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The goddess and the brinjal curry November 17, 2017

Posted by globejam in Childhood, Folktales, Uncategorized.
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brijalcurryWhen people talk about fairy tales, you get the general impression that they are gentle, well-meaning stories with a moral to teach, suitable for children. In reality though, nothing can be farther from the truth. Most fairy tales are actually macabre, cruel and vindictive stories, across all cultures. While, in the western fairy tales, it is the step-mother who is the primary antagonist, in Indian stories, it is the mother-in-law who is the main villain. Quite frankly though, after listening to a bunch of them, I believe they reflect human attitudes and behaviour more truthfully than do books by eminent psychologists and behaviourists.

I have heard quite a few stories, told to me by my mother and other elder relatives, and while they were all extremely entertaining, any moral lessons from these stories are indubitably suspect. If, unbeknownst to me, they have inculcated some values in me, I shudder to think what they might be.

One such story from my childhood, I shall relate, purely for entertainment purposes. I have annotated (in grey italics) the story in some places to put in my comments. They are not part of the story.

In a small village somewhere is rural southern India lived a poor farming family – a father, mother, son and the son’s wife. The father was a docile, hard-working man trying his best to earn enough to put food on the plate for the family. His wife was a termagant who berated the husband, tortured her daughter-in-law at every opportunity and thought the world of her son. An enduring theme to this day!

The son was a loafer. He was however, very faithful to his mother and listened to her every command obediently. The daughter-in-law was much abused and made to do all the house work, including a lot of unnecessary work that the mother-in-law forced her to do, just because.

All this was explained matter-of-factly, so the general feeling that I got was that this was a typical family and there was nothing out of the ordinary here.

The daughter-in-law did all the cooking, except for an occasional special dish that the mother made exclusively for her son. She ate last and, more often than not, did not get enough to eat.

One of the special dishes that the mother made was what was called ‘ennai kathrika‘, a spicy dish made of brinjal, a rather tasteless vegetable, that grew in their backyard. This dish was made exclusively for herself and her son and neither the father nor the daughter-in-law got more than a whiff of it. It smelt heavenly and every time it was cooked the daughter-in-law salivated and yearned to get at least a morsel of it.

A lot of slurping sounds was added to the narration at this point, ostensibly to influence us to like the vegetable. However, as we hardly ever got to see the ennai kathrikai made at home, and what was made looked and tasted like half-cooked slugs, the tactic failed miserably.

Knowing this, the mother and son made it a point to finish every last bit of it, before the mother washed the vessel thoroughly lest the daughter-in-law got to lick some of it at the time of washing the vessels. Such was her cruelty.

One day, the mother and son decided to visit their relatives who lived in a village that was a two-day walk from their home. After packing their bags, the mother then called her daughter-in-law aside and warned her, “Listen, we are going to be away for a week or so. Those brinjals in our backyard will be ready in a day or two. However, you are not to touch them. It is all right even if they dry up and shrivel where they are. If you as much as touch them, I will come back and beat you black and blue, understand?”. The poor daughter-in-law nodded her head meekly. Sure that her warning was sufficient, the mother and son duo left home.

The fear of retribution kept her away from the brinjals for a couple of days. But once the brinjals became ready for plucking, she found them hard to resist. So on the third day, after her father-in-law had left for work, the girl plucked all the brinjals determined to make herself the tastiest, oiliest, spiciest ennai kathrikai she could, come what may.

She washed the brinjals nicely and then cut off the green stem at the top. She then spliced each brinjal into four connected pieces and into the gap she stuffed a masala made with chilli powder, freshly grated coconut, cloves, cinnamon, coriander seeds and other ingredients. She then steamed them all together and finally shallow fried them in oil till they sizzled. The aroma of the ennai kathrika wafted right across the street making every resident salivate.

Again, a second attempt to encourage us to eat brinjal the next time it was made. Lots of lip-smacking sounds added here.

Then she put it all into one big vessel and went to the local temple, sat in front of the presiding deity, the village Amman(Goddess), and started eating them one by one. The aroma filled the temple. Unable to bear the pangs of hunger kindled by the heady smell, the priests and the devotees left quickly for their homes to have an early dinner. The Amman, unable to resist the temptation of what was possibly the best ennai kathrikai in history, took on a human form and requested for a bite of the heavenly brinjal dish. The woman, in the throes of epicurean ecstasy, asked the goddess to wait till she had had her fill. And slowly, one by one, as the goddess watched, she polished off every morsel of the ennai kathrikai she had made.

The goddess, in shock, and in awe of a human who had the capacity to finish what could have been a feast for ten people, put her finger on her nose and turned back into stone.

The next day, the priest who came early in the morning as usual to bathe and dress the deity, was shocked to see that the Amman, instead of holding her trident in her right hand as usual, had her fore finger of her right hand on her nose. The priest unable to fathom this miracle ran straight to the king and announced that this could be a forewarning for terrible news.

The king, rudely awakened thus, had half a mind to kick the priest. However, better sense prevailed, and after understanding what the priest was blabbering, made a beeline to the temple, expecting that some shadow must have played tricks with the priest’s vision. However, he was also shocked to see his beloved Amman in such a pose.

Fearing for his kingdom and his life, he sent out a message to all the priests in his kingdom and nearby kingdoms to come and see how the Amman may be appeased. He offered a bag full of gold coins and other gifts worth an obscene amount to anyone who succeeded in bringing her back to her original posture.

Over the next day or two, every brahmin and priest, every sadhu and saint tried all their tricks, but to no avail. The king, a nervous wreck by this time, opened up the reward to any citizen, even offering to double the bonanza for anyone who could pacify the angry deity.

Our lady who ate the brinjal, however, knew what was going on and was quite angry with the Amman for making such a fuss. Worried that she would get caught for eating what she rightfully felt was her brinjal dish, she told the king that if they all left her alone with the Amman for a few minutes, she would set things right.

There are other sanitized versions, I am sure, but what follows is “forwarded as received” in current parlance, so there is no point in abusing me or taking umbrage at the language used. If you are easily offended, I suggest you stop reading now. 

The king, though he had little faith in this villager, asked everyone to evacuate the temple and give her some space. Once the temple had emptied, the angry woman took a stick, dipped it in some shit lying around and went to the Amman and threatened her thus: “If you don’t stop your shenanigans now, I will shove this shit-dipped stick up your nostril”, she hissed. We don’t know what the Amman felt, but knowing the mettle of this diminutive village woman, she promptly lifted her finger off her nose and put her hand back in its original position. The woman then threw the stick away, and went to the king and asked for the reward. The king ran to the temple and was astounded to see that the woman had accomplished what nobody else could and promptly gave her the reward he had promised.

Open defecation has a long history in these parts and continues to surprise and slip up people to this day.

The woman went home with her booty in time to see her husband and mother-in-law returning from their trip.

One would think that this is where the happily-ever-after portion of this fairy tale would appear, but alas, no.

The mother-in-law and husband took all the jewelry from her and continued to abuse her and mistreat her as before.

Thus ends the first part of this story.  The second part of the story is about how the daughter-in-law, who is not such a poor thing after all, gets back at her mother-in-law.  In all this the son/husband seems to somehow get away scot-free despite participating wholeheartedly in torturing his wife.  We shall leave that for another day.

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