Monday, November 26, 2012

'Karthigai' Paatti

The shrill voice pierced through the November chill and fell on my ears signalling the arrival of 'Karthigai Paatti.'
(Paatti in Tamil means grand mother. It's the convention in Tamil Nadu to address elderly women as paatti).
And of course, it's not her real name.
She has been a regular visitor to our house for the last five years.
Usually she comes a day or two before the Karthigai Deepam festival with a bagful of earthen lamps. So I call her Karthigai paatti. And she fondly calls my wife Ammiii
(Karthigai Deepam  festival is observed in every home and every temple in Tamil Nadu. This occurs on the day when the moon is in conjunction with the constellation Karthigai -- Pleiades -- and purnima. This constellation appears as a group of six stars in the firmament in the shape of a pendant from the ear. Many legends and lyrical poetry have grown round this star. The six stars are considered in Indian mythology as the six celestial nymphs who reared the six babies in the saravana tank which later were joined together to form the six faced Muruga. He is therefore called Karthikeya, the one brought up by the Karthigai nymphs. Houses and streets are lit up with rows of oil lamps (Deepam) in the evening of the festival day. Source: Wikipedia).
"I have come all the way from Karamadai (some 64 km away from where I stay) after catching two buses. And you are yet to see the Sun," she taunts me pointing out that it is already 7 a.m.
Interestingly, she don't wears a watch.
"What did you had for breakfast?" I ask offering a cup of tea.
"Groundnuts, rice flakes (avil) with jaggery and coconut, and a cup of tea," she says and accepts my offer along with a compliment: "You make excellent tea. All ingredients in right proportion."
How do you make these lamps, I ask.
"I don't make them nowadays. It's difficult to get quality clay," she tells me and adds: "This is machine-made."
"I buy 1,000 lamps paying Rs. 500. I sell them at Re. 1 a piece," she elaborates her marketing strategy.
"But, I am not doing this for money.
"For you, I will give two pieces extra free of cost.
"For the tea, of course," she unfolds her skills at barter with another bout of laughter. 
"All my children are well-settled after retirement. My grand children are well placed. My great grand children are learning English," she proudly states.
"Nobody has the patience to make lamps in the traditional way," she says.
"What is the traditional way?" I asks.
"There is a lot to do," she turns to teacher-mode.
"Identification of clay is the most important part. One has to run the potter's wheel at the right speed to get as many lamps from as much clay without wastage. It's a skilled work.
"Your mind, eyes, and hands should work in tandem, else the whole effort will go waste and you may even end up injuring yourself.
"I tie a string on my wrist to cut the lamp out of the wheel. I use my thumb to give it a beak," she shows me how it's done (of course at an imaginary wheel).
"I have been doing this since I was a child. Now I have ceased to be a lamp-maker. Just  a sales woman," she laughs.
"Come to my house one day," she invites me. "I am staying in a big house that has a TOILET," she says.
(The stress on toilet is very significant here, as 45 per cent of the population in Tamil Nadu still resort to open defecation, according to 2011 Census report. There are many instances where marriages fail because the modern, educated woman resists open defaction at her man's house. Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh's  recent remark that there are more temples in the country than toilets has raised a storm too).
She tells me how a Gounder (a caste in Coimbatore), who was fond of her Saathan (I assume that she is referring to her husband), gave 10 cents to him free of cost for looking after his vast landholdings.
"It was all trust that mattered. These days nobody trusts anyone," she says.
But why you take such a tedious effort roaming around the town selling a handful of earthen lamps that don't even fetch you bus tickets, I inquire.
"Life is not about money," she philosophises.
"And, I don't roam around the town. I visit some two or three houses, which I like for various reasons. Yours is one. I enjoy visiting these houses. I enjoy the chat. And when your children light up the lamps on Karthigai, I feel immensly happy.
"Fond memories. That is life, thangom (dear). Once you start forgetting, it is as good as dead," she sums up and gets up to leave.
"Ammiii... see you next year, if I don't forget," she laughs.

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