No, not that gold. Let me state outright that I loathe gold and jewelry. Apparently that makes me a deviant weirdo, but so be it. I do not wear - and never did - a thaali, the gold chain and special pendant that every self-respecting married Tamil Hindu woman is supposed to proudly adorn herself with. Having anything hanging around my neck makes me ill-tempered, I told my husband in the heady early days of our courtship, the ideal time to sneak in such notions; besides, I saw no reason why I should wear a symbol of being married while my husband was not similarly obliged.
As a child and teenager, my mother would beg me any time we had to attend a wedding or any other function, “Wear a chain and one bangle at least”, and I would refuse. My mother took consolation in the age-old sentiment that is conveyed through clenched teeth from one generation to the next: “Wait until you have your own daughter, then you’ll understand how I feel.” It is with a mix of delight and miffed resignation at the unfairness of it all that she sees how much my daughter enjoys jewelry and dressing up.
No, I was off to buy another form of gold altogether, one that does not share any of the physical or chemical properties of the metal, but that deserves to be as precious, as sought after. I am talking about ghee, the elixir that elevates food to ambrosial heights.
My mother had read an article about a little shop that sold fresh, homemade ghee, and I decided that I had to buy some. One can read wildly contradicting reports about ghee, from those that malign it as a lethal toxin that will cause your heart to choke and sputter to a halt to others that hail it as the golden nectar of life, the magic potion that kept the rishis of old alive and kicking long beyond the normal limits of life expectancy. I believe that anything in moderation is fine, and when that thing is ghee, my definition of moderation gets sharply redefined to embrace parameters of generous proportions (much like my waistline).
The ghee shop was in Mylapore, the ancient core of Madras, its spiritual heart and soul. If you want to get a flavor of a city that is uniquely, untaintedly Madras, go to Mylapore. It is the crucible in which that quintessentially Madras creature, the Maami, is forged, with her jasmine flowers, rustling silk sarees, plump benevolence, razor sharp mind and insatiable appetite for gossip and intrigue. It is a teeming, bustling place, its narrow streets jam-packed with tiny shops that sell a mind-boggling array of products and services, from glistening, farm-fresh vegetables to jewelry for Bharata Natyam and other classical dances, from banana leaves and fresh flowers to glittery costumes for dolls. Shoes, clothing, decorating accessories, vessels, electronics, crisp dosais and pillowy-soft idlis, all these and more can be found in its shops, but at laughably low prices, as this is a world far-removed from the glitzy air-conditioned malls that have infested other parts of the city. But this is no backward place, shrinking from the modern world and its needs. Wander into its ever-narrowing warren of streets and you will find competing throngs of “abroad packers”, who will pack, for a song, the myriad things that people living abroad take back with them - pickles, powders, furniture, fragile handicrafts. They will give you their word, with resolute confidence, that not a drop of oil will leak from the pickle packets they seal, not a crack will appear on the most delicate artifact they pack. And I, and everybody I know who has used them, have never known this confidence to be misplaced.
Long, long before Madras, as it is today, came into being, Mylapore - a distortion of its original name, Maiyiladapuram, such a beautifully evocative name that means the abode of the dancing peacocks - was a thriving place, significant enough that it has been written about for over 2000 years. Yes, 2000. It is believed that the great Tamil poet-philospher, Thiruvalluvar, lived and composed his immortal couplets here; the Apostle Thomas, who brought Christianity to India, preached in these parts, and for a while, legend held that his bones were interred somewhere in Mylapore. The great 2nd century Greco-Roman geographer Ptolemy has made mention in glowing terms of the great port of Mylarphon, to which Greeks and Romans of antiquity traveled for trade and commerce. Several hundreds of years later in the 7th and 8th centuries when the Pallava dynasty reached its pinnacle, Mylapore, along with Mamallapuram, was a major port town from where traders and priests made their way to, and left their impact on, several lands of south east Asia. Fast forward a few more centuries, and one has reports of this place by Arab traders and Nestorian Christians and one of the best-known of the travelers of the middle ages, Marco Polo. There was a lull of a couple of centuries, and then the Portuguese established themselves there at the start of the era of exploration and colonization. Luiz Vaz de Camoens, widely considered Portugal’s greatest poet, wrote, in the 16th century, of Mylapore in his poem The Lusiads:
Here rose the potent city, Meliapore
Named, in olden time rich, vast and grand:
Her sons their golden idols did adore,
As still adoreth that iniquitous band......
That iniquitous band (huh, really? I will restrain myself from expressing what I feel about such a characterization) must have worshipped in the Kapalishwara Temple, the backbone of Mylapore, the fountainhead of its essence, inextricably linked with its history and identity. This temple - although not its present physical incarnation - has a tradition and antiquity that go back as far as 2000 years. The great Saivite poet-saints, the Nayanmars, make mention of a temple by the seashore, in which “The Lord of Kapalishwara sat watching the people of Mylapore, a place full of flowering coconut palms, taking ceremonial baths in the sea on the full moon day of the month of Masi”; and, “Oh, lord of the Mylapore temple, situated on the shores of the sea with raging waves....”
