Deepavali bakshanams have more than just taste going for them, discovers Pankaja Srinivasan

Head cocked sideways, her thumb and forefinger move swiftly, describing concentric circles. One, two, three, four, five, six…. I hold my breath, willing the maavu not to break. It doesn't, and Sathy lifts her head and gives me a wide smile. I feel like applauding. I would like to see Nigella Lawson try making a kai murukku with the same insouciance.

Pushpa Mami sits in front of a mound of powdered semolina, sugar and fried cashews. She is making ravai urundai. She picks up a measure of the mixture, and with a firm hand coaxes it into perfectly proportioned golf-sized balls. Effortlessly.

Meanwhile, Sathy's spiral murukkus are frying to a crisp golden brown under the watchful eyes of another veteran cook.

Murukku memories

The aroma of roasting rice flour, asafoetida, oil, cardamom and a hint of camphor -- the happy smells of childhood, and Deepavali. When with almost unbearable excitement we peeped into the kitchen where the ammas, paatis, athais and periammas ground, pounded, fried, roasted, shaped and rolled out the bakshanams, or, as it is called in inelegant Tamil, thindis. We would be shooed away, but not before the still warm murukku or sticky manoharam was thrust into our hands. That was the nicest thing about Deepavali -- not too much of the madi aacharam. We could taste stuff and the Gods wouldn't mind.

I am a little sad my kids don't have all these nice smells to hold on to. But thank god for people like Lalitha Ramaswamy.

She is 78 years old. Like many others of her generation, she married early and began cooking early. She learnt the intricacies of festival cooking from her mother and later from her mother-in-law. "Ella kannu parvai kai alavu daan," she says. "We measured ingredients with our eyes and hand." Think of all the frantic math, weighing and working everything down to the last microgram now when we cook something special. No wonder so many women don't make goodies at home anymore. It is too much like work.

When was the last time you made bakshanams at home? Sujata Krishnan remembers the time she helped her mother make therattipal. And the excitement of having the extended family congregate under one roof to pitch in with the goodies. In fact, says Janaki Srinivasan, also reminiscing about preparations at her home as a child,


“It was a case of more the merrier. And the tastiness of the bakshanam being made was directly proportionate to the juiciness of the gossip exchanged!” Neighbours Ponna and Varada would discuss what each one would make so that there would be more variety going around.

This uplifting sense of family and community shines through at Shivanjali Sweets and Spices.

Says Hema, “When we all sit in a circle to make the laddus or the murukkus the topic of discussion is what one has watched on the telly that morning. If someone has missed an episode of the Ramayana or the Mahabharata or (God forbid!) the discourse of the hugely popular Velukudi Krishnan, they update themselves here."

Lalitha Ramaswamy says it is her daughter Hema who persuaded her to put her culinary skills to better use. Hema helped her convert her kai alavu and kannu parvai into proper metric measures. Today, Shivanjali is a bustling, enterprise turning out the Deepavali fare along with podis, thokkus, oorgai and even the Deepavali lehyam.

Lalitha, Hema, Pushpa, Sathy and the others brighten not just my life (I am picking up all my goodies from them), but also the holidays of many, many Tamil expats in Singapore and elsewhere.

May their tribe increase. Happy Deepavali.

Keywords: Deepavali