The Pongal Competition:

Some memories are too precious. They pop up unexpectedly and lighten our hearts. I want to share one such memory from my childhood on this occasion of Pongal.

I’m from a large family. My father was a farmer, and my mother was the daughter of a freedom fighter. I have three older brothers and two older sisters. After me came a younger sister and brother. You can imagine how busy our home was! It wasn’t just us kids in the family. We had two cows, Devi and Kamakshi. They were native breeds. Do you know what native breeds are? We have several in Tamil Nadu. Needless to say, Devi and Kamakshi were very important members of our family.

Devi and Kamakshi gave us at least eight padi or, in today’s measure, sixteen liters of milk every day. We were such a large family that we never sold the milk. We used most of it. There were some other families that we knew who needed the milk. They were very poor. So my mother would send us to their homes with some milk under the excuse that it would get spoiled if we didn’t finish it. We were only too happy to go play with the kids from those families.

By the way, do you like milk? I hope you do! You see, growing up with cows in our homes, we loved milk.

Kamakshi had a female calf named Bhuma. She was another sister to us. We girls used to twirl around her, singing and clapping. Bhuma would jump and roam around the fields behind our home. She knew we loved her. The minute she saw us in the fields, she would run over to us and rub her head against us.

In those days, there was always a ready supply of milk.

One Pongal season, when I was around nine, my grandmother came to visit us. A few days before Pongal, Amma gave us a list of chores to do around the house. Then she and Paatti went shopping for Pongal. We kids were excited. Pongal was and is our favourite festival. All of us finished our chores on time. With Amma gone, there was nothing much to do. This was our time to play. We used to play Seven Stones and Othaiya Rettaya during our free time. But on that day, we decided to play something different.

I knew what I wanted to do. Just like me, my older sister Meenakshi loved to drink milk. Every day, we tried to outdo each other by drinking milk. So I challenged her and said, “I have an idea! Let’s have a competition to see who can drink the most milk!” My younger sisters looked at me like I was crazy! But Meenakshi was ready!

Then my other sister Sharadha had a doubt. “What’s the point in a challenge if there’s nothing for the winner? What will the winner get? What will the winner get?” She pointed out. Now, Sharadha also liked milk, but she knew she couldn’t outdrink us. She didn’t just want to sit on the sidelines. That’s how it is when you have many sisters and brothers. Everybody wants to be involved in everything somehow!

“The loser has to do all the chores that the winner typically does,” my youngest brother piped in. ‘For one week,” He added. He may have been the youngest but he was always the first to come up with interesting solutions to all sibling-related rivalries.

I hesitated for a fraction of a second. You must remember, those were the days of no electricity, no machines to do household work. All of us kids had different chores to do around the house. With so many kids and animals, everyone had a lot of work to do. Otherwise, it would be hard for our parents to focus on the farm. Meenakshi, because she was older, did more work than me. If I lost, I would have to do both of our shares. Then I shook myself. “Oh, I can easily drink more milk than her,” my mind didn’t want to let go. “I accept the challenge!” I called out first.

Meenakshi and I sat down across from each other. Our sisters and brothers joined in the fun and brought a large brass pot, what we called kudam, filled with milk. One person put down two tall steel tumblers or glasses. The youngest two sat with a chalk to write on the stone. Everyone sat around in a circle, and the two of us sat in the middle.

We filled a glass each with milk and drank it all up. The competition was ON! Our brothers and sisters clapped. We both downed three glasses of milk with ease. One person called out, “Oh, this is so slow. Can you speed it up?” How does one speed up drinking milk? Again, my younger brother came to the rescue. He ran to the kitchen and brought the two of us a sombu each (a brass container for liquids, bigger than a glass). “Ooooh, brains of the family!” somebody patted the youngest on his back.

We filled up our Sombu with milk. The first pot of milk went down easily.

“Hey, these girls will drink up all the milk. This is too boring!”

“Be patient! Be patient!”

I ignored the chatting and betting.

Meenakshi finished the second pot with ease. I was starting to struggle towards the end of the second pot. But I didn’t want anyone to get wind of it. Not letting your opponent know how you feel is half the battle. I filled up the third pot and pretended I needed to wait for a big burp. Meenakshi was struggling, but neither of us wanted to give in.

“Day, they can’t move da! They can’t even speak da!” My youngest brother hopped up and down like a frog. Somehow, Meenakshi managed to finish the third pot of milk. I wasn’t ready to give up yet. I thought if I moved around a bit, I might feel better. I went on all fours, like a baby, and pulled myself up. My sisters pulled Meenakshi to help her stand.

The room rang with the noise of my sisters and brothers clapping and cheering, laughing and jeering as we waddled slooooowly around the room.

Just then, my mother and grandmother hurried through the front door. Behind them was a big crowd! The noise had brought the entire village to our doorstep. Many of the men were holding thick, long sticks; some had sickles, and others had knives.

My mother looked so worried when she saw Meenakshi and me walking around holding our stomachs. Then she saw my older brothers and sisters and was puzzled by the look of laughter on their faces.

Slowly, we told her and our fellow villagers why we were so loud. Their looks of relief changed to disbelief when they heard that Meenakshi had had three tumblers and three pots of milk!

“You are no slouch! You had three glasses and two pots. Wait until you are as old as Meenakshi, and you’ll be able to drink three pots,” someone in the crowd called out cheekily.

I gave in and did Meenakshi’s chores for the next week!

Every Pongal, I can’t help but smile at this memory from seventy-four years ago.

Pongalo Pongal!

Click here to read more on Pongal:

What is Pongal?

Click here for more on the festivals of India:

Sankranti / Pongal

Magh Bihu: The Great Vegetable Robbery

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