Sepia Tones by K R Usha

When I come out of the kitchen, the verandah is empty. The plantain leaves have been removed and the place cleared of the remains of the meal. My husband is seeing off the last guests at the gate. I stand still, looking aimlessly across the garden. Not a leaf stirs. The sunlight is harsh, the gulmohurs fringing the compound a blaze of red. If I stand under them I know I will hear the continuous chirring of the cicadas.


On a dhurrie on the floor, in the coolest part of the verandah, my son lies asleep, his fine limbs flung out, one fist curled tight, his mouth making involuntary sucking motions. The first son of an only son, it is his first birthday, my first major social event… so many firsts… and it has been a success. I can tell from the warm looks of approbation that have been resting on me throughout the day. The meal was faultless. I was generous in my gifts to all the sumangalis and even the sternest of them had smiled approval. I had been certified fit for matronhood by all those who mattered. Fledgelings would now seek my approval and I could cut them down with the merest lift of an eyebrow. I should be glowing, replete…


The sound of laughter floats up from the gate. I rest my head against one of the cool smooth pillars. A figure at the far end of the verandah catches my eye. It is Rama Rao Mama, his patrician head in profile, hands reposing on the knob of his walking stick. Is it some kind of bitter-sweet irony that he should be the last guest to leave? Some desideratum just about eludes my mind and grasp. All I feel is a vague sort of incompleteness. Perhaps it is just the emptiness that overcomes you briefly after an event that you have been preparing feverishly for, goes off well…. Yet, this seems deeper, more vital. Rama Rao Mama stirs as I approach. ‘Ah!’ he says, ‘It was a splendid lunch, truly splendid!’ His voice is thick with nostalgia.


‘Here, Mama, have another beeda.’ I smile. He demurs a little and then watches in silence as I fold one for him.


‘The holiges were wonderful. Just the way they should be. Crisp on the outside but soft and succulent when you break off a piece. I had two.’ He nods with satisfaction. ‘Much before we sat down for lunch, I could tell from the aroma that came from the kitchen that they would be excellent.’


I would have been surprised if the holiges had been anything but excellent, considering the way Nayana, Amma and I had sweated over them the whole morning. I had lost count of the number of little balls of dough we rolled out, stuffing each with coconut or jackfruit or banana filling, patting them into shape on banana leaves to finally cook on greased tavas. Anyway, we had had the satisfaction of seeing batch after batch of golden brown holiges disappear into the verandah, as the tottering pile in the kitchen diminished.


‘You have not had lunch yet?’ It is part query, part statement. ‘It's a pity that even the last platter of holiges went back empty. We seem to have finished them all.’ He shakes his head. I'm a little surprised and quite touched by his consideration. I did not think he had noticed.


‘That is of no consequence.’ I rise to the occasion. ‘You have enjoyed the meal and that is enough for us.’


‘Ah! You speak just like your mami. I'm the woman of the house, Vasuki would always say with a smile.’ He gazes across the verandah … into a distant past. ‘Who hosts the passing guest and waits for more, Will be hosted by the gods…,’ he murmurs. ‘Truly, she was Annapoorna Devi incarnate…’


He stops short. I suspect he is close to tears. Amma says he was very attached to his wife. He blows his nose and pats me on the shoulder. ‘There never was a festival without a feast in our house,’ he says, half to himself. ‘And what holiges your aunt used to make! Do you remember, child? I haven't come across anyone who can make them better.’ His chin drops to his chest.


Vasuki Mami and her holiges. How can I forget? Now, after almost half a lifetime, I have come full circle.




