Monday, October 18, 2010

Annual Fete and Cashew Nuts

‘Molly, i hear that you get the best cashew nuts in Kerala – and cheap too”, said Mother Peter, our HM, arching her eyebrows , enlarging her large blue eyes and shaking her wimpled head vigorously up and down in that typical European style. ‘Write to your father and ask him to send us some for the fete’.

It was to be my first fete about which my friends had raised such expectations. It was a two day event hosted by our school for which the little town of Pondicherry looked forward to the whole year. The school was St. Joseph de Cluny. It was the headquarters of the Cluny convent in India. In Pondicherry, besides the convent, it had two schools – English medium which was going from strength to strength and the French medium with it dwindling population. There was an orphanage too and we boarders were not allowed to mingle with them, though in the same campus.

I joined Cluny in the first year of high school – in the 9t standard. Ever since i joined in June, I’ve been listening to the boarders raving about the annual fete. They spoke about the happening in the previous fete. Most of the conversation was about some boy or the other who could on those two days gain entry into the tall walls of the convent which guarded the chastity of the wards entrusted to them with a fierceness which, at times, was almost comical. At every opportunity, the nuns warned us about the Romeos who waited at the corner of the street.

The streets in Pondicherry are absolutely straight and were cut at regular intervals at 90 degree by equally straight roads. The Cluny convent was spread over three campuses. From the boarding to refectory, we had to cross the street. From refectory to school, we had to cross another street. The Romeos knew our routine, and the fact that the nuns were paranoid about punctuality made it easier for them to wait punctually at the street corners to catch a glimpse of and exchange smiles with their crushes.

Among the senior boarders there were two groups – the ones who had boyfriends and the ones who did not. I belonged to the latter though i had sneaking admiration for those who had the guts to have boyfriends. Now let me get this clear. The ‘boyfriend’ in those days did not mean what it means now. The girls had not spoken even once to their Romeos. All they did was to look down the street and smile at the boy whose looks they liked. And then they would go ‘steady’ with them, i.e., faithfully smile at them whenever they crossed the road. Sometimes the boy would wear a kerchief tucked in the collar. When his girlfriend crossed the road the next time, she would tuck in a kerchief in her collar (our uniforms were collared), and then their eyes would lock and they would smile. And the day would be made for them.
During the recreation time, the girl would talk with high excitement about the kerchief. She would blush and smile and bask in the comments of how handsome the boy was. All of us would laugh and giggle and tease.

I remember the handkerchief episode cos it landed me into trouble. The nuns knew that i was new and uncorrupted and therefore could be used as an agent. The boarding mistress once called me and spoke to me about this and that and without my quite realising it, the conversation veered to the boyfriend topic. In all innocence, i let her into the handkerchief incident and who’s whose boyfriend. She then gave me a French chocolate which i rushed to share with my friends who immediately got out from me what had happened. They ridiculed me for walking into the nun’s trap and yelled at me and called me James Bond and Mata hari and ostracised me. When they got their dressing down from the nuns along with the punishments like cutting out bi weekly walks on the beach(where the Romeos tore down on their bikes with silencers off), they got downright nasty with me.

I was very very miserable cos i had no intention of getting anyone into trouble. My friends from the no boyfriend group consoled me, and taught me how to evade the interrogation of the nuns. I have never walked blindly into their trap after that, but it took a long time for to gain entry into the boyfriend group.

The fete was the time when all these roadside Romeos got entry into our fortress. They quickly found out in which stalls their girl friends were and used to hang around there.

The middle campus which housed the convent, refectory and the orphanage was the site for the fete. The Pandal as the huge semi open auditorium was called, and the playground which he orphanage girls used accommodated the stalls which sold items brought/bought/donated from France. Then handicraft items, embroidered kerchiefs, tea cosy, and delightfully beautiful things done mostly by the orphanage girls were sold at exorbitant price. Things sold like hotcakes. The stalls were manned by us, students of English medium school. Sometime the crowd was so heavy that me with my over protected Nazrani upbringing used to panic. Sometimes tempers rose, for the young crowd was not free from inebriation. Commotion would immediately bring the members of the discipline committee (made up of big shots in the local community), and they would put their foot down. That’s when commotion arose and people flared up. Once this happened right in front of my stall. My partner in the counter had a street corner boyfriend who had been hanging around the whole day, smiling at her and buying things from our counter. In the afternoon, after lunch, he had apparently helped himself to some French liquor. Then he became bolder. He asked my partner for a clandestine date and she was horrified.

‘”i didn’t know you were such a rotten person”, she snapped at him.

“What did you think you were doing when you smiled at me every day?” he asked.

