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Memory Speaks

Jan 13, 2004
Papad prophesies

Puja Birla, a 27 year old journalist recalls the world of her grandmother Gattu Bai, who was born in 1908, in the village of Kuchaaman, Rajasthan.

Puja was the favorite of her grandmother. She spent many hours with her, listening to stories of bygone days. The grandmother of course was always trying to get Puja to follow traditional ways, and never let an occasion slip by to try and extol the benefits of arranged marriages. Puja shares with us her grandmother’s narration on how brides were selected in Marwari homes, almost a century ago.

‘It was the norm till about 40 years back, and even today, there are several Marwari families that practice it. In the small towns and villages of Rajasthan, the original practice has seen little transformation. My own grandmother went through it, and till the end averred that it was a sure-shot way of fixing life partners’, begins Puja.

‘Once the traditional matchmaker of the community ‘the ‘nai’ (barber) - had introduced the families of the prospective bride and groom, the women from the boy’s side would pay a visit to the girl’s house. The sole purpose was to put the bride-to-be through a ‘fool-proof’ test: get her to roast a papad.

The secret to her temperament lay in the way she carries out this task. If she was not careful, then parts of the papad are roasted black. For the future in-laws, that suggested the girl was hotheaded, and likely to spread discord in the family. If there were parts that remained unroasted (kachcha), the girl was deemed too mild-mannered or even spineless. She will not be able to hold her own in a joint family where the women-in-laws came in all hues.

Interpretations were also dependent on which part of the papad remained over or under-roasted. If the edges of the papad had been turned into carbon, then the bride-to-be will be hassled by small, relatively insignificant issues, but she can still be moulded as per the wishes of the matriarchal in-laws. God-forbid though, if the burnt parts were around the centre. The young woman was done for. She will wage war on each and every issue ‘ big or small, important or not .

‘It didn’t mean that hotheaded women didn’t get married’, my grandmother would add hastily. ‘Wise mothers-in-law, wanting to create the right balance, opted for such a woman if the son was too mild or gullible or if there was another daughter-in-law who needed countering. Likewise, for the women who under-roasted papads during the test.’

The mother and other female relatives of the bride-to-be couldn’t dream of faking the test. The bride inspectors would bring in their own exam material, and each household would prepare the basic papad a bit differently, forcing the bride to be alert. She needed the ability to discern when a particular side of the papad was done, so she could turn it. A hesitation of even a fraction of a second could make the difference between a yes and a no for marriage.

‘There could not be any proxy roasting either. A bevy of women from the boy’s side would all be present while the bride sweated it out,’Grandmother would say. ‘When I went through it, it was the middle of the great Indian summer and we were only 50-odd kilometers away from the Great Indian Desert. I was all of 14 years old that time, and was under a ‘ghoonghat’ in front of a charcoal stove (seegdi).’ “

Gattu Bai did pass the test, and lived a happy family life and died in 2000, aged, 92!

--Puja Birla

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