Monday, February 11, 2008

In Memory Of ...

If you were alarmed at reading that headline, don’t be. It’s not directly about anyone shaking off the mortal coils, it’s just about how their families choose to perpetuate their memories after they do.

Of course, this piece will also take into account how people ensure you remember the auspicious occasions too. The method is largely similar – give away steel/silver items engraved with the name of the dead or the stars of the occasion. I’m not sure if this custom exists elsewhere, but it certainly does in the South, especially in my home State of Andhra Pradesh, and quite a few utensils in many homes are courtesy such fortunate/unfortunate events. Party favours, if you can call them that, only, the party needn’t have been for anything very joyful!

I’ve tried to find out how and why the custom started but all I can gauge is that as ceremonies of all sorts got grander, the turmeric and kumkum and coconut and betel leaf doled out at poojas and weddings began to be accompanied by more permanent keepsakes. Depending on your finances, competitive spirit or a conventional or need-to-reciprocate mindset, you choose between a steel tumbler, plate or vessel or the same in silver and maybe even gold. (Actually, I don’t think silver or gold objects are given away at death ceremonies; I have also seen copies of the Gita being distributed.) Nowadays, some of us choose to give out china or porcelain, and I am glad for the variety – they look good in the glass cabinet, and I can use them for the blog!

My Dad tells of how his father, his attention diverted at lunch by one such tumbler duly engraved with the name of the dead and the date of the passing, roared at no one in particular that all “these dirty, wretched, morbid, depressing dishes” should be thrown out of the house. When Grandad left this world six years ago, he had no say in the matter, and we had a merry discussion on the memento we should choose to hand out to the attendees at the final death ceremony. “A steel tumbler,” said one. “Come on, tumblers are passé, let’s think of something different,” said another. “How about a dabba (container)?” “No, too common, what about a tray?” “Ah, but not everyone (read domestic help) will use trays,” pointed out another. Ultimately, however, we settled on trays, procured several hundreds of them and issued them to all those who attended.

I was in charge, with an aunt, of collaring these people as they left the venue, making sure they didn’t leave trayless, but in the bargain, found myself facing one or two who came back for seconds. “Er … but didn’t you just take one?” I asked a guy who had demanded one just 10 minutes ago, claiming he was the postman. “Yes, but I need one more,” he said. At this point, my aunt said, “No, only one per person,” and that was the end of that.

Of course, you have to make sure that you give out one favour per couple, and ensure, amidst all the chaos, that everybody has got one. “Hey, did my mother-in-law get one? She came specially for this occasion,” says a harried daughter-in-law, while someone else says, “Listen, make sure you give so-and-so a couple – last time, they let us know they didn’t get one.” Then there are those families which, once they get the load from their daughter-in-law’s parents, decide it’s too good to share with all and sundry, and end up keeping quite a bit for themselves. (It’s a widespread tradition for the bride’s parents to supply the groom’s family with boxes full of sweets, which the latter distributes when the daughter-in-law arrives at their home.)

Death and marriage are not the only occasions. There’s the housewarming, birthday parties, Satyanarayana Vratams and the pre-puberty and puberty functions. (Now, why can’t we have a nice, euphemistic term like ‘coming of age’ to describe these - whenever I enter a hotel and see these events announced so bluntly, my delicate sensibilities are offended.)

In many homes, every time we get containers of something special from family and friends, we read the inscription on the dish to make sure it’s theirs before we send it back. “In memory of K. Subba Rao, 9.9.1998” has to be the dabba of a cousin whose husband’s maternal uncle bore that name, while a similar dish inscribed with another Subba Rao of a different initial (or Appa Rao or Krishna Rao or Venkata Rao) would be our neighbour’s. Some have their names inscribed just to ensure they don't get mixed up.

I’ve got a motley collection of such stuff which keeps going in and out of my house, some which others insist isn’t theirs but mine alright, but for the life of me, I don’t know who Swetha is, and why her “flower-adornment ceremony” (???) dabba is in my kitchen!

Note: All names and dates are entirely fictional and any match with any persons, other creatures and objects dead or alive is purely coincidental.

What does all this have to do with the paneer recipe I’m presenting here? Well, the steel dish you see in the picture is one such favour, and I really enjoy using it – I haven't checked to see if it’s of the ‘in memoriam’ variety or the happy variety, but I’m glad to have it.

