Mess Tin

During an outdoor tactical training exercise at the National Defence Academy, Captain Raj Mehta (now a Veteran Major General) was our instructor.  It was all about section tactics in defence and we were expected to dig a three-man trench – four feet long and in depth and two feet wide.  With the pickaxes and shovels, it was near impossible to dig on the stony mountains of Pune.

In the evening when Captain Mehta came on his rounds, he found our progress real slow.  We blamed it on our blunt pickaxes and shovels and on the hard surface.  Captain Mehta, not too pleased said “When bullets fly, you will dig down with your mess tins! Why? You will do it with your bare hands and dig much deeper than this rat hole in minutes!!

Now what is this wonder tool called a Mess Tin?

A mess tin is an item of a soldier’s mess kit, designed to be used over a portable cooking apparatus. It’s a pair of rectangular-shaped tins of similar depth, one fits inside the other, both having extendable handles that are fixed to the tins by brackets. Mess tins were originally a military design but are also popular among civilian campers.

Mess tins are generally rectangular with rounded-off edges as the rounded edges make it easier to clean inside than sharp corners. Most mess tins are supplied as a set, with one slightly larger than the other, allowing them to nestle together for easy packing. This arrangement is also useful when using the tins for boiling, as the smaller tin can be used to hold the liquid, with the larger tin placed on top to act as a lid. It also uses space as efficiently as possible, especially as the space and weight are premium in a soldier’s haversack. The nesting mess tins in use with the British Indian Army during World War II, making them one of the longest serving items of equipment in the Indian and British Army.  

The word ‘mess’ in the 14th Century meant ‘a supply or provision of food for one meal.’ The word came from Old French ‘mes’ meaning ‘portion of food, course at dinner,’ and was spelt ‘mes.’ By the 16th Century the word was spelt ‘mess’ with its meaning evolving from ‘a company of persons eating together at the same table’ to the current meaning ‘a communal eating place (especially a military one.)’

In a book published in 1916 ‘Camps, Billets, Cooking, Ceremonial,’ written by an Officer of the British Army and edited by Captain E John Solano lays out rules regarding health and hygiene; water supply; the inspection of food; preserving food, milk, and water from contamination; personal cleanliness and sanitation in billets, camps, and bivouacs. This is the most comprehensive document I read about camping and how to use the mess tin.  I followed it post-retirement during various camping trips we undertook with our children. An extract from the book says:-

‘It is especially useful that men and cadets should know how to cook various articles of food in their service mess -tins, which are so designed that, besides serving as a cup or dish and plate to eat from, they can also be used to cook certain rations in the same manner as in the camp kettle of the field-kitchen.

Cooking in Mess Tins. – The capacity of the mess tin is 1 quart, and it will cook sufficient food for one person if the diet consists of meat and vegetables cooked together, as in the case of Irish stew or sea- pie. Variety in diet is both essential and desirable, and it can be obtained to some extent when cooking in mess -tins by dividing up the rations of, say, two men, so that one mess -tin is used for cooking their meat, and another mess -tin is used for cooking their vegetables. It will be possible in this manner to vary the food slightly, provided such dishes as meat puddings, plain stews, stewed steak, or curry and rice, are given.  When this is done, the front -rank men prepare the meat, and the rear-rank men prepare the vegetables.’

As Cadets at the Academy, the mess tins were our best companions during tactical exercises as we collected our meals in them, ate in them, brewed our tea in them, etc.  It was the most sacred place for the smokers to hide the cigarette packs during tactical exercises. 

Mess Tin may be from the World War but is still popular with campers for similar reasons.  It is unbreakable, light and occupies minimum space.  You can use them to cook and eat out of, and they can be cleaned easily.  You can barbecue, fry and cook in it. 

100 Years of The Red Poppy

French lady, Madame Anna Guérin, is accredited as ‘The Poppy Lady,’ who was inspired by John McCrae’s ‘In Flanders Fields.’ She distributed the Red Poppy on Armistice Day to raise money for Veterans’ needs and to remember those who had given their lives during the First World War.  In July of 1921 the Great War Veterans Association adopted the Poppy as the flower of Remembrance – and begun a glorious tradition of pinning the Red Poppy during the Remembrance Week.

