Of whales and crocodiles and elephants and childhood fears!

A very worried inside six year-old is being gotten ready for a trip to the airport – a very big deal in the 60’s. Worried and not able to ask anyone because I was painfully shy (i swear i was, really!) – for reassurance.

“How will you speak to your dad? Don’t you know he’d have forgotten Telugu (our mother tongue) completely and will speak only in English. He’s been away for so long” – our neighbour and much older boy, the oracle of our lives those days, Jitin, tells me as we prepare to leave for the airport. In an almost six year-old’s life, two years is a very long time. My dad, having spent two years in France on a study-cum-work programme, was arriving back home and for the past few weeks, we’d talked of little else – there was so much news to tell him, you see.

I had only a faint memory of what he looked like – and that mostly from photographs. Until Jitin threw a spanner in my works by telling me that Dad would have forgotten Telugu! I could speak English but was incredibly shy about doing so! And so, during that car trip to the airport, my stomach was churning over – in equal parts with excitement and anxiety – all nails got bitten off in the process! Until I couldn’t BEAR it any more and managed to ask my mom about it in as small a whisper as I could muster whether it was true! My mom, being a kind sort of person, held back her laughter and reassured me that no, Daddy would NOT have forgotten Telugu!  Feeling slightly better, though not completely believing her (it was Daddy who was the arbiter of all disputes between us kids about who would win if a crocodile and an elephant fought, which was a bigger river – the Amazon or the Yang-tze, which was larger – a whale shark or a blue whale and so on and my Mom’s word on this was not to be relied on completely!), we did reach the airport and on to the tarmac to receive him – you really could – in those days! Tremendously relieved to find that I could still communicate with my father who had NOT forgotten Telugu, I was struck with a debilitating attack of shyness and did not muster up the courage to talk to him till just before going to bed! Then of course, the floodstream did not stop for days!

The news was a mixed bag of everything important to the lives of us small fry – a veritable smorgasbord of happenings for many months and news about the neighbour’s dog was mixed up with what was happening at school, the eagerness to recite the shlokas we’d learnt while he was away, how we’d watched a hen being slaughtered in the neighbour’s yard (by having it’s neck wrung off and then watching it run around for a full ten minutes before it dropped dead – so now I know EXACTLY what they you mean when you talk about running around like a chicken with its head cut off!) and so on… much like our dish of the day – batata poha – a mixture of everything good!


  • Poha (beaten rice flakes) – 4 cups – wash and soak for 7-8 minutes before draining. Set aside.
  • Potatoes – cut into thin fingers – 2 large
  • Boiled green peas – 1/2 cup
  • Onion – 1 chopped
  • Ginger – 1″ piece – grated
  • Green chilies – 4 or 5 – sliced
  • Coconut – grated – 3 tbsp
  • Peanuts – 1/2 cup – roasted
  • Turmeric – 1/4 tsp
  • Mustard seeds – 1/2 tsp
  • Chana dal – 1 tbsp
  • Urad dal – 1 tsp
  • Asafoetida – 1 generous pinch
  • Curry leaves – 2 sprigs
  • Coriander and/or mint – 2 tbsp – chopped
  • Lemon -1 large
  • Garam masala – 1/4 tsp
  • Sev – to serve – 1 cup (optional)
  • Salt
  • Sugar – 1 tsp
  • Oil – 1 tbsp

Heat oil in a large saucepan (you need plenty of room to manouevre on this one!) and add the mustard. When it splutters add chana dal and stir for a few seconds. Add the urad dal and let both fry till a golden brown – about a minute. Add the onions and green chilies and fry till golden. Add the ginger and turmeric. Add potaotes and a couple of tbsp of water. Cover and cook till potaotes are tender. Add the soaked poha, salt, sugar, coconut, green peas and garam masala. Stir all together and cover and cook for a couple of minutes more.Add peanuts and squeeze the juice over and stir.

To serve, place the poha on a plate, sprinkle herbs and sev and serve immediately before the sev loses it’s crispness. What makes this dish such a favourite is the contrast of flavours and textures. Makes a superb breakfast with a cup of yogurt and pickle.

And poha in Telugu (atukulu) is just as sweet 🙂