My aunt and uncle sat on small, decorated stools, their backs facing the living room fireplace. One by one, five married women took from the large bowl filled with rice, turmeric and coconut and placed a handful of the mixture into the cloth spread on my aunt’s lap. My great aunt was hovering around the couple, directing the Vadi-Biyyam. She had planned her summer visit to the U.S. around this compulsory tradition, conducted every five years, honoring the inimitable bond between a mother and her married daughter.
“That’s all she gets? Rice and coconuts? But what if I want more?” My younger cousin wondered this aloud as she sat next to me on the couch, watching. “You’re going to have to negotiate with your mom on that one,” I said, amused. My aunt and uncle were smiling as they tried to divert the attention of one of the twins who was certain that the deepam lit for the occasion was a birthday candle. He was seconds from blowing it out.
The cousin in charge of photographing the ceremony dedicated to her mother alternated between her camera and checking her iPhone. Chatter and passive attention from family and friends filled the room.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” my own mother murmured as she bent down to take a handful of rice to place in her cousin’s lap under her aunt’s watchful eye. We never knew what we were doing in situations like this. That’s what Ammammas, or grandmothers, were there for.
To tell lively tales of their upbringing in Hyderabad, secret languages and fences climbed over for the sake of ice cream included. To make us lunches like the one we had that afternoon. Chicken, shrimp, green beans, pappu charu, beet root pachhadi and fried rice. Topped off with dessert, a double ka meetha you’d never be able to find anywhere else. To remind us of the culture we had been built up from. To provide us a sense of belonging which is often so elusive.
Sitting in the car on the way home, Mom and I snacked on the laddoo and murukku from our goodie bags. Satellite radio played a stream of favorites like Chicago, Heart and Fleetwood Mac, music my mom had grown up with as an adolescent in a small town in Indiana.
Between bites we laughed about my great aunt’s reaction when she realized the deepam had been blown out (twice). And the chaos that ensued when the family dog was let back into the house amidst company. The afternoon had been a really warm one.
We met with a melancholy moment as we thought about future Vadi-Biyyams. Ammammas don’t last forever. But they laid a foundation, we reminded ourselves. We’d manage.
“I’m going to do your Vadi-Biyyams just like that,” Mom said. “Good. I want you to,” I replied.
Maithri Vangala is a public health advocate and philanthropy enthusiast who grew up in Georgia, where she currently resides. You can follow her on Twitter at @maithripriya.