At 11 AM on November 11, 1918, the guns fell silent after more than four years of World War I when the Germans called for an armistice to secure a peace settlement. They accepted allied terms of an unconditional surrender.

Thus the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month attained a special significance and became universally associated with the remembrance of those who had died in the war. The allied nations chose this day and time for the commemoration of their dead soldiers.

On the first anniversary of the armistice in 1919, two minutes’ silence was instituted as part of the main commemorative ceremony at the new Cenotaph in London. The silence was proposed by Australian journalist Edward Honey, who was working in Fleet Street. At about the same time, a South African statesman made a similar proposal to the British Cabinet, which endorsed it.

The tradition of Remembrance Day evolved out of Armistice Day. The initial Armistice Day began at Buckingham Palace, with the King hosting a banquet honoring the French president. Later, during World War II, many countries changed the name of the holiday. The US chose Veterans Day.

Remembrance Day in Canada, known as ‘Jour du Souvenir,’ remains a statutory holiday in six of the 10 provinces. The Armistice Day Act, which was held throughout the 1920s, declared that Canada’s Thanksgiving would also be observed on Armistice Day — the Monday of the week in which November 11 fell. The government, in 1931, officially changed the date to November 11. The name also changed to Remembrance Day.

Canada has declared that the date is of remembrance for the men and women who have served, and continue to serve our country during times of war, conflict and peace, particularly the First and Second World Wars, the Korean War, and all conflicts since then in which members of the Canadian Armed Forces have participated.

Some Canadian facts on the Remembrance Week:-

  • 118,000 Canadians made the ultimate sacrifice during times of war and conflict.
  • 82% of Canadians still find the annual tribute important.
  • 54% of Canadians feel today’s youth do a great job of honouring veterans.
  • 46% Canadians think young people understand the sacrifices of those who have died in conflict.
  • 91% believe Canada should do more to honour its veterans.

A Stitching Lesson

At Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar, Tamil Nadu, we had an MI Room (Medical Inspection Room) – the refuge for the tired souls – both physical and mental.  The boss out there was Mr KP Damodaran who  can well be described as a Nursing Assistant by profession, whom everyone called a Compounder, but always acted as a Doctor.

Forever for any medical condition, worth it or not, he prescribed a combination of APC with sodium-bicarbonate, a pink coloured magic potion, an awful tasting mixture, compounded by our Compounder Mr Damodaran, a Veteran from the Royal Indian Navy who saw action during World War II.

I was admitted for mumps in the isolation ward for 21 days while in grade 7. During one of his daily rounds, Mr Damodaran saw me reading the history book. As he turned the pages, it was about the Viceroys and Governor Generals of British India – Lord Wavell and Mountbatten. Mr Damodaran said “I’ve met both Lord Wavell and Lord Mountbatten during World War II.  Lord Wavell’s sketch in this book least resembles his personality.” 

What was the magic tablet APC? It was a combination tablet containing aspirin, phenacetin and caffeine. In those days (early 70’s), it was perceived to be a magic drug – a solution for most diseases and medical conditions. It disappeared in 1983 because of harmful side effects of phenacetin.

Sodium-bicarbonate is a mixture of  Sodium-bicarbonate with sugar and salt.  It was used as an antacid to treat heartburn, indigestion and upset stomach as Sodium-bicarbonate is a very quick-acting antacid.

When we were in grade 11 in 1978, we were the senior-most in school. During a movie show on a Saturday night, a bench we were seated broke and a piece cut through the thigh of Palanivel, our classmate. Everyone else were engrossed in watching the movie, but I saw Palani bleeding and writhing in pain. I helped him walk to the MI Room and there was Mr Damodaran.

Palani was immediately administered a dose of Tetanus Toxoid (TT) and the next step was to suture his six inch long gash. Mr Damodaran switched on the steriliser and after five minutes asked me “put on the gloves and take out the suturing thread and a needle with a tong.” I did as ordered.

Then came a surprise ordeal for me.  Mr Damodaran had a failing eyesight and he asked me “Please thread the needle.”  Unfortunately for us, Mr Damodaran’s spectacles broke a few days before and to get a new one he had to travel to Udumalpet, the closest town, about 24 km away.  That could be feasible only the next day being a Sunday.