Vasuki, handpicked bride for the budding young advocate, Rama Rao. He had insisted on an educated girl and she had studied up to the fifth form in nothing less than an English medium missionary school, a rare and remarkable achievement for her time. Vasuki, the bearer of an eponymous name. Her father, imaginative enough to let literary allusions colour his life, had named his daughter after the poet Thiruvalluvar's wife, who throughout her married life did not question her husband's strange habit of placing a small bowl of water and a needle by the side of his leaf as he sat down to his meal every day. Finally, on her death-bed, she asked him. I had kept those to pick up any grains of rice that you may accidentally drop outside my leaf while serving, he explained. And did I ever drop any? No, he replied, I never had occasion to use them. Reassured, she died a happy woman. Vasuki, beloved wife of the poet Valluvar. And Vasuki, beloved wife of my ordinary, uncelebrated Rama Rao Mama.


My grandfather and his brother – Vasuki's father – lived side by side in Kolar. Their children had a shared childhood. Much older than my mother, Vasuki was considered some sort of a guiding light for the girls in the family. Amma and her sisters had grown up constantly hearing, ‘Look at Vasuki!’ Fair, in a houseful of dark girls, slim, with almond-shaped eyes – I can see Amma gesticulate as she describes her cousin – ‘Her name should have been Nagaveni, her plait was as thick and long as a snake! She walked like a gazelle … her feet had such arched insteps!’ She was the first girl in the family to go to school and what a catch she had made in Rama Rao Mama!


When Amma got married and moved to Mysore, Rama Rao Mama already had a flourishing law practice. Amma was stepping out of Kolar, out of the shelter of her large family, for the first time in her life. And Vasuki, her children almost as old as Amma, had taken my mother under her wing, for which Amma always remained grateful. My brother and I practically grew up in Vasuki Mami's house.


Vasuki Mami and Rama Rao Mama lived in a large house in Cubbonpet which had a sprawling, unkempt garden. The compound wall had collapsed in many places and cows were always wandering in. Someone from the house would make half-hearted attempts to drive them out. The house itself was oddly disjointed. One room seemed unconnected with another, as if each had a mind of its own and the builder had just frozen them in the act of straying. The drawing room, with its plump sofa covered with shiny rexine, off which we were forever sliding, and its plastic flowers arranged on teapoys, was the only room which knew its place. At one end of the room was a large showcase crowded with silver cups – it was never clear who had won them – gilt ornaments and a few genuinely good pieces of china which Rama Rao Mama had picked up during a trip abroad. His office was in a separate wing and strictly out of bounds. Otherwise, we had the run of that house.


I remember the house always overflowing with people – children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, relatives, clients and hangers-on. Rama Rao Mama, famous for his hospitality, prided himself on keeping an open house. When Mama's grandchildren came for the holidays, I spent days at a stretch in their house. We had put up a rope-swing on the mango tree. While the girls spent the afternoon on it, the boys played lagori and cricket. When it grew too hot to stay outdoors, we would play House in the inner courtyard or sing songs.


There is a photograph of Vasuki Mami in Amma's album – contented, matronly, in a fluid Mysore crepe silk saree, holding a bare-bottomed child on her knee, a gentle smile playing about her lips – much like a Ravi Varma painting. But the Vasuki of real life had cavernous eyes and gnarled hands. She always seemed to be hurrying from one room to another with a preoccupied, slightly anxious expression as if she had just dealt with one crisis and was on her way to confront another. Amma often talked of Vasuki’s beauty, of the adventurous streak in her. She used to describe the great escapade when Vasuki and her sister had stolen off one morning on two buffaloes tethered in the yard, startling the people of Kolar out of their wits. But I could see Vasuki Mami only in the eternal present, in the gloomy kitchen, its gloom underscored by the dully gleaming brass vessels, in the dark passageway where damp clothes forever flapped in your face, in the wet bathroom paved with ugly grey stones and, lined along its wall, coconut shells full of ash and tamarind pulp used for scouring vessels. I don't think she ever went out of the house. In fact, I wonder if she had ever ventured round the whole house of which she was mistress. Her ambit was the kitchen, the passage leading from it, the bathroom, the inner courtyard where she went to do the washing and to hang clothes, and the two rooms downstairs where her daughters were housed, when they came for their confinements.