‘I didn’t think you were the type who would get fresh”, she said, getting scared.

‘Fresh? all i asked you was to come with me for a cup of coffee”, he said

Then she said something which made even me want to laugh.

‘You are a very bad boy’, she said, almost sobbing.

By then someone had reported the exchange and the watch and ward arrived and threw him out.

After the fate, for the rest of the year, she stared at the tip of her shoes whenever she crossed the road.

Now to get back to the cashew nuts (i got carried away by memories, sorry), i wrote to my father who promptly send 5 kilos of roasted cashew nuts of the best quality. It arrived four days before the fete. I instantly became the pet of the nuns. Five of us high school students were picked to pack cashew nuts. We put 8 pieces of cashew nuts each into small plastic packets and stacked them on a tray from which the junior boarding mistress took each of them and sealed them with a contraption I’d never seen before. Because of her presence, we couldn’t pop even one piece into our mouths. However, when the work was over, she took some broken cashew nuts which she apparently had sorted out, and gave half a handful to each of us.

These packets would be put on a tray which would be carried around by the students who were members of the JVC Club. The trays were suspended from the necks on pretty satin ribbons. I so wanted to do that duty but as i was not a JVC club member, i was denied the chance. Each packet was sold for Rs. 5, which in the mid sixties was considered to be an atrocious price.

The big day arrived. Being my first year, i was not given stall duty, so i generally went around with my friends and bought things and delicacies and French chocolate drink.

On the second day, my parents sprang a surprise on me by landing up for the fete. They were on their way to Velankanni, and decided to see me and the fete about which i had been raving and for which had asked for more pocket money for the month. Besides, my father had sent cashew nuts (for which he had paid less than Rs. 100/including parcelling and shipping charge). All these had made him curious about the event. So they decided to reroute the trip through Pondicherry.

My mother was simply horrified at the crowd through which her 14 year old daughter was running around freely. She called me and asked me to remain with them. With a protective arm around me, we went around looking at stalls.

My mother always had a fascination for embroidered stuff and so i took her to that stall. She was so taken up by what she saw that she started buying up, despite the fancy price. Both of us were engrossed in selecting the items. After the purchase, we turned around, looking for my father. And lo and behold, there he stood taking out Rs.5 from his wallet. The JVC volunteer (known for her aggressive marketing ) with the cashew nut tray suspended from her neck with colourful ribbons beamed at him as she took the money from him, and handed over a tiny packet of cashew nuts .

Then holding up the packet for me and amma to see, he winked, smiling from ear to ear.


  1. Good reminiscence!
    To call a little girl "Matahari" for being a bit stupid, well that was the "unkindest cut of all".

  2. I believe you're the beautiful 'Miss' of the English department, Assumption College. Well you never taught me, but still , I was a member of your fan club!!! I accidently came across your your blog and has been a ghost reader since.. I love your blog
    Warmest regards

  3. LOL!!! Your father should have been a very jovial person to buy his own cashew nuts for such high price :)

  4. That brought a smile to my face! I can see your Dad :)
    8 cashews to a packet, how much the sisters make from 5 kg? Surely a fete for them! :)

  5. @ anil kurup,tara, elizabeth, balachandran sir
    thanks for visiting my post s so regularly. encourages me to write.
    tara, welcome. make sure u leave comments behind. initially i thought of not publishing your comment cos i was embarassed by the compliments(tho i liked them:-)). but then your comment did not fall in the categories i've eramarked for rejection.

  6. i wrote a long comment but looks like it got lost.
    for fear of repetition in case it isn't: loved your story and glad to see a face with the name!

  7. @ ian
    looks like it got lost. sometimes my comment box misbehaves.
    do post again.
    reg face and name :-)

  8. I could visualize the whole fete, the preparations for it, the roasted cashewnuts and the works! And being educated in convent schools myself (though a day scholar), with nuns hovering around us like mother hens when boys are allowed in the campus, I actually was transported to my school days reading your post.

  9. Wonderful story, once again, madam. There is the craft of a good story teller in whatever you write. The story flows smoothly right from the first line, bringing all the characters and scenes to life. Like Ian, I too am happy to see your face with your name.

  10. venugopal sir, thanks for the good words.
    yeah decided to put a face to the name. read somewhere people who hide behind masks are self obsessed. shedding the mask is the first step to self acceptance. am on a self improvement drive :-)

  11. i felt there had been an overall mood change, seeing the picture. remember, i had some time back wrote to you about one of my friends who occasionally reads your blog and likes the way you write telling me he wished you would take off the watermelon kind of emblem from your blog. :-)

  12. you put a pic,mommy dear! very nice!!
    Ichayan was a complete sport,wasnt he?


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