His next command was a bigger surprise – “now start stitching.”  He instructed each step and I put six sutures through Palani’s skin.  Palani must still be carrying the scar on his thigh today.

How could I execute such a mission?

When we were in Grade 2 & 3, we had stitching classes by Annamma Teacher, who also taught us Malayalam.  On a piece of cloth we began with hemming, then running stitch, cross stitch and then stitch English Alphabets, a flower and a leaf.  It came in handy that day.

Annamma Teacher remains etched in my memory as she was very compassionate to the young kids and was an epitome of dedication.  She was always dressed in her spotlessly white ‘Chatta, Mundu and Kavani,‘ the traditional Syrian Christian women’s attire.  Chatta is more like a jacket, while the mundu (dhoti), unlike the one worn by a man, is elegance personified, especially at the back, where it is neatly pleated and folded into a fan-like ‘njori‘.  Both Chatta and Mundu are pure cotton, Kavani, generally off-white with hand sewn embroidery is made of a thinner material and is draped across the body.

During our younger days, Chatta, Mundu and Kavani was the most common wear for the ladies, especially while attending the Sunday Mass and also during social and religious occasions. Chatta consists of two pieces of cloth cut into T shape and hand stitched prior to the arrival of sewing machines.  My grandmother said that they used to cut the cloth into two Ts with a kitchen knife as the scissors were not in vogue then and hand sew them.

Muslim women of Kerala in those days wore a white Mundu called ‘Kachimundu’ with blue and purple borders. The Muslim women’s Mundu do not have the fan-like Njori at the back. The head covering ‘Thattam‘ is better known as ‘Patturumala.’ The torso is covered by a long blouse with full sleeves. This type of dress is known as Kachi and Thattam.


Difficulty in maintaining the white outfit spotlessly white and availability of cheaper, easy to wear and maintain sarees resulted in the saree becoming the common wear for the Syrian Christian ladies.  Modern day wedding planners have revived the Chatta, Mundu and Kavani by showcasing it by asking a few relatives of their client to dress up so.


Annamma Teacher’s son, Veteran Colonel OM Kuriakose and her grandson Lieutenant Colonel Anish Kuriakose – both father and son are from The Parachute Regiment of the Indian Army.

Juneau – The Capital City of Alaska

Our ship’s next port of call was Juneau on 02 August early morning.  Juneau has been the capital of Alaska since 1906.  Juneau is rather unusual among US state capitals (except Honolulu, Hawaii) in that there are no roads connecting the city to rest of the state or to the rest of America. Absence of a road network is due to extremely rugged terrain surrounding the city.  All goods and persons coming in and out of Juneau must go by plane or ship.  Downtown Juneau is located at sea level, with tides averaging 5 m, surrounded by steep mountains about 1,200 meter high.

Even though Anchorage is the biggest city in Alaska and is well connected by rail, road and air network, how did Juneau become the capital of Alaska?

Sitka was the Alaskan capital when US took over Alaska from Russia. The capital was moved to Juneau in 1906 because the gold rush had made it and other towns in the Northern Alaska much more economically significant than Sitka. When Alaska officially became a territory in 1912, Anchorage did not exist. Anchorage came into being during the summer of 1915 as a construction depot on the Alaskan railroad. Anchorage wasn’t that important of a town until the US Military moved in before World War II.

After the war, Alaskans considered moving the capital out of South-East Alaska to a more central location. Anchorage was considered suitable with its central location, but poverty and lack of agreement prevented any action from being taken. Resolution to move the capital was put to vote in 1984 and 1996, but was defeated and is unlikely that the state government will ever physically move.

We got off our ship and headed on a bus to Auk Bay, about 20 km from the port, for whale watching.  We were ushered into a boat captained by  Emily.  John, a university student pursuing his pre-medical degree was her assistant.  Both Emily and John were very knowledgeable about Auk Bay and  surrounding areas and also about whales.   We were a group of 12  in the boat and after everyone boarded, Captain Emily gave out safety briefing followed by a talk about what we were expecting to see.  After leaving the jetty, Emily went full throttle, skimming over the water to locate  the whales.  During this journey John gave a detailed briefing on whales.

