Walking down market street for Pongal


It’s been raining non-stop for the last week. The streets are wet, and water puddles gently splash around people’s footwear.

My friend and I are walking down market street to shop for our harvest festival, Pongal, which will be celebrated on Sunday.

All shops on the street have makeshift stalls outside the main shop to cater to the many hundreds of people who will shop for this festival.

Tender plants of ginger and turmeric are neatly stacked in bunches of bright green, the yellow turmeric roots contrasting beautifully with the green of the leaves.

Fresh and green mango leaves are on sale. Beautiful sugarcane plants are stacked along the walls of most shops.

Most shops also sell pieces of sugarcane for those who want less.

The street is teeming with people, all looking for the perfect mud-pot or stainless steel pot to cook pongal in, on the day of the festival.

Bright colours everywhere – red apples and pomegranates, yellow bananas, golden mangoes.

The flower stalls are doing brisk business, and the heavenly smell of jasmine is in the air. Beautifully threaded garlands hang neatly in every stall. Full coconuts and banana leaves await new customers.

The excitement is palpable. My friend and I get caught up too, as we soak in the spirit of this beautiful festival of harvest.

We offer a quick ‘thank you’ to all the farmers, who toil so hard to bring food to our homes.

Happy Pongal everyone!

The Vegetable Vendor


My husband’s parents live in a close-knit community of independent homes; where people have known each other for many decades.

The streets are always bustling with chit-chatting neighbours, children playing on the streets and vehicles weaving in and out. There always seems to be some excitement, amidst all this bustle.

Neighbourhood shops are a mere stone’s throw away, and one can pick up most anything from these self-contained shops that are tucked away all around the community.

What makes the atmosphere more vibrant are the street vendors, who have their regular ‘beat’ around the various streets.

Their calls, as they hawk their goods, are distinct. Each vendor arrives at a particular time – some on all days, some on alternate days, and some others on the weekends.

I am standing at the doorstep watching the goings-on in the street. The vegetable vendor arrives, parks his push cart outside our door, and calls out, “Tomatoes, beans, onions, potatoes…”.

The ladies saunter towards the cart, with their own bags. They carefully examine and pick and choose the veggies. The vendor’s eyes are hawk-like as he weighs, bargains, and closes multiple deals.

He throws in some coriander leaves, curry leaves and ginger for free, making every customer happy!

There is some personal banter – after all, he meets these people every day. Money and vegetables are exchanged. He takes a breather, someone brings him a cup of tea. He relishes it, while delicately balancing his cart.

I ask him if I can click a picture. He happily agrees. He smiles. His veggies look happy too!

He is on his way soon, to the next street on his beat.

Celebrating Pongal


Our home is usually bathed in sunlight in the afternoons, from 2 pm to around 6 pm. However, come January and we receive sunlight for longer, till about 7 pm in the evening. From January, the sun’s light is like molten gold, lighting up our home and raising our spirits.

Barely two weeks after we ring in the new year, it is time to celebrate the festival of ‘Pongal’. This festival is quite significant for many reasons.  The festival is also known by the name of Makar Sankranti, which signifies the day each year, on which the sun enters the zodiac of Capricorn, and transitions from the southern hemisphere to the northern hemisphere.

This is also the harvest festival in India, when farmers harvest rice and sugarcane, and people express their gratitude to the Sun, to farmers  and to cattle, who are all very important members in the value chain that brings food to every home.

In the Tamil language, the word Pongal, in addition to being the name of the festival, also refers to the name of a South Indian delicacy (both salt and sweet), and also refers to the act of milk ‘bubbling over’.

At home, just like we do every year, I mount two bronze pots on the gas stove; pots that were given to me by my mother, when I got married.

I tie baby turmeric and ginger plants around the neck of each pot. I decorate the pots with rice flour.

I decorate my foyer with a traditional rice kolam, making drawings of pots, sugarcane and the rangoli.

I get started with the cooking of both the sweet and salt varieties of Pongal. The smell of jaggery, ghee and milk waft around the kitchen.

When the milk starts boiling over, I call my husband and kids. We all shout, “Pongalo Pongal”. We wish each other and all our friends prosperity and happiness.

We sit down to a yummy breakfast, and wash it down with filter coffee. 
My children participate with gusto. Hopefully, they will remember the aroma of pongal and retain these memories, and carry forward our age-old traditions with their children.

Grandma’s home remedy


I am down with a cold, blocked nose, watery eyes and a gnawing headache.  I have to live with this one, I guess, medication or no medication. The power of my sneezes can definitely get some mechanical device going. They are so powerful that they shake me, and the chair I am sitting on.  I make myself some hot ‘rasam‘, an Indian soup that soothes the throat.

As I steam-inhale for the n-th time, my memories rush back to my childhood.  We grew up in a joint family, and when anyone was down with a cold or fever, my Grandma usually had a home remedy handy. The age-old wisdom was that the body had to fight off germs by itself, and you only went to a doctor if you did not recover in a week’s time.

The home remedy for the common cold was a drink called ‘kashaayam‘.  Colds being what they are, leave a family only after doing the rounds of all its members.  So when the season of sneezing and sniffing started in the family, my Grandma would start her preparations for ‘kashaayam‘.

Pepper, sugar candy, honey, ginger, cumin seeds and ‘tulsi’ leaves (holy basil leaves) are ground and boiled in hot water to prepare this decoction.  

The smells that wafted through the house when the ‘kashaayam‘ was being made were tantalizing enough.  But the dulling of the senses during a cold caused that illusion, I guess.

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Courtesy – http://www.anudinam.org

I remember the first time I had this brew.  I was actually looking forward to it as all the adults seemed to drink it, when they had colds.  I was given a small glass of the dark brown liquid and asked to sip it slowly and not to take in more than one sip at a time.

I took my first sip.  The assault on my senses was overpowering, the drink stung my throat and set my eyes, ears, nose and throat on fire.  I sputtered and coughed, but my Grandma insisted that I finish it, promising me all kinds of treats.  I took another tentative sip, this was not so bad as my whole body was, anyway, already on fire.  With watering eyes and stinging throat, I completed the ‘kashaayam‘.

After about an hour or so, I could feel my blocked nose clearing, and throat feeling better.  My Grandma came to inspect.

“You’re looking better”, she said. “Maybe another round of ‘kashaayam‘ should do the trick.  I remember how frantically I looked for places to hide. Anything to avoid that horrible concoction again.

Now however, I would give anything if someone sat me down and pampered me with this dark brew.