(‘Desh’ (meaning country) is how my mother-in-law refers to Kerala whenever she talks about her years of growing up there. I always tell her, “India is your country. Why are you referring Kerala as your country?” But she refuses to listen to me. She shifted to Gujarat when she got married almost 50 years ago. This piece first appeared in an anthology titled ‘People called Ahmedabad’. I am sharing this here as we celebrate Gujarat Day on May 1. This is about leaving home, finding home and also about love and longing)
(The Matriarch… )
More than fifty years ago, Sowbhagyabati Menon arrived in Ahmedabad from a small village in Kerala as a young bride. She started a whole new chapter of her life in this dusty city which is so very different from the lush green village of hers dotted with beautiful houses, swaying coconut trees and paddy fields. Today, she starts her day with a cup of tea and two Gujarati newspapers. And she loves her eclectic mixed neighborhood of Khanpur, in the walled city of Ahmedabad.
She looks back at her Gujarat journey with a sense of nostalgia and fondness. “It was my first train journey and everybody in my family thought that I was really going away too far. We all had heard of Ahmedabad only through news.The first house I stayed in Ahmedabad was on rent. It was a small house but I was surrounded by wonderful neighbors who wholeheartedly welcomed this young Malayali.”
Gujarati language sounded more or less like Greek or Latin to her. But she was hell-bent on learning the language. So, she sought the help of her neighbour’s school-going daughter. With a paper and pen, they moved around in the kitchen to note down the names of vegetables in Gujarati. Later on in the day whenever she found some free time, she diligently practiced on her own, saying it gently and slowly, “bataka (potato), dungri (onions).”
In Kerala, she was used to having boiled rice and in the initial days of her arrival here, she just couldn’t stand the smell of basmati rice in her friends’ houses. In the beginning, she stayed with her Gujarati friend for a couple of days. Her loving hosts were feeling miserable that their guest just refused to touch any of the Guajrati delicacies they offered to her. Then one day, her host friend went to a small south-Indian restaurant to pack a meal of masala dosa, idli, vada for her.Probably that South-Indian platter was more precious to her than any piece of gold jewellery she was wearing.
But she has come a long way since then. Today, she loves her share of thepla, methi gota, sukhdi, khichdi, poori-aam ras and undhiyu. In fact, her children and grand-children now especially ask her to make Gujarati khatti meethi dal and every Uttarayan, she gets up at 3 am in the night to prepare lip-smacking unidhiyu. From her kitchen now comes a regular spread of both Kerala and Gujarati cuisine.
She loves being in Ahmedabad which has given her a home, friends and beautiful memories to go back to. With a sense of love, she says, “Gujratis are nice,warm people. They are affable and made me feel at home from the beginning.”
So, what has she enjoyed the most about her life in Ahmedabad? She says, “I feel a sense of freedom in Ahmedabad. Here, I move around freely with my friends, have gone for late night movies. There is no restrictions on movement like I had in Kerala and I have enjoyed the freedom to explore life. My neighbours have taught me the art of saving money. They have taught me the art of compounding interest. So, that has definitely made my life better now.”
“I have also enjoyed celebrating festivals like Diwali, Uttarayan, Navratri and Bestu Varash (Gujarati New year). And yes, I was a true blood Malayali before, having my share of cooking in coconut oil. After more than four decades in Gujarat, I have lost my taste for coconut oil.”
Does she miss Kerala? “Oh, I miss Kerala’s magical monsoon. Even after so many years, Gujarat’s dry, arid long summer feels really tough. In these months, I long for Kerala’s rains. I also miss the fabulous celebrations of Onam in my village. Though I try to cook an elaborate sadhya on Onam but it just doesn’t feel the same.”
But then she trails, “Many of the people with whom I grew up in Kerala are gone now. The ancestral house of mine needs constant attention. Life in Ahmedabad feels much easier now. And did I mention about the uninterrupted power supply in Ahmedabad?”
Well, home is here only.