After about an hour, we sighted Sasha, a humpback whale. The whales located in  Auk Bay are given numbers and names.  Alaska is only a feeding area for the whales as there are lot of fish to feed on and is not a breeding ground due to the cold temperature. We watched bubble-net feeding by Sasha as she dived down and released a ring of bubbles from her blowhole beneath a school of fish. As the bubbles rose to the surface, it created a net, trapping the fish.

The next whale we located was Flame.  Humpback whales have patterns of black and white pigmentation and scars on the underside of their tails or flukes that are unique to each whale.  These black and white patterns are their bio-metric identification akin to our fingerprints.

After watching the whales, Emily steered the boat to an island where over two hundred sea lions were sunbathing.  The males had their heads up while the females and the cubs were all lying down like an arrangement of sausages on the beach. After watching the sea lions, Emily dropped us at the jetty to board a bus back to Juneau.

Back at Juneau, we drove on Goldbelt Mount Roberts Tramway,  a five-minute ride through the rain forest, from the cruise ship pier to the  Mount Roberts at an elevation of 600 meter.  It offered a breathtaking view of the cruise ships, the port and  downtown Juneau as depicted in the images at the top. Mount Roberts Tramway is one of the most vertical tramways in the world.

We came down on the tramway and decided to enjoy lunch at Juneau’s Twisted Fish Company, rather than going on board our ship anchored 100 meters away.  This place was recommended to us by locals and it was worth it. We savoured a menu of salmon, halibut and clam, sourced straight from the docks.

At the dock stood a plaque commemorating ultimate sacrifice by 690 member crew of Anti-Aircraft Light Cruiser Ship USS Juneau.  This ship was torpedoed and sunk by the Japanese submarines in the  Battle of Guadalcanal on the morning of 13 November 1942 in Pacific Ocean.  Only 10 crew members survived to narrate the tale.  Aboard USS Juneau were  George, Francis, Joseph, Madison and Albert – five brothers from the Sullivan family.  Even though US  Navy’s policy of separating siblings was in place,  it was not always followed and the five brothers enlisted to serve together and were assigned to USS Juneau.  The two oldest brothers George and Francis had served in the Navy before World War II and both had been discharged in May 1941. When war broke out, two older brothers with their three younger siblings volunteered to serve in the Navy but only if they could serve together.

After a sumptuous lunch, we boarded the ship and we sat in the balcony enjoying the breeze and the view outside on the waterfront.  There were many sea planes taking off and landing on water and a fishing boat crew were spreading their nets to catch salmon between the cruise ships and the ‘runway.’

The day for us ended with dinner and our ship bid goodbye to Juneau on its onward journey to Ketchikan, our last port of call in Alaska.

Next : Ketchikan – The First City of Alaska

Joe’s Canadian Sojourn – Casa Loma

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Air Vice Marshal TD Joseph (Joe), our course-mate from the National Defence Academy (NDA) and Sophie Joseph visited us during the last week of May 2016.  Joe and I hail from the same village -Ayarkkunnam – in Kerala, India.  Joe was surprised to be invited to many homes of people who had migrated to Canada from the very same village.

Prior to leaving India, everyone wanted to know as to why he was only visiting Canada and not the US.  Most sub-continental travellers presume that Canada has nothing much to offer and a journey to the North American continent essentially was limited to a handful of US destinations.  Joe was however convinced after reading many of my travelogues on my blog that Canada has many fascinating unexplored areas, unknown to even many who have settled here for decades.

The weather was good, adequately warm to undertake long journeys and for trekking.    We travelled well and made use of every minute at our disposal.  The itinerary included Mennonites of St Jacobs, Niagara Gorge, Niagara Falls, Welland Canal, Wine Country, Flower Pot Island, and CN Tower.  (Please click on each one to read about them on my earlier Blog Posts).    We also visited the African Lion Safari and Casa Loma.

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Casa Loma (Spanish for Hill House), was a dream house Major General Sir Henry Pellatt built.  It still stands out as the biggest residential place ever built in Canada.  It was General Pellat’s  dream castle.

