(Author: Ki. Rajanarayanan Translation: Radha Soundar & R.S. Saha )
Sreeni Nayakkar came out and sat on a squat and rectangular wooden stool. In front of him was a verdant curry tree. As he watched it, a group of sparrows came and sat on its branches. It had been a tiny shrub he had lovingly planted and it was now a tree. This was his breakfast area.
Like there are Vishnu tulsi and Lakshmi tulsi, this was a sengambu curry tree. Vishnu tulsi stems are red with spicy and aromatic leaves. Lakshmi tulsi is entirely green and its smell is calming.
His wife, Yengachi, brought varagu rice and mulai curd in a pot. The birds scattered upon seeing her. From their flight, the scent of curry leaves spread. The two inhaled deeply, enjoying the smell.
Sreeni Nayakkar spent his time in the service of others and that gave him a deep, spiritual happiness.
He made many types of ropes using gongura fiber: ropes for knot tying, for garlands, floating ropes, ropes used in plows, rope halters for bulls, and many more.
He would soak palm tree fibers until a gel-like substance separated from it. Then he would tear those fibers into threads that he could use to make rope. That rope would be used to make muzzles and trays.
He would get spare thread from weavers and make aruna kairu for men.
Sreeni Nayakkar would refuse any sort of payment for his help.
He had endless knot-making and braiding techniques that no one else was able to unravel.
He would take animal hair and turn it into amazing winter blankets and wreaths for all the village bulls.
At noon, he could be found at the pond making ropes by tying one end to a tree’s roots, pulling it taut, and twisting it. Once he had a long, twisted rope, he would fold it in on itself three times. Then he would take one of the sections, thread it between the other two, and twist it. The motion of him deftly twisting and braiding the rope was like the weaving legs of bo-staff fighters. Due to his constant work, his palms were covered in calluses and his shoulders were strong and knotted.
He began eating while smelling the scent of curry leaves in the air. Next to the pot full of rice and mulai curd was a small basket of coriander chutney. Sreeni loved this chutney and wished he could dip his fingers in it and lick it all day long.
Mulai curd is milk that is on the cusp of fermenting and becoming true curd.
Yengachi was an expert at fermenting milk. She would save a cup of warm milk for her husband and dip her finger – up to her second knuckle – in buttermilk. She’d then twirl that finger in the cup she had set aside. The next morning, it would be curd.
There was even a skill in boiling milk and Yengachi had it, just like she was skilled in all forms of cooking. Just a touch of her hand would make a meal delicious.
For any event, the Kottaiyar house would ask Yengachi to cook. Even on a normal day, she would be treated like royalty. The Kottaiyar women would have endless questions and clarifications for her. As the proverb goes: the skilled can’t teach it; the teachers can’t do it.
Yengachi did not believe she deserved the high praise.
One day when she went to the Kottaiyar house, they called for her to join their dinner. The men had finished eating and the women were about to start. Unable to say no, she agreed and sat down. As soon as the kuzhambu* was served, she began eating.
She mixed the rice and the kuzhambu. The moment it touched her tongue, she said, “Sitamma, bring the kuzhambu and rusikal** over.”
They brought the kuzhambu and salt in a wooden jar. She scooped out some salt with four fingers of her left hand, flicking off the excess with her middle finger. Then she mixed the remaining salt into the kuzhambu with a ladle. After serving herself some, she urged the others to eat it.
It was like magic. It gave a taste and smell that made it a kuzhambu not made by the Kottaiyar kitchen. Such was the power of salt. It makes sense that it was called the rusikal, flavor stone.
“Yengachi, you didn’t put salt in the food. You’ve rubbed it in our eyes and put a spell on the kuzhambu.” Sitamma said.
Yengachi could take common, forest spinach and turn it into a mouthwatering dish. She knew many ways of preparing it.
Govindappa Nayakkar loved spinach like it was the family deity. “You have to eat Yengachi’s spinach,” he’d say, clicking his tongue in appreciation.
*A watery, tamarind based dish that comes in a wide variety of forms. Sometimes it is mistakenly referred to as curry.
**Due to superstition, salt would not be called salt after lamps had been lit at the end of the day.