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Of Sweet-smelling Rain, Long Train Trips and a Yearning…

About Lekha Menon

A journalist for 16 years, Lekha Menon is the editor of a leading Bollywood and lifestyle magazine in the UAE. Prior to this, she was working with well known media houses like The Times of India and DNA in India.

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Prologue :

The last week at school was often the most torturous. Not that the early part of the fortnight was easy. In fact, every single day and night was a walking, talking living nightmare. One had to plod on before finally stepping into sunshine to breathe the wonderful, fragrant air of freedom. Goodbye horrible exams, boring school and awful teachers…hello vacations!

Part 1.

My school memories aren’t too pleasant. Despite being a topper, I couldn’t wait for the year to get over. And the last day – reached after burning the proverbial midnight oil and midday lamp – was the best. Why? Because it was the start of the holiday season! This meant two or three months of no books or lectures. Of course, there were some padaku (intellectual) types who would boast about joining dance or swimming classes, or making a beeline for tuitions to get into IIT 10 years later but thankfully, I faced no such pressure. Summer vacations were all about doing whatever I wanted – sleeping, eating, reading Indrajal comics, watching TV and enjoying the weather.

Oh those summers. Blissful, glorious summers. Not the sweaty, humid, awful ones we endure these days but the mild, chirpy and welcoming ones, the highlight of which was the one trip for which we waited for the whole year. The trip to our ‘native place’. There was no other choice. ‘Foreign’ was where your gelf uncle stayed and brought dates and chocolates from. I was not meant to fly abroad. I was meant to go to my native place or the land of my birth, Kerala, with the sole objective of meeting extended family, cousins, attending weddings and watching Malayalam movies.

The planning would begin months in advance because train tickets were hard to come by. I don’t know why we never considered flights. Kerala journeys were always long distance train journeys. My dad would say, getting a ticket on the date of your choice was akin to winning a lottery. Probably because most NRMs – non-resident Malayalis – planned holidays only around this time and that meant a WHOLE lot of them would be travelling around the same time as you were.
Now, the journey itself required war-like preparation. Clothes needed to be packed nearly two days before the trip and ‘North Indian’ gifts had to be bought for cousins and aunts. And then there was mom, who would spend hours in the kitchen, preparing comfort meals to last for two full days in the train – chappathis, puris, idlis, curd rice, pickles and the like. I never understood why she did that. We could have easily bought meals from the pantry or packed bread and jam. I even secretly enjoyed the watery sambhar in the bland thali’s served by the railways. But no, my family ruled that home-cooked meals couldn’t be sacrificed even during a train journey. Gradually, as hours passed, mom and dad would make brief chats with co-passengers, most of whom had similar stories to share. By the next day, we would be exchanging pickles, sweets and numbers. I preferred taking the top berth and reading a book.

Part 2

I loved those trips. As the train wound its way down south, the landscape changing from dry arid Gujarat – where we stayed – to barren rural Maharashtrian villages before gradually entering green, refreshing Kerala, my spirits would rise.

But once we set foot in the promised land, we the kids would be lost in the family melee. My ancestral home, a large old-fashioned villa with tiled roofs, a large backyard which grew coconut, mango and jackfruit trees and housed a well, was situated in what is known as a ‘gramam’ , comparable to a town square. Summer vacations saw a lot of Malayali kids from ‘North India’ in this tiny square, paying a visit to their respective relatives.

Frankly, I don’t remember doing anything remarkable those few weeks. We would go either relative-hopping or play host to guests. Days began early with a visit to the nearby temples where I would enviously watch local kids dive into the pond, laugh out loud and swim with friends… how carefree and happy they were, sans the stress of studies! At other times, some kind aunt or uncle would take the children in the family to watch a movie or buy sweet treats from the town centre. When I was really young, I remember rushing to spend the night in the warm embrace of grandma, asking her to repeat stories from mythology over and over again until I fell asleep.

The other big source of my summer joy was food. It was the season of mangoes and ripe jackfruit, and without a shred of doubt, Kerala mangoes were the best. Juicy, succulent and sweet, I loved them but would never get enough of them. If not mangoes, I would turn to chips – banana, jackfruit and plantain. Munching on a packet of chips, I remember heading to a room above and reading comics and Nancy Drew for hours. Despite the crowded house, with an unending stream of guests and relatives, I found my piece in those moments.

The next best things I enjoyed, were weddings. I would be told that we had to attend a wedding only on the day of the event, and I wouldn’t bother to ask who was getting married to whom. Mom or an aunt would dress me up in haste, themselves get dressed painstakingly all the while exchanging jokes and stories only they understood. I would watch from the sides as they debated on the colourful saris, which gold pieces they were going to match them with and how to do up their hair. Oh, how I longed to grow up and have similar chats! I don’t know why but during each trip to Kerala, I would also find some distant cousin or aunt, with a new baby. Not surprising I guess. If you have a large extended family, someone or the other would be getting married or giving birth. So a lot of hours would also be spent playing with the baby, as mandated by my relatives.

