Over time a family story can become a folktale of epic proportion, a true inspiration to all who hear it. This one is about my great-aunt Ammalu.
The story begins in a sleepy little village deep in south India. Here Ammalu and her sister Pearl grew up surrounded by countless cousins, aunts and uncles. Ammalu was the older sister, the one with a sense of adventure. She loved going on outings to visit neighbors and relatives. She had a knack for storytelling and an easy going nature. Pearl was shy and more at home in the kitchen with a flair for pastry making.
Little Ammalu was rumored to have a sweet tooth. In those days there was no candy or chocolate bars and so she indulged in what grew in her backyard from large juicy mangoes, tasty papayas to bananas in all sizes, but her favorite was the jackfruit.
The jackfruits from our family orchards were legendary in their size and flavor. It would take two men to cut down the gigantic fruit and lug it into the family courtyard. The fresh fruit would be placed on an old cotton sari and one of the men would use an enormous knife to cut into the tough skin. As the jackfruit was cut open the entire courtyard would be filled with its fruity fragrance. The milky fluid from the jackfruit would flow onto the sari and children would be held back so that they wouldn’t get any of the sticky sap on their fingers. The women would be waiting, ready to dip oily fingers into the cut fruit. The coconut oil was necessary to keep the sap from sticking onto fingers and eager hands. The tiny strands would be pushed aside to get into the thick pods of creamy yellow fruit. Each pod contained one large seed, which would be cleaned and saved for later use. The seed had a sweet nutty taste, very similar to roasted chestnuts.
The best jackfruit was sweet and juicy with a hint of tartness and a pleasing crunch. Overripe jackfruit was sometimes stringy and too sweet. Ammalu loved this unique and delicious fruit. When everyone had enough of the fresh fruit, the leftovers were cooked down with jaggery sugar and stored in crock pots. In the cool pantry, the jackfruit jam fermented into caramel-like goo with a pungent odor that was pleasant only to the true fan of jackfruit. Ammalu must have had a discerning palate because she loved eating scoops of this odoriferous jam. It was also made into special puddings.
Life in our tiny ancestral village was simple. There was not much in the way of entertainment and so everyone looked forward to visits from roaming troupes of actors. These troupes of mostly men would enact scenes from Indian myths and legends. Perhaps it was one of these actors who told Ammalu about the wonders of travel and of a special city dedicated to Lord Shiva.
This holy place was called Benares (or Varanasi or Kashi) and situated near the Bihar border in the faraway state of Uttar Pradesh. Visiting this holy city and bathing in the even holier Ganges became an obsession with Ammalu. Perhaps one of the actors or someone in the family pointed out that after visiting Benares the pilgrim would have to give up a favorite food. Ammalu knew what she would give up.
She was in her early forties when she finally had an opportunity to take her dream trip. In the years after her pilgrimage when relatives offered her a piece of fresh jackfruit, she would shake her head and say, “I just returned from Kashi,” and everyone immediately understood why she said no to her favorite snack. She died at the age of 88 and never tasted jackfruit again.
A decade or so ago my family and I visited Benares to scatter my uncle’s ashes. We found the city to be a study in contrasts. The grime and dirt didn’t deter from the city’s beauty and timeless quality. The Ganges was a lazy ribbon of water with a lot of floating debris but as I watched the orange glow of the tropical sunset, I couldn’t help feeling a deep sense of peace and calm. A holy city will do that to you. I imagined Ammalu must have experienced that same serenity as she bathed in the Ganges and vowed never to eat jackfruit again.
She would have never dreamed that her pilgrimage and personal sacrifice would inspire the next generation. Recently I decided to challenge myself by giving up sugar for a few months and great-aunt Ammalu’s uplifting story has been a marvelous example for me.
The least tangible (and material) legacy we leave behind will endure the longest. Perhaps the next generation will remember you for your kindness, your grace under pressure or your selfless love. That is a legacy worth striving for!