Granny tales at Kottakkal

My earliest memories of my Ammamma (maternal grandmother ) is that of cuddling by her side in the darkness pleading for a story. She tells me that I never tired of hearing about Prahlada. Another memory is of a long winding rhyme about a fly who goes around asking different creatures if they knew what its name was. On each visit to a different creature the list of the previously visited animals have to be recited in the correct order before the question is asked. Finally at its last stop , upon being told of its name as “eecha eecha ponneechha”- the fly is so delighted that it laughs to death! But of course the rhyme story does not sound gruesome at all when recounted.

We used to live in Bombay then and I would wait eagerly for our vacation trip to Kottakkal to my grandparents home. Ammamma would’ve kept ready the blouse and munduensemble for me to wear when accompanying my appachhan to the temple nearby.

Vacation also included the not so pleasant task of learning the Malayalam script. Schooling in Bombay meant no Malayalam in academics. However it was this routine inculcated by amma’s and ammamma’s insistence that helped me learn to read and write in Malayalam for which I’m immensely grateful today. (And today, we grandchildren faithfully ensure that our children also learn the Malayalam script during the vacations much to the latters’ chagrin.)
Afternoons were not meant to be slept away and it was time for sewing, hand embroidery. Reading was another habit which was gently enforced but that was a delight anyway.

The tri-sandhya neram – twilight hour would be ushered in by – ‘naamam chellal’ -the loud chanting of shlokas by us grandchildren sitting crosslegged in front of the ‘vilakku’- lamp in the puja room. The then youngest would also lisp along the complicated Sanskrit words enthusiastically. Ammamma made me learn a couple of chapters of the “Narayaneeyam” and the “Mookambika sthothram” . She would ask me to write the shlokas down along with the meaning and then chant it until I had it by heart.

Ammamma would write to me in English in the beginning until I learnt to write in Malayalam. Those days of no internet , email and even limited phone access, amma saw to it that I kept in touch with my grandparents and cousins by making me write letters to them.

When I joined college in Kerala, it was to my grandparents’ house that I came down from hostel. Ammamma used to be very protective and took care of all my needs. She would share her life experiences and taught me many things about life and people. She would talk about books, authors, poets. She had met many famous people in her time and she would share snippets from those memories. She maintains that Humility is the most important quality that one should posess. She often reminds us that Vidya- Education should beget Vinayam- Humility.

One of her morning routines included churning buttermilk in a brass ‘kutam’- a pot shining like gold. It was a pleasure to sit by her listening to her sing softly about the exploits of baby Krishna as she churned the buttermilk. She taught me to churn as well in the traditional way.

She tells me that one recurring memory she has of me is that of me as a baby crying out piteously for her from my mother’s arms as the train chugged out of the Tirur railway station when we were returning to Bombay after one vacation.Some bitter experiences have made her cynical in some aspects and she tends to be skeptical of new fangled modern ways. She can be quite acerbic in her reprimands.

Ammamma has been a very strong influence in our lives . She is well read and keeps abreast of current affairs and has a strong opinion on everything and does not hesitate to express it. She takes good care of her health and follows a disciplined routine. People who know her come to her seeking advice and Blessings. She gets invited to grace and speak at functions in our village. She commands a lot of respect from everybody around her. She does have a somewhat strict countenance which makes some people a little wary about approaching her. However once the ice is broken they realize that it is just a veneer.

After I got married and set up my home she has come to stay with me to help me out many times . First time was when I went back with my first born . The last time she stayed with me for an extended period was in ’98. I remember how desolate I felt after she left that time. Nowadays, she doesn’t travel too far due to health issues. I cherish the bond that I feel with her. I feel warm when people remark about how I resemble her in my looks.

( At this point, I stop trying to recollect about my ammamma and impulsively pick up the phone to speak to her. Her voice at the other end gives me a sense of warm reassurance).

Nirmala Varrier

An avid blogger who was a “Gulf Kid” herself. Now based in Trichy, she works for The Hindu Newspaper as a Resource Person in their Newspaper In Education Programme. Read more of her writing on