When you enter the Old Hostel (nothing of the old structure remains at present) of yore at St Teresa’s College, Ernakulam, past the room below the staircase which houses Mary thaathi (the warden’s unofficial ears and eyes, dressed in chatta and mundu in the typical Kerala Xtian style), you find yourself in a sort of dark ill-ventilated lounge which gives access to the corridor running perpendicular to it, leading to the rooms of the senior girls. The little minions had dorms on the floors above. On the right most corner (I have a good mind to whack MS Word one on the head right now. It says I should use the word ‘corners’ and not ‘corner’ leaving me baffled by its strange logic!) of this lounge, innocuous in appearance, stood a wooden cupboard with glass panels. Sister Beatrice the junior warden held the keys to it. Right after dinner along she (and now MS Word says I should use ‘her instead of ‘she’! This is perplexing to say the least!) would come and open it. And that’s exactly when there used to be a mini-stampede.
No, there was nothing magical about the wooden cupboard. It was not the secret way to the wintry lands of Narnia. Nor did it have brooms a la Harry Potter’s world to whisk you off on adventures at short notice. All it had were paraphernalia needed by the student community in residence at the hostel. Then pray, why the mad rush?? Well might you ask, for though every parent would wish that their children had so much enthusiasm for their studies that they would make a mad dash for the pens, pencils, papers, notebooks, ink pots, rulers and other study materials displayed, it was not any longing for those things that had us girls in its feverish grip. Along with the items of necessity to the student community, which also sold at a brisk pace, the cupboard held something else of interest to all of us, the starved of home cooked food and forever hungry students of the hostel. I am of course not talking about the figure-conscious ones, perpetually on a diet.
The free time between dinner and study time (Yeah we had study time and a study bell to let us know exactly when it began, even the seniors in their final year degree. I have never heard any Men’s hostel having such rules which again reveals a glaring inequality. Rules it seems are only for girls! Grrr…) was the time for a lot of jabbering, yelling and merry-making. At the same time, one could also see girls passing to and fro through the lounge, now well lighted up with the tube-light on, and glancing with interest at the content of the cupboard. Some of them restlessly looking at their watches. When Sister Beatrice was sighted on the horizon, the excited babble would rise a notch higher and the exodus in the general direction of the cupboard would begin in earnest. If the nun had a cardboard box in her hand the excited chatter would be several decibels higher.
Sister Beatrice confining the grin that threatened to break out on seeing the excited girls to a more appropriate sober smile would demand that the girls stop pushing and shoving and give her space to open the cupboard and transfer the items brought in the cardboard box to the cupboard. She would make futile attempts to arrange the items, but only after first arranging her head gear. But soon, the soft hearted woman that she was, she would succumb to the pleas of the impatient students and start the distribution right away from the box itself, simultaneously collecting the money and giving out the balance. The unlucky ones late in reaching the venue hence left standing impatiently on the outskirts of the circle would meanwhile be yelling for their friends up front to buy a couple of packets for them.
Ahhh, now we come to the packets. Packets of what?? Obviously not books. Definitely, not pens, pencils or paper. Sheeesh! Can girls snack on those?? What the girls wanted were those small packets of chikkis (peanut candy) made from crushed peanuts and jaggery. (The secret revealed at last!) Small little squares, packed in butter paper with a colored label on the outside with some Tamil words written on it. None of us knew Tamil or what was written on it. But we were unanimously agreed on one thing, that those chikkis were simply too yum!
My sister, yep the one who bit me decades back, my cousin and me raved about the chikki whenever we went home on holidays. In fact we tried stocking on them before holiday time so as we could give those back at home a taste of those special chikki. But sadly we never could. Errr… of course we did not polish them off on our train journey home! The very idea! We tried looking for it in the local shops, but no amount of searching got any results. So those at home only got the pleasure of listening to paeans sung to the chikki.
When a couple of years later my sis, cousin and I moved out of the hostel on completion of our course, we carried with us the taste of those chikkis along with the memories of the college, the hostel, teachers and friends.
Years and years later, marriage and two grown up monkeys, errr… I mean sons later, I was out shopping along with the Lord and Master, one fine day, at the Margin Free Store at Sasthamanaglam when what should I espy nestling in a cardboard box between one full of achappam packets and another of potato chips than the famous chikki of yore!? I was seeing it after almost two decades. I thank my lucky stars that I did not let out my usual shriek of delight which ruptured or so they say. the eardrums of the residents of our colony and led to formal complaints being registered on the occasion when I received a gift that I had for long desired from the elder of the monkeys, err.. sorry sons I mean. A muffled cry of joy was all I let out, though the L & M’s raised brows conveyed conclusively that it wasn’t muffled enough. Anyway that is a minor matter over which I differ with the rest of the world. If I am happy I am not coy about letting the world know about it. I pooh-pooh the world’s opinion on such matters as what is the suitable way of expressing joy for some one of my age. Age?? You mean I have to give that same constipated smile I see on older faces in the place of a whoop of joy just because I am getting on in years too?? You got to be kidding!! Catch me doing that!!
Ooops! The digressing bug has bit me yet again. No worries. I am not too far gone and can find my way back.
So there I was at the Margin Free Store at Sasthamangalam, kneeling in front of the box full of chikkis, the same ones from college days, giving out that muffled ( by my standards) cry of joy.. These were in bigger packets. I hurriedly picked up one, then two, three, four… looked at L & M’s indulgent smile and picked up a couple more. I could have danced for joy, but respecting the L & M’s sentiments refrained from doing a jig. As I moved on to the counter I looked back and sighed wistfully, hoping the shop would stock them regularly from now on. Back home I stored them in my Tupperware containers. Just take a look! Yaaay!!!!
I raved about it to my monkeys, err… I mean sons. The story about Sister Beatrice and her cupboard were introduced to them. They listened to Mom’s enthusiastic tales, tasted the chikki and thought it tasted good, but did not go overboard about it like moi. Same with the L & M. Was moi disappointed?? Ahhh that’s where moi differs. Moi quite unlike the true Indian mothers (of which moi is one after all) was secretly (shhhhhhh…..!!!) thrilled that they weren’t too enthusiastic (as much as moi anyway) about it as moi would then have no competition. Moi could sit back and finish the whole thing leisurely. Hey, what do you mean I should check my weight?? I am NOT going to check my weight. Period.
Pssst. L & M says that the store stocks the chikki especially with me in mind and that I am their main if not sole customer for the chikki. Of course when this store runs out of them I go looking for it elsewhere or else have L & M get it for me from Kochi. Howzzat?? 🙂