|Kuttichira Moppla Muslims around a masara|
After a grueling 9-hour drive from Bangalore, I reached the tiny Muslim township in Calicut, Kerala called Kuttichira. Back then, it was inhabited by around 250 families called Kuttichira Muslims or Moppla Muslims.
What struck me instantly was the sheer number of people present in each home — a minimum of 150-300 members, starting from great-grandparents down all the way to the great-grandchildren, all living under the same roof. In this community when a girl gets married, it is her husband who comes to live with her in her family home unlike the rest of the country.
In Kuttichira, it seemed like a different era. The entire township is built around the Kuttichira pond. There are many interesting legends surrounding this greenish pond. One such folklore is about a ghost named Alikallamma, who is said to reside in the pond. Every year, this not-so-friendly-Casper surfaces only to take along with her, into the depths of the pond, an unsuspecting soul who happens to be around the pond at the time of her 'surfacing'. And after three days the corpse will float up on the pond. This happens with alarming regularity, year after year. In spite of which, the pond is where, young and old (but only men) gather around the pond every evening to discuss anything and everything under the sky.
The women of Kuttichira follow the purdah system. They spend a major part of their lives within the four walls of their home, or rather within the dark sooty walls of the kitchen. The kitchen is the nerve centre of every house in Kuttichira. Each house has at least two to three kitchens, and some even more depending on the number of people residing in the house. In most homes, all the women gather in the kitchen early in the morning to cook, eat, talk and just be themselves. This is where they enjoy maximum freedom. Men are barred from entering the kitchen. Only small boys are allowed to enter the kitchen and to only to carry water or juice for the guests or men folk in the house. In some houses, there are smaller kitchens attached to the living quarters of the family members. But all major meals and food for all special occassions are cooked in the main kitchens.
In a Kuttichira home every day there is a feast because of the sheer number of people living in each homes, it is always somebody's birthday, anniversary, engagement or wedding. Men and women are not allowed to eat or drink in the same room. However, I was allowed to have my welcome drink — brownish, transluscent, spicy Khawa in a tiny glass — when I visited Ahmed Koya's (head priest) house, because I was a guest "from afar and also a journalist to boot".
Khawa is the favoured welcome drink in most homes. It made of cardamom, cinnamon and cloves, which are boiled for a long time and pinch of tea powder is added, for flavour, just before serving. It is not for the weak! Where Khawa is not served, the welcome drink is usually a greenish coloured pista drink. Extremely sweet!
In the Koya household, Zainibi, the wife of Ahmed Koya was the chief Chef. Women of all sizes, shapes and ages were running helter-skelter carrying out her orders. Knee-high girls were peeling potatoes and skinning mangoes; older women sat in a corner and chopped vegetables. It was buzzing with activity — like the kitchen of a large-scale commercial eatery. But this is how a normal kitchen in a normal house in Kuttichira looks like, everyday, all year round. When they don't have any special ocassions to cook for, then they invite neighbours "for a meal". Folks here love their food. What a treat!
Weddings are celebrated with great pomp and grandeur in Kuttichira. Again food plays a huge role. The wedding feast is served to all the guests at one go. However, it will not be served until the last guest arrives. Even the bridegroom will not be given a morsel from the feast. So, guests are usually on time to avoid the wrath of others.
Though I was not allowed to eat with the men, and was served lunch in the kitchen along with other women in the household, I was allowed to watch the men eat. Again it is a unique tradition. A huge mat called the Supra is spread in the centre of the room. On which is placed a oval-shaped plate filled with ghee rice (Biryani on special ocassions). Other non-vegetarian dishes in small bowls are placed around this main plate. This entire setting is called the masara. Around 6-8 people sit around the masara and eat their food from that single plate. Before the meal, one of the members would bring around a kolambi (a vessel with a snout) filled with water and a hollow-bottomed plate for the other men to wash their hands. Prayers are offers and the food is eaten.
Back in the kitchen I was treated to a fare sufficient to feed for an entire kingdom. There's no concept of soups are starters. I was served the main course rightaway — ghee rice — along with kebabs, stuffed chicken, pathiri and other specialties. After a point I lost count of the dishes that were making its way to my plate. The Kuttichira people are a hospitable lot — sometimes they smother you with their love and food :)
The main course was followed by dessert — payasam, bananas and mangoes. Then I was escorted to the front of the house, to the portico, where water was poured from a vessel onto my hands. I was made to wash my hands after a meal right in front of the house — apparently, it is a privilege given only to special guests.