Which brings me to the children. Vasuki Mami always had an infant on her hip, and one or two older children trailing her. She could calm the worst of tantrums without raising her voice. I can see her stirring things over the fire with the ladle in her right hand while her left patted to sleep a tiny form draped over her shoulder. As we wove in and out of the courtyard during the course of our games, ‘Here,’ she would call out and, wiping her hands on her saree, thrust a mysore pak into a willing hand. I can distinctly feel her warm, slightly damp touch. Her hand, smelling of asafoetida and coriander leaves, would caress the back of my head and come to rest heavily at the nape of my neck.


Truly, she was miraculous with children. Of course, she had a lot of practice. By the time she had set the last of her nine children on his feet, her eldest daughter had come for her first confinement. The other five followed. The older ones had their second and third babies even before the younger ones could have their first. At one time, there were three children born in the space of a month. The two dark rooms downstairs, their curtains always drawn, the air thick with an overpowering resinous odour which I have come to associate with sickness, was where the women, wan and swathed in mufflers, padded around in socks and slippers, speaking in whispers.


I could never quite make out how Vasuki Mami attended to the ceaseless flow of visitors as efficiently and with as much genuine interest as she did. ‘Mama wants coffee in the office!’ was a constant refrain and she would hasten trayfuls of wobbly steel tumblers with the first person she came across. Relatives and close friends were pulled into the dining room and sat upon a stool in the corner. How are the children? Is Chandu's cough any better? Padma's baby must be three months old now. Has it started turning over yet? I hope she remembers the betel leaf and castor oil treatment for its constipation. Nothing else is as effective. How is the rock-salt poultice working on your father's knee A pity about Pathamma. I hear she is sinking and her elder sister in Coimbatore still going strong. Of course, it is all as He wishes…. Before I forget, tell your mother as soon as you get home to drop that Belgaum alliance for your sister. I met Gauramma at Chalu's son's upanayanam ceremony and the things she told me! The boy's father had once come to her place and coughed from beginning to end. And such a racking cough it was, too. One can never tell…


Birth, marriage, illness, death – with celebrations thrown in for relief. Any excuse would do for a feast – a festival, a child's birthday, a tithi. We were part of the family, so an integral part of such occasions. I have fattened on Vasuki Mami's lunches.


The huge brass cauldrons would be out in the courtyard. The women, resplendent in silk, faces glowing as they paused between stirring one bubbling vessel and throwing a handful of something into another, for a snatch of conversation here, a query there. Is this your Gowri puja saree? I haven't seen it before…. Full six yards and you won't believe how little I paid for it. Of course, I got it from Kanchipuram… What? You want the coconuts? Ask Girija. She has the key to the store.


Vasuki Mami’s herself would be here, there and everywhere. Her saree would have the broadest jari border easily, at least a six-inch one – Rama Rao Mama always did the right thing by her – but she lumped the pleats about her waist and tucked the pallu mercilessly as she dashed about. as if it were any old saree. We would be darting in and out of the kitchen, trying to sneak off with handfuls of things, aware that the custodians of the kitchen had lowered their guard. We were in the thick of life and the moment was everything.


Then lunch would be served. First the children. Then, the men. Next, the women guests and in the end, the women of the household. Vasuki would supervise each round herself. What grand meals they were! The plantain leaf edged with curries, kosambari and gojju. The meal would begin with the twin combination of tauvve and majjige huli followed by the more mundane saaru, but even that seemed magically transformed into a delicacy. Then the sweets – payasa and laadus for starters and last, the much awaited holiges.


Vasuki Mami's were out of this world. She would insist that guests have at least two each, especially the men, even if they held their hands over their leaves and made little demurring noises. And she made the holiges all by herself, with little assistance from the other women of the house. I remember her now, sitting on the kitchen floor, perspiring profusely, dangerously close to the huge hissing tavas. She would work her deft fingers across the lump of dough, pat it into shape, and then toss it expertly on to the waiting tavas.


