This article has been published in Open Page of The Hindu.
An Aunt was visiting, and her nieces had all gathered around. Lunch was in progress, and though some of the dishes had not turned out quite as expected, they were well appreciated by the folks at the table. Crisp, creamy white lentil snacks called appalams or papads, were passed around with aplomb, and I got approving nods for frying them.
The husband had been jesting around the aunt that he had last eaten fried appalams about a year ago. The aunt gave me a distinctly doleful look. How could the niece she loved so much have denied her loving son-in-law appalam for this long?
We sat around a distinctly large meal with the fried appalams being passed around, and I looked on amused at the satisfied smiles on the faces of all around. “Any meal becomes special with fried appalams!” my father used to say whenever he spotted them gracing the table. He truly became a child beaming happily while breaking them off with a joy that is quite disproportionate to the humble appalams.
I said as much to my aunt, the pater’s sister, and she chuckled happily. “Yes, appalams were your father’s favorite. Three days every month was dedicated to making appalams“, said she, and I sat back to enjoy the nostalgic look that lit her eyes.
We sat enthralled as she narrated the story of how her mother, Visalam Paati, would roast the dhals and set them out to dry. My grandmother’s life has always fascinated me, A mother to 9 children, that generation was responsible for the burgeoning population we have on Earth today thanks to rising health and lack of birth control.
Feeding and raising such a large family must have been a herculean task, but Visalam paati seemed to have been a competent taskmaster, planner, forecaster, chef and mother. As the appalam making tale unfolded, it was evident that those three days were filled with important buzz. Everyone had work to do, and everyone’s task was equally important:
- The younger ones had to shoo away the birds while the lentils dried in the sun. #AppalamMinders
- The older boys would have to pummel and cudgel the dried lentils with an iron cudgel. “No grinders, and mixies or any machines in those days, remember?”, my aunt said. #AppalamPounders
- The older girls would then have to take the powdered lentils, mix them to cookie dough consistency and roll them out into neat little circles before setting them out to dry again. #AppalamRollers
- The younger ones took up their sentry watch to shoo away the birds while the appalams dried in the sun again. #AppalamMinders
“One time, my mother was alarmed to see the appalam dough below spotted with blood and looked up to see that while pummeling, your father had accidentally hit himself on the forehead with the pummel a few times and his forehead had started to bleed. Poor fellow. That month, we had a little less appalam stock because we had to throw out that batch, but your father got his full share because he liked appalam so much, and of course he played the sympathy factor the whole month!” she said and giggled.
Three days a month set aside for appalam making, so that the children may enjoy fried snacks every once in a while seemed to be a lot of planning and processing, Obviously, fried appalams held a special appeal in the hearts of the children. Each one felt they had contributed to the process, and the satisfying crunch must have had a special meaning.
Going to the supermarket and picking up a packet of papads or appalams has become so blasé a task, that I rarely stopped to think about how it was prior to mechanization and automation.
“Automation has changed so many things hasn’t it?” said one voice, and we all piped in. The topic of automation took us for a bumpy ride down the river of time. While automation has helped feed and clothe the billions of us, it has not really helped the global climate very much. Mass production and capitalism have also blurred the lines between needs and wants.
It was a lot to process. Sometimes, in our rush to simplify things, we do rather complicate them don’t we? I loved the mental image of appalam making in a small village house in South India. When was the last time, the whole family pitched in on one activity together that contributed towards something meaningful? Maybe when we painted the rooms a couple of years ago.
Probably that is why the Little House in the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder remains a much loved American classic. It talks of a time when every body helped each other in order to live.
I read the book recently, and found myself ardently wishing I could sit with the deer in the prairie even if certain wolf-heavy nights were scary. A simple tale of building a log cabin in the middle of the priarie is a marvelous read, and I am grateful for the fact that I read it as an adult.
“I am beginning to learn that it is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all.” – Laura Ingalls Wilder