The Appalam Pounder’s Daughter

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

A simple grocery list …

This article was published in The Hindu dated 6th May 2017. (The illustration for the published article was done by a cartoonist whose work I have admired for decades, Mr Keshav)

I doubt my mother-in-law would accept the job of creating logical puzzles for the toughest segment of the GMAT. She’d scoff and probably laugh. I’d say she doesn’t know her talents enough. The trick is to get her to talk and just stand by and listen. Then, off you go and replay the conversation and Voila! Riddles galore for all.

Take a task of making grocery lists:

“I am going to the store, what do you want?” The husband says as he sets out to get some milk.
“Right…there is no milk. Curd? … but we have curd. So, no need for curd okay?” she says.
“Okay….milk:yes, curd: no. Got it.” And he tries to grab the keys while the going is simple, but no luck there. She hollers from the kitchen again.

“Vegetables….get some radish pa. No raddishes at all at home, buy tomatoes also. No need for onions – I think there are 6 or 7 left.”
Another step grocery-store bound and she pipes, “Also, get pumpkins. Long since I made avial.”
“Okay…” Now, he really wants to dash out the door to sort out this list in his head, but she isn’t done yet. She has gone to peek into the refrigerator. An act that never bodes well for grocery lists’ health or refrigerators for that matter. Ever.

She exclaims loudly from the geographical location of the refrigerator.
“Ayyo….definitely, need spinach too. Poor child has not had spinach in a long time. Appppaaa….definitely no chillies. There is no much here.”

The mind in the meanwhile, is buzzing: Milk:yes, curd : no, radish: yes, onion: no, tomato: yes

“Get some coriander also….rasam just doesn’t taste the same without some fresh coriander.”
“Oh….I said to buy pumpkins for avial right? Hmm…” and she switches off mid-way through the sentence. Almost like somebody hit the snooze button on her.
“Hellloooo….some one is trying to leave the door to buy groceries. Anything else?”
To which, she gets irritated. “Oh…..stop hurrying me so. I am trying to think whether I should buy a fresh pack of curry leaves or just use the dried ones.”
“Does it matter…just ask him to get it.” pipes in the father-in-law who has been pottering about acting as though he couldn’t hear a thing.

Now…remember how one talks about hitting the raw vein? Apparently, this statement hit one of hers. “Look at him talking as though he doesn’t care whether the curry leaves are dried or not? When I do make the avial with dried leaves…he will say, his sister uses fresh curry leaves when she makes avial.”
“So what? I only say that my sister uses fresh curry leaves in avial!”
“And…what does that mean? That her avial is good.”
“Of course, her avial is good!”
“And what about mine? When I do use fresh curry leaves…not a thing! When I use the dried ones, you have to talk about your sister! So now, I have to remember all the previous avial attempts and collect all his previous comments and sort out the ones he likes and the types he doesn’t and figure out on my own what he likes. Why can’t he say something simple?”

The human mind I tell you. It just doesn’t reflect on its own grocery lists.

The husband, in the meanwhile, just closed the door and settled down on the couch. Long association has told us that the avial topic is a lengthy one. He has turned on his laptop and is cackling at some you-tube video now. A trifle tactless if you ask me. When the avial topic reaches the consistency factor, it is time for all birds flying above our homes to evacuate and change flight direction immediately; not sit down on neighbouring trees and laugh like hyenas at you-tube videos.

If anything irks her more than the sisters-avial-loving-husband topic, it is the sight of the son evidently enjoying something when the grocery needs to be done.

She gathers her wits about her and says, “Oh fine….just get any vegetable. I will sort out what I want to make later.”

A loud sigh later, he leaves. She hears the ignition and charges to the door. “Kondhai! (Child!) I also need toor dal. Don’t get 4 lbs – 2 lbs will do ”
“And moong yellow 1 pound.”

The husband leaves as fast as his accelerator allows him to; before something else is thrown at him. He stands there at the grocers looking confused like a puppy that just lost its way.
Milk:yes, curd: no, radish: yes, onions: yes or no? whatever. Better get some. tomatoes: definitely no, chillies: definitely yes ….coriander?
What about fruits?
And the dhals?

The man has always been credited with thinking on his feet and he places an emergency call from the store. A joke is made about how he has to call from the store every time and the instructions are repeated in pretty much the same order without the avial-curryleaf detour finishing up with the loving note, “Just get any vegetable! It is fine!”

The man comes back looking like he physically hauled a dump-truck across the continent and dumps the produce on the counter. His mother hands him a cup of coffee – you know brace his soul for what is coming.

The man sips contentedly when she asks, “Did you not get beans?”
“NO…you didn’t ask for any!”
“Yes…but I said ‘Get anything!’ I’d have thought that includes beans..”

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