By Ayesha Begum
The rehearsal of loss is almost always accompanied by an unanticipated turn of events; it catches you unaware, and you may find yourself chronicling the different stages of grief. Stage 1 is denial, where you reckon the futility of a seeming sense of wariness in the face of the cataclysmic turn of events. Stage 2 is more visceral where almost everyone experiencing loss resorts to nostalgia after bouts of melancholia and copious shedding of tears. And then there’s stage 3, of (bargained) serendipity when you recognise the bitter-sweet taste of memory and how life-will-always-go-on.
Earlier this year, losing my grandmother after prolonged months of illness, I realised how almost involuntarily, I had begun to partake in collective grief, when India was grappling with the crisis of the second wave of the pandemic. My nani, fortunately, didn’t die of covid, but her demise was still tragic on the personal front. Coupled with this loss, was an unforeseeable event, which made me return back home to Siliguri (a small but bustling town in North Bengal) after almost a decade.
For me, whenever I talk about leaving a city behind, I always run the risk of sounding a little too sentimental as if losing a loved one. But my story begins with the third stage of grief, when the bitter-sweetness of memory had amalgamated; turned tangible one evening as the intoxicating whiff of the bitter fruit, or the ripe Palm fruit entered my nostrils and enveloped my senses.
It was just the day before Janmasthami when my father had got hold of a pulpy football-sized Palm fruit or what is known as Taal in this part of the country. Ma raised a hysteric outcry of disbelief at the alarming price (she almost always does this) at which Baba got home the Taal. But given the cultural association of the food with the festival of Janmasthami, the increased rates were expected. It is quite amusing to see how certain foods have a special cultural and religious connotation. While growing up, I remember how many of my Hindu-Bengali friends used to get Taal-er-bora or sweet fritters in their Tiffin, post the day of Janmasthami. It was then I realised how this fruit is almost sacrosanct when it comes to the festival of Janmasthami. The sweet delicacies, however, have had a strong connection with the public memory of Bengalis at large, irrespective of their religious identity. Growing up in a Bengali-Muslim household, mine was no exception.
The ripe fruit in particular has a special association with my childhood. And when I say that, I recount there have many seasons left behind when I tasted the innumerable variety of sweet delicacies made out of Taal, like the Taal- er –pitha, Taal- er- ruti, and my personal favourite, Taal-er-bora. I still gloat over the fact that the boras(sweet fritters) in my home are the tastiest because it’s the softest kind that I have ever had; that it retains its softness even after some days. The Palm in its ripe form has always been a seasonal variety fruit, found in abundance during the Bhadro-Ashin months corresponding to the Bengali calendar. But now with the large-scale availability of fridges in almost all middle-class households, the pulp, if properly refrigerated, retains a longer shelf-life.
The Taal, in its ripe form, unlike most other common fruits cannot be eaten in its natural form, but interestingly its pulp can be used to make a variety of dishes. The way the pulp is transformed is an alchemy of sorts. First, the outer covering is removed with hands, and inside this socket are the seeds with a large fibrous covering. The fruit is washed thoroughly and then it goes through a rigorous labour-intensive deseeding process by grating it against a wire mesh sieving utensil and the pulp is slowly extracted. The pulp is then poured in another utensil, mixed with generous spoons of sugar, and put on a low flame while stirring it continuously. This ritual of cooking the pulp over low heat as it thickens and changes its colour to a tint of brickish-orange is a rite-of-passage in itself and requires the labour of love. The viscous pulp is then used to make the sweet offering by mixing it with flour or milk. Sadly, despite its popularity in Bengali households, its demand is increasingly fading. You will almost always never find these dishes served along with the more popular sweets even in the local sweetshops but you may perhaps sight it during the Melas or some Pujo.
Moving back to my story, returning back home after a chequered journey of changing cities and moving out to a 1BHK rented apartment, finding myself suddenly, in the heady-presence of the strong aroma-filled palm fruit was a subtle but deeply moving experience. It was as if somehow, my olfactory nerve had transported me to yesteryears but my memory somehow seemed to turn into a cul-de-sac, opening to that one particular scene before my eyes. I would like to believe that this is not a redacted memory but the scene somehow shifts to that one evening in my maternal grandmother’s house, where a large part of my childhood was spent. Seated in the dining room were my two aunts filling the palm dough with grated coconut, folding the edges of the pitha with precision, under the guided supervision of my hawk-eyed Nani. Nani,though embodying the figure of the matriarch, had by then almost partially retired from the kitchen but retained her pernickety attitude about food and its flavour. She was particularly fond of Taal and would always nudge my uncle to get it, often to the displeasure of my aunts. Belonging originally to a small village in the Hooghly district of West Bengal, she married at a very early age and mothered 8 children, before Nana migrated to Kolkata with his entire family. Nani in the last few years began to miss her village but given her health and other circumstances, she returned back to her village only with her death where she rests peacefully under the shade of many palm trees.
Ma, quite like her own mother has always had a soft corner for Taal and with time her hands uncannily resemble Nani’s. She retains the deftness she inherited from her genes making magic that we savour even today. Tasting the sweet delicacies after so many years evoked the absent presence of Nani but strangely it wasn’t the nostalgia-instilled moping sadness, but the fortuity of life where we stumble upon a silver lining or end up inventing it. Reflecting on myself and the kind of fast-paced lifestyle I am accustomed to, often surviving on Maggi or sometimes skipping a meal, thinking of taking the ordeal of making those dishes someday would require a leap of faith. Writing about it is easier. Or perhaps not.
Ayesha Begum: She is a part-time reader and full-time dreamer, always thinking about the grand possibility of the third story while wading through the second. Originally based out of Kolkata, her migratory experiences since a very early age have enabled her to make a home out of everywhere she has been. She is also a mom to two sassy cats and is currently an English educator at Vedantu.