Translated by V. Ramanan
It all happened like this. A Jewish woman had called us for dinner. You may ask me, what was unusual about it. I had been to many gatherings and celebrations with dinner hosted by all kinds of people,- Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, but never a Jew. As a result, I and my wife were looking for the appointed day eagerly.
Our host’s husband was a writer. The novel he wrote was an interesting one , though the writing was not up to the mark. The whole story happens inside a moving train in Siberia. Though he had approached many a producer of films with his story, nobody was courageous enough to make a movie out of it.
When we went to Ora’s ( that is her name) home that night, her husband was away. She was alone with her mother. It was also for the good, after all, writers need their escape once in a while. She showed us our seats and said that her mother was in the kitchen and would soon join us in our conversations. The dinner table was nearby. We could see the table laden with dishes stacked up to a height that could feed some 20 people, but when Ora told us that we were only the two invited for dinner. I and my wife looked at each other in muted disbelief, our individual efforts to hide our consternation was palpable.
Ora was a pert little woman, lively and animated like a sparrow jumping from branch to branch. Her mother emerged from the kitchen. If you stuff your mouth with pebbles and try to pronounce ‘Kulebahavali’, what sound would you get?, that was how her name sounded to us. I do not think I will ever learn to pronounce her name nor put it down on paper, hence I have shortened her name to ‘Sara’. Sara must be over 80. She had a serene face, but with eyes that looked like she was searching for something she had mislaid. She held in her hands two more dishes as she came out and welcomed us. “This item, I have made for you is done only for first time visitors to our homes; it is made out of fermented dough, which is precious in Jewish culture. It is called Aranygaluska. The cake is made out of dough drawn out and flavoured with cinnamon. I just got it out of the stove and it must be eaten piping hot. Please come.”, she called us to the table. With a yellow line drawn in the centre, the cake was large. What is this ?, I panicked. “Half for you and half for your wife”, she said. So much food as could feed an entire village was in front of us, that too which we have never seen before. We went about the food asking for their names, how they are made and how to eat them. “Please eat as much as you want, there is plenty inside”, she kept telling us.
Sara was a connoisseur when it came to food. She could judge its quality merely by its flavours; she did not have to taste it. Her daughter would be busy going to market and getting whatever she asked for. Sara would be in a cooking frenzy, thinking up new recipes and trying them out immediately and cooked them very well in deed. She,however, brooked no interference from anybody in her cooking and would express her displeasure if anybody tried to do so, which made others keep their comments to themselves.
Sara was a polyglot. She knew Greek,Italian,Russian,Spanish,French,Hebrew and English. She was ready and willing to speak to us in any language. Since we knew only English, she spoke to us in English and , with her daughter, in Hebrew. She was born in Salonika in Greece. She was a small girl when Greece was invaded by Hitler during the second world war. Life became a hell for Jews thereafter. Their father had collected all their jewels and other valuables and gave them to their Rabbi who in turn surrendered them to the German commander. The Germans had passed orders to that effect. All the 60,000 Jewish families in Salonika did likewise as they thought it would buy them protection. Actually, things worsened by each passing day.
“You must have been very young then , what is your earliest memories of those days ?”, I asked. “My father was working in a pharmacy. It was the April of 1941. My mother was on her knees and trying to lengthen the skirt my sister was wearing by removing and shortening the fold. In our traditions, it is not proper to stitch clothes off a person. Actually, such stitching is done only on a corpse. The angel of death hovering above would mistake such an act and swoop down to suck the life out of the person. My mother gave an apple to my sister and asked her to eat it making exaggerated movement of her jaws. The angel was supposed to see the movement of the jaws and leave the person as alive and kicking. I too started to pester my mother for an apple. It was at this moment, father came barging in ; “they have come”, he cried. We started to live hidden lives from then on. I did not know that it was a world war, but I knew we needed to live fearfully”.
“It was the new law that Jews should wear an yellow star on their breast when they went out in public. One day she forgot to wear when and stepped out of the house. Fearful and distraught, I cried and rolled on the floor compelling her to come back and wear the yellow star. Seeing this Mother did return home to wear the yellow star before she went out. I still do not know why I behaved the way I did that day. Later in my life, I got to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlett Letters. The protagonist in the story is a woman who begets a child out of wedlock. The towns people ostracise her. An edict is passed against her that whenever she leaves home, she shall wear a blue ribbon on her dress to declare herself culpable of loose morals. One day, she leaves home without the ribbon and her daughter cries and protests likewise and makes her mother wear the ribbon. When I read it, tears welled up in my eyes and I could imagine the pain and suffering my mother would have undergone. Shortly after this incident , I had to separate from my mother,only never to see her afterwards.
