Who showed me that there is tremendous joy in ‘just Being”
A woman who did not measure life in units of time ….
An institution in her own right.
I think of Pickles. The pickles that the grandmother whom we fondly called ‘amma,’ made during those sunny, dusty, sweltering, beasty summers of the monthof May in a small town in Haryana. Making pickles was the highlight of the mango season. It was considered loftier than the everyday cooking which was mundaneand repetitive. Pickle -making was a project to be carried out with many unwritten but customary ‘do’s’ and ‘don’t’s’, rules and rituals and cares and cautions. It had a cultural and traditional flavor and it was social and communitarian rather than individual and solitary. This was the time when Amma freed herself from picking fenugreek leaves and peeling the pods of peas, an engagement, an occupation , integral to her existence during all winter. Come the month of May, and she would pour all her energy and matronly experience intomaking pickles.
While grandmother got all excited andserious about pickles as the bounties of raw green mangoes got delivered at our home, She would become very cautious about their handling. Such copious produce was a result of dust-storms of biblical proportions that are typical of North -indian summers. The trees would yield a lot of raw mangoes that would come off owing to the ferocity with which these storms would shake the trees.
At home, as soon as a dust storm started building up, we would run to close the windows,to ward off the heaps of dust that the storm brought diffused in its expanse. And if someone got trapped into the storm outside, the dust would make home on their hair and eyebrows and fill their eyes too.
I had a love-hate relationship with these dusty winds. They were perhaps beastly beauties.
The outside riot of dust-storm was heard behind closed windows in the whistling of the air, and the splash of water that followed, yielding that visceral smell of earth which we call petrichor. It was something arising from a natural geographical dynamic, but for me it meantmore than that. It meant a combination of loneliness as the streets were deserted, search for candles with grandmother as electricity would invariably fail, the coziness as everyone would be home, the awe of nature and the longingness of some unknown thing. I wonder today how a purely seasonal and scientific phenomenon could evoke so many varied, even contrasting emotions in my teenage mind and heart. I wanted it for the thrill, I wanted it for the conversations and stories it would cause the next day, I wanted it for the sand that would accumulate on the streets, I wanted it to see the mullahji come next day and deliver a bounty of raw mangoesfrom his bagh.
All other days, the evenings were a thoroughfare , where we would jump from one terrace to the other, and easily land in verandah of the neighbouring house to play with our friends. Those were the days! The walls were a symbol of joining the houses, not separating them. THE walls served as bridges not fences.
There was something exciting about this whole pickle making event. In the afternoon, after the lunch was wound up and all men were either napping or gone to work, and all the kids small and ‘not so small’ were also either napping or playing with each other, grandmother would sit with a mango- cutter with a heap of washed and wiped raw mangoes around her, and would start chopping them and the distinctly rich gustatory scent of raw mango would fill the whole house ,and I would start hovering around the station where mangoes pickling had begun. Grandmother would be sitting with her daughters -in -law and their daughters-in-law to do her bidding and amidst whispers and laughters and grins and grimaces, the ladies would chop mangoes and the distinct and flavour-filled smell of Kalaunji, mustard oil , turmeric would fill my senses with an undefinable joy, joy of home, warmth of home, the love of home, the stability of home, the constancy of home. The ritualof mango- pickling meant that I was home and that’s all I needed from the world, and that, there existed nothing beyond that big house in which I grew up , and there can’t be any other home more safe and beautiful in that one where I lived.
Grandmother did it slowly, with economic sleight of hands, in a seasoned and perfected way, and would keep shooing me away advising me to catchup on my nap, but she wouldn’t really bother if I hovered. In between, she would give me a small piece of mango to cut into two, and I would keep observing whether the pieces I cut went into the main mixture, for I wanted to contribute importantly to pickle -making. And the only time my grandmother ever reprimanded me in all my time with her was when I would want to pick up from the cauldron to taste a bit of mixture unable to resist this mouth-watering mix, her only refrain,” No dear, not now. —it will spoil—we can’t touch it during the process—”. Her rebuke was also filled with love, only that this love was as much for me as for the mango -pickle. I clearly saw the joy with which she did all this, she showed such patience as if she had no job to do after that-it was not a chore for her, it was a choice, her love, her love for being, her love for creating with no hurry to finish , she did everything slow, slow mixing, slow marination, just the way she lived—a slow life—Amma never had paucity of time—she gave her all to everything that she did—she never perhaps did the cost -benefit , opportunity cost analysis of her time—she enjoyed the process, the love for what she did for –like we breathe, not thinking that we must breathe to live, it is automatic, part of us. That’s how grandmother lived—she breathed her work and got energy to breathe more. And after exactly 40 years, I can make parfaits and apple upside -down cakes, but I can’t make pickles, I long for those sunny, empty, warm, hot, sultry afternoons, where there was no urgency, no hurry and no contingency to a task—where time was not measured in hours and minutes but in just morning, afternoon , evening and night— for there are no quick -fixes for pickles , there is no short -cut, and there is no fast food in pickles, it is a slow food, emanating from slowness of life, the slowness of living, the slowness ofgestation .
And that taste of piquant mangoes is the taste of my memory of you Amma —I miss you —you were the biggest constant of my childhood!!