Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Sweet Golden Memories





(published in the Hindu, 3/01/2017)
 
Karthigai has always been one of my favourite festival days. It is celebrated on a full moon night, and this year it was on Tuesday, 13th December. Sisters light lamps and candles and pray for their brothers, who express their love and thanks with gifts.  When my daughters were little, they too lit lamps and candles with me in our tea garden home in North Bengal just as I'd done with my mother and sisters when I was growing up in Delhi.
Most of the goodies offered up with prayers on Karthigai are made with jaggery, which is called Vellam (VELL-um) in Tamil and ‘gur’ (rhymes with ‘good’) in a number of other Indian languages. On Karthigai my mother would make Vella Dosai, Appam (little deep fried dumplings) and pori undai (puffed rice laddoos in golden vellam syrup) in large numbers.
I remember that Vellam was always sold in rounds about ten inches in diameter with slightly raised centres – around three inches high. Vellam has a grainy texture, and it is firm, but soft enough to break into chunks. We ate small chunks of it with dosai and adai at home, at 'tiffin time', that traditional South Indian meal eaten somewhere between three and five in the evening. Most children who grew up at the same time as I did thought tiffin was the best meal of the day. You got traditional fast food    (though we didn't have that phrase those days) like dosai and adai, uppuma, pakoras (called Bajji) poori-masala and idli (not a favourite with most children). These were actually good for you, in addition to being delicious. There are brown and white versions of many traditional Indian eats and the brown ones are all made with Vellam. There’s white Pongal which is a savoury and Sakkara Pongal, its sweetened brown version. Vellam gives us health benefits in the hot season as well.  I remember my mother preparing  glasses of icy ‘paanaham’ – a  gur sharbat flavoured with dried ginger and cardamom- which kept us cool during the days when Delhi’s ‘loo’ wind was at its height. The taste beat Roohafza or Nimbu pani or any other pani.
Vellam is probably the purest form of cane sugar. It is unrefined and rich in moisture, iron, minerals and 'heat'. It is high in calories, but these are ‘good calories’ unlike the ones in refined white sugar. Shakkar is another form of golden unrefined sugar, a little lighter in colour and powdery in texture. Fresh stocks of Gur and Shakkar arrive at grocery shops at the beginning of the cold weather. I found both in Delhi on my visit there last month.  Both were excellent. Only small quantities of Gur and Shakkar make their way into the rural areas of Eastern India. 
 
  A couple of months back, I bought some Gur here which was awful. It was adulterated with caramelised white sugar. Hard to believe it, but the cost of Gur has been higher than that of white sugar for some years now. It used to be cheap and available everywhere: the poor man’s sweetener and a traditional rustic dessert. In the nineties, my husband and I would take the train to Madras, and when we passed through the poorer parts of rural Orissa vendors would sell us tea sweetened with Gur.
I remember days of sugar shortage and rationing. That was also the age when readymade garments were costly and you got your clothes made by the tailor, when all our vegetables and fruits were not evenly sized and brightly coloured hybrids, but actually tasted of the earth from which they came.

The Bengali month of Poush began a few days ago, and with it, the open season for bingeing on sweets, particularly those made with Khejur Gur.
Khejur Gur is Gur made from date palm sap. The sap is sweet and ready for collection at the beginning of the cold weather, and it gets sweeter as the weather gets colder. I saw and tasted my first Khejur Gur sweets when I got married and moved to the Dooars, North Bengal.  They weren’t all that well known outside Bengal in those days. Once I tasted them, I was hooked for life. Bengali Khejur Gur sweets are golden and boozy in flavour, with a mellow richness that can’t be matched. We used to travel the length of Dooars at least once a week, and my husband managed to hunt out the best eateries and sweetshops in all the little towns. Pretty soon, we zeroed in on Nagrakata, Mal Bazar and Bagdogra (in that order) as the places which stocked the best ‘Khejur Gur er Mishti’.Around five years ago, there was a sudden drop in the quality of these sweets. The sweetshops stocked them in large numbers, but alas, they no longer tasted the same. It didn’t take long to discover the truth. There was no Khejur Gur to be had anywhere, and the sweetshops had switched to caramel.  This happened because there were no Khejur (date) palm trees growing anywhere any more.

                                    Khejur Gur and Sandesh from the 'Gur Old Days' !

Some photographs from The Telegraph, taken in Nadia district, show how date palm sap is collected and how the 'gur' is made and sold at the market.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Celebration Lilies


 Easter lilies are so special. They almost always bloom on April 14, which we celebrate as 'Vishu' or New Year's Day. There would be a vase full of them in my mother's 'Vishu Kani'.
My mother remembers that when I was very young, I'd  pluck all the buds which were just about to open. She and my father would be waiting  to see the flowers and all they got was headless stalks.
 I must have been a monster of an infant. Thank God for parents who brought me up anyway - and passed on their love of flowers to all of us.
 

