View from my kitchen window, while writing the post, 2015.
View from my kitchen window, while still writing the post, 2016.
January 19, 2017
This gave me an odd sense of calm today. Nature flaunting time being cyclic, take it or not.
I was inspired to write this post nearly 2 years ago. It started with this picture of me, below. It took me a good 6 months to give the idea some form. Following that, I was unable to find the words to go with it, for nearly a year, and I highly doubt I've found them now.
A lot has happened over this time. And then I look out of the window, and it seems like nothing has?
Like my father says, photos are sometimes the greatest souvenirs. I have absolutely no memory of the making of the photo itself, like most childhood photos– but the large carved flourishes, the rustic, aged chakra ornaments, that violet pattu langa offsetting the turmeric-painted frame, the personally-iconic kid-sized jewelry, which, God knows why I was wearing, as a composition, as tokens, are deeply, photographically etched in my memory.
This image of the incredible structure that my father called home, long gone, is what set me off thinking. Even as I brood a tiny bit for having no tangible access to the heritage it represents, I feel the desire to materialise the figment, however small and intangible my digital notes really are.
Paanakam. A special preparation of sugarcane syrup, known to me from our family's sugarcane fields. The taste of Paanakam is the only taste in the world that singularly leads me to one and only one memory. A sharp, emotive response like no other. Visiting Geddanapalli.
Visiting Geddanapalli, my father's village, in my childhood was the polar opposite experience of my reality: an urban life moving between cities every 3-4 years. On the other hand, Geddanapalli stood for roots. A village full of Panthams that was family, relations and relationships extending far beyond what my little mind could process. The enormous house bustling with our large joint family, a radiant sunlight/rain water catchment in the center of the house, a gigantic open kitchen shed at the back of the house, with the family cows and chickens hanging about.
Upon arriving in Gedanapalli, my sister and I would be fed idlis with paanakam by my Aunt. We were too young for spicy chutneys, so it was all about the sweet things. Nowhere else have I ever had paanakam. The ritual rewards the memory with such specificity, no parallel comes to mind.
It is only over the last couple of years of feeling a little lost along my way of living away from home, that the memory of paanakam returned. We visited Geddanapalli this past trip. And after much coaxing, my father took us to the family fields to see how it was produced.
Upon a wide, hot and roaring cauldron, sugarcane juice is stirred constantly and continuously. With every thickening stir, residue is removed with a giant ladle, until a glowing, golden lava-like syrup is achieved, that is only known by the craft of the process.
After all these years, it was wonderful to see the source of this artefact that enrobed our food in such rich memories.
There’s more indulgence in the story. The coal furnace in the open kitchen. The cooks would throw in a sweet potato for me and pull it out, roasted, smokey and black. Making sure it wasn't too hot for me, my older cousin brother would help me gently pull away the crusty black skin, fumes wafting out and making way to reveal its soft tender orange inners. Then, I would run off with my prize and enjoy it on my own.
Ironically, I hardly eat sweet potatoes with such fervour as I did in Geddanapalli– a real treat. As I looked at this picture, it was as if I’d turned a secret key all of a sudden and remembered the most pristine details that simply refuse to be muddled or mixed up with other memories. I wanted to pay homage to this precious moment of lovingly being handed a fresh roasted sweet potato, my little hands cupping it and enjoying the sight of the steamy orange inners and what they held for me.
I don’t know if I’ve ever wanted to recreate a moment with such rigor ever, as impossible as it seemed. I looked everywhere to recreate “discovering the precious steamy orange inside”. What did that even mean? I tried black crusty pies, black sesame dumplings and all kinds of other experiments in pursuit of this embedded little secret, only to reveal its moment of colour. Finally, I managed to make something. Crepes made of black rice. Hiding tender sweet potato medallions, akin to the ornaments on the door, caramelized the way the mother would do it, with paanakam. Finally, I thought I managed to realise my vision.
This was such a charged exercise for me. At once personal, but also automatically an extension of my work as a maker. Frankly, I'm not even sure how to tread this line, but that's for another day.
For now, I'd managed to create this. After the great achievement it felt like, one afternoon, on a call with my mother, the subjects of sweet potatoes came up. I don’t quite remember the context, but somewhere down the line, I could hear my mother correcting me gingerly, “…We don’t get those sweet potatoes here, amma. Indian sweet potatoes are white in color, have you forgotten?”
For being the nostalgic being and priding myself on my memory, everything filed and saved in the right cabinet and right shelf in my mind, this time, I smiled to myself like I'd smile at a fool.