I was a small boy. I was at ammathu (mother’s house) for some occasion. I don’t remember what the occasion was. It was, however, a huge one. Several people including relatives, friends, and neighbours, had gathered. A stupendous feast was being served. People sat in line cross-legged on the floor to take part in the feast. The food was served on plantain leaves. We children used to serve small and light items such as chips, salt, pickles, etc. while adults served heavy items such as rice, sambar, etc. I also took part in serving several items along with other children.
I was serving paayasam (rice pudding) (with rice, jaggery and coconut milk as ingredients). It was less solid and more liquid. The moment you pour it onto the plantain leaf, it starts spreading to all sides and the person has to immediately use his hand to move it to the centre and also to consume it with hand at the same time. Actually what you do is, when you move your hands on the paayasam it comes into your hand and you immediately pour it into your mouth. (It is not very easy, one needs to learn it by practice. These days, nobody wants to take the trouble. Small plastic bowls are used instead, so that you can just drink it like tea or coffee. Also, nobody wants to sit on the floor, everywhere chairs and tables are used. A consequence of modernization and people turning away from tradition! I am a victim of this, too!)
My best friend Balan’s (C.G. Balakrishnan) father Govindan was among the people who were enjoying the feast. (He was popularly known as vallyasan, literally meaning the elder teacher. The family traditionally ran a kalari – a tiny school where small children learned the three R’s, something like the modern pre-nursery. When his son Raman [Balan’s elder brother, who was called kochasan, literally the younger teacher] took over the kalari, vallyasan retired, but the title stuck.) He was quite old at that time with failing eye sight. I was serving paayasam from a steel bucket using a ladle. As everybody does, and as everybody should do lest the paayasam spreads and flows out of the leaf, the moment I poured it onto the leaf, he started consuming it using his hand. When I served the second ladle, I immediately found that there was a dead pazhuthara (a poisonous centipede) in the paayasam which had also been served. I was stunned and shocked. I didn’t know what to do. Before I could tell or even think of what to do, he took it in his hand along with paayasam and poured into his mouth. I was terrified. I ran back to the kitchen. I was terribly shivering from fright. I put the vessel in the kitchen and ran to a distant corner and sat there terribly upset and panting.
I started crying due to fear. I knew the insect was poisonous, very poisonous indeed. I thought he would die immediately and I would be held responsible, since I had served the dish. I was profusely sweating, too. Seeing the commotion and my unnatural behaviour, ammayi (maternal aunt) rushed to me.
She asked, “What has happened? Why are you sitting here? Are you ill?”
She felt my forehead to see if I had fever. I didn’t. I was so much agitated that I could not tell her anything for some time. She started getting more worried.
She assured me, “Don’t worry, whatever is the matter, tell me. We shall find a solution.”
After some moments I told her. “There was a pazhuthara in the paayasam that I served to vallyasan.”
Ammayi was shocked and terrified too. She too was at a loss to say anything. After a few moments she said, “Don’t worry, I will immediately go and tell him not to take it.”
I told her, “But he has already swallowed it along with paayasam.”
She was more quite this time. She began to get panicked, too.
After several moments she told me, “All right. You don’t worry. Nothing will happen to him. Okay? But do not tell this to anybody. Otherwise there will be panic and lot of problems.”
She asked me to go the other room, so that others didn’t notice me sitting in the corner and sobbing which would have attracted more questions.
For the next several days I feared that any moment the news could be heard that vallysasan had passed away. For two or three days I didn’t even go to ammathu for fear of hearing the unfortunate news. But nothing happened and vallyasan lived for several more years.
I will, however, never forget the panic that struck me that day and the consolation that ammayi gave me despite being panicked herself.