Casa Loma took three years and $3.5 million to build (today’s worth about $75 million). General  Pellatt filled Casa Loma with artwork from Canada and around the world. With soaring towers, tunnels and secret passageways, it was a  castle than a private residence.

Casa Loma has 98 rooms, 30 bathrooms, three bowling alleys, an indoor swimming pool, and a rifle range. The original internal telephone system is preserved till date.  Casa Loma had 50 telephones, one in each room, when the whole of Toronto had only 250.  It served as a location for many movies such as X-Men, Strange Brew, Chicago, The Tuxedo,  Love Guru and The Pacifier.

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The main floor opens with the Great Hall which leads into a library and the main dining room.  In the main dining room, the Pellatts hosted many formal dinner parties. The 10,000-book library had the Pellatt family coat of arms carved into the ceiling, with herringbone oak floor pattern creating an optical illusion of different shades from each end of the room.

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Pellatts had a Serving Room which was also used as a breakfast room.  The room was inspired by Roman carvings.  This room was the staging area into which the kitchen staff brought the cooked food for the waiters to carry to the dining room.

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General Pellat’s Study on the main floor had a marble fireplace with carvings of Hercules on the mantle.  The walls had walnut panels which concealed a secret door on either side of the fireplace – the left one leading to the Pellatts’ bed rooms and the right one to the basement.  The room also boasted of a desk that was the exact replica of Napoleon’s writing desk.

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This floor also had a  Smoking Room for a game of chess or cards.  Adjacent to it was the Billiard Room where General Pellatt and EJ  Lennox, the architect of Casa Loma and his neighbour,  often played in the evenings.

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The second floor housed Genral Pellatt’s Suite, separate from Mary’s.  The walls are of mahogany and walnut.  The tiger skin on the floor was imported from India in 1920.  The bathroom has a  shower structured to completely surround the body with spray by using 6 taps that controlled 3 levels of pipes.

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Lady Pellatt’s suite adjacent to her husband’s suit had walls painted in her favourite colour: Wedgwood blue.  Lady Pellatt’s bathroom was smaller than General Pellatt’s.  It had a bidet, a rare feature in Canadian homes at the time.

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General Pellatt had five guest rooms, all suited for the royalty.  He dreamt of having the Royal Family as guests at Casa Loma.  This room was named Windsor Room after the Royal Family in England.  It has a nineteenth century walnut bed with dolphins carved on to the posts representing Venus.

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This suite for guests is decorated in Chinoiserie style with a large red lacquered dresser imported from China.  The walls are covered with Chinese inspired patterns of phoenixes and foo dogs.  It also has a Chinese screen with carvings of flowers and trees and a mother-of-pearl peacock.

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The Third Floor housed the servants’ rooms and the Queen’s Own Rifles Museum.  General Pellatt enlisted as a rifleman with The Queen’s Own Rifles on November 2, 1876.  He rose through the ranks and eventually became the Commanding Officer. In 1905.  In recognition of his services, he was appointed a Knight Bachelor by King Edward VII.

In 1910, Pellatt took the entire 600-men regiment (including its horses) to England for military training at his expense, to mark the Regiment’s fiftieth anniversary from 13 August to 03 October 1910.  General Pellatt later served as the regiment’s Honorary Colonel and was promoted to the rank of Major-General upon retirement.  When Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, General Pellatt went to England with some men and officers of the Queen’s Own Rifles to be part of the honour guard.

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In the basement was a Wine Cellar.  Ammonia and brine-filled pipes chilled the collection of nearly 1800 bottles of exotic wine and champagne.

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The Stables are connected to Casa Loma by an 800-ft tunnel.  The tunnel also housed a coal based heating system to heat the entire building.  Canadian army used the tunnel as a secret base to build a new SONAR system during World War II.

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The tunnel ended at the stables and garage.  The stalls for the horses are constructed of mahogany and the floors covered with Spanish tiles so that the horses did not slip.  Each horse’s name was inscribed on the wall in 18 Carat Gold.

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Major General Sir Henry Pellatt was born to British parents in Kingston, Ontario on January 6, 1859.  General Pellatt left his studies when he was seventeen to pursue a career in commerce in the family business. By the age of 23, he became a full partner in his father’s stock brokerage firm Pellatt and Pellatt.  He married Mary Dodgeson whom he met when he was twenty.

