You Don’t Mess with the Grandma


You Don’t Mess with the Grandma

Illustration: Juergen Dsouza

Of all my ghastly childhood memories, there’s one that glows particularly ominously. When I was a little one, completely vulnerable to the whims and fancies of adults, I remember being fed a disgusting mixture named madd kulu, with a porridge-like consistency. The goop was a literal translation of “medicine rice” from Kodava Thak, the language of my people. Us kids lined up for not a tiny dose but a whole bowl of the yucky stuff for as long as it seemed to last in the household. We hated it and cursed it with all our little hearts. That it was made up of 18 herbs and enabled effective bowel movement was of no consequence to us.

The initiative was pioneered by my gran avvayya, Kodava Thak for “lady who has been there, done that, and can make grown men cry”. She didn’t have time for charades. And through a carefully managed supply chain that would put VC-funded food-tech companies to shame, the purple goo would find its way into our mouths. (If you pressed your ears to the wind, you could hear the cries of other children stuck in similar circumstance.) I remembered the horribleness of the taste throughout my growing-up years.

Over time, I armed myself with all the science I could gather off TV commercials and magazines. The first thing I learnt was to begin resenting native traditions – this time, not just for the taste, but for the wholly “unscientific”, anecdotal nature of their supposed healing powers. All that madd kulu and turmeric milk being shoved down my throat seemed like a stupid, archaic tradition, wholly engineered to the caprices of the terrifying avvaya.

I put my faith in science instead. Shiny, glossy science that came in neat pills with properly proportioned chemicals, engineered by people in proper lab coats armed with test results. And what really did avvaya know? A woman who had barely stepped out of her house, didn’t really understand new-fangled things like homosexuality or gender-neutral bathrooms. She was not an intellectual or a scientist. She was a woman only married to her rituals, whether it be keeping a good home or making a fine meal. Did she even know how many calories her evening snack was made up of?

It took me twenty years to realise, avvaya might not have been an intellectual but intelligent and informed, she certainly was. It didn’t dawn upon me in one fell swoop. But every time I read something about the “Turmeric Latte” craze or Hollywood’s love for clarified butter, I thought of her. And wondered if I’d got this whole thing by the wrong end of the stick.

Fasting during certain periods of the year was not blind tradition, it was to tune your body to the changing seasons and prepare it for the foods that the season would bring.

Scientism has had an overarching influence in our lives. We repose complete confidence in science because it has no motive but the truth. We believe science is of unimpeachable integrity and almost no bias. So it must be worthy of our faith, right?

But we have only gone from one unquestioning belief to another. We’ve replaced dadi ma ke nuskhe with scientific studies that we believe work the same way for everyone. We have allowed these studies to turn into powerful tools and consent to have our behaviours manipulated by them. Ironically, science has turned into a religion; worse, into an arrogant virtue that must be upheld without interrogation. If you do not believe in the scientific consensus du jour, you must be uneducated, illiterate, or ill-informed.

So we’ve gone about foolishly discarding the wisdom passed down the ages and putting our faith in the sum total of some men’s trials and errors based on papers involving experiments on 12 anorexic guinea pigs. Thanks to these, you know sugar is bad. Just before that, you thought carbs were bad. And a while before that fat was bad. Meat could be good or bad, seasonally, depending on which issue of Cosmopolitan you’re reading. Of course, backed up by hard science.

Native wisdom never came with a “do not” list that changed faster than a teenage boy’s interests. Everything had a time and place and your body already understood that. When we were children, some savouries were made only during particular festivals and fasting was done with great joy. When someone claimed it was to please the gods, you threw a fit! These pagans!

Only it wasn’t ritual, it was season. Fasting during certain periods of the year was not blind tradition, it was to tune your body to the changing seasons and prepare it for the foods that the season would bring. All this came long before intermittent fasting became a fad. And here we are, back to the basics programming our diet based on the moon’s position relative to the Earth. All made possible on your latest fitness app, that costs $499 per year, upgradable to plus and super-plus versions.

As research progresses, new studies find new results, constantly disproving previously held truths. At the end of it all, we often arrive at the place we started from. And grandma is usually proven closer to the truth than forty scientists in a study.

Avvaya had no imperative to increase shareholder value. She only had the moral imperative to do what’s good for you. Even if that meant shoving purple goop into your mouth until you screamed blue murder. All you needed to do was open your mouth and keep the faith.