Home is Where Ammachi is


Home is Where Ammachi is

Illustration: Juergen Dsouza / Arré

It’s that time of the year again. You’re going back to the bosom of your motherland. You’ve sent the out-of-office email, packed your bags with assorted gifts for assorted relatives – rice cookies for the younger cousins, a humongous torch for appachan, Dove cream for ammachi – included at least ten different portable chargers and power sources, packed the last of your least holey clothes. You’ve checked your waitlist number on the IRCTC website a million times, hoping that the powers that be have decided that you deserve a seat until finally, the day arrives.

Inside the train you find your train legs, learn to move around the compartment, and establish your territory. You call dibs on the middle berth, until your dad makes you sleep on the cagey topmost berth, but you only realise its significance when you watch Episode 2 of Chai Sutta Chronicles and finally understand the ways of men in trains. *Cue ogling*

By the next day, you feel like you’ve been lifelong friends with strangers you’ve only known for about 12 hours. Seeing each other drooling on the luggage creates a special kind of bond.

As the day goes by, you buy way too many pulp paperbacks, flower pens, and chammak challo-singing toy mobile phones, only to find them all crushed at the bottom of your bag when you get home. As your destination inches closer, you see coconut trees. And some more coconut trees. And communist flags.

By Day 2, you’ve exhausted all your ghar ka khana and look to IRCTC as your gastronomic saviour. You then do yourself a favour and order food from Salkara in Calicut for mind-blowingly delicious Malabari dishes, which are delivered directly to your compartment. (I know it’s truly unbelievable. You’re welcome.)

Finally, you alight the train feeling like you’re bidding adieu to a second home, but not without snapping one last selfie inside the compartment and then as you step out of the railway platform, you act every bit like the royal who has returned from Mumbai. This lasts until you finally see your bratty cousins, and find your true blue Mallu groove and begin spouting edis and edas. Praise be to all those comedy shows and old Jayan movies.

You get home, finally see the grandpeeps, and are reminded why the long sticky train journey all the way from Mumbai is worth it. And realise that you’re nothing short of khandani once you’ve been hugged and kissed by all the achachans, appachis, ammamas, ammavans, alliyans, ammachis, appachans, chechis, chettans, ithathas, and ikkaas under the sun. (PS, I wouldn’t worry if you didn’t remember any of these. Aanti and ungle will suffice for most occasions.)

Your dream of staying in bed is ripped to shreds when you are woken up at 6 am, and made to clean the entire 10,000-sq ft courtyard with a coconut leaf broom.

After that’s done, you immediately get down to scouting around for the best bathroom and establish your territory. There ain’t no shame in that. If you’ve had the sheer pleasure and utter horror of living in a bona fide oditta veedu (old-fashioned, shingle-roofed home), then you know that attached loos are gold, and that birdsong and floating leaves sound better in books than in bathrooms.

Your dreams of staying in bed in your lovely Kerala cottage and enjoying a tranquil, languid holiday are ripped to shreds, when you are woken up at 6 am, handed a coconut leaf broom, and made to clean the entire 10,000-sq ft courtyard. This is when you learn to butcher exotic bug species that any entomologist would kill for, wheedle your way into the overstuffed storeroom that has been stocked up for the influx of grandkids like you, and take undue advantage of your grandparents by breaking your appachan’s ancient deck chair, almost ruining a season’s rubber crop by overturning the sap bowls, and giving your ammachi palpitations by climbing the topmost branch of the guava tree, even when you’re clearly too old for that stuff.

Your planned visit to Ponnmudi, a little known trekking site that means Golden Hair, goes surprisingly well with not a single soul on the road. Until suddenly you land up in the middle of one of those famed Kerala hartals, facing dire danger unless you have a red rag hanging from the windshield. Extra points if you shout “Inquilab Sindabad” or “Tozhilali Aikyyam Sindabad” at the first sight of a surprisingly well-dressed, educated mob because political fervour is to Malayalis what cricket is to most Indians.

On your journeys, you meet the lungi-clad brethren standing obediently in line for the next round of, wait for it, daaru. Because, in addition to being the state with the highest level of literacy and the highest female-to-male ratio, your lovely Kerala has the highest per capita consumption of alcohol and the highest suicide rate. (Much education. Such frustration)

You hoard all the goodies that spell homecoming from mini thattukadas (literally means shelf shops), where sweet little ammachis sell palappam and kadala curry for ₹15. And visit the kallushaapus (bars) where you find the world’s spiciest beef and kappa. And since Kerala doesn’t do khau gallis (eating on roads is a social faux pas), every third shop is a bakery from where you can buy enough marble cake, banana chips, and halva to last you a year, which inevitably lasts you three whole days.

Somewhere amid stacks of Archie’s Double Digests, ancient college degrees, sepia-toned photo albums filled with people sporting bell-bottoms, and your ammachi regaling you with stories of your dad being the neighbourhood terror, you reconnect with your roots. Nostalgia is a real threat when you’re essentially living in your parent’s childhood home.

You try squeezing a year’s worth of relative visits, food, photography, and familial love into 15 days. In the end, you cry when you leave home. And however reluctantly you’d left Mumbai, with a feeling that you’re sojourning to an uncivilised non-Hindi speaking Malayali land, dreading the upcoming 24-hour journey of sheer torture of the gluteus maximus, you return feeling like you’ve left some part of your soul behind. Because that’s where your people are, in all their accented, lungi-wearing, coconut-eating, “Gelf-going” glory. And whether you come back by plane or train, Kerala will always be there to welcome you home.