He achieved fame in 1879 for beating the US  amateur champion in one mile.  As a partner in Pellatt and Pellatt, he founded the Toronto Electric Light Company in 1883. By the time he was 30, the Toronto Electric Light Company enjoyed a monopoly on street lighting of the city of Toronto.

In 1892 his father retired, enabling General Pellatt to invest with more risk.  By 1901, he was chairman of 21 companies with interests in mining, insurance, land and electricity. In 1902, he won the rights to build the first Canadian hydro-electric  plant at Niagara Falls.  All these he achieved while serving with the Queen’s Own Rifles.  After retirement, in 1911, he began building his  dream castle – Casa Loma.

Unfortunately, General Pellatt’s fortunes nosedived and he went into debt. The one sure source of income from the monopoly of electrical power vanished when the government took over the company without any compensation.  He then invested into the airline business, to be taken over again by the government towards the war efforts for World War I.

Post World War I economy of Canada slumped.  So did General Pellatt’s fortunes.  He owed the Home Bank of Canada $1.7 million and City of Toronto a heavy tax bill.  He had no choice but to auction off his prized possessions for a fraction of their worth and to abandon his dream home – Casa Loma.  After moving into many smaller homes, he last lived with his trusted chauffeur.

Though he lost a great fortune, General Pellatt never lost his spirit of philanthropy, a character trait for which he was honoured late in life. His service of fifty years with the Queen’s Own Rifles was celebrated on June 27, 1926 with a march past of 500 men complete with the fly-past of three military planes.   A dinner was hosted at the Royal York Hotel, a reunion of the Queen’s Own Rifles, for his 80th birthday, including a telegram of congratulations from King George’s wife Queen Mary.  General Pellat was moved to tears.

He died two months later, in his chauffeur’s arms.  Thousands lined Toronto streets to witness his funeral procession. He was buried with full military honours befitting a soldier who gave so much to his country.

Visit to African Lion Safari follows.

Kasava/ Tapioca/ Kappa (കപ്പ)

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Walking down the isle of a Chinese vegetable store in Mississauga, Canada, after  immigration in 2004, I was surprisingly greeted by the Kasava/ Tapioca/ Kappa (കപ്പ) placed on a rack. On Closer examination, the tag read ‘Kasava – Product of Guatemala’. Any Malayalee (Mallu) will always and forever relish Tapioca cooked with spices and grated coconut and fish curry marinated with special tamarind (Kudam Puli (കുടംപുളി) scientifically known as Garcinia Cambogia). The concoction served in Toddy (alcoholic extract from coconut trees) shops all over Kerala (Indian Province where Malayalam is the native language and the residents are called Malayalees – now Mallus), is something one can never get in any homes.

Tapioca is not a native of Kerala. Then how come it reached the shores of Kerala?.

Tapioca is said to have originated in Brazil. Portuguese distributed the crop from Brazil to countries like Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Kerala in India in the 17th Century. Some believe that Vysakham Thirunal, the Travancore King (1880-1885 AD), who was also a botanist, introduced this laborer’s food in Travancore (South Kerala). By beginning of 19th Century, people from central Travancore migrated to the Malabar region (North Kerala) and they introduced tapioca to the locals.

Tapioca was promoted extensively during World War II in Kerala by Chithira Thirunal, Maharaja of Travancore and his Governor Sir CP Ramaswamy Iyer. Then rice was the staple food of the people of Kerala and was being imported from Burma and Indonesia. With Japanese Navy enforcing a blockade in the Malaccan Strait, the ships carrying rice to India were either destroyed or captured. This caused an acute shortage of rice.

A large number of people, especially the labour class, accepted the starch-rich Tapioca as a substitute to costly rice. Thus Tapioca came to be known as ‘staple food of the poor.’ Hotels refused to include Tapioca in their menu due to its working class image.

The only place that served Tapioca were the toddy shops, where the labourers turned up for relaxation after a day’s hard work. Today tapioca is a rarity in Kerala and so is a delicacy and hence all hotels including the five-star ones have tapioca with fish curry in all their menus.