Part 3

The rest of the days of the vacation followed a similar template. I would rarely get to see my parents, busy as they were with the large, extended family members. But I didn’t mind as I was never an attention-seeking child. For me, those few weeks away from my regular routine, were pure bliss. Plus, there was something else to look forward to – the first rains. As is well known, Kerala receives the first monsoon in the country before it travels up north, and being on summer vacation in God’s Own Country, meant I would be the one receiving it first.

The monsoons have a romance of their own. Kerala rains are monstrous. Our party-pooper adults would give strict instructions to us to stay at home and not get out with threats like, “What if you are struck by lightning”? We would somehow find our way outside to get wet, make paper boats and generally have a blast.

Of course, the first rain also indicated that summer was over, it was time to go back and return to the routine of horrible school and awful teachers. Of a new year with the new dreary text books and drearier exams. I recall mourning quietly, the end of my hard earned break but nothing could be done about it and the adults in the family certainly weren’t aware of my angst.

Back then, vacations were simple affairs but I also feel I never realized I was having so much fun. Sometimes, when I heard from my more privileged classmates about the joys of travelling abroad and doing fancy things, I would wonder if I was missing out. Should I too, instead of visiting relatives, have thrown a tantrum and insisted that my parents take me to a fancy destination? What would it be like to stay in a hotel, have food delivered in our room and go sightseeing with a strict itinerary? When my friends asked what I did that summer, would I ever be able to give some other reply than my standard response – ‘I went to my native place, had a lot of mangoes, watched TV and read books?’

Fortunately or unfortunately, as years passed, these questions answered themselves. As awareness increased, so did the exotic appeal of destinations abroad. Studies and work ensured that the few breaks I got, were reserved for fancy, social media worthy holidays. As cousins grew up and went their separate ways, the trips to Kerala decreased.

But today, nearly three or four decades on, I am itching to plan a ‘do-nothing’ holiday to my “native place”. My passport proudly flaunts European and American visas but I am yearning to take the templated vacations of my ‘80s childhood days – of train journeys with mom-cooked food, sitting on the balcony watching the rain fall on parched fields and eating mangoes. Hopefully the realities of life in 2018 wouldn’t come in the way of this childish desire.

The last week at school was often the most torturous. Not that the early part of the fortnight was easy. In fact, every single day and night was a walking, talking living nightmare. One had to plod on before finally stepping into sunshine to breathe the wonderful, fragrant air of freedom. Goodbye horrible exams, boring school and awful teachers…hello vacations!

My school memories aren’t too pleasant. Despite being a topper, I couldn’t wait for the year to get over. And the last day – reached after burning the proverbial midnight oil and midday lamp – was the best. Why? Because it was the start of the holiday season! This meant two or three months of no books or lectures. Of course, there were some padaku (intellectual) types who would boast about joining dance or swimming classes, or making a beeline for tuitions to get into IIT 10 years later but thankfully, I faced no such pressure. Summer vacations were all about doing whatever I wanted – sleeping, eating, reading Indrajal comics, watching TV and enjoying the weather.

Oh those summers. Blissful, glorious summers. Not the sweaty, humid, awful ones we endure these days but the mild, chirpy and welcoming ones, the highlight of which was the one trip for which we waited for the whole year. The trip to our ‘native place’. There was no other choice. ‘Foreign’ was where your gelf uncle stayed and brought dates and chocolates from. I was not meant to fly abroad. I was meant to go to my native place or the land of my birth, Kerala, with the sole objective of meeting extended family, cousins, attending weddings and watching Malayalam movies.

The planning would begin months in advance because train tickets were hard to come by. I don’t know why we never considered flights. Kerala journeys were always long distance train journeys. My dad would say, getting a ticket on the date of your choice was akin to winning a lottery. Probably because most NRMs – non-resident Malayalis – planned holidays only around this time and that meant a WHOLE lot of them would be travelling around the same time as you were.

Now, the journey itself required war-like preparation.  Clothes needed to be packed nearly two days before the trip and ‘North Indian’ gifts had to be bought for cousins and aunts. And then there was mom, who would spend hours in the kitchen, preparing comfort meals to last for two full days in the train – chappathis, puris, idlis, curd rice, pickles and the like. I never understood why she did that. We could have easily bought meals from the pantry or packed bread and jam. I even secretly enjoyed the watery sambhar in the bland thali’s served by the railways. But no, my family ruled that home-cooked meals couldn’t be sacrificed even during a train journey. Gradually, as hours passed, mom and dad would make brief chats with co-passengers, most of whom had similar stories to share. By the next day, we would be exchanging pickles, sweets and numbers. I preferred taking the top berth and reading a book.