Paneer – 200 gm, cubed
Tomato puree – 3 tbsp
Ginger – 1-inch piece
Bay leaves – 3
Cumin seed – ½ tsp
Turmeric – ½ tsp
Coriander powder – 1-1/2 tsp
Red chilli powder – 1 tsp
Salt – to taste
Cashew nuts – 2 tbsp
Almonds, blanched – 2 tbsp
Oil – 3 tsp
Water – ¾ cup + ½ cup
Kasoori methi/dried fenugreek leaves – 1 tbsp

Grind the cashew, almonds, cumin and ginger to a paste with a little water.

Heat the oil in a wok. Add the bay leaf. Lower flame and add the paste. Stir.

Stir-fry for 10 minutes till the paste leaves the sides of the wok.

Add the red chilli powder, coriander powder and turmeric. Cook for half a minute.

Add the tomato puree. Cook for 3-4 minutes.

Add ¾ cup water. Boil.

Add the salt and the kasoori methi.

Lower flame and add the ½ cup of water, cook for a few minutes till it reaches the consistency you want. Or you could skip this step if the consistency is good enough for you.

Add paneer to the gravy, cook for about 5-7 minutes till heated well through. Serve.

Please keep those entries coming for AFAM-Pomegranate.


  1. are talk about such taboo things...****...and then you give us such a treat of paneer!...God all for a a dabba!..hhahaha...I wish I could just tilt it over to see from whom you got that dabba!...:D

  2. great read...This reminds me of the handmade chocolates that we gave as a return gift after my sibling's wedding..and I had people use the phrase..."Oh , just these..we expected more"..

    Nice paneer dish.Different from my version..

    and is this the so-called dish from Swetha's flower adornment ceremony? :D

  3. Last yr this time I was in India doing exactly the same thing for my grand mother-in-laws final death ceremony (Yeah she was 96!) We made a list of all the names and as each of the dabbas (caserole) were given to the people their name was ticked off, meaning no more dabba for you now! :P

    Oopes..... I forgot to read the paneer recipe in the hurry to comment... let me go back. :)

  4. THANK GOD we don't have that puberty ceremony rituals in my family! I would have died of embarrassment!:P
    Love that bowl and dish. Y'day,I went to World market and saw a bowl made in India like that and it costs $15, which is ridiculous!! I bought a Kadai which so thin but it's made in India!:))

  5. Srivalli, I just checked it, I know now :)
    Rachel, some people can be so tiresome! No, this is an 'in-memory-of' dish
    Coffee, oh, so it's prevalent among Gujaratis too?
    Asha, we don't have those ceremonies either, thank God! You know, this dish was branded Nokia!

  6. Thats a hilarious post SRA :). I donno abt the giving those gifts at someone's death, but we have them at every other occasion...Uff, its such a headache. Some people make an issue for not getting one :).

    Paneer looks great :)

  7. I got so many dabbas with the names of those who gifted them to me engraved........the paneer dish looks perfect

  8. That was such a fun read.. very well written!

    The paneer recipe in the post was like a surprise.. :)

  9. Lovely essay! Thank goodness we do not have to give any return gift for death related occasions and double thank goodness that we do not have any special occasions for girls reaching a certain stage.

    Incidentally, when I was in India a few months ago, I brought back some steel bowls and tumblers only because they had my date of birth or my first birthday inscribed on them, and some of the people who gifted it to me (when I didn't even know what a gift is) are now no more.

  10. Though a southern state, I dont think we have such returning gift system in kerala, atleast not to my knowledge, among pure mallus.....but i rememeber my grandma gifting us some steel plates with our kids names engraved on it on our b'days et al..which is kinda cute and my mom still keeps such priceless collections :)

  11. Oh I didnt know that these engravings were done on return gifts also, and definitely not for shradhh ceremonies! I have quite a few , but all given in dowry to Mom or to MIL....and I would have been mortified to be put on a stage when I attained puberty! Once upon a time it was the way to announce that the girl was ready for marriage but now??...

    The paneer recipe is a good one - and BTW, i have the exact same dabba(you can check it out on my sindhi sai bhaji post)....yes, got as a return gift, but not sure who..:), no engraving!

