As the endless summer days come to a close and the stark reality of school, routine and classes loom large, I fondly remember the summer vacations of my childhood days. Every year around May, my Mom’s face would brighten with eager anticipation. Even before school was out for the summer, she’d have our tickets booked and trunks packed. After an overnight train journey, we’d reach Cochin and then board a bus for a 2-hour ride to Vaikkom. To Mutasshi and Mutasshan’s house with its sprawling garden full of fruit-filled trees and exotic flowers, and ponds with lilies and hyacinths.
In Chennai the only river/water body we knew was the Cooum which (did not flow) behind our house and could be smelled from a mile away. So my brother, my cousin Rohit and I would want to jump into the pond for a swim the moment we entered the house. Since we did not know how to swim, my dear grandma, Mutasshi, would hoist up her mundu and get in the water with us. We would hang onto her arms and legs and kick our legs wildly, laughing in glee. After thoroughly exhausting ourselves and drenching Mutasshi to her bones we would jump out to eat red rice, shrimp and coconut curry and sambar. Mutasshan would pick a pineapple or mangoes from the garden for dessert. We would watch in awe as he cut it with the precision of a sculptor. After gulping down the juicy fruit, we’d jump into the pond for another round of ‘swimming and sinking’ with Mutasshi in tow. Pathetic little water-starved kids from Chennai we were!
We’d then raid the kitchen for Mutasshi’s cinnamon-spiced cake, butter biscuits or Mysore Pak specially made by the Maami from across the street. And then we’d be back in the pond for our last round of thrashing around before it got dark. In the darkness lurked snakes and frogs and other not-so-friendly creatures. So we stayed indoors and listened to stories from the Books of Knowledge that adorned Mutasshan’s shelves.
One night I remember staying up till midnight to see the Flower of Bethlehem bloom. Something that happens once in 12 years and at midnight. The flower closed up by morning. Mutasshan also had jack fruit trees, lemon and cashew trees, guava trees and even a cocoa tree. We once made chocolate from our very own cocoa nuts. The tart and juicy fruits of the Jambyaka tree were such a treat. I haven’t eaten a jambyaka, which I believe is a water apple, in years and I haven’t seen that ever-so-rare tree.
Memories of Sabu are sprinkled all over my summer vacations in Kerala. He was our maid Mary Kutty’s son and also our neighbor. She was a slim, small woman with olive skin and light enchanting eyes. It was hard to believe that she had borne three sons – Sabu, Babu and Maatachan. Sabu was the youngest of them and was my age. He walked around shirtless and his shorts were always falling off. This greatly distressed me and I would yell at him to hoist up his shorts and secure them with a safety pin. Somehow being the eldest amongst the cousins made me think I could boss around everybody.
When we wanted to go fishing in the pond, Sabu was the expert we turned to. He dug up worms with his bare hands while I tried not to puke. He found the perfect pole and even caught us a fish. I decided to keep the fish as a pet and brought a bucket of pond water. Sabu put the fish in the bucket and after a few minutes proceeded to take it out. I yelled at him to put it back but he didn’t. And I wasn’t about to snatch that writhing slimy thing out of his hands. So I watched in horror as Sabu let the poor creature thrash around, trying to take a breath of air but failing miserably. My screams fell on Sabu’s deaf ears. He let the fish die and watched me burst into tears and run into the house.
The famous Chakka Kuru fight is definitely worth a mention. My valliamma (aunt) and my Dad were always at loggerheads. One day they were arguing in the backyard where my Mutasshi had left some innocent jack fruit seeds to dry. They are almond shaped but bigger. I’m not sure who threw the first chakka kuru but very soon they were flying all over the backyard. The rest of us were on the porch that ran along the side of the house near the backyard. We were yelling and cheering until all the chakka kurus were spent and both my Dad and my valliamma were thoroughly exhausted.
They say nothing lasts forever. And so my endless summer days spent in Vaikkom every year came to an end. Right after Mutasshi passed away. Mutasshan was lost without his Sumathi by his side. He had to leave his retirement home and live with his daughters. First in Trivandrum and then in Chennai. I did go back to Vaikkom once after they had got a tenant for the house. The beautiful garden with its rows of hibiscus and fruit-bearing trees now lay desolate with neglect. The ponds of our childhood ‘swimming and sinking’ expeditions were full of weeds that covered the water. I sat by the pond that Mutasshan used to clean up for us every summer and cried. I cried for my Mutasshan and Mutasshi. I cried for my lost childhood and I cried for all the trees and ponds that would never be loved like they were loved before.