 

Continued in Part II..

I loved those trips. As the train wound its way down south, the landscape changing from dry arid Gujarat – where we stayed – to barren rural Maharashtrian villages before gradually entering green, refreshing Kerala, my spirits would rise.

But once we set foot in the promised land, we the kids would be lost in the family melee. My ancestral home, a large old-fashioned villa with tiled roofs, a large backyard which grew coconut, mango and jackfruit trees and housed a well, was situated in what is known as a ‘gramam’ , comparable to a town square. Summer vacations saw a lot of Malayali kids from ‘North India’ in this tiny square, paying a visit to their respective relatives.

Frankly, I don’t remember doing anything remarkable those few weeks. We would go either relative-hopping or play host to guests. Days began early with a visit to the nearby temples where I would enviously watch local kids dive into the pond, laugh out loud and swim with friends… how carefree and happy they were, sans the stress of studies! At other times, some kind aunt or uncle would take the children in the family to watch a movie or buy sweet treats from the town centre. When I was really young, I remember rushing to spend the night in the warm embrace of grandma, asking her to repeat stories from mythology over and over again until I fell asleep.

The other big source of my summer joy was food. It was the season of mangoes and ripe jackfruit, and without a shred of doubt, Kerala mangoes were the best. Juicy, succulent and sweet, I loved them but would never get enough of them. If not mangoes, I would turn to chips – banana, jackfruit and plantain. Munching on a packet of chips, I remember heading to a room above and reading comics and Nancy Drew for hours. Despite the crowded house, with an unending stream of guests and relatives, I found my piece in those moments.

The next best things I enjoyed, were weddings. I would be told that we had to attend a wedding only on the day of the event, and I wouldn’t bother to ask who was getting married to whom. Mom or an aunt would dress me up in haste, themselves get dressed painstakingly all the while exchanging jokes and stories only they understood. I would watch from the sides as they debated on the colourful saris, which gold pieces they were going to match them with and how to do up their hair. Oh, how I longed to grow up and have similar chats! I don’t know why but during each trip to Kerala, I would also find some distant cousin or aunt, with a new baby. Not surprising I guess. If you have a large extended family, someone or the other would be getting married or giving birth. So a lot of hours would also be spent playing with the baby, as mandated by my relatives.

To be continued in Part III…

The rest of the days of the vacation followed a similar template. I would rarely get to see my parents, busy as they were with the large, extended family members. But I didn’t mind as I was never an attention-seeking child. For me, those few weeks away from my regular routine, were pure bliss. Plus, there was something else to look forward to – the first rains. As is well known, Kerala receives the first monsoon in the country before it travels up north, and being on summer vacation in God’s Own Country, meant I would be the one receiving it first.

The monsoons have a romance of their own. Kerala rains are monstrous. Our party-pooper adults would give strict instructions to us to stay at home and not get out with threats like, “What if you are struck by lightning”? We would somehow find our way outside to get wet, make paper boats and generally have a blast.

Of course, the first rain also indicated that summer was over, it was time to go back and return to the routine of horrible school and awful teachers. Of a new year with the new dreary text books and drearier exams. I recall mourning quietly, the end of my hard earned break but nothing could be done about it and the adults in the family certainly weren’t aware of my angst.

Back then, vacations were simple affairs but I also feel I never realized I was having so much fun. Sometimes, when I heard from my more privileged classmates about the joys of travelling abroad and doing fancy things, I would wonder if I was missing out. Should I too, instead of visiting relatives, have thrown a tantrum and insisted that my parents take me to a fancy destination? What would it be like to stay in a hotel, have food delivered in our room and go sightseeing with a strict itinerary? When my friends asked what I did that summer, would I ever be able to give some other reply than my standard response – ‘I went to my native place, had a lot of mangoes, watched TV and read books?’

Fortunately or unfortunately, as years passed, these questions answered themselves. As awareness increased, so did the exotic appeal of destinations abroad. Studies and work ensured that the few breaks I got, were reserved for fancy, social media worthy holidays. As cousins grew up and went their separate ways, the trips to Kerala decreased.

But today, nearly three or four decades on, I am itching to plan a ‘do-nothing’ holiday to my “native place”. My passport proudly flaunts European and American visas but I am yearning to take the templated vacations of my ‘80s childhood days – of train journeys with mom-cooked food, sitting on the balcony watching the rain fall on parched fields and eating mangoes. Hopefully the realities of life in 2018 wouldn’t come in the way of this childish desire.

The End

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