“You lived in Salonika right through the War?”, I asked.
“Things were taking a turn for the worse each day. Food had become scarce. Rationing was promulgated. My father would stand in the queue for long hours and get us bread. Once,he took me along with him to stand in the queue. He had never done this ever since the German invasion. I do not know why he did it that day. We were standing in the queue when a long German truck pulled up besides us. They rounded up all Jews and corralled them into the truck and went away. It was so sudden I had even forgotten to cry out loud. My father signalled me to run away with his fingers stuck out of the wire mesh. I can never forget his face as he did so. I never saw my father afterwards. Even now my fathers stricken face comes in my dreams. It has been 70 year since. I have never been able to stand in a queue up to this day. I will swoon if I try to”.
“I , my sister, my brother and mother took refuge in a rich Greek household to remain out of sight. They were friends of my father. They had been loyal to my father. Our main problem was food, rather the lack of it. They had to share with us their rations which was not even enough for themselves. My mother and brother will never leave the house. I and my sister will wander the street and forage for food. Once when we returned after our forays into the street for food, we saw a small crowd gathered in the street where we lived. People were talking about the arrest of our mother and brother by the German army. My sister felt that they must have been betrayed by the Greek household. We did not go back to that house. That day was the first day we slept on the streets.”
“We sometimes even stole food. Those were days of extreme misery and privation. We even dug out the potato seedlings from the farms of poor farmers and ate them raw. We had but one pair to shoes to wear between both of us, the other being totally torn. I would wear one on my right foot and my sister will wear another on her left with the other foot in a swathe of leaves and straw. In those days, we were constantly tormented by hunger and the need to find something to eat. In a way, our lives were like the life of the honey bird which lived in the same forest where we were hiding ourselves, or so it seemed to me. The beautiful tiny ash coloured creature with a red tinge along its neck would be constantly in search of honey , its food, for it has to have its fill of honey equal to its weight every day to stay alive. Whenever I saw the bird, I would be filled with panic, for our fate was similar to its—constantly looking for food to keep alive. I would wonder who will die first, me or the bird. Everyday, when I wake up, I would check if the bird was alive. Sometimes, I would imagine my dying first and the bird hovering over my dead body”.
Staving off hunger day after day was a big struggle. We could have died of hunger any of those days. There was a reason why we survived hunger at all. We had joined an under ground organization that was working against the Nazi regime. Our job was to carry information, sneaking in their wares, do surveillance and spying for them. We were given a pair of shoes and an old coat each for our efforts. This lasted, but a short while.
Somehow, we landed as household helps in a rich Greek household. The fact that it ensured two times food was a matter of immense relief. Cleaning the house, washing clothes, taking care of children-these were the tasks assigned to us. The lady of the house had a strange habit. As soon as she got up from bed in the morning, she would plump down prominently in the double seated recliner in the hall and start passing orders at us. She would lift her hand bag from the table on to her lap whenever she saw us coming into the room. It was our practice to clean the house and show the sweepings in the scoop before we disposed them off; whether it was to seek her approval for our efforts at collecting the dirt or her acquiescence at what was getting thrown as trash , it is difficult to say. One day, very early in the morning we were thrown out of the house. The Police arrested my sister and took her with them. The charge was that she had stolen jewels; it would have been believable if the charge was for stealing food. What we could do with jewels?. She must have been tortured at the Police Station as when she stood up there was blood around her feet. Coming to think of it, I now know that she must have been raped, though she never uttered a word to me about it. In a few days, Germany lost the war and the Second World War came to end.”
The mother and her daughter kept feeding us while telling us the old stories. What we ate was enough for the next three meals. We were served three type of biscuits and two types of cakes. One was called Mamalika, it looked like a cross between our payasam and milk porridge, however the taste was very distinctly different – the taste of dry fruits cooked in honey. So engrossed was I in its taste that my lips stuck to each other and my next question took some time in coming.
When a question was put to her, Sara had a habit of receiving it with a shake of her head and then went on to move it up and down like you would do before draw of lottery. I had noticed this by this time. I asked her, “What did you do thereafter ?” and then waited for her to do this routine and then start her reply. “I and my sister would go to the railway station bringing in train loads of Jews returning from concentration camps. We were hoping against hope to see amongst them our father or brother. A man with an out-sized head and emaciated body emerged from the crowd one day. It was our brother. He recognized us before we could. We could have never recognized him ourselves, such was his state. We hug him and cried our hearts out. There was a tattoo on his forearm as proof of his stay in a concentration camp as an inmate”.
