Every Malayali has memories of that visit from a distant relative, returning from gulf. The visit from a returning comrade from foreign shores is a much celebrated grand event in every household in Kerala like the planned state Bandh and Onam. The house gets a good cleaning and quick makeover with fresh bed sheets and curtains. The noisy neighbourhood kids hanging around in orchards of mangoes and cashews nuts get shooed away. Women folk in the household go on a non-stop cooking and cleaning marathon. They even manage to nag and get the bare-chested men in Lungis basking in front of TV like sunbathing lizards to put down their morning paper, shower and put on a shirt. Even the pet dog gets a bath and a new leash. Mostly probably a new spot to languish and bark ,far away from the house. It is like a preparation for a full-scale military inspection.
Malayali culture dictates that irrespective of social stature and any reason you could probably have, whenever there is an occasion including marriage that invites the presence of relatives or neighbours in your home, you need to keep everything polished and shiny. A hint of pompousness is considered normal in the Mallu society. When there is that much-awaited visit from a gulf relative, there is almost a military style drill in the household with a lot of cleaning, cooking and most importantly nagging.
Hens and goats flee the zone as members of the house prepare to kill and cook anything that walks and looks edible for the welcome feast. No celebration in Kerala is complete without some butchering and cooking. There usually is a lavish feast fit to feed a hungry football team, all waiting for the guest of honour. Everyone hopes that it keeps the returning NRI comrades, with new and expensive taste in food happy.
After much confusion and noise, you can find a squeaky clean house, some annoyed men, some very impatient and hungry kids dressed in their best along with the women folk, who by now are tired with all the nagging and cooking. Some uncle somewhere murmurs, “Flight is late, he is on the way!” The good part of all this, the returning comrades usually bring in big suitcases laden with treats and goodies from far off lands. Things like fancy chocolates, perfumes you don’t get locally, toys that are cooler than the garb you got at the local exhibition, expensive booze etc is up for grabs after the awkward exchange of greetings and lunch.
Post lunch, the room would be filled with glowing eyes as the now well-fed gulf uncle opens up stuff got from some far away land and starts the official distribution of goodies. After some confusion, some uninhibited display of sibling rivalry, some crying , some pacifying, the men move on to the foreign “kuppi”, the prized bottle of foreign booze every Malayali loves. Soon there are discussions on how and when it should be opened, with what combination of cooked animal. As the women and kids make peace with the trophies they bagged, grandpas drift off to sleep in easy-chairs in veranda. The normal chatter in the house is soon restored along with the noisy house pets that were banished temporarily. Pretty soon, the chocolates are wolfed down, the noisy pets are back on the front porch, and the bare-chested men in Lungis find their favourite spot to languish. The rumours of the next visit by some gulf relative passes around the house.
During one such visit, a noisy pack of us kids, were driven off from a grove of mangoe trees that we had occupied throughout the summer. We searched for newer pastures to forage. We passed groves of trees guarded by boundary walls, big scary dogs and big scary watchmen. We came across this field of trees. There were all sorts of fruits: Mangoes, Jackfruit, Cashew nuts, Guava, Cocoa. You name it, it was there. The seeds of cocoa are used for making chocolate. The cocoa tree is a really short tree. You don’t have to really aim for the fruit with rocks like you do with cashews or mangoes. If you are tall enough you can just pluck off the ripe yellow Cocoa pod from the tree and savour the soft white insides of the fruit. The dark violet really bitter, yucky, disgusting stuff or the pit as we call it, is the stuff they use for making chocolates. We generally eat the fruit and throw away the rest.
A ripe yellow pod of cocoa peeped through the green backdrop at seven hungry children. The youngest one among us Jayakuttan, wasted no time and was on the tree. But before we could make another move “Edaa”, yelled an angry old voice from the tiny house on the property. We ran. The good part about being a kid is that you can run very fast when you have to. No workout, no gym, no training required. We soon passed the hot paddy field ridden with funny insects, tortoises and the shy water snake, called ‘ Neerkoli’ (Stick on water) in local language. There were tadpoles in the water and it was a tempting idea to catch a few of them in some empty Horlicks bottle.
But, it was sick hot and we quickly diverted back to exploring well-shaded areas of the neighbourhood. There was this marked plot with a lots of cashew trees. We played around, climbed the tree, ate the ripe cashew fruit & even collected the dark grey hard as rock nuts on the ground. It soon became a frenzied adventure and we scouted the area till evening for collecting the nuts. We hauled in enough seeds to fill 5 empty Amulya milk powder cans. It was a lot and we were really happy. There was only one problem. Raw cashew nuts don’t exactly look anything like the white crunchy delicious thing you get at store. These are blackish grey, hard seeds that are filled with acid that burns.
We took our heap of raw nuts to our neighbour. “You need to roast them over fire.”, said the grown up.
Soon we were scouting for twigs, anything we could find to burn. Soon there was this huge heap of fire with cashews crackling in the heat. The aroma of roasted cashews was awesome. It smells like a beautiful vacation by the beach surrounded by cashew trees. You could smell it for miles. It was so good that the gulf uncle in the neighbour’s house enquired about the aroma.
Meanwhile we were done roasting the nuts. We started opening the charred nuts with rocks to get the soft edible part inside. A can full of raw nuts gives you about a fistful of edible nuts. Our neighbour took a fistful of it for Gulf uncle to try while we got down and dirty cracking up the rest of the batch. We transferred all of it into a big vessel and grinned happily. We, amateurs had made this yummy food. Gulf uncle soon asked for a second helping.
“Sure 🙂 We have plenty!” And we gave the vessel happily to our neighbour excepting it back with some nuts and fancy ass gulf chocolates thrown in. We waited for the vessel to come back but after long time, there was no sign of it. Finally, our neighbour came back and gave us the empty vessel. Gulf uncle had wolfed down all the nuts and left us a bag of mint chocolates in return. We quickly pounced on them. They tasted like medicinal toothpaste laced with milk chocolate. It was disappointing.
Neighbour uncle in lungi was back lounging on the veranda with the day’s Manorama paper. The neighbourhood chicken slowly made its way back home, perhaps relieved at surviving lunch for the day. As the sun sank among the clouds, the aroma of the cashews still wafted in the air. We walked back home with the funny tasting chocolates, that Jayakuttan swore were made in China and got from the local bus stop.
Of all the gulf uncles from childhood, we probably won’t forget our neighbour’s gulf uncle. He ate our cashew nuts. All of it! Sigh!