This occurred sometime in the period between 1910-1920 somewhere in the heartland of Tinneveli district (present day Tirunelveli) in South India.
Chembulingam Nadar was a notorious bandit who had gained a cult status as a robin hood like figure. Driven to a life of crime after tragically losing his wife in a feudal skirmish, he had made it his mission in life to rob from the rich and give to the poor. He still held his standards of gallantry though, never killing women & children, instead pinning their ears together with a lock through their earlobes. No such guarantees for the menfolk, who were at the mercy of his flintlock revolver. His reputation was such that he would apparently send out an advance notice to the house he intended to loot and sure enough, with clockwork precision, strike at the appointed hour. His turf extended from the Western Ghats all the way to Travancore (Present day Thiruvithamgoor in Kerala). In a sense, his threat was the equivalent of the terrorist threat we face at airports today. In those days, the equivalent were bullock carts instead of Boeing jetliners, but the terror factor was still the same. Traveling between the small towns & villages meant playing a game of Russian roulette. One never knew if or when Chembulingam & his gang would swoop down & pillage.
Seetha was a middle aged widow in Tinneveli, embarking on a life altering journey. She was escorting her teenaged married daughter Bhageerathi for the first time to her future home and her husband Sundaram, an erudite school teacher.
Seetha had always dared to be different. Bhageerathi was her third & youngest child, left fatherless at the age of two. Even as she raised her two older sons to adulthood, she had held on to her baby girl, treasuring her, ensured that she received an elementary education, & enduring censure from society when she had waited for her daughter to reach the ripe old age of twelve before marrying her off. The median age for marriage for Brahmin girls in those days was about eight.
When Bhageerathi was about eleven, Seetha had chosen a semi literate groom whose dowry demands were within her means. Although she was relatively better off than the average brahmin family, there was a higher price to be paid for an educated boy, which would have set her back more than what she was comfortable with. As soon as she had bethrothed her daughter & sent over a generous set of silver pots and other appropriate offerings, her sharp ears picked up the buzz about the boy''s family reputation. "Oh you'll be seeing your daughter soon enough, she'll be harrassed and sent back... in a box". That was it, she ordered her sons, Bhageerathi's older brothers, to march there & inform them that the engagement was off , would they please return the stuff she'd sent them!!! Never gave a hoot to the ensuing wave of wagging tongues. She then paid a visit to Sundaram's family, accepted their demands & gave her daughter away in marriage.
Now that her daughter had crossed the threshold into womanhood, the time had come to escort Bhageerathi to her new home. Seetha's sons were in Ceylon, in the quest for new business opportunities and it fell upon Seetha to undertake this journey alone. She hired an ox cart, piled it up with all the gifts & provisions she had given her daughter that would be required in a new home, dressed her daughter in fine clothes & set off.
Half way into the journey the ox cart driver turned back to face Seetha. There was no need to say anything. His ashen faced expression & his trembling hands loudly expressed and confirmed Seetha's worst case nightmare scenario.. Chembulingam & his gang were in the vicinity.
Her limbs trembling, she ordered the cart to stop and desperately prayed to her family deity for help. She had come this far and was determined to be a tiger mother. She would protect & fight for her young daughter's safety with everything she had. She nervously shuffled her cargo around & asked the driver to resume his journey.
Sure enough the cart was stopped, the oxen reined in taut by two ferocious looking thugs. As the others manhandled & roughly shoved the cartman aside, Seetha came face to face with the dreaded Chembulingam himself. As his bloodshot eyes scanned her possessions, she pleaded for her life..'Vayasaana Paati appa, karunai kaati vithudu' (I'm an old woman, please have mercy on me & let me go). Chembulingam paused, gave the cart & her belongings another quick scan and dismissively replied 'Elaaiy.. motta kelavi varkattai eduthutu povudhu, viddu ley' (Colloquial tamil, roughly transalated as 'YO, its an old tonsured widow goin' somewhere with brooms, lets go').
Needless to say, the poor oxen were taxed to fullest and galloped out of there as fast as their legs would carry them. When they reached their destination, Seetha handed the cartman his fare and proceeded to unload her belongings. After this she bent down and stuck her hands into a little compartment built into the cart for storing feed for the animals. She then yanked out her darling daughter, flicked the straw from her hair and escorted her inside, all adorned & decked in about 100 sovereigns (~ 1 kilogram) of gold jewelry. The quick witted woman had looked the dreaded bandit Chembulingam in the eye, lied through her teeth and gotten away with it!
Chembulingam went on to plunder many others and give away his loot to charity. He met with, and was greatly influenced by the 19th century Irish missionary Amy Carmichael and even entrusted his daughter to be raised by the missionaries at the Dohnavur fellowship. He was eventually hunted down and killed by the British, but tales of his legendary exploits still live on in present day Tirunelveli a 100 years later.
As for Seetha, her mitochondrial lineage & legacy lives on through her female descendants in the United States a 100 years later, and will continue through her great-great grand daughters, two beautiful cousins, one a beautiful, intelligent & talented doctor in the making, and the other, a cherubic, bright eyed, mop topped toddler with a penchant for chomping ice cubes and offering giggle inducing sound bytes like 'Mamm Mamm say cheese' when I, Seetha's great-grand-daughter, set up my latest recipe creations to photograph for this blog.
|Bhageerathi, Sundaram Iyer & 2 of their kids, circa 1920s
Stories of courage, determination & love abound within all our families. I recently came across a poignantly beautiful article from Zesterdaily.com, published recently, symbolizing a father's love & support for his daughter, written by well known culineer & cookbook author Raghavan Iyer as a tribute to his late father. The masala milk described in the article combined with a surefire formula for posset by Mrs Larkin yields the inspiration for this weeks recipe.
Posset is a custardy pudding that traces its origins to medieval England. The original versions were simply boiled spiced milk curdled with ale or wine. In present times, it is a silky velvety custard (minus eggs) with a hint of tartness from the lemon juice used to curdle the cream.
My version of posset uses Palm jaggery (panam karupatti in Tamil), in a nod to this yummy sweetening agent used commonly in Tirunelveli even today. Please feel free to substitute with regular jaggery.
For the Posset, you need:
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup Jaggery
1/4 cup confectioners sugar
1/4-1/2 tsp powdered cardamom
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Combine the jaggery with 2 tablespoons of water and melt in a microwave till completely dissolved. Strain and set aside.
Heat the cream with the cardamom, and jaggery. Taste to determine sweetness & add the confectioners sugar, a tablespoon at a time to required sweetness. Stir to completely dissolve the sugar. allow the cream to come to a boil. Take care to ensure that it does not boil over.
Remove from heat and add lemon juice stirring the mixture. Allow to cool for 15 minutes.
Strain & pour into individual ramekins and allow to set in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.
Garnish with pistachio shavings and serve chilled.