When I was young, I lived in a world where kids like me were able to believe in the imaginary characters their father, mother or any person readily available, created for them. I was young so I could be excused for believing that they were real. Real because their features were very human, very Malayali or very Indian for that matter.
“Keechi Pappan with his pichaathi, and Paachaan Mappla with his Komban Meesha” Achan delved into narration, “will come tonight and carry you away in their gunny bag, if you don’t sleep soon”. Following this he would let out a demonic laugh. He never told me if the laughter belonged to Keechi Pappan or Pachan Mappla. I never asked. So it will always be an amalgamated sound, coming out as a dual and echoing rumble. But the pichaathi (dagger) and komban meesha (bushy moustache) remain markers of their individual identities. This was probably the first time I was conscious of fear. I tried to close my eyes tight and fall asleep, so that they wouldn’t come looking for me.
As I grew up, such fears were replaced by others; real ones and completely baseless ones too. Achan tried hard to talk me out of some of them, but it didn’t seem to work out. I remember the one day he had returned from office relatively earlier but exhausted. I went running to his bedroom saying that I was feeling extremely nervous for some specific reason. “If you are so afraid, then go hide inside a mustard seed”, he said dismissively. It sounded so ridiculous that I laughed and cried all at the same time. The sentence stuck with me.
I kept thinking about the possibility; of hibernating, nice and balled up comfortably inside the black coat and yellow layers of a Kaduku mani. I went by it. This was the new plan. I put all my anxieties tucked inside little black spheres inside my mind. One little seed, for the time my future seemed extremely bleak. Another one, for the fear of not being good enough. So many more seeds for not being able to give my best at college work. The list was endless.
When I was shoved into the kitchen to take over the cooking responsibility, I went in fearlessly. I learnt to chop up onions and garlic like a professional. I could grind coconut and chillies into a smooth paste. Gravies were spiced to the right amount, failing to hit the right balance only rarely. If the utensils in the sink laughed at me I laughed back at them. I mastered the basics of cooking, except when it was time for tempering the dishes with mustard seeds.
The Tadka was the final and most important step in many of the curries cooked at home. It could easily notch up the flavours in an otherwise bland mixture of ingredients boiling together in the pot. As the oil heated up, I armed myself with a huge lid for a shield and the longest spoon for a sword. The light mustard seeds felt heavy, as they were scooped out of the Masala box after much deliberation. As it met the overheated oil, it spluttered way too fast. In a hurry, I threw in dry red chillies and a handful of curry leaves that were still wet from a quick wash under the tap. It caught on fire. I wasn’t ready for this battle, for this meant I had to look face to face with my fears.
The tiny mustard seeds inside the Masala box told me that enough was enough. They told me that the process in itself was wrong. I tried to wage war with my fears, while all I had to do was look at it as the best flavoring agent; the Tadka to the final dish I was preparing. Even today, I hide inside mustard seeds when it all gets too much. But it isn’t frightening to be thrown into hot pools of oil anymore. If anything, it has helped me to trust in my little explosions of courage. The seeds crackling up don’t sound like bomb detonations anymore; rather a theatrical shower of claps for whipping up a dish inspite of bubbling-hot-oil circumstances. The amalgamated laughter is now music to my ears.