Last night, Shirin, the protagonist of Monsoon Memories appeared in my dream- ‘Not long to go now,’ she said, ‘What are you doing to celebrate the launch? Are you having a feast?’ And instantly I was transported to the feast days of my childhood- the air smelling of caramelised sugar and candy floss; the sun reflecting off the gold adorning people decked in all their finery so they looked as if they were on fire; the Ferris wheel creaking; children screaming, their open mouthed laughter rending the air; old people hunched in conspiratorial groups, gossiping; the church yard transformed into a fairground…
Every February, the church I attended as a child held a celebration, called, in Konkani ‘Vodlen Fest’- ‘Big Feast’ to commemorate the Mother of Miracles for whom the church was named. The best part of the feast and what made it so special was that the church compound became a fairground! There was a carousel and a merry-go-round. There were vendors selling all kinds of sweets-sugar coated peanuts, translucent red halwa, syrupy jalebis, sunny yellow laddoos.
Preparations for the feast would commence weeks in advance. My grandmother would start fattening chickens, stocking up on pork. She would soak the rice and lentils for the sannas and spend half a day grating coconuts. I would try to pinch some and receive a smack on my hand for my efforts. ‘Not the coconut, I need it all,’ my grandmother would sigh, exasperated, but then slip me some jaggery(flaky golden blocks tasting of custard) instead.
She spent the day before the feast grinding the rice and lentils in the pestle and mortar, beads of sweat running down her hair and collecting in the folds of her sari. That evening she would put the ground mixture into a big aluminium pot. Then, she would use some of the mixture to draw the sign of the cross all around the pot. After this, she would wet a thin muslin cloth and pull it tight over the pot, and leave it in a warm place to ferment and rise overnight.
I once asked her, curious, ‘Why do you draw the sign of the cross on the pot?’
‘So Jesus will help the mixture to rise well and that will make soft sannas,’ she replied, her hands busy chopping onions, kneading dough, her mind elsewhere.
The sign of the cross always worked its magic. My grandmother’s sannas were the softest and tastiest in the entire village.
On the day of the feast we woke up nice and early, for once without our mum’s prompting. Our grandmother would be frying crispy dosas on the tava. She rubbed half an onion dipped in oil and speared with a stick all over the smoking hot tawa first and only then did she tip the rice flour in. She swore this was why her dosas were so crispy. She would have already made the chutney to go with the dosas, grinding coriander leaves, green chillies, ginger, onion, chillies and coconut in the mortar and pestle.
We would scoff breakfast, don our best clothes and make our way to the church, along with all the visiting relatives decked out in their finery, the women holding up their gold lined saris so they wouldn’t get stained with mud, their jewellery sparkling bright gold in the sun, their bangles clinking as they walked. On feast days, I never lagged behind, dragging my feet those last few yards to the church even knowing that the feast mass would be twice as long and the sermon excruciatingly boring. As we neared the church we heard all the sounds of the fair; the creaking of the carousel, the monotonous whirring of the Ferris wheel, the shouts of children, the loud festive and discordant music-hymns blaring from the church competing with the Hindi film songs from outside, the odd firecracker; and my heart felt fit to burst with excitement. My legs couldn’t carry me to the church fast enough, and I wanted to urge the relatives along. ‘Hurry Up,’ I wanted to yell, ‘Or we’ll miss something.’
As part of the celebrations, my mum gave my siblings and me money to buy Chocobars: vanilla ice creams with crispy chocolate coating. They cost twelve rupees each, a great deal of money in those days, but well worth it. Buying the ice creams which came wrapped in their own cardboard boxes, then taking that first lick transported me straight to heaven. This was when I most wanted to contradict the priests and nuns. Everybody, good or bad could go to heaven, I wanted to yell. All they had to do was eat Chocobar ice-cream!
There was only one rule that we had to follow. We had to attend mass first. Sitting in the stuffy church, squashed five to a bench which could seat three if pressed; the smell of perfume, talcum powder and sweat, the drone of the priest’s voice, the glare of the nuns if we so much as sneezed- all inducing nausea; the happy fairground sounds drifting in from outside; clutching our money and imagining all the things we could do with it, I likened to the purgatory the nuns were always going on about.
Finally the mass would end, and we would escape outside, in relief and excitement, the money in our pockets just asking to be spent, the Chocobar vans luring. Afterwards, our tummies full from all the sugary sweets and the Chocobar, we would amble back home. As we neared the house, I would smell the pork and the chicken and the Boti and despite being full just minutes ago, I would hurry up the hill knowing that another culinary spread waited. After a huge feast of a lunch, with my stomach so full I couldn’t move, I would snooze in the front room with the door open, the cool breeze ruffling the trees and the hibiscus plants and caressing my face, the snores of the relatives all packed in mats in the little room keeping me company.
I woke up hungry, my nose assaulted by the aromas of sugared sweets, spicy pork and sannas; my stomach rumbling; my skin aching to be warmed by tropical sun, kissed by the cashew scented breeze. Shirin whispered in my ear, ‘But that’s how I feel all the time, how I have lived for eleven years.’ ‘You are a character in my book, why are you here?’ I asked. ‘I will be everywhere soon, not just in your head,’ she replied, ‘Are you keeping your fingers crossed? I came to wish you good luck.’
Come 21st of June, you will meet her: Shirin who longs for home and Reena who fancies herself detective and a whole host of other characters too. Do buy the book, lose yourself in it and let me know what you think. I look forward to your feedback. If you liked Monsoon Memories, or if you didn’t, or even if you just weren’t sure what to make of it, do shout about it on Amazon, tell the world. Thank you.