“What about others ? Where were taken ? How he alone escaped ?” I went on , in rapid succession.
“My mother and brother were taken to the newly constructed second concentration camp at Borgaro Auswitchz in Poland. My father was already there. Since he was well built and healthy, they employed him as a worker in the camp. His job was to undress the Jews being sent to the Poison Chamber , remove any valuables from their dresses and hand them over the German officers. When my mother was brought in, my father pleaded with the officers there and got her a commission like him in the camp. However, it did not last long. She joined the ranks of the prisoners very soon. It was the practice to make the prisoners stand in a line each day and a German officer would wave a baton walking past them. Whoever touched by the baton would be herded into the Poison Chamber for extermination the same day. My mother was once touched by a baton one day and she was taken to the Poison Chamber. She died just for being a Jew.
My brother was employed in the section where they burned the bodies. My father and brother met secretly in the camp. Without adequate food, my father was loosing weight and becoming weak. He would not want the Germans to know it and , during the morning roll call, he would puff up his chest to pretend otherwise. However, luck ran out when the baton touched my father one day, and it happened just a week before the war ended. My father was sent to the Poison Chamber and his clothes were removed just like he did for others by another young Jew. My brother had the misfortune of burning his body like all the others he had done. If only another week had passed my father would have been alive as the war ended a week after he was killed.
“When did you learn Hebrew ?”, I asked.
“I never went to any school’. I learnt all the languages by myself. After the war ended, Jews started migrating to different countries. Many chose to go to America. I did not have anybody there. As a minor, I had be accompanied by an adult to be let into any country. My sister and brother decided to remain in Greece. Some decided take fishing boats that smuggled people to Palestine; Israel had not been declared an independent country as yet. Somehow I felt I needed to leave Greece. I got into a boat along with 500 other people. We were at sea for 11 days before the British navy intercepted us and allowed asylum in Palestine.
I landed in Palestine in the month of June , 1947. Thousands of Jews had already come there and started to live in groups, called Kibbutz. I joined a Kibbutz that had 63 members. We lived as a commune. We had a leader and we followed his instructions. We would be assigned tasks by the leader and we did them in a collective spirit. With nothing owned by any individual, ownership was collective. Nobody was paid any salary, but all were provided food, dress, place to live and sleep along with medical facilities. The collective took care of all our needs. Those were the happiest days of my life.
In a year’s time, the country of Isreal came into being. I started to learn Hebrew. Hebrew is written right to left and there are no vowels. The sounds of the vowels are represented by dots and dashes written above and below the letters. It took me only six months to read and write. I fell in love with an inmate and married him. Since mothers were also expected to work , a crèche was operated for their children under the care of a few mothers. Any mother would breast feed any child. After for some time in the farm, I was shifted to the crèche. As a lactating mother, I would suckle any hungry child to my breast. Ora is grew up entirely in the crèche.
I turned to Ora and asked her, “What are your recollections of growing up in the Kibbutz ?”. “Those were the happiest days of my life, we children saw no distinction whatsoever; not even about who was whose mother! There were no rich and poor divide; everybody had access to everything necessary. As my mother was employed in the crèche, there was no problem whatsoever. However, very soon they shifted mother to the kitchen.”
“You liked working in the kitchen?”, I asked.”Will you ask somebody if she liked heaven ?, the kitchen changed my life once for all. I was seeing a Kitchen for the first time. I was used to beg and steal for food and at times purchase with money, never once cooked food in a kitchen. I can never forget the day I started to cook. It was pure bliss. I felt I had at last found the purpose of live. I cooked hours on end without leaving the kitchen. I would always try something new. I was often chided by the head chef for doing so.
Jews from all over the world were living in the Kibbutz, France, Germany, Italy, America, Spain, Greece, Ethiopia and so on. I learnt to cook dishes from all these cultures. It was as if I am getting back at life for what it had done to me so far. My cooking became a hit in the Kibbutz; inmates started to look forward to what I would come up with each day.
At this point, Ora chipped in-”My mother continues in the same vein even now. Once she enters the kitchen it is difficult to get her out. As a child when she foraged garbage piles, she could not afford to be discriminating; she was merely content with filling her growling stomach. Now to compensate for her ‘loss’ she has come a connoisseur of good food, with a vengeance. I do not stop her. I buy from market whatever she asks for. She was planning for three days for your visit. She had decided upon our speciality, the Aranygaluska , fermented pancake for today. I went around the market for two days to get all its ingredients.”