  12. had a good laugh! luckily in our custom we don't have both the puberty and death ceremonies:) but my mom has a tough time remembering blouse bits (for those who don't know what that is 80-90 cms of cotton/polyster/other such materials used to stitch blouse for sarees). She, by mistake, couple of times, returned them back to their 'distributors' and oh my! and mind you these days 80-90 cms won't do... 1 metre or more!

  13. Well wonderful read.
    Am a glad i am living here and nobody expect to do these things :-)
    Love the paneer dish.
    Have posted a AFAM for you, will send the mail tommorow :-)

  14. Sra I want to see Shweta's dabba :-D and what the hell is a flower adornment ceremony anyway???
    You are perfect for Monday morning!

  15. There is a jar in my mom's house. Whoever gifted not only engraved their name and city, but mine too. He made sure we never re-gifted it ;)

  16. Wonderful reading and awesome paneer dish ....

  17. Priceless!
    The preamble did a great dis-service to the paneer recipe....almost missed it.

  18. I know what you mean, it is all about the blog and what you can use for it! :)

    Mmm ... I haven't had paneer in a while, now you've gotten me thinking - the flavours in your recipe sound divine!

  19. That was a lovely read Sra, enjoyed every bit of it including the paneer :D I totally remember how it with these 'party favours' gosh, its the best way to accumulate steel vessels of all shapes and sizes. Like my granny always said, you can use it at your daughter's wedding :P It passes on and on, till someday someone decided to use it instead of re-gifting it again..hehe

  20. Nice "dabba" story, Sra :). And you know, long ago, during my Grandma's times, all the brass and copper utensisls used to have the owner's/household's name inscribed on them :).

    Great paneer dish, btw! YUMMY!

  21. Shilpa, thanks. You know, we also have the custom of neighbours and relatives bringing sweets for the residents of a house where a death has occurred - not food, just sweets. I wonder how that came about.
    Bhags, yes, I can imagine. Don't think anyone who gave me dabbas as gifts got their names engraved on it.
    Laavanya, thank you. I wanted to do some doodling for this piece to break the text but I didn't have the patience. And the paneer recipe was quite sudden, yes.
    ET, we don't have the coming of age ceremonies in my family either. But they are alive and kicking everywhere else, all the more so in the US where there's a large expat community trying to hold on to their roots.
    I'm not talking about inscribing per se - it's useful if the owner's names are mentioned, less confusion - it just struck me as funny because I'm struggling with too many of these dishes in my storeroom - I'm certain at least a couple aren't mine, but I don't know where they came from.
    Shn, of course they're cute - I'm not talking about stuff like that at all. I'm just talking about this eagerness to conform, return, give back to society, and demand such stuff as part of the dowry - now the last bit I do disapprove.
    Miri, it's probably no longer a way to advertise the girl's ready for marriage but a way to get the family together, show off, etc.
    Latha, that's really hilarious - we all face that when we recycle gifts. I remember these blouse bits are often accompanied by small tiffin plates.
    Happy Cook, try living in the US! There's even more pressure there than in India, at least from what I see.
    Ashwini, so nice of you to say that. I myself dunno what the heck a flower-adornment ceremony is - probably a euphemism for puberty, but I'm just guessing. I asked a knowledgeable uncle and even he didn't know - he guesses it could be the occasion where a girl's hair is braided with flowers, she's put in a silk skirt and photographed in a mirror with the braid showing - but I never knew it was a ceremony at all - I really don't know.
    Suganya, wise person, that one! I'm not sure but I think I've heard that the engravement can be erased.
    Deepa, thank you.
    Cooker, thanks. Yeah, I didn't quite know how to signal there was a recipe ahead - I hate compromising with the post of the title. :)
    Kaykat, I knew you'd understand. ;) Thanks.
    Namratha, yes. And by the time daughters and granddaughters grow up, we can probably boast about their antique/ almost-antique/ heritage value.
    Musical, yes, I'm familiar with that tradition - tho' I've never come across that in my own home. Even when a bride went to her in-laws', all the stuff she took was inscribed - and guess what, it could even have been inscribed with her dad's name to signify he had supplied them, my aunt told me.

  22. As always, a wonderful read! And what about the umpteen deepams of various sizes - I never know what to do with so many.

