On Loving and Losing Weekends

I recently read the meandering meditations of Rebecca Solnit in her book A Field Guide To Getting Lost. A set of personal essays seeking the meaning of being lost, losing valued places, people and times, and on the sense of being lost in thoughts as well, the book was perfect bed time reading. What does one lose when we sleep? Apparently, during REM sleep our body is temporarily paralyzed which is why we do not move in reality even when we might move in our dream. We are truly lost to ourselves in the night-time, perhaps in a dark cavity filled with symbolism— of desires, dreams, fears and ambitions. What else could explain dreams? Weekends are, I think, the night-times at the weekly level.


It has been a little more than a year since I began my PhD research. Delving into the most darkest dystopias for my research, I have a newfound appreciation for everything simple and bright. How absolutely wonderful that we still have trees! Sunlight! Rain! To think that there could be worlds where there are incessant acid rains, surrogate slaves and a constantly spying government, or a perpetual motion machine that goes around a frozen world, is now just – work. When you take up a long-term project such as this, it is inevitable that it creeps into your time outside work, as well. I have found myself wondering about a possibility or an idea, even a brainwave that restructured an entire chapter, when I am least expecting it– such as in the middle of the night or when I am folding laundry. That is the process.


One day off a week is a useful system when doing a PhD. This has mostly meant that I am losing my weekends to research. One could argue that the post-pandemic flexibility in work timings has made it rather common for weekends to not be the relaxing time they once were. Given that weekends are indeed social constructs, it is only realistic that a global pandemic could also erase the social emphasis on weekends, just as it did with the expectation of working in offices. Could it be that we are witnessing the end of weekends? Or, is it just me?


As a child, weekends for me meant time spent at my ancestral home with grandparents and cousins. Every Friday evening, my parents would drive my sister and me to my father’s house in rural Kerala, a one hour drive away from the mild bustle of Calicut city. My grandfather, adamant as he still is, would open the gate himself and our car would be parked. My grandmother would insist that I wear at least a necklace, or that my sister wear a bindi. My grandfather would ask about school. After the cursory tea and seasonal snacks, my sister and I would slip away to my cousins’ house next door to announce our arrival.


Growing up, visiting my relatives meant being back in the thick of the action. There would be political arguments between my uncles and my grandfather, heated discussion on what someone implied at a recent social event, a nostalgic foray about the past and some quiet afternoon siestas. Those weekends were what I looked forward to after long weeks at school. During the summer, there would be extended time spent with my grandparents. My cousins and I would be busy building our little makeshift hut in the backyard. It was our private hangout complete with a mini-fan, a mirror and some magazines. The perfect getaway from the adults.
By the time I was in high school, these visits began to get harder to schedule. I had weekend tuitions and my sister had her dance classes. My cousins seem to grow quite rapidly during our time away. Weekends were now already a semi-free time with extra demands from school. But that also came with excitement in tuition classes and other events. In college at Buffalo, weekends meant trips to get Indian food. The best haunt was a Pakistani restaurant called Zaiqa with excellent naan sprinkled with sesame seeds. It was on the way to Niagara Falls which meant my friends and I also visited the tourist haunt every other weekend. I consider myself lucky to witness the roaring majesty of the waters of Niagara, to hear it thunder down. You always hear it first before you see it.


Now, weekends are just time to catch up on chores. To do laundry. To plan meals. To order groceries. To buy cat treats. To cook fancier dishes. To read just for pleasure.


Maybe I already lost my weekends to adulthood even before research happened. Or maybe it all just happened at the same time.


But is it not hopeful that for centuries now, humans have just collectively agreed to have two days off a week from work? I know there are exceptions – obviously – but it just says something about humanity that we follow this norm across cultures. It is simply indicative of our collective need to rest. To recuperate. To just be.


I hope this is not the beginning of losing weekends. I like to think that back home there are kids playing cricket on the grounds and closer to Leeds, families having picnics out in the parks. I like to think that some child somewhere is excited to visit their cousins during the weekend. That some teacher somewhere is glad to take a hike and get away from the classroom. I also like to think that at some point, I would enjoy my weekends just as they are, chores and all. I hope you do too.

The Firefly Food Fest

OFIR1

 

Minnaaminni ithiriponni minnunnathellaam ponnalla

kannaanthumpi kaanjanathumbi kaathil keattath paattalla

Two days ago, my hometown in Kerala hosted the 2nd biggest Literary Festival in Asia and in parallel to it, the OFIR Food Fest. Calicut, known for its numerous restaurants and a vibrant food culture, has seen many food fests in the past. Yet, what made this event stand apart was the coming together of regional tastes – 12 communities, to be exact – and the artistic culture that surrounded the variety of food. Sufiyana music and Sitar tunes decorated the nights, while stories blossomed on dining-tables when artists and writers from the Literary Fest peeked in for a taste. From Jain food to roadside “ice” items, OFIR covered a range of tastes unmatched by any multicuisine restaurant menu Calicut-ians are familiar with.