During my childhood, we used to cultivate Tapioca on our land. Tapioca is a tropical crop, tolerant to drought, but cannot withstand frost. It is best grown in lower altitudes with warm humid climate with well distributed rainfall. Our land is terraced on the hill slope into 20 x 20 feet sections. Each section is held together with stone masonry retaining wall to avoid soil erosion. On top of these walls pineapple was grown to give additional strength to the retaining wall. On some of these walls a fast growing grass was planted as fodder for cows.

In the month of August, the labourers till the land and make mounds of about a foot after spreading a compost mixture of cow-dung and ash. These mounds are made about three feet apart. Tapioca is planted in June with the onset of the South-West monsoon. Stakes taken from plants of the previous year is now cut into pieces of about a foot and is planted on these mounds. After a month, all the unhealthy or weak sprouts are pinched off leaving only two sprouts to grow into stakes.

As the plants mature, underground stems called tubers enlarge with starch. This is the time when the plant is most susceptible to rodent attacks, mainly from rats. As the tubers matured, a plant was uprooted almost every evening and tubers either were boiled and eaten with chutney or cooked with grated coconut and spices and eaten with fish curry. During weekends our mother had off being a school teacher and she made thin slices of fresh tapioca tubers and fried them in coconut oil.

After about ten months, in April, tapioca is harvested. Firstly the stakes are cut off and the healthy ones are stored for cutting for next planting. Underground tubers are now pulled out manually, pulling at the base of the stakes. The tubers are cut off from their bases and carried to the peeling site.

At the peeling site, the women folk of the village sit on mats and peel the outer skin of the tubers and slice the white starch part into thin slices. The women folk were generally paid in kind at the scale of one for every ten basket of tubers sliced by them. The sliced tubers are now collected in baskets and carried by the men folk to the boiling site. Here the slices are boiled in water until semi-cooked. The slices are now drained and put on the ground to dry under the sun. Once dried, these are collected in gunny bags. Some of the dried tapioca was retained for our consumption and the remainder were sold off to Kunjappan Chettan, the trader who lived across our home. Please refer to my blog https://rejinces.net/2014/07/15/kunjappan-chettan-the-trader/

In the 1980s, labour in Kerala became very expensive and  rodent attacks on tapioca crops became severe. Most tapioca plants were infected with Gemini virus causing ‘Mosaic’ disease curling the leaves and thus reduced yield.  In this period, the price of natural rubber skyrocketed. This turned tapioca farmers to rubber cultivation. With the incoming of rubber, out went the cows first as there was not enough grass to feed them. Further, the skins of the tapioca tubers and leaves from the uprooted stakes, which were the staple diet of the cows for four months, were now unavailable.

Mr AD George, our botany teacher at school had mentioned that the Gemini virus intruded into Kerala through a sample brought in by a professor, who while on a visit to a foreign country where tapioca was cultivated, saw a plant infected by the virus. He collected a leaf to show it to his students and brought it home to Kerala. After demonstrating the specimen to his students, the professor discarded the specimen. This virus then is believed to have spread across Kerala.

The land lost all its herbal healing powers with the advent of rubber cultivation. Herbal plants like Kurumtotti (Sida Rhombifolia), Kizhukanelli (Phyllanthus Amarus), Paanal (Glycosmis Arboraea), etc, all very abundant until we cultivated tapioca, became nearly extinct. The undergrowth shown in the image above is mostly of these herbal plants. Further, the present generation is totally unaware of the existence of these herbs in our own land and uses of these herbs. The cows used to eat these herbs along with the grass they chewed off the land and hence their milk also should have had some herbal effect.

In 2002 I visited Colonel TM Natarajan, my class mate from Sainik School and he spoke about the Sago (Sabudhana[साबूदाना ] or Chavvari [ചവ്വരി/ சவ்வரிசி]) factory his family had. That was when I realised that Sago was not a seed and it was factory manufactured and tapioca is the main ingredient. As Tamil Nadu had many Sago factories and in order to feed them with tapioca, tapioca cultivation now moved from Kerala to Tamil Nadu. The only hitch is that it needs extensive irrigation to grow as Tamil Nadu does not enjoy as much rainfall as Kerala is blessed with.