“I’ve been making and selling pickles for over three decades now. I ought to have made some amount of profit from it, right?” asks 85-year-old Alamelu Ammal, a.k.a Ponnu mami. A resident of Kalpathy town in Palakkad, in Kerala, Ponnu mami is known to many for her delectable pickles.
With customers coming from Cochin, Chennai, Coimbatore, and even from the far North, she says, “What I can guarantee is the quality of the pickles I make. That is the reason why people keep coming back from more.”
But Ponnu mami says she is not making pickles to earn a living. “I do it because I like it. Putting in the hard work and being able to maintain this quality for all these years ensures that I have a good night’s sleep,” she adds.
To maintain her standard of quality, even today she does all the work by herself. “I have not yet felt the need to hire help,” she says.
Speaking about what got her interested in pickling, she says, “I grew up in an estate in Kannur, Kerala, and was always surrounded by mango trees. Even as a young girl, picking the right mango to make vada manga [a pickle made with baby mangoes], was something that I enjoyed.” Ponnu mami would take great care in making the pickle and shares that many of her relatives would ask her to make the pickles for them too. “That is where it all started,” she says.
When asked if her mother also made these pickles, she is quick to say, “No, it was just me. I enjoyed the process, from the plucking until the pickling.” Ponnu mami also makes pickles out of lime, magali kizhangu [a root known to have several medicinal properties] and various different kinds with mango.
What started off as a small business with about five half kg packets being sold a day, sees close to 10 kgs of sale every day currently. This is about 300 kgs a month. For half a kilo of pickle, Ponnu mami charges Rs 200. She says, “I was charging Rs 150 two years ago, but the costs of everything has risen, so I have also revised the rates accordingly.”
Even after all these years, Ponnu mami says that she has never maintained any accounts. “I have never kept a note of how much I am making. Whatever money I make, goes back into buying the mangoes and other ingredients. I have enough money in the bank and use that for my daily expenses,” she says.
The House of Achaar Mami
Ponnu mami has been living by herself for more than a decade now and tells me, “Since my husband passed away in December 2012, it has been just me. I have no children of my own but that has never troubled me.” Recollecting the times she spent with her husband, she says, “He was his own boss. Whenever we had enough money, we would pack our bags and travel. We’ve gone to the North, where we spent a lot of time. Travel was also very fulfilling.”
Ponnu mami’s home is typical of the houses in Palakkad. On any given day if you were to visit her home, you would be greeted by chillies left out to dry near the front door. The walls and cupboards are adorned with pictures of various gods and goddesses, yet another typical feature in most Palakkad homes. As you walk through the corridor and reach the living room, you will be greeted by a weighing scale that hangs from the ceiling.
“This is an important element in my house,” she says, in reference to the weighing scale.
Even though it hangs prominently in her living room, she almost always adds a few extra pieces of mango to each packet she makes for her customers. The machine to seal the bags was something that her sister sent from Delhi, and she tells me that the local grocer is able to source good quality bags to pack the pickle.
While one can buy the chilli powder and even the mustard powder directly from the market today, Ponnu mami insists on following the traditional method to the ‘t’. She buys all the raw ingredients and makes her own powders according to the proportion that she has been using for years.
Her schedule is set — waking up at 5.30 am, and by 10.30 every morning, she is done with her cooking. In the evenings, she spends her time packing the pickles and readying them for sale. On an average, she packs close to 150 packets each evening. “Most of my customers from outside Palakkad. Here people can buy and make their own pickles,” she says adding that the more the mango soaks in the oil and spices, the better it tastes. Each batch takes about 6 months to prepare.
While the main kitchen is on the ground floor, a flight of steep stairs takes you into her attic space, where she lets the pickles rest.
On an average, she climbs up the stairs at least half a dozen times a day. She says, “In 30 years of climbing up and down, I have always been extremely cautious. If I am upstairs and the phone rings or someone calls out to me from the front door, I take my time to make my way down. If I fall, then who will come to look after me?”
Her attic is lined with several bottles, jars, and even buckets – all filled to the brim with pickles. Each container at a different stage of being ready. Each one is Ponnu mami’s pride.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)
Images courtesy: Harish