the kaapu ceremony and donations that need to be sent a dentist’s way. Does that sound confusing ? Well, this kaapu arishi concoction (it is basically a very hard chikki variety or say a Rice Brittle) is designed, in my humble opinion, to test dental strength. Needless to say, people like me need to stay away from things like kaapu arishi because I am, even at normal times, a dentist’s recurring deposit. If someone were to offer me kaapu arishi and more importantly, if I were to eat it, I would probably spend the next few months getting multiple dental implants !! Such is the power of the kaapu arishi !!!
Another mainstay of the kaapu function is the presence of something rather odd. A kitchen implement. It is pretty much like a mortar and pestle but not the short squat variety. This is a flat stone which is paired with an elongated stone and these implements were usually used for grinding spices (in the days when kitchen blenders were not around). Now this mortar and pestle is considered to be a baby during the kaapu function. This is where, in my honest opinion, sensitivities start to get eroded and women lose all sense and sensibility.
The usual posse of senior mamis usually tell one of the younger ladies to anoint the mortar and pestle with sandalwood paste, vermilion and they are supposed to bathe the stone in milk, which is considered akin to feeding a baby. This is another one of those instances during TamBrahm functions where insensitivity rears its head and refuses to listen to logic or reason. I clearly remember many an occasion when the said lady in question has been clearly hesitant to take up this task or has looked rather mortified. The senior mamis usually have this habit of proclaiming (loudly, of course) that this particular ritual will help the lady in question bear children.
As I’ve said earlier, in an ultra traditional TamBrahm family, couples are expected to produce babies after marriage ASAP. While this may work for some, there is an equally distinct possibility that it does not work for some others. In such instances, to publicly call upon a lady, catch her unawares and ask her to go through a ritual which people deem will help her have a child, in my books, borders on cruelty and reeks of insensitivity. Not once do people stop to think of whether the said lady/couple has/have been struggling with infertility issues, have been undergoing treatment unsuccessfully for the same or whether it is simply a question of respecting their choice, as a couple, not to have children. Infertility treatments take their toll, on both the husband and the wife and the last thing a lady needs, is to have that rubbed in.
The inherent “looking down upon” or looks of sympathy that are dished out towards women who have not had children biologically their own, is quite astounding. Even in today’s world, where people consider themselves well educated and well informed, there still remains a huge majority in the female populace who consider it their god given right to look down upon women who cannot bear children. Functions like the stone bathing ritual during the kaapu just serve to rub the whole thing in. Maybe it is not intended that way but the end result is pretty much that. What I personally feel is that a whole great deal more of sensitivity needs to be applied in such situations. It is just a simple question of asking the ladies beforehand, whether they would be comfortable being called upon to conduct the said ritual. Yet again, there also needs to be a great degree of open mindedness to accept a negative answer. There is no need to get all personal about it. It is just a question of respecting the other lady’s feelings and wishes. This is something I’ve always felt very strongly about, especially when hapless ladies are called upon in public, thereby taking away from them, the option of saying “no thanks”.
Once the mortar and pestle have been “bathed and fed”, the mami brigade calls upon three or four small children and they are asked to go around the mortar and pestle with a bunch of leaves (I think they hold twigs from the neem tree), brushing the leaves on the stones. The kids go around the stone and the mamis go into a trance of sorts, complete with the incantations and chants like high priestesses of some secret order. They say something ... I am usually too baffled when this happens, to try and figure out what they say or why. As regards the custom of having kids brush the stone with neem leaves, yet again, I haven’t been able to find an answer. I have asked many elderly mamis but no one, genuinely no one, seems to know. Yet again, if someone reading this does, please post it as a comment.
Once the kaapu function is deemed wover (finished), it is time for tiffin !! No TamBrahm function can be complete without good food – that’s a given. Tiffin is usually accomplished with a great deal of brouhaha (good food brings out the best and the worst in a TamBrahm, honestly !), people gear up for the next ceremony in line – The Thottil (cradle) function.