And the variety of holiges she could make! White, wafer-thin sugar holiges that just melted in the mouth but were the very devil to make, which gourmets rate the highest. Next in order were the ones with pulse or coconut filling and finally, my favourites, the seasonals, with banana and jackfruit filling, which surprisingly, the adults never thought much of.


I remember one day well – her grandson's birthday. It was the height of the jackfruit season. The yard was heaped with the thick, prickly skin of the jackfruit. The golden pulp was being cooked in a cauldron. A sweet, pungent smell hung in the air and filled our nostrils. Vasuki Mami was in her element, seeing to it personally that everyone had their fill. The holiges had never come out better and we demolished them with gusto.


The meal was over. All the guests had left. Even the servants had cleared up and gone. We were to leave later in the evening. Amma and her cousins had rolled out their mats in the rooms downstairs and were preparing to lie down. I was all ready to curl up near them, listening to their talk, when Lakshmi Mami called me, to take a message to Vasuki Mami who was still in the kitchen.


I was almost fifteen then, so a little piqued that I should be shaken out of my post-prandial stupor for such a trivial thing when there were so many small children about. I remember walking sullenly to the kitchen door.


And there, on her haunches on the floor, engulfed in a flame of colour – for she was sitting directly in the way of the dazzling shaft of light bursting in from the only skylight in the room – was Vasuki Mami, in her brand new brick-red, gold-edged saree, searching among the remains of the large, almost empty, holige platter. I caught her eye just as she was pushing a fistful into her mouth, her chin dusted with the fine, yellow pollen of the crumbs. The act itself may have gone unnoticed if it had not been for the look on her face – that startled, shamefaced, slightly cringing, pitifully human expression, as if I had suddenly caught her naked, in all the flabby ugliness of late middle age.


I don't remember whether I delivered my message or not.


The memory of Vasuki Mami scrounging among the crumbs in the kitchen should have faded like an old sepia print but I have kept it alive through deliberate recall. Refracted through the prism of my mind, it has acquired various hues – sometimes monstrous and exaggerated, sometimes pitiable, even tragic, or pathetically funny, sometimes matter-of-fact, but always disturbing.




I become aware of Nayana and my mother-in-law standing on either side of me. Rama Rao Mama is silent, his head bowed. My son turns over on his side, whimpers and settles down again. Amma is asking about Rama Rao Mama's health. He murmurs his thanks and takes leave of us. Amma and I walk down to the gate with him. He has a slow, deliberate gait, suggestive of gravity, of self-consequence. After a protracted leave-taking we walk back quietly to the house. My calves and thighs tug sharply. I realize how tired and hungry I am.


Impatient with us, Nayana, my sister-in-law, has laid three places and served the side dishes. She reaches for the holige vessel and her face crumples with disappointment. I walk to the corner of the kitchen and reach out for the round steel dabba, which I had pushed out of sight on the topmost shelf. I open the box and breathe deeply. They are a little damp, the holiges, but still warm and firm. I put out two on each of our leaves. Nayana and Amma like theirs with milk. I pour a generous libation of ghee on mine. I break off a piece and push it to the edge of the leaf. That is for Vasuki. Then we put our heads down and eat with single-minded concentration.




Who hosts … Quotation from Thiruvalluvar's Kural, taken from P S Sundaram's translation, Thirukural, Penguin India, 1990.
Thiruvalluvar: The most honoured poet of classical Tamil literature, he probably lived and wrote sometime between the second century BC and the eighth century AD.




Sepia Tones won the Katha Award for Creative Fiction in English, 1995, and was published in the Katha Prize Stories Volume 5.



Usha K R is the author of the novels Monkey Man, A Girl and a River, The Chosen and Sojourn. A Girl and a River was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and won the Vodafone Crossword Award.