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 preparingglasses of icy ‘paanaham’ – agur 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
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
It was remarkable that one could connect to nature in such a profound way in the heart of Delhi.
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
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.
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