Memories and Musings

My memories which have remained with me over so many years, coloured with my thoughts, and tempered by my experiences.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

NIGHTS BEFORE LIGHTS...... life without power

The other day one of my children asked me whether I remembered those days when there was no electricity in our day-to-day life. Yes I do! I do remember this child of mine at the age of two trying to catch her own shadow thrown on the wall by the chimney lamp placed on the floor next to the main room of her grandfather’s house. How she laughed and shouted at the way the shadow too moved along with her!!

Today’s youngsters must be wondering what kind of life we had at that time without electricity. No TV. No music system. No lights. No fan. No air-conditioner, etc, etc. We did not miss those things because they were not there; we had no knowledge of such things. Instead, we had brighter moonlight and nights well starlit. How we enjoyed those games we played in the moonlight on certain nights. Games like “Light and Shadow”, “Corner to Corner” etc.

There were different types of lights and lamps to wave away the darkness: the hurricane and the tall chimney, the short chimney and the round chimney. Lamps all working on kerosene oil. There were also different types of brass lamps, like nila vilakku, kuthu vilakku, kai vilakku, etc which were lit by wicks soaked in oil.

When the sun set and dusk fell, in every household these lamps were lit and placed at the front verandah and the backdoor. The kuthu vilakku was placed in the main room, facing either east or west and little children joined by elders said prayers here every evening. Schoolgoing children too learnt their lessons by the light of this vilakku.

This was all before my schooldays, I cannot recall those early days of my life when there was no electricity at home; I remember we got an electric connection when I was five or six years old, when we were living at the house rented from Shankara Pillai.

A scene I remember vividly is from the days I spent with Manni’s mother in Karamanai, where there was no electricity. It was how the streetlights were lit every evening, exactly at the same time. The men to whom this job was given appeared – each decked with a ladder on his shoulder, a can of oil, a duster round his neck and of course a match box – at the street corner, placed the ladder against the lamp-post, climbed to the top, opened the glass-cased lamp, dusted the glass panes with duster, filled the lamp with oil, lighted it , got down, went to the next lamp-post, did the same thing…and went on doing it till all the lamps in the street were lit. This work was done at the same time in all the streets.

School-going children and even college students used to learn their lessons under these street lights. Word has it that one of these street-lamp lighters, Ramaiyan, later on in life became a “dallavai” (army chief) to the Maharaja of Travancore.

As the evening progressed, for entertainment, children huddled around their grandparents to listen to stories, both real and fiction. Stories about Sri Rama, Sri Krishna, tales about ghosts, spirits etc. There was so much interaction among members of the family, it made family ties stronger.

In today’s world, almost in every house there are at least two bathrooms, sometimes even more, with an attached bathroom to every bedroom, with running hot and cold water. Kitchens are equipped with a sink with running water. Every household has a fridge, air-conditioner, and washing machine. But can you imagine how in those days people managed without them.

Those days, no electricity meant no running water. So it was heavy work for everybody, whether cooking or washing clothes. And not every household had servants to help them with these tasks. People, both men and women, went to the river to have their daily bath and wash clothes. Even children used to wash their own clothes. If there was no river nearby, people used the temple tank to bathe and wash clothes. The water in the rivers as well as the temple tanks was unpolluted, cool, clean and clear.

In the late 40s when I used to go to Babuji’s home in Trichur, Annaji and Kunjappa used to take Raji and Bala with them to have their daily bath in the temple tank, which was 10-15 minutes’ walk away.

Every house, whether rich or poor, had a well, some even had two or three, depending on the size of the house plot. All one had to do was draw water from the well the help of a pulley, a long, thick rope and a bucket. Little children and menfolk, those who did not like to bathe either in rivers or temple tanks had their baths by the side of the well, in open air.

There would also be built-in, by the side of the well, a granite stone which would be used for scrubbing clothes. Even pots and pans were washed by the well-side so that one did not have to carry water anywhere else. Of course, for cooking water was carried into the kitchen, in brass or copper pots, called “kodams”. Every household had at least two or three of these.

