Memory and choice

There are times when I grapple to find a specific memory, buried deep down within the corridors where memories are kept, I suppose, locked in perfect boxes, labelled, and stacked up on special racks, dated by years or maybe even decades. This doesn't happen too often, at least not on a daily basis. Sometimes, it is a musical piece you hear that triggers this sort of grappling. It needn't always be a musical piece, it could be a conversation, a random thought, the smell of cumin being fried, mustard seeds crackling, the voice of an old friend, or a tattered Pollock's print tucked away in a trunk under the bed. This then hurtles you back, phantasmagorically, into a realm of magical realism. Here, things are exactly the same as it was in your past memory. You can recreate the visuals to the minutest details. The table at the corner of the room, the lamp hanging above the tapestry, the cat rolled over his back in a happy baby pose, your angered friend pacing about the room, earnest and half mindful of her words. There is nothing to stop the memories rolling by, say as if the lock on one of those sealed boxes accidentally melted away. We have our favorite ones, not so favorite ones, and the ones we refuse to believe happened. One of my earliest memories, from my childhood, is eating chocolate pudding. I used to get back home from the nursery, I think I was 3, and Amma would give me this home made pudding. I can relive that memory, taste the pudding in my mouth, recollect the day vividly, the frock I was wearing, the details of the dining room, the color of Amma's sari. Then there are those not so favorite culinary memories, those from Hyderabad hostel days, especially the days when we used to be served "kundru sabji". We used to totter down to the mess hall and run straight back out to the Chinese fast food place next to campus, hog on some fried rice, chilli chicken and then, head to Sagar bhaiyya's store for some ice cream. Then, there are the one's that must not be named, little scandalous, little horrific, a lot of embarrassment. Those will forever remain locked, well hopefully.

Every time I dig down a memory, I can't help feel those memories are a result of a choice I made at a point in time in my past life. So, if I had continued to do my PhD in India, I wouldn't have any memories whatsoever of life in LA. This world simply ceases to exist. There are many intervals in time where I remember making a conscious decision to let go of something, or to follow a particular windy path. These choices make us who we are today. It was Amma's choice to make me chocolate pudding and not crème brûlée. It was my choice to hate kundru in the hostel mess and prefer Chinese instead. I can only wonder what alternate consequences, a reverse choice could have had. Maybe I could have chosen not to eat the chocolate pudding, or chosen to suck up and eat the kundru in the mess. Would these have altered my life significantly? Chaos theory says yes, stemming from a belief that nonlinear applications of mathematical systems gives rise to a whole which may be more or less than the sum of its parts. Thus, a chaotic system is totally unpredictable in its behavior. There are choices we need to make which seem trivial, such as choosing chocolate pudding, yet there are bigger choices we need to make, for example. my decision to leave 2 years of research work in India to pursue another 5+ years of doctoral work in LA. Life was uncertain at that point, who knew what could happen. I could make this big move to LA, absolutely hate living in this city, have a fall out with my adviser and be back to square one. Every choice is risky, has an uncertainty factor associated with it and the beauty of the unseen, the unknown, is so beckoning that it tempts you to make the choice, however, difficult it is. At that point in time when you choose a particular path, remember, there is no right or wrong, since the consequences of your actions will not reveal itself till years later, and you can only look back and wonder if you did make the right decision or choice.

This brings me to my discussion in an earlier post on possible worlds. By picking a particular route to action are you necessarily pushing away access to other possible worlds? Or, do they continue to exist parallelly, inhabiting different orbits and circling and just being. Maybe we have access to them all, because we do have the free will to alter our choice at any given time. Maybe they exist only as a figment of our imagination, you can see these alternate worlds but have no access to them because of the choice you made. And, maybe death is just one such alternate possible world, chosen by your fervor and your denial.  As Murakami says, memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.

In God's own Country- Kochi

Kochi is not just a place I grew up in, Kochi is home. With a place being called home comes memories, moments, and melancholia. Let’s rewind, some twenty odd years back into the 80’s. Kochi was still a growing metropolis back then. The roads were dingy but not crowded, the place had a feel to it, some kind of ambience akin to an old world charm. This was the Kochi of the Jews, this was the Kochi of the Dutch, this was the Kochi of the Gujarathis, this was the Kochi of the Muslims, this was the Kochi of the Christians, and this was the Kochi of the Hindus. Here, trade and travel mingled incessantly. Kochi’s landscape was filled with bungalows, old naalukettus, dilapidated buildings, courtrooms, and vast open spaces. The coastline, dearly called Marine Drive like any other coastline in India, was then sparse and not crowded with commercial offices or posh sea-facing apartments. One of the very first memories of the 80’s for me is the bus ride to school every morning through Marine Drive. My cousin sister and I would sit and talk about happenings from yesterday and feel the early morning 7 o’clock breeze on our faces, as the bus rattled towards school via Marine Drive. The sea would be a crystal blue sometimes, dark blue otherwise, and I would yearn to get out of the rickety bus and wander towards the waters. It always beckoned me, just as it does today twenty something years later. Life was a routine for the Mallus who lived in Kochi. The morning always began with the pathram ‘newspaper’ and a cup of hot tea. Tea is an essential part of the Malayali’s way of life. It characterizes energy, freshness, and an overall overarching sense of accomplishment. After the morning cup of tea, any Malayali feels like he is ready to take on the world and nothing is deemed impossible. A walk around the Ernakulam railway station or bus stand is evidence enough for this. The resonating sound of ‘chaya chaya chaya’ is concurrent to the chanting of a religious prayer. Coffee quite doesn’t have that energy around it. The long vowel at the beginning ‘kaa’ would be elongated even further ‘kaaaaaa’ and the way the coffee vendors pronounce the word ‘kaaaaaapi’ didn’t do the same kind of justice to coffee as it did to tea. So ‘Chaaya’ remains the favorite morning drink. In my house, we had a mixed bunch of beverage drinkers. Muthassan and Ammumma had their morning cuppa tea. My father and me were avid coffee drinkers. Amma was in between. But yes, the newspaper was still an integral part. No day began without it.

