Monday, August 14, 2017

Gul-e-Fanoosh and the Pitfalls of Photography

Here is an old favourite. We had a number of these shrubs in my childhood home, and they all had pink flowers. I would stand under the branches after the rain and get a little 'shower' shaking water off the petals, long after I'd crossed the age when it was alright to play with water. 
The sight of these flowers always reminds me of the end of summer holidays. Schools reopened in the second week of July, some days after the monsoon set in over Delhi. Delhi was really beautiful those days, neither dirty nor crowded, but a city of gardens.

This is the tallest Gul-e-Fanoosh I have ever seen. 
 Botanical names are rarely pretty and lagerstroemia indica is no exception. I found some common Indian names at The Flowers of India website. Gul-e-Fanoosh isn't mentioned there. It's a name I learnt from this lovely old book pictured below, which my brother Raja found in a book godown  in Siliguri.

A 'pitfall' can be quite painfully literal, as I learnt after slipping and falling into this pit of 'jabra mal' or dry leaves and cut grass.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Marvel of Peru

I have always had a running battle with my malis about the merits of local flowers.

Our mali in Moraghat, Mithoo, was a terrible snob who always pooh-poohed all the 'local' flowers that I loved to propagate. Cannas and hibiscus were 'common' in the gardens of labour houses and they were not fit to be grown in Burra Bungalow, he would say. We did battle for a good fifteen years, and like all people who disagree, we have a strong bond and a healthy respect for each other. 
        Mithoo in 2008
When we moved from Moraghat he made it a point to visit us every year just before the cold weather planting began. He'd bring seeds and seedlings of hollyhocks and cineraria, dianthus and asters. After his visit, I would hear how he'd been saying that I'd had taught him everything he knew about flowers. That was good of him, and it was not entirely true.

Mithoo regrets that we have moved to Assam and that too to Dibrugarh district, which is 'so far away' from the Dooars. When he last called, he said it would take him a day and a half to reach us and another day and a half to return. How would he ever get enough chhutti to 'pugaao' (reach) all the plants to me? He's promised to try and get away, though.

Thank goodness none of my friends was as stuck up as any of these gardeners who scoffed at any plant that didn't have an English name or lineage.

While we were in Moraghat, we'd see a lot of pretty yellow and magenta flowers which opened only in the evening. My mother knew the Tamil name, it was the 'Naalu Mani Poo' or 'Four o'clock flower'. I remember seeing some outside the homeopath's clinic in Mal Bazar. When I asked Dr. Sarkar, he was most happy to let me take some rooted cuttings.

Last year, when we came to Assam, we met many people, some for the first time, and some after a gap of over two decades. Mrs Bagai - Ashima, she hates formality - was someone I met after over 25 years, and it was as if those years in between had never been. It was wonderful to 'talk plants' together, among other things. It was thanks to Ashima that I got to know that one of the fruit trees in our compound was actually a fig tree!!

One evening last cold weather, I spent a few happy hours with Ashima in her garden. I came home with lots of cuttings and seeds, and among them there were two packets which her malis had packed and marked 'Red' and 'Yelo'. I was touched that they had taken the trouble to write in English. These were 'Naalu Mani Poo' seeds. I wanted to learn what the English name was, and Google came up with 'Four o'clock flower' when I entered 'Naalu Mani Poo'! I was delighted. This was so wonderfully accurate!! And what's more, the Tamil name had been 'recognised' without a hitch.

The seeds sprouted and the seedling plants grew quickly. I'd never seen so many colours among these flowers. I was in for another surprise; a single plant bore blooms of different colours!

Some flowers were speckled and some...well, pied ( I have never forgotten Jacob and Laban and the sheep from The Merchant of Venice). I love the way the flowers mirror the colours of what we call 'kite paper'! Nothing like Indian flowers, my jingositic inner voice kept repeating to itself.

That voice fell silent today. I googled 'Four o'clock Flower' and got 'Mirabilis Jalapa' or 'Marvel of Peru'. Peru! How remote, how exotic, and how - well, marvellous.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Plum Crazy!!

Plum Crazy! That's what the husband called me when I lopped several branches off a couple of plum trees that were blocking the sunlight from a bed of cold weather blooms last January.

These trees were growing plumb (forgive me, I can't resist) in the middle of a bed of gerberas and nasturtiums, a vivid visual cocktail that was still in the getting-ready-to-hit-you stage. No flower lover could blame me, surely, for wanting to give them their due?? And after all, there were three other plum trees growing in a line nearby with branches reaching up high enough to threaten to bring down all our electric wiring.

As for the fruit, well, here's when things begin to get sour. The plum trees are quite lovely to see. Hands up all those who remember 'Lemon Tree' playing on the radio when you were young. You get it?
When we'd just moved to Assam and to this garden, I'd spent many happy hours photographing the trees with new foliage, then later on with blooms and finally, laden with jewels of fruit.

 The blossoms, above, against the blue cold weather sky

 Harvest! Plum heart with peach border
There were enough fruit to set me off on a frenzy of jelly making. We couldn't eat them just as they were. Our local expert made us a bottle of pickle with a new and unusual flavour, and a bottle of syrup as well. The jelly was much more tart than we'd expected it to be in spite of the amounts of sugar and the number of sweet Assam lemons we'd used up in it.
Whenever I'd made plum jelly in Moraghat in the Dooars, the fruit flavour would begin to 'awaken' after about a month or so and it kept getting better and better over time.  So I took some bottles to family in Delhi - only to find they'd left them in their fridges, months later, almost untouched. The jelly just seemed to be getting more and more sour over time, they said.

My husband didn't exactly say  I was unleashing my anger on the trees when I axed them, but the words seemed to hang in the air alright.

I reminded him of our Moraghat plum tree and how, after one of the April storms that we call 'Kaal Baisakhi' had attacked it we got fruits that were large and juicy. He went away mumbling about forces of nature and madness being two different things.

July is almost here, and the fruit's coming in now. The trees that were left untouched yield plenty of plums everyday- small, hard and sour, but I'm not buying sacks of sugar again! The trees that I, shall I say, treated, have fewer fruit: naturally, because they have fewer branches. But quantity is just not the same as quality.

See the picture!! Guess which ones came off which trees!
Joy in the Morning!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

In the Maize

It's one of those post rain mornings. The wind lashed about last night after a hot and humid day, and the corn in our mali bari suffered its effects.

 The corn wasn't flourishing anyway, not with all the birds pecking away at it happily.

Just last week, we put in some scarecrows.
These men of straw were laid low by the rain and wind, and they looked quite wretched in the morning. I kept thinking of Ruth amid the alien corn. Some had lost their shirts as well - no doubt they took them off, as Nirmal the bearer said, because yesterday was so hot!!

                    Dignity restored!!

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Good Old Days Weren't Always Good

This story is short - and sweet (you'll see why).

After griping about how it was impossible to get good 'gur'/jaggery/'vellam' in my last blog post, I decided to take my chances and shop online. Life can be full of sweet surprises. My favourite golden sugar was available at Amazon!
At Rs.69/- only for 500 grams, a packet of organic gur seemed like a steal.

I placed my order and got a message telling me it would be delivered by the first week of May, but the goodies came in today with the newspapers: a whole week early!

The packing was great, and the gur, chunky cubes of it, as golden and sweet as the cold weather sunshine!

We still have a 'dakwallah' in tea gardens - but now he brings in my online shopping as well!
Cheers to progress!

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Monday, March 27, 2017

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.