No household in small towns or villages or agraharams had a pucca bathroom. I am talking of pre-1940 days. For women who wanted privacy for their baths, a portion of a verandah at the back of the house or a small square place in the backyard, was covered by thatched screens, that too only shoulder high, and were called bathrooms!

We had pucca bathrooms in our house in Trivandrum. But when I went to Trichur, to my in-laws’ place after marriage, there was neither electricity nor a pucca bathroom. I managed with the makeshift bathroom in the back verandah for I did not have the guts to complain. And I also knew it was only for a week or so till I left for Delhi.

When I went to Trichur, Ammaji told me the story of another bride who came from Trivandrum to Trichur. This girl’s in-laws’ house did not have a pucca bathroom. She raised such a hue and cry about it that her in-laws had to build one in the shortest time ever. This girl was a schoolmate of mine and the daughter of a colleague of Thatha. Maybe that is why Ammaji told me the story.

The other day I watched a commercial on TV in which the wife tells her husband that she will have her bath only when her bathroom is fitted with a particular brand of geyser. How priorities change!

In the kitchen front also, life without electricity was tough. Since there were no refrigerators, meals had to be cooked three times daily. That meant womenfolk spent most of the day inside the kitchen, cooking the 10 o’clock lunch, the 3 o’clock tiffin and the 8 o’clock dinner. Even in Delhi in the late 1940s, not every household had a fridge, it was a rare thing. Often I had to cook three meals each day, especially in the high summer when we had guests living with us.

Without mixies, all the grinding had to be done on stone, the ami-kozhavi for crushing masala and coconuts for curries and the attukal for making batter for dosai etc. Grinding the masala was not very hard but it took somewhere between one-and-a-half and two hours to make dosai batter, especially for a large family. It was really a grinding experience till wet grinders and mixies started appearing in the 1970s and 1980s.

But it wasn’t all drudgery. The joint family system of those days made life much easier for the womenfolk in the sense that every kind of work was shared equally. Being together in the kitchen meant enjoying each other’s company, talking, telling stories, gossiping, and sometimes, even fighting.

Today’s youngsters will be wondering how people lived without these modern amenities. But people of those times were very simple-minded. They were easygoing in the sense they accepted their place in life, not greedy and not wanting what they couldn’t afford, so living at a leisurely pace and enjoying life to the full. It was a hard life but a happy one.


Friday, January 04, 2008


Last November my children, grandchildren came from far and near to celebrate my 80th birthday. We all had a wonderful week together, shopping, sight-seeing, visiting friends, watching movies in the theatre, eating out… everybody enjoying each other’s company. We also made a day trip to Agra, a first time to the Taj Mahal for many, the youngest and the oldest among them. I felt great to see the children in this festive mood. Everyone left for their homes back with a peaceful and joyous feeling, having spent precious and quality time with each other.

The birthday girl received far too many gifts, not only from my children and other relations, but also from friends -- of all my children and my own -- at a get-together on the 27th night. But the gift that really tickled me and made me cry and laugh at the same time was a JANTA stove, from my children. It was handed to me with the words, “Can you guess what this is? This was your birthday gift every year from 1965 to 1970. This is to remind you of those days, in case you have forgotten.”

How can one forget those days, when as a housewife I spent the better part of the day in the kitchen, cooking not just two meals for the family, but also preparing dosai, adai, paranthas, pooris etc for tiffin every evening. (This was the main meal for the school-going children and also for the man of the house; breakfast and dinner were not so important for them.) It was with the help of this stove I had prepared delicacies like mysorepak, laddoos, carrot halwa and different types of payasams and also savouries like mixture, ribbon pakodam etc.
And the JANTA stove wasn’t just for cooking…in those pre-geyser days, it was the JANTA stove which heated the water for our daily bath during winters, for the entire family, starting with myself at 5am (in those days you entered the kitchen for cooking only after having a bath!) and then the school-goers.

