TWI Writerly: Didu’s Achaar

I fill my suitcase with food preparations that remind me of my childhood, tastes familiar to my tongue and reviving memories of long-lost days. But now, this is even more heightened because of the current situation.”

By Susmita Bhattacharya

How I connected with my grandmother’s legacy during lockdown

Summer. The word summer means one thing to me. Okay, two. One is of course mangoes. I don’t know for which Indian born and raised in India, summer is not associated with mangoes. The other is also probably one that comes easily to mind for many – holidays spent with grandparents. A visit to the mamar bari – or mother’s maternal home. We did that almost every year until my grandmother passed away. 

This was in the seventies and eighties, which meant that there was no phone connection at my grandmother’s house, and letters took weeks to reach her. She lived in a small town called Hazaribagh in Bihar (now Jharkhand) and it took us almost 48 hours to get there from our home in Mumbai. There was a sense of adventure for us, to be travelling all those miles across the hot, baking plains of India, over iron clad bridges and rivers dried to resemble silk skeins glinting in the sun. A perpetual hunger accompanied us on these train journeys – we ate non-stop- whatever the hawkers sold – lugging their buckets with cold drinks or steaming hot samosas, muri moshla and fresh coconut water. 

My Didu’s house was a beautiful white-washed bungalow with a tiled roof. A front garden with a gate and a courtyard at the back, proudly displaying the rose bushes she carefully tended to and papaya trees that had been around from my mother’s childhood days. The kitchen was at the far end of the courtyard, away from the main house. A little door in the boundary wall led to the garden – overgrown and untended by the time we started visiting – and a well that we loved to throw pebbles into and wait for the splash.

The house was also where my mother became a child again. Every waking moment she spent with her mother, trying to make up for those eleven months of very limited communication. I understand her situation now, even though I can communicate with her without any difficulty over phone, email and visits. She would be starving for her mother’s company and in that month that we spent in Hazaribagh, we didn’t really speak much to our mother. Instead, my sister and I played with our cousins, spent time with our mamima – our uncle’s (Mamu) wife. One of my favourite memories will be of sneaking into the kitchen at 4 pm while everyone was still deep in their afternoon siesta – our Mamima would be preparing the tea in the kitchen. She would make the milk to go in the tea with Amul milk powder, and we’d beg her for a spoon – just one spoon – of the milk powder to dip our tongues into and savour the sweet, milky taste.

When we would finally have to return home – another epic train journey back to Mumbai – my Didu would usually pack us jars of pickles she would have made for us over the year. Sweet mango murabba, Kashimiri mango pickle and her famous vegetable achaar. Ma would ration it out to us carefully. It would have to last us the entire year until we replenished our stock with the next visit. So instead of being able to talk to our Didu on the phone, and while waiting for her letter to arrive we would add her achaar to our rice and daal, lick our fingers and remember her through the taste of her home grown carrots, cauliflower and green peas that she turned into achaar and preserved for us to take a little bit of herself back with us to our home.

I am now married and have daughters of my own. I too live far away and can only wait impatiently for that time of the year when we board the plane and rush back to India to spend time with our parents. I fill my suitcase with food preparations that remind me of my childhood, tastes familiar to my tongue and reviving memories of long-lost days. But now, this is even more heightened because of the current situation.

The pandemic of Coronavirus meant that my mother had to cancel her annual trip to see us in the UK. And it also meant that we most certainly wouldn’t be going to India to see her in December. That sense of loss was immense, and I felt myself drowning into a sense of helplessness. Of missing all the familiar things that brought me comfort. And one of the things that I really began to crave for was my Didu’s mixed vegetable achaar. 

I have never made pickles before – was it just fear that it would never turn out right or was it that I never imagined I could recreate the magic that eating those pickles gave me. Whatever it was, I always dreamed about those vegetable pickles and craved for them and it just stopped at that. 

With the lockdown scenario, it meant I was now at home twenty-four seven. Having to self-isolate also meant I didn’t get to go to the shops, see people – just work from home and look after the family. The weather has been good to us so far. A perfect time to make pickles, I kept thinking about that. Thinking practically, I wanted to preserve the vegetables that we got from our online shops – rare as they were in the beginning of this lockdown. I wanted to smell the strong aroma of mustard oil, still clinging to my fingers, hours after lunchtime. I wanted to taste that bit of my childhood – safe in the company of my parents, my family.

So I decided to take that step and try to make the pickle. My mother got the recipe from her elder sister – she is the only one who knows and makes this pickle now – and dictated it to me over a phone call one day. I dug deep into my food cupboard and found half a bottle of mustard oil – many years old- but it would do. And on one sunny morning in May, I set about making my grandmother’s pickle. I felt it in my bones that it would turn out okay. I would be successful in making it just right. I chopped the vegetables and blanched them. I left them to dry in the sun. I roasted the paanch phoran masala and sliced the garlic cloves. I fried them in the mustard oil. I poured this mixture onto the vegetable I had prepared inside a jam jar. And some vinegar and salt. I put the bottle in the sun for three days and watched over it carefully. 

Soon, it was ready. That heady smell of mustard oil and spices took me straight back to my grandmother’s house in Hazaribagh. And when I tasted it, mixed with some rice and boiled potatoes, it was like she was sitting there, across the table and watching me eat. A smile on her face, a twinkle in her eye. I know if she had been there, she would have leaned forward and put another couple of helpings of rice on my plate. And pushed the bottle of pickle towards me.

‘Have some more,’ she would have said.

And I did. I heaped a spoonful of memories on my plate and savoured it slowly. 

Didu’s Mixed Vegetable Pickle Recipe

Cut into small pieces: cauliflower, carrots, potatoes, green beans, broccoli and a small helping of peas. The vegetable quantity should be equal and depends on how much pickle you’d like to make. 

Blanch these for two to three minutes in boiling water, not longer than that. Drain. Then place on a big plate or tray and keep in the sun for the whole day. 

After a day or two of keeping the vegetables in the sun, bring inside and prepare the preservative. In a pan, heat mustard oil. It tends to bubble and smoke a lot, so be careful. Add sliced garlic cloves and chopped chillies as per taste. Prepare the paanch phoran (5 spices) spices – one teaspoon of each: nigella seeds, fenugreek seeds, fennel seeds, cumin seeds and mustard seeds. Add into the oil and keep stirring, until the oil becomes fragranced with the spices. Then add the vegetable to the oil and stir. Add salt to taste. Add half a cup of vinegar. Stir. Take off heat and cool to room temperature. Put everything in a sterilised glass jar. The vegetables should be submerged in the oil. If not, then repeat process of heating the oil and cooling it and add to the pickle. Cover with a cloth or paper towel and once again keep it in the sun for 2-3 days, turning the bottle so that all sides get the sun. It should be ready within three days.

Susmita Bhattacharya is an award-winning author and creative writing tutor. Her debut novel, The Normal State of Mind (Parthian, 2015, BEE Books, India 2016) was long-listed for the Word to Screen Prize at the Mumbai Film Festival, 2018. Her short story collection, Table Manners (Dahlia Publishing, 2018) won the Saboteur Award for Best Short Story Collection (2019) and was a finalist for the Hall & Woodhouse DLF Prize, 2019 and have been featured on BBC Radio 4.

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