The Portuguese, in their push to establish their power and religion on these shores established their settlement, San Thome, with its own place of worship (since rebuilt as a cathedral by the British) in the 16th century. The cathedral, a striking looking building in the neo-Gothic style, infuses Mylapore with its own particular aura and character, adding another layer of richness to the vibrant life of the neighborhood. The temple on the seashore ceased to exist - whether at the hands of the Portuguese, or due to natural causes, is something that is not certain. A new temple, the one that stands to this day in the heart of Mylapore, was built at some point after. The exact dates are in dispute; it is around 300 years old now.
In honor of the many Nayanmar (Saivite) poet-saints who lived and composed in and about the Kapalishwara Temple, there are beautiful bronze-cast idols of each of them in the temple. These idols, 63 of them, are taken out in procession in an annual festival called the Brahmotsavam, a grand event that brings the Kapalishwara Temple great renown and acclaim.
Mylapore, steeped in history and tradition, has a vibe like no other place in Madras. In the family of neighborhoods that make up this city, Mylapore is the Maami, the venerable aunt-matriarch, a far cry and distinct from Boat Club, the old moneyed socialite, Perambur, the rogue brother-in-law, or Neelankarai, the 3rd cousin twice removed.
This, then, was where I was headed to buy my ghee. I had a few other errands to run, mostly in and around Mylapore, an area notorious for its traffic and lack of parking facilities. So I hired a driver for the morning, a smart young man named Krishnan, who greeted me with a sharp salute and in close to flawless English, “Good morning, Madam, I am Krishnan, your driver for the day”. I was taken aback - I have never spoken to any driver in anything other than Tamil. We chatted a bit in the car - he, in government school-tarnished English, and I, in years-in-America-tarnished Tamil. His English fell apart quite rapidly, and my Tamil won out. Eager to impress me as a cautious and sensible driver, he crawled along the road in first gear, the car sputtering along with little jumps as it attempted to muster up the momentum to keep moving. I told him, gently, that he could go a little faster, and at that, the carefully confined beast came roaring out of him as he dashed through the city at top speed, weaving his way dangerously close to buses and autorickshaws, arguing and snapping at anyone who dared come anywhere near him. The roads and traffic of Madras turned that Dr. Jekyll into a Mr. Hyde!
The ghee shop - Ganapathy’s Butter and Ghee - is in a small lane off one of the Mada Streets of the Kapalishwara Temple (the Mada Streets are those that abut the large temple tank in front of the western facade of the temple). The traffic and chaos are unbelievable, but it is also great fun being there, to be in such a vibrantly alive part of the city, to witness a way of life and living largely unspoiled by modern distractions and attractions and yet to feel very much part of a contemporary world.
A mouthwateringly heady, nutty aroma greeted me when I entered the shop. A tiny but impeccably tidy place, it was crammed from floor to ceiling with all manner of goodies beloved to the south Indian diet - podis (powders) made from a staggering variety of dals, nuts, seeds and leaves; dozens of vadaams (made from pastes of dried flours and pulses) of all shapes and sizes, waiting to bloom into crispy deliciousness after being fried in hot oil; vatrals (dried berries), pickles, biscuits, jams and so much more. Deepavali is around the corner, and Ganapathy’s had, in readiness for those who might over-indulge in sweets and other festival foods, little bottles of Deepavali lehyams that would aid digestion and soothe stomachs. And in large dented square tins, the liquid gold I had come seeking. Fresh ghee, a richly burnished treasure glowing quietly in its container. The air was suffused with the bouquet of the silken fat, and it was making my mouth tingle, my tummy growl.
The shop had ghee made from both cow’s butter and buffalo’s butter. The buffalo ghee was a light beige-gray, and the man helping me called it eating ghee. He explained that it was used only for eating, as opposed to cow’s ghee which was used both for eating as well as for religious rituals. His personal preference was for buffalo ghee - he said it had a much richer, deeper flavor. All the ghee is made fresh early every morning from butter that arrives newly churned, each day, from Uthukuli, a pasture-rich place to the south and west of Madras. Pure Uthukuli butter, gleaming white in color, is also sold. I bought a quarter kilo of the buffalo’s ghee, and half a kilo of the cow’s ghee, salivating at the thought the meals I would enjoy with them (while deftly pushing aside thoughts of what they would do to my waistline). I also bought some vadams (excellent, said the owner, made by a family in Kumbakonam) and parippu podi (dal powder), made inhouse.
I enjoyed a very pleasant time in the shop talking to the owner and his assistant. They were eager to answer any questions I had and took such pride in their little shop. The owner was garrulous and full of tales about various far-flung members of his family, all of whom seemed to be getting in and out of some scrape or the other. He wanted to know where I lived. When I told him New York, he wanted to know where in New York, and when I told him Manhattan, he told me his daughter’s brother-in-law - a very famous doctor, he said, who had saved the lives of many famous people - also lived in Manhattan. He lived in a part of Manhattan called Queens, he told me, but had recently moved to another part of Manhattan called New Jersey. I did not have the heart to correct any of his information.
Alas, in packing up for my return to New York, I left the ghee behind. So, this just means that the next time I am in Madras, I will make another trip to Ganapathy’s. What a nice thing to look forward to!