In Lakshmi's Kitchen

a Hindu storyteller gathers listeners on the steps of a temple

Lalitha appears bright and early in the large kitchen. Her grandmother Lakshmi, the pauranika (storyteller), reminded her before bed last night that today would be the birthday of Lalitha’s deceased but beloved great-great-grandfather. In honor of that fact, Lakshmi might have a before-school story for her.

“Namaste, Grandmother!” Lalitha says. Already bathed, with coconut oil combed through her long hair to keep it silky and dressed in her school uniform, she stands at eager attention. Lakshmi points to the table so Lalitha will take a seat. She puts before the child a plate of two idlis—steamed rice cakes mixedwith ground lentils—and a small metal bowl of coconut and coriander chutney.

Needing no silverware, Lalitha pours the green chutney on her plate and pushes some of it around in circles with a piece of the rice cake. A look of bliss appears on her face when she starts chewing. Watching her eat, Lakshmi asks, “What do you remember of your great-greatgrandfather, Lalitha?”

They both look up at the photograph of him on the wall. Lakshmi had earlier placed a small table before his image with an offering of a lit sesame oil lamp and a stick of incense. “He was very old? That’s what I remember.”

The storyteller laughs. “What else? What is he best remembered for?”

“Oh! That he was very generous and kept a vow his whole life never to eat on a day he hadn’t fed a poor and hungry person!”

“Right you are,” says the pauranika. “I admired him so much. Even though he was a successful businessman, his real wealth was his goodness.”

“Didn’t he stop robbers one time, Grandma?” Lalitha asks, starting on her second rice cake.

“Well—yes and no. My grandmother and her sisters were headed to the city on their cart when robbers overtook them. But when the bullock cart driver told the thieves the family’s name, they gave everything back right away. ‘We don’t rob that family,’ they said. ‘They are very good to many!’ So in a way my grandfather was actually there, don’t you think?”

“Uh huh,” Lalitha mumbles with a last mouthful of food.

Her grandmother takes the empty plate away and sits down beside her. “Turn your chair so that your back is to me, Lalitha. I will braid you a story and I will also braid your hair. Maybe you have heard this before,” says the pauranika, “but even so, every time I tell it I find myself thinking about it for a long time, and it reminds me of my grandfather. Ready?”

  • What stories do you know about people who died before you were born?
  • What family story can you share with someone younger than you?

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