Rediscovering Kanji

This essay was first published in The Whineyard.

Amma realised I was big enough to take care of myself when I mastered the skill of inserting the key in the lock and opening the main door. Then she realised I was capable of feeding myself on a day she had morning duty and Papa was away for work.

Normally at 3 o’clock, when my brother and I came back from school, flung our uniforms in the laundry, washed our hands, feet and face in that order and plopped down on our sofa, there’d be food waiting on the dining table. Rice, a curry and a vegetable thoran or olath kootan.

But that day, Amma had been late, so she boiled rice and hurried off for her shift at the hospital and Papa couldn’t make it back in time for lunch. So as usual, we opened the door, let ourselves in, flung our uniforms in the laundry, washed up and plopped down on our sofa but found no food waiting on the table.

In the kitchen instead, there was a pressure cooker on the slab, unopened and warm to the touch. Amma had taught us how to lift the lid off the cooker, but at that moment we somehow couldn’t conjure up that memory, so we called her at work to ask, but she was unavailable. We did the next best thing – we opened the cooker, just let the lid go. It fell inwards on the rice and left an opening just enough to put a spoon in and scoop up the rice along with the water. We had kanji (rice gruel) that day, with some curd from the fridge and a little pickle from our last visit to Kerala.

Later in the day when Amma returned our call, she guffawed into the telephone and said she was proud of us.

Kanji then went from being a yearly visitor who dropped in to say hi on Good Friday to a fortnightly visitor. Papa would fry sausages and pappadam to accompany it. We loved ourselves some curd and pickles too. Amma said we were poshfying it, that we should really be eating it with buttermilk and a pachamulak, the way we take it, if at all we took it while in Kerala. But no one insisted, instead grandma and the aunts often made idli, dosas or puttu for us and had kanji themselves.

On Good Fridays, most of the men bunked mass to go help make kanji and cherupayar thoran in the back kitchen of the parsonage. They made them in huge vessels that had to be carried by multiple people. The women on the other hand, kneeled and stood and sang ( even wept over the crucified Christ) in the church. Some claimed they weren’t actually crying but was tearing up from all the smoke from burning incense in the censer.

Even before mass completely ended, a long line would form in front of the food counter. The servers were often very generous with the kanji, payar and pickle, but with pappadam, not so much. Finding a place to sit, or even a flat surface to keep the heavy Styrofoam plates was the Good Friday miracle.

The longest I have gone without kanji was during my two-year stint at a boarding school in Dalhousie, where even rice was different; it was basmati and not the palakkadan matta with a thin brown line on it. As for the hostel in college, we had an option between kanji and lemon rice once a week. But it never really was an option. By the time my friends and I made it to the dining room, there was always only lemon rice left. We’d still peek in the kanji bowl just in case, only to find some kanjivellam on the bottom.

It’s been nearly three months, and many things happened over the lockdown. My great grandfather and granduncle passed away both, less than forty days apart due to old age and illness, the house was repainted, my cousin’s board exam results came but guess what the most profound of it all was? Re-discovering kanji!

It happened very unceremoniously. I woke up one day with a stuffy nose and mild headache. Grandma gave me warm kanji with kadala curry for breakfast and there I was, suddenly realising what I had missed. I ate the whole bowl and went for another, and another.

A few days later, when I was curled in a ball crying from period cramps and the unglamourous throwing up, grandma once again appeared with a bowl of kanji. First, she gave me a few teaspoons to see if I would be able to keep it down. When it worked, she gave me some more and tucked me in to sleep. Kanji did what Brufen couldn’t. (I’m sorry Brufen)

Since then, every once in a few days I had kanji, first with my grandmother, then with my cousins when they came to stay. I like to pour curry and the thoran into my kanji while everyone else likes their kanji and thoran in different bowls and with generous helpings of pickle.

Before this re-discovery though, kanjivellam had re-entered our lives. Did you know kanjivellam is good for the hair? When my cousin complained of hair fall, Grandma every once in a few days would sit us down and pour a day’s old kanjivellam on our head, massage it in and then send us off to shower.

On other occasions, she would bring a large mug with fresh warm kanjivellam (with salt to taste) and pass it around, insisting that we finish it all, every drop affirming it was the energy drink we needed.

Maybe it is. Maybe it is some kanji and kanjivellam you need to get through this lockdown.

Now as I write this, my grandfather is sitting across me, a spoon in his right hand, a pachamulaku in his left and a bowl of kanji mixed with moru in front of him and I’m too tempted. I think I’ll go have some. You do, too. Have some kanji!

(Featured photograph by @_november_rose on Instagram.)


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