I say restaurant menus because the people of Calicut are impulsive restaurant-goers. Spoiled by so many good choices, a middle class family in Calicut does not find it odd to not cook once in a while, whether it be breakfast, lunch or dinner. Why should they? One of the better restaurants in not just the town, but in the state, will after all be just a few minutes away. Today when we are constantly turning towards Western tastes and globalized cuisines, such fests remind us that everything famous and advertised well, are perhaps not the only tasty food you can find. Perhaps, the tastiest dish lies unexplored in your neighbour’s kitchen. OFIR is a revival of cultures and a reminder that as much as restaurants will have standardized tastes and home food will not always be available, there are options to avail good food, no matter what culture you belong to.

As soon as you enter Aspin Courtyard, the venue for this Fest, you will be surprised by the sheer diversity of food stalls. The yellow firefly lights will guide your way and show you smiling faces serving homemade food in shining ladles. If you’re from around Calicut, you might even see some familiar faces. Faces lost years ago to tornadoes of time and degrees. In my case, I found three teachers and a ex-classmate in the Anglo Indian food stall. Miss Milly, my very first teacher in Calicut was serving rice and meatball curry. As an ex-Josephite (Calicut-speak for an ex-student of the coastal school St. Joseph’s Anglo Indian Girls’ Higher Secondary School), it gave me great joy to receive a plate of food served by women who breathed the same salty air and taught/learned from the same books as me. Food connects and builds bridges, for sure. But it also serves as time travel. Devil’s Chutney served by Karyn, my schoolmate, was apple-red and tasted like memories.

To the very end of the venue, was arranged a stage. I sat on one of the chairs in the back, to listen to what was going on. In a few minutes, I gathered that the speeches were mostly about the history of Calicut as a trading center– how the affluent Muslim families used to receive Arab guests and raw materials, via trade. I learned that the Muslim wives used to cook the most sumptuous meals they could, in order to lure their husbands back home sooner from the Gulf. They learned recipes in order to ensure that their husbands wouldn’t head out to the sea too soon. Food was not just something that filled the stomach; it was prepared with hope, with love. Something that Calicut still recognizes, considering the graffiti on the pillar next to the famous Paragon Hotel. A smiling Dulquer Salman and Tilakan adorn that pillar, with the iconic sulaimani as well. Anjali Menon’s Ustad Hotel is set in Calicut for a reason and OFIR highlighted that reason.

Food ought to be prepared with love, with empathy. Interestingly, Calicut has always been an compassionate shore. Too compassionate, perhaps, considering our infamous tryst with the Portuguese. But the truth is that Calicut did not have a dominant food culture in olden times. Malabar Manual lists a number of cuisines that existed side by side. The celebration of the Mappila food culture we see today is interesting for this reason. Over the years, Calicut came to be known as the center for Maappila food; the other cuisines, be it Iyer food or Syrian Christian food, were relegated to the sidelines. The very reason for OFIR was the revival of these forgotten regional food cultures, to remind the people of Calicut that our culture is one of empathy where we received and inculcated a variety of cuisines. In this process, we have preserved stories of the origin of dishes, shared anecdotes of preparation and enjoyed the company of amazing experts who cook for nothing other than pure, unadulterated happiness. Various communities across religions, castes and regions have come together to share their finest dishes in an atmosphere filled with music and history.

The only sad part is that OFIR was a firefly fest. A faint light in the night. Gone too soon.

This Festive Season..

My little sister, with all her innocence asked my mom while on the way back to Calicut city, about something that had bothered her all through the Onam season. “Amma, if Onam’s really the national festival why did Unniyettan and Kannettan have to cut class to come home? Don’t they have holidays?”. My mother teasingly told her that Onam is not the ‘National Festival’ while my sister stuck to what her Malayalam teacher had told her-that Onam is the ‘Desiyotsavam‘.Now I have no idea what the teacher meant;whether it was to signify the importance of this harvest festival or to tell the students that Onam was the major festival even in ancient Kerala, in the age of Desams and Naaduvazhis.
Onam had always been a busy affair. In my childhood, it always meant the same thing. A reunion of the family members at the Tharavaadu, an occassion of games and jokes for all the kids,the much awaited onakkodi and the splendid onasadya.We, cousins used to organize small programmes-little dances and songs that our grandparents enjoyed.The thrill of receiving applause from the whole family for a display of talent was an unexplainable delight in those days. Actually, I was known as the mono-act artist in the family. It was only in those family get-togethers that I had the nerve to present myself without my knees knocking together.Not even my old schoolmates know about Athira, the mono-actor but my cousins know the act by heart.

However, ever since I Onam became a fabricated event, a mere projection of what it once was.. Past years, I began looking forward to the Onam at my school, rather than at home, probably due to the fact that there were no more reunions.. I began to look forward to seeing the First Time On Television movies than collecting Thumba from the courtyards, at Dad’s house.Last year, I remember complaining that Christmas was probably better than Onam. Even at school, Onam was not one of the best.But this year, really made up for the past ones.

This is the way my grandmother welcomes Maaveli..I love the ‘thrikkarappan’s ( for those who don’t know, they are the triangular mud sculptures on the banana leaf). She does it herself, to the courtyard of our Tharavaadu and every year, reminds us that Maaveli has to walk through cow dung to see our pookkalam.
This is the Pookkalam of our class,XII A, which earned no prize in the competition, but which symbolizes our unity, the fun we had and a day that none of my classmates can forget.

I realize this might just be the last Onam I get to celebrate in an educational institution, but I just hope it will not remain the best of my life. “The best is yet to come”.