  23. what an awesome account... i have so many tiffins/tumblers/odd dishes inscribed with myriad names and for the life of me dont know if they belong to me or just got here and stayed here...god knows who cursed me for not returning their dabbas!!

    talking of inscriptions on steel the Andhra univ hostel in vizag, every utensil at the hostel mess is inscribed in telugu with "this has been stolen from the AU hostel mess" so anyone with it in their possession cant pass it off as theirs!!


  24. ah...excellent read...:-)...felt like old days when I read those " should we give dabbas or tumblers" bit....

  25. Very hilarious post Sra.Navvi Navvi kallaneellu vachchayi.Trying to find that particular Subbarao or Apparao?Tough task indeed.Telugu vallalo every fifth person is either this or that Rao.Thank you very much.

  26. this post reallyc racked me up. i completely agree with your dad here. when people give me stuffed marked with their names, it's like a dog peeing to mark its territory, i think.

  27. One more south Indian with a "dabba" comment.
    We do not have this custom of giving away these gifts at any ceremony related to death. But we do for all other "auspicious" celebrations. In fact I have a whole mismatched collection of "eversilver" (to use the old name) stuff in all shapes and sizes, but thankfully not a single one has been "branded" by the giver!
    Btw, Sra, a flower adornment ceremony is a part of a function celebrated in the eighth month of pregnancy when all the married women in the family and invitees to the function adorn the hair of the mother-to-be with small pieces of strung flowers.

  28. I u'stand that so much Sra...i too look at some dishes in the house, n then wonder, who / where / what??? after seeing the inscribings...strange. Nice paneer

  29. the paneer dish looks yummy! Love the post!

  30. Sra, I've missed reading your posts! As usual I am so enraptured by the tale you weave, I can barely read the recipe. Plenty of time to come back for that (and it's looking really delicious so you know I'll be back!).

    In my family, when nana passed away, no trays or tumblers were forthcoming -- but in similarly motley fashion, shortly before the memorial service, numerous "cousins" appeared to clean out what was left of the dishes in her pantry. Happily, nana herself gave most of those away when she was still lucid and able to gift whom she chose ;)

  31. Are you serious? I have never heard of giving out keepsakes during a funeral! But I do stay away from those anyway.... Can't believe people came back for seconds at a funeral, no actually I can believe that..

    It was a great read :)

  32. Mamatha, thank you so much. If it's silver, you can exchange them for something else :) - I dunno what to do with brass deepams but then most of these handouts have been vessels.
    Arundathi, this AU story sounds familiar. Many institutions do this, put their names in bold letters on their property so that everyone knows to whom it belongs!
    Santhi, hi, the debates can be quite lively.
    Satya, welcome. Mimmalni navvinchagaliginanduku santosham. Yes, every fourth or fifth person is a Rao and most of them used to be Subba Raos - not too many of them now!
    Bee, actually I've not got a gift marked with anyone's name, just these mementos. I agree, it's quite sick when someone tries to remind you of their largesse vis-a-vis gifts.
    Aparna, pregnant women? I'm not sure, let me check my dabba, I think it said Kumari Swetha (Miss Swetha). The actual term used was Pushpalankarana.
    Shella, it IS a problem, isn't it?
    Uma, welcome, and thank you.
    Linda, yeah, I've heard of that happening. Thanks.
    Sig, thanks. No occasion is too sacrosanct to ask for more, if you're the grabbing type. Yeah, the keepsake is to remind you of the dead person. After I posted this piece, my Dad told me it's an older custom than I imagined but restricted to the family, and that it's taken on larger dimensions now.

  33. U are so funny. I am feeling sick, but reading cracked me up. I cant believe how our people ask for seconds. I have seen that and totally understand what you are saying

  34. Nice to read this post.....the paneer dish is looking good...Love this....

  35. Shankari, yes, we're quite blatant when it comes to 'free gifts'.
    Sukanya, you're back! Thanks.

  36. It looks too good:) lovely pics you have here:)

  37. Hysterical, Sra. This post reminds me of the commemorative lucite deal trophies cluttering up Wall Street offices. They are called "tombstones." LOL!

    I'll be trying your paneer recipe soon; had such good luck with your makhmali a while back.

  38. RV, welcome, and thank you.
    Susan, :-D It's late but I can't immediately understand what a deal trophy is - something to commemorate striking a deal - no problem, will look it up. This recipe worked well.