What joy to go around a new garden, checking what plants there are! And what joy to see Easter lily leaves, to know that there will be flowers in March or April. Those few days when they bloom are enough to keep you going through the year.

Our garden at Moraghat Tea Estate had both red and white lilies. The reds bloomed first and then the whites. Once the flowering was over, we planted the bulbs out in rows - something we carried on doing for the fifteen years we lived there.

The nuns from St.James School and Holy Cross School at Binnaguri would drop in to collect lilies from us to decorate the church on Easter Sunday. We shared our bulbs with them too and in time to come, they had enough lilies in their own gardens. I did miss their annual visits!



                                Moraghat Bungalow                    
                                                                                        


                                Bhatkawa Bungalow

Our next bungalow was at Bhatkawa Tea Estate, and my garden there didn't have a single Easter lily! I moaned about it for all the three years that we were there. You don't find Easter lilies in nurseries, you get them from friends. My friend in the neighbouring garden didn't have any in her bungalow either, and between us we knew no one in the district on whom we could descend to beg for bulbs.

There are several Easter lilies in the garden where we now live and I'm grateful to the people who must have planted these. They bring back so many memories.

 A good way to start another New Year, giving thanks for life, for family, for friends old and new.
 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Reflections of An Evening, written 2007


In Delhi, in the seventies, we used to look out for sunsets in the monsoon and post-monsoon months of August and September without fail. In a big and dry city like Delhi, rain was incredibly energetic. It was always a bonus; it brought high spirits, and it spelt romance. Spells of rain never lasted too long, and when they ended by evening, we got the additional treat of a sunset to enjoy and remember.

Evening curfew for a young girl like me in those days was lighting-up time. As soon as the street lights came on, I had to be home. What lovely late evening twilights we had. The light would fade slowly and grandly out of the sky, lingering until the clouds and trees were dark silhouettes. In my imagination, those banked up clouds on the horizon, black and purple masses, were mountains. The return home at the street light hour was followed by prayers in the back verandah. The puja was in the store room that opened off it. The back verandah would be lit only by the fading daylight and the storeroom was beautiful in the dark. It was comforting and yet exciting, and there were many smells that filled it: the sharp smell of the scrubbed brass villakku or the smoky smell of burnt oil wicks, the scent of goodies stored in big biscuit tins, and agarbatti, which dominated, and then took over my senses with its calming effect so that my troubles -- homework undone or a test the next day-- would be washed away. Only the comfort and the safety of my parents' home would remain.

It was remarkable that one could connect to nature in such a profound way in the heart of Delhi.

That was a long time ago, and the habit of enjoying a few quiet moments gathering one's thoughts at the end of the day remains. On some evenings, the day seems to die, and it has a melancholy feel. On other days, there is only a feeling of peace. Today, I was sitting outside our house and looking at the Bhutan Himalayas, purple and black masses against the Northern sky, and I dreamed they were the clouds of my Delhi childhood. One peak stood out sharply defined, perfectly symmetrical, and in the foreground, a gulmohar leaf swayed in the silent breeze. It could have been a calendar picture of Mt.Fuji with a leaf etching in front.

It rained all afternoon after an incredibly hot and sticky morning. The thunder was deafening and it was a really dramatic, high intensity storm. It cleared the air magically. By four o'clock, the sky was washed blue and the hills stood out in clear relief. I walked down to the National Highway -- a straight road leads to it from my house - at about five o'clock, with my head turned right to see the hills. They were silhouettes; I couldn’t see the trees on them at all, but I could see the ranges layered out distinctly. Where the sky met the hills, it was a lighter blue than anywhere else; almost whitish, and luminous. The silence that settled around this spectacle made me imagine it was a pre-dawn scene, as if something big was about to happen soon.
Back from my walk, I sat outside on a swing, with our patient and undemanding dog Simba at my feet. There was a gentle breeze blowing. Birds had returned to their nests and fallen silent. A truck rumbled past on the highway, but it wasn’t an unwelcome sound.

The sound of children playing somewhere in the distance was missing today. It is a typical evening sound. Once I was among children who played in the evenings out in the open, watching anxiously for the lights on the lampposts. Then, as a young adult, I remember sitting and daydreaming on the front steps in the evening and listening to a sad song about a lonely man watching the children play. I sit alone now and the children who played in this garden when they were little have left home. Home and childhood may seem very far away to them too. The complete tranquility and simplicity of those childhood years is lost for ever, but at moments such as these, one can recapture traces of it. 

Published here in my blog in 2007

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Fresh Skin!

After two cold, windy and rainy days, the sun showed up at around noon today. We always tread carefully on the lawn because there are creatures that bite and sting, but I didn't notice what was there until the mali pointed it out to me.


I was not the only one who'd come out to enjoy the sun!



We thought that the frilly bit was where the head must have been, but when the malis turned the skin over and unfurled it, this is what we saw:


The snake mush have been over five feet long. Look at the head :

  All the revulsion I'd felt at the sight of the skin was gone.

Monday, February 22, 2016