Everything went off well till now, till suddenly my wife opened up,” Have you ever tasted our Dosai?, It is also made out of fermented dough and round in shape. When you eat it with a side dish called Sambar, the medley of tastes in your mouth is unbelievable”. This kindled immediate response from Sara,”Wow, just tell me how it is made?”, she said with eyes glittering in expectation, whereupon, my wife essayed forth the art of making Dosai, starting with listing its ingredients with folded fingers. I was too aware of my wife’s Dosai making skills. I have seen it take many shapes, squarish,triangular and rarely, even round sometimes. One can be sure of its shape only after it leaves the stone. My wife went on to explain the process of soaking,grinding and fermenting the rice and dal mixture, but with one eye hovering over me.
The result was like teaching Sachin Tendulkar the art of batting. She took to it with ease. They say the brain of a trained musician plays the music notes that is before him. Sara’s brain was no less, when it came to food. Dosai’s taste and the possibilities of innovative variations in its preparation was immediately playing out in her brain.
“We can give many twists to your Dosai. If you spread the yellow of the egg on Dosai when it is hot on the stove and then sprinkle on it ground walnuts and cocoa leaves and make it into a wrap, it must taste just as fine. You may have a spread of maple syrup on it after you remove it from fire and eat it as well. Just to think of other possibilities, if you can boil pieces of boneless chicken and finely chop them into small pieces and mix with it black beans, tomatoes and cilantro and make a wrap with Dosai, it must taste great”, she went on.
By this time, my wife glanced at me, a look that delivered a thousand short messages.
“Could you visit our home for a Dosa dinner ?”, my wife asked. It was April then, the beginning of summer. Sara looked at Ora and she went inside and brought forth a calender. “Oh it is impossible, it is Passover time”, said she. “What is Passover ?”, my wife asked.”It dates back in time, some 3400 years back, when Jews were suffering extreme form of slavery under the rule of the Egyptian king Pharaoah, a tyrant. The leader of the Hebrew people, Moses, was fighting for them. One day, King Pharaoah, out of exasperation said, “Get lost, all of you, immediately”. Then and there an exodus of the children of Isreal started. Jews from all over Egypt left their home and hearth in a hurry and it took them 7 days, the days of Passover. Legend has it that they left in such a hurry that they could not allow the dough to ferment and sour. They ate bread made from unfermented dough throughout those seven days. Jews still remember the suffering of those seven days and do not eat fermented food in commemoration. Dosai is fermented food, it is not kosher during Passover.
Ora looked at her mother.”Passover is important to me. When was young and rummaging street garbage for food, I found a piece of Fermented Pancake. It was Passover time. I did not eat it, in remembrance of those those who were killed and driven out 3400 years ago. I consider our exodus from Salonika no different. I think of all the people annihilated, driven out from their homelands or killed in gas chambers. Time do changes things,how can it change the past. I keep my fast in commemoration of all the atrocities of the past and in the of hope for better things in the future”. When she said this , she was so overcome with emotion that her stance had stooped into a curve in front of the table, where all she had cooked was laid. Ora ran her palm over her mother’s back to assuage her feelings.
More than a month has passed now. It is the first Saturday after Passover. Our kitchen is emanating all kinds of sounds since morning. My wife is busy inside, for they are visiting us for lunch.
Republished with thanks from the Translator’s blog: https://words-are-weariness.blogspot.com/2017/07/fermented-pancake-aranygaluska-by.html?showComment=1561633568756&view=sidebar
About the Author:
Appadurai Muttulingam (Tamil அ. முத்துலிங்கம்) (born 19 January 1937) is a Sri Lankan Tamil author and essayist. His short stories in Tamil have received critical acclaim and won awards in both India and Sri Lanka. He began writing short stories in the 1960s, with his short story Akka winning a competition conducted by a Sri Lankan Tamil newspaper in 1961. This story was the title story in his first collection of short stories, Akka (“Sister”), published in 1964. Many of his story collections have been published since then. He is actively involved in The Tamil Literary Garden, a Toronto-based charitable organization dedicated to the international promotion of Tamil literature. Muttulingam’s stories are noted for their understatement, reserve and imagery, and focus on moments of small transformation. His stories do not attempt to directly build suspense or dramatic tension, and are instead grounded in realism, particularly in description and characterization.