This ceremony is when the newborn is introduced to the wonders of the cradle, which is supposed to rock them into peaceful sleep. Never did happen with Macadamia. It had quite the opposite effect, truth be told ! There are babies that sleep through the entire thottil function peacefully and behave as though the thottil is indeed the panacea to all the sleep evils but nah – not mine. She had already made her mark in the family with the reputation of being a light sleeper and had also established that once awake, she would be as noisy as she could be. Tremendous lung power that tyke had, so much so that there have been days when I’ve sat up bolt straight as though touched by a cattle prod, simply by the sheer lung power she used to exhibit, once awake.
So there, we had a Macadamia who I’d just managed to rock to sleep and right then descended on me the whole mami brigade who thought they were there to play “passing the parcel”. The “parcel” in question was the vociferous Macadamia. Need I say more ? In just a matter of seconds, all hell broke loose and there she was, a little bundle of ferocity, expressing her displeasure vocally at having been woken up rather unceremoniously for a ceremony, nevertheless.
There was a sudden flurry of activity among the mamis who hurried the little bundle along and finally it landed in the arms of my mom, Macadamia’s maternal grandmother. She was about to lay Macadamia down on the cradle when one of the mamis said something about the direction not being right. I was, in the meanwhile, thanking the good lord that there are just four directions to follow. The TamBrahm mamis manage to create a huge mathematical confusion out of four directions, imagine what they would do if there were, say, ten directions to contend with. If that were the case, by the time the mamis arrived upon a consensus as to the best direction to lay the baby in a cradle, the baby would probably be a toddler !!
Now the cradle itself had been decorated and now looked like a circus carousel with this giant orb like thing revolving at the top. I guess the idea of something shiny revolving at the top was to lull or hypnotize the baby into quietude. They did not know Macadamia as well as I’d gotten to know her in a week’s time. If there was one thing I knew for sure, it was this – that thing was sure to send her senses into an overdrive and the resultant din was something I didn’t even want to imagine. I try very hard not to say "I told you so" but in this case, that is the only phrase that would fit the bill. "Did I not say she would not take well to that disco ball or whatever that was ?".
She did not !
She did not !
Then there is this practice during the cradle ceremony. Even if the baby is sleeping peacefully, which, I guess, is the very purpose of a cradle, the mamis would take turns singing their lungs out. Why they do that is beyond me because all it invariably serves to do is to wake the sleeping baby up. Now those first few moments when the baby’s auditory system is on an overload from the mami brigade singing Carnatic music is an absolute treat to watch.
It starts off with what I call “the twitch”. The baby starts to twitch its toes and occasionally startles in its sleep. Not surprising, with the kind of nightmares that din must be creating in its little head. It probably imagines that it is right in the middle of one of Percy Jackson’s adventures, battling some sea monster that is incredibly noisy. The baby startles time and again and at some point of time, those yet unfocused little eyes fly open and then shut together, crimped close as tightly as possible. People – now is the time to get those earplugs out !! The mamis still continue their musical extravaganza and the little one decides, about now, that it is time they had some competition. It turns into a competition of sorts. The little one can’t stand the noise and starts screaming and bawling. The mamis, never ones to give up, look just as determined as Zubin Mehta conducting an orchestra and decide to move things up a notch by going the Ragam Thaanam Pallavi way. For the bystanders, this is pure joy beyond description !
That’s where this post ends ….. deafening, ear splitting noise created by a bunch of mamis hollering as though they are at a Thyagaraja Aradhanai festival where they have to compete to hear their own voices on the one hand and a little newborn baby pushing its lungs to the maximum, on the other.
Since our little addition to the TamBrahm family has now been introduced to the ritual mania in a TamBrahm household, do stay and walk along on this journey as we take the newborn through the twists and turns of many more such ceremonies, rituals and customs to come.
The saga continues …. do stay tuned.