Those were the days when there were no FM radio stations. Every morning, each Malayali household played their favorite cassette. This ranged from Malayalam devotional songs to Old Kishore da and Rafi da’s numbers, to Dasettan’s golden classics. I remember the drone of listening to the same old song again and again, 365 days a year. Like I mentioned, there was a sense of routine in everyone. Change was never sought after. With routine came stability and with stability a sense of the world. Those days my grandmother used to avidly watch the Mahabharata on Doordarshan. Nowadays the Kochi evenings are filled with people crouched in front of Asianet watching Idea Star Singer, the Malayali equivalent of American Idol.

A Malayali had only two seasons to look forward to- the rainy season and the non-rainy season. June 1st every year characterized the onset of the Monsoon. We would put on our brand new school uniforms, raincoats, carrying over-sized bags and totter to school through puddles. The wind would blow the black color umbrellas upside down, of course now we have the more fancy ‘popy kudas’, those days people had a stronger preference for black umbrellas. The rain came with pros and cons. On one hand, it would disrupt our P.T periods. This entailed either wiling away the 40 minutes in class by playing book cricket or trying to finish up some homework so that the evenings at home would be more relaxed. The advantage of the heavy monsoon season in Kochi was that the Mullasery Canal would overflow very frequently. Thanks to the bad drainage system of the Cochin Municipal Corporation there were many instances when school had to be shut down.

One of our favorite pastimes during the Monsoon season was to make paper boats and play with it in the puddles on the roads and in my backyard. There would be boats made of different colored paper, in different shapes and sizes and similar to the Allepey boat race, we would have paper boat races in the rain.

When it wasn’t raining in Kochi, my life was filled with ice creams, floating islands, and five rupees pop-ups (ice popsicle-like). On these days as well people carried umbrellas to protect themselves from the heat. Umbrellas are thus an integral part of a Mallu’s way of life.

Sunil chettan’s kada was a much frequented hang-out those days. He used to sell magazines, mittayi, and other knick-knacks. I would hang on to my father’s finger and go there in the evenings for my Tinkle and Champak. Shikkari Shambu and Suppandi were my friends for evenings. Evenings also entailed playing cricket with the cousins, no not book cricket, just regular cricket with wickets and bats. Other times, we would be hiding under the bed to run away from the music master who came home to give us Carnatic music lessons or pretending to be sick and skip Hindi tuition lessons with Srivastava sir.

No mallu’s gastronomic appetite could be satisfied without a visit to B.T.H. The sheer size of their paper masala dosa, you would think, could feed 3-4 people. B.T.H also had the most delicious badam halwa. An evening at B.T.H would be followed by a walk in Rajendra Maidan where some handicraft exhibition would be on going.

A Mallu’s routine would be momentarily disrupted thrice in a year by three major festivals. Onam- the harvest festival, Christmas, and Vishu- the Kerala New Year. Vishu is celebrated on April 14th, Onam is sometimes in August or in September, and Christmas in December and there is one common thread linking the festivals together- food!

Wedding sadyas were another source of awesome free food. I used to look forward to the ‘murukaan’ at the end of the meal. The taste of betel nuts after a glass full of palada pradaman is pure bliss.

We are in the 2000’s now. The face of Kochi has changed. The skyline has changed. However, the ambience hasn’t changed all that much. The old world charm still remains. Mallus still divide their world into rains versus no-rains. Vishu will be celebrated with much fiasco in a couple of days. Kochi beckons, to travellers, to ex-residents, its kin.  There is a part of me that remains in Kochi, and will always will.



Naalukettu- A traditional home build around an open courtyard

Pathram- Newspaper

Chaaya- Tea

Kaapi- Coffee

Muthassan- Grandfather

Ammumma- Grandmother

Kuda- Umbrella

P.T- Physical Training

Kada- Shop

Mittayi- Toffee

Sadya- A festive meal

Murukaan- Made by rolling two betel leaves with arecanut inside

Palada Pradaman- One of the desserts akin to Kheer