With such a heavy workload, the life of a JANTA stove was only a year or so. So every year, it had to be replaced. And the day it was replaced every year was the day it was my birthday. The JANTA stove cost only Rs 8 in those days but those were the days when I really struggled to make both ends meet within the household money and a new stove each year was a much welcomed gift.

(In those days, we used to wait for one’s birthday to give as a gift whatever that person needed most. Like, Bala, in his IIT hostel days, used to get a sleeping suit every year on his birthday, and Raji a much-needed sari. For me, it was the JANTA stove.)

Looking at the stove, my little great-granddaughter Arundati might have wondered how I managed to cook on it, given all the modern gadgets in today’s kitchens. But to me, the kerosene stove was a blessing.

I learnt cooking from my mother, whose medium of cooking was wood. If one got the firewood burning bright and good, cooking could be finished without too much of a strain. Otherwise it took a lot of breath – one had to keep blowing into the fire to keep it going – and tears (due to smoke) to finish the cooking. And that too, in twice the time it takes to cook with gas. It was really tough during the rainy seasons, remember, Kerala has two heavy rainy seasons each year.

The firewood was brought to one’s doorsteps by the viraku karan in cartloads; big heavy chunks of trees cut down in the forest, and sold to the regular housewives every month. I still remember the way my mother used to cut the cost of the firewood by haggling and bringing it down to half of the original required amount. It was an art and my mother, like all housewives, was good at that. It was always, and still is, a struggle for the housewife to make both ends meet.

Every cartload of firewood was followed by a woodcutter, the viraku vettakaran, along with his axe, ready to cut the big chunks of wood into the required size and also to stack them inside the woodshed. Another bout of bargaining would follow and by the end of the day, every bit of firewood, big and small, was inside the shed. The woodcutter also was happy for he got, along with his money, ample supply of sambaram and pickles.

If there were coconut trees in the house compound, the dry fronds (leaves and stalks) were also used as firewood, particularly to heat water for one’s bath. In every household, near the bathroom, there was a separate place where water could be heated this way.

When I came to Delhi (after getting married, in 1945) I was surprised to find that in Delhi people cooked with pathar koila (coal) in angeethis. The pathar koila came in big hunks, each one as big as a pumpkin but as hard as rock. It had to be broken to pieces with a hammer. It was a tough task and within a fortnight of coming to Delhi my palms started getting callused. So the paniwallah was given extra money to break the koila, which he used to conveniently forget once every three-four days. (In those days, the persons who cleaned the pots and pans and also the rooms, were called the paniwallahs. They never touched leather and if there were shoes or chappals lying around, they would sweep and mop all around it, never lifted it or moved it).

To get the koila angeethi going, the lakadi koila had to be place inside first. Then the pathar koila was stacked strategically so that air could pass through and get the coal burning. Rolls of paper were kept on the lower half of the angeethi and a matchbox always handy so that in the morning, when the housewife got up, she could get the angeethi going first thing. It wasn’t an easy task, it could take anything up to 15 minutes.

The JANTA stove, with its flame burning on wicks dipped in kerosene, was a huge improvement on that. It made life in the kitchen so much easier.
In the early 60s, cooking gas was introduced and this was an even greater boon for the housewife. But, at the same time, the supply of these gas cylinders was always limited. It took two-three days for the replacement cylinder to come, sometimes even a week. The JANTA stove was a good stand-by then. When there were extra people and guests at home, it was this same old JANTA stove that stood by me to prepare those extra dishes. It never let me down and I always considered it my best ally in the kitchen. How can one forget such an ally?

So when I held that stove in my hands on my birthday I laughed at seeing an old friend once more and cried because I missed those days and some members of my family who are no more.

On the whole, I consider myself blessed for my children are loving and affectionate, care for me and care for each other. What more does one want!

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