A drop in mercury, glowing fireworks and Gujarati savouries... Soumitra Das on a collage of images buried in time
It takes time to get used to the simple fact that days become shortlived once October rolls towards November. If your workplace is brightly lit and doesn’t afford a view of the sky, the dusk at four takes you by surprise. In an hour’s time it becomes sooty and the air is perceptively cooler.
You wonder how it could be so dark at five, when even two months ago, the blistering sun refused to quit before six. In another month’s time, the mercury will have dipped even further, and though we enjoy the mildest of winters these days punctuated by “depressive” showers, we, Calcuttans, love to pretend we are freezing.
Now is the time for waiting in anticipation of days that suddenly terminate at four in the afternoon and nights that never seem to end. It is the only time of the year that we enjoy something like a twilight, when the long shadows of evening overcome the dazzle of sunshine and we seem to exist in an enchanted region that lies halfway between reality and magic. Light turns into a glowing powder sprinkled on the grim and ugly realities of our city, creating a romantic illusion for a few fleeting moments.
This is the time for unravelling our memories and for slipping into a frame of mind when it becomes difficult to distinguish remembrances, many of them transformed by the creative power of imagination, from the immediately perceptible reality. Little wonder that at this time of the year, members of all communities have festivals in remembrance of the souls of their dear departed.
Not so many years ago, tiny lanterns called akashpradips used to twinkle on the terraces of every Bengali household in salutation to their ancestors. But that pretty custom died out over 30 years ago. We seemed to be hooked on showbiz of the most horrible kind.
Memories are inextricably linked with festivities. We invariably think of Mahishasuramardini, the evergreen AIR programme, at the mention of Durga puja, and particularly the dawn of Mahalaya when it is broadcast. Announcing the advent of what they call “the festive season” in advertisements, it has become part of Bengal’s collective memory.
I remember my childhood. We would make a pledge the night before to get up before the crack of dawn so that not a single shloka or song was missed. Even when my cousins and I managed to do so and sat in a circle around our huge Philips valve set, we would invariably doze off. But from time to time we would wake up with a start as Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s resonant voice would boom into our ears. Decades have elapsed but the memories of this once-a-year affair never fail to thrill me.
Similarly, Kali puja immediately brings to mind my dadus who would make boxes full of rangmashals or torches which glowed like magic wands when lit. First, a dancing fluorescent light would emanate from them. Shadows would flitter to the rhythm of the light. Fluorescent would rapidly change into green, and the green would turn into violet as the rangmashal burnt itself out. Then for the next couple of seconds everything would be plunged into darkness. The light was blinding.
My dadus would spoil me with their home-made tubris. A great fir tree of sparks whose glory lasted not more than 10 to 15 seconds would spring to life from their baked clay shells. These were days before the faint of heart began to regard Kali puja with dread as it turned into an orgy of deafening, nerve-shattering noise. Crackers used to be burst even then but it was never nightmarish. At home, my dadus would labour for hours to produce these fireworks but it was a labour of love and they didn’t mind that.
So I have always come to associate festivals with love. Then, when I had just started going to college, circumstances compelled us to leave our ancestral home and begin life anew in central Calcutta. One of the first neighbours who came to visit us was an old Gujarati lady who lived next doors with her family.
She was so unlike the kindly old Bengali lady who was my Didu. My Didu never bothered about appearances. She wore a simple white cotton sari and she could make the most delicious sweets and pithe-puli. This lady was very different. Diamonds flashed on her ears and nose. She wore a colourful synthetic sari, which was unthinkable for a Bengali matron of those times, and her hair was carefully brushed and tied into a large knot. But she was as loving as my Didu. The next time she came, and that was not very many days later, she came with a plateful of sweets. Made of mawa, suji and flour and delicately shaped, these sweets were very different from our homely narkol naru and such delicacies.
“Auntie”, as I soon began to address her, would unfailingly send me every special dish she cooked. I just loved the sweet-and-sour taste of Gujarati cuisine, often flavoured with a piquant and pungent dash of asafoetida or garlic.
Her son, in turn, became an ardent fan of luchi aludam, and if he was to be believed, nobody made it better than my family.
My first Durga puja in Calcutta was just over and Diwali was round the corner. Auntie could be seen in the squeaky-clean kitchen working tirelessly day in and day out. She kneaded dough, made tiny balls out of it, rolled these out and fried them in oil. In a large kadahi she would ceaselessly stir a mix of suji, sugar, mawa and either dried coconut or dried fruit.
Auntie wore powerful glasses but she would check each grain of sugar or suji for grit. She would do this for days. I would watch her spellbound as she turned the simplest of ingredients into the most mouthwatering sweets and savouries imaginable.
She rewarded my patience by offering me a plateful of whatever dainty morsel she had conjured up, explaining in detail the recipe, the ingredients, and the special occasions on which such titbits were served. I soon became acquainted with a new culture and way of looking at life as she told me about sweets such as magaj, ghari, ghughra and mohanthal and salty items like mathiya and fafra.
They could only have been created in a dry and arid land where wheat and dal were the most readily available ingredients, and where food needed to be preserved for days and sometimes months.
So strong is the influence of this culture and its memories that even Gujaratis from east Africa, who have settled down for decades in Wembley in London, and who never in their lifetime have been anywhere near their native shores, can till today recreate all these delicacies to perfection in those distant climes.
Our taste buds and our palate seem to make such a powerful impression on our minds that our fondest memories are those triggered off by food. When love is strongly associated with such remembrances they become the core of our being and provide succour even much later in life.