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Three thousand stitches, p.4
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       Three Thousand Stitches, p.4

           Sudha Murty
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  ‘Wow!’ I thought. Out loud, I said, ‘Uncle, tell me about an essential item that is used in our cooking but isn’t ours.’

  ‘Come on, try and guess. We simply cannot cook without this particular vegetable.’

  I closed my eyes and thought of sambar, that essential south Indian dish and the mutter paneer typical of the north Indian cuisine. It took me a while to think of a common ingredient—the chilli. I brushed my thought away. ‘No, there’s no way that the chilli can be an imported vegetable. There can be no Indian food without it,’ I thought.

  Uncle looked at me. ‘You are right. It is the chilli!’ he exclaimed almost as if he had read my mind.

  ‘How did you know?’

  ‘Because people never fail to be shocked when they think of the possibility that chilli could be from another country. I can see it clearly on their faces when the wheels turn inside their head.’

  My disbelief was obvious. How could we cook without chillies? It is as important as salt in Indian cooking.

  ‘There are many stories and multiple theories about chillies,’ Uncle said. ‘When Vasco da Gama came to India, he came from Portugal via Brazil and brought many seeds with him. Later, Marco Polo and the British came to India. Thus, many more plant seeds arrived. The truth is that what we call “indigenous” isn’t really ours. Think of chillies, capsicum, corn, groundnut, cashews, beans, potato, papaya, pineapple, custard apple, guava and sapodilla—they are all from South America. Over time, we indigenized them and learnt how to cook them. Some say that the chilli came from the country of the same name, while some others say it came from Mexico. According to a theory, black pepper was the ingredient traditionally used in India to make our food hot and spicy. Some scholars believe that the sole goal of the East India Company was to acquire a monopoly over India’s pepper trade, which later ended in India’s colonization. But when we began using chillies, we found that it tasted better than black pepper. To give you an example, we refer to black pepper as kalu menasu in Kannada. We gave a similar name to the chilli and called it menasin kai. In Hindi, it is frequently referred to as mirchi. In the war between black pepper and chilli, the former lost and chilli established itself as the new prince and continues to rule the Indian food industry even today. north Karnataka is famous for its red chillies now.’

  ‘That much I do know, Uncle!’ I closed my eyes and had a vision of my younger days. ‘I remember seeing acres and acres of red chilli plants during my childhood. The harvest used to take place during the Diwali season. I remember that the Badgi district was dedicated to the sale of chillies. I had gone with my uncle one day and was amazed by the mountains of red chillies I saw there.’

  ‘Oh yes, you are right! Those red chillies are bright red in colour but they aren’t really hot or spicy. On the contrary, chillies that grow in the state of Andhra Pradesh in the area of Guntur are extremely spicy. They are a little rounded in shape, not as deep red in colour and are called Guntur chillies. A good cook uses a combination of different kinds of chillies to make the dish delicious and attractive. Now that’s what I call indigenous.’

  ‘There were also two other kinds of chillies in our farm—one was a chilli called Gandhar or Ravana chilli that grows upside down and the other one, of course, was capsicum.’

  Uncle nodded. ‘Capsicum in India is nothing but green or red bell peppers in the West. But if you eat one tiny Ravana chilli, you will have to sit in the bathroom with your backside in pain and drink many bottles of water for a long, long time! Or you will have to eat five hundred grams of candies, sweets or chocolates.’

  We both laughed.

  Hearing the laughter, Rekha’s mother came and joined us. ‘Are you folks joking about today’s menu? I’m sorry that there wasn’t much variety. When I heard that you were coming for lunch, I told Uncle to inform you that today’s food was going to be bland and that you could come another Sunday, but he said that you are like family and wouldn’t mind at all,’ she said to me.

  That sparked my interest. ‘Tell me the reason for the bland food, Aunty!’

  ‘We have a method to the madness, I guess. During death anniversaries, we do not use vegetables or spices that have come from other countries. Hence, we use ingredients like fenugreek, black pepper and cucumber, among others. Our ancestors were scared of using new vegetables and named these imports Vishwamitra srishti.’

  This was the first time that I had heard of such a thing. ‘What does that mean?’

  Aunty settled into a makeshift chair under the guava tree. ‘The story goes that there was a king called Trishanku who wanted to go to heaven along with his physical body. With his strong penance and powers, the sage Vishwamitra was able to send him to heaven, but the gods pushed him back because they were worried that it would set a precedent for people to come in with their physical bodies. That was not to be allowed. Vishwamitra tried to push Trishanku upwards but the gods pushed him down, like a game of tug of war. In the end, Vishwamitra created a new world for Trishanku and called it Trishanku Swarga. He even created vegetables that belonged neither to the earth nor heaven. So vegetables like eggplant and cauliflower are the creations of Vishwamitra, which must not be used at a time such as a dear one’s death anniversary.’

  Silence fell between us and I pondered over Aunty’s story. After a few minutes, I saw Rekha coming towards us with some bananas and oranges and a box of what seemed to be dessert.

  ‘Come,’ she said to me, ‘have something. The banana is from our garden and the dessert is made from home-grown ingredients too! You must be . . .’

  Uncle interrupted, ‘Do you know that we make so many desserts in India that aren’t original to our country?’

  ‘Appa, tell her the story of the guava and the banana. I really like that one,’ Rekha said. She smiled as she handed me a banana.

  Uncle grinned, pleased to impart some more knowledge. ‘The seeds of guava came from Goa,’ he said. ‘So some people say that’s how it was named. In Kannada, we call it perala hannu because we believe that it originated in Peru, South America. Let me tell you a story.

  ‘Durvasa was a famed short-tempered sage in our ancient epics. He cursed anyone who dared to rouse his anger. The sage was married to a woman named Kandali. One day, she said to him, “O sage, people are terribly afraid of you while I have lived with you for such a long time. Don’t you think I deserve a great boon from you?”

  ‘Though Durvasa was upset at her words, he did not curse her. He thought seriously about what she had said and decided that she was right. “I will give you a boon. But only one. So think carefully,” he said.

  ‘After some thought, she replied, “Create a fruit for me that is unique and blessed with beautiful colours. The tree should grow not in heaven but on earth. It should have the ability to grow easily everywhere in our country. It must give fruits in bunches and for the whole year. The fruit must not have any seeds and must not create a mess when we eat it. When it is not ripe, we should be able to use it as a vegetable and once it is ripe, we should use it while performing pujas. We must be able to use all parts of the tree.”

  ‘Durvasa was surprised and impressed at the number of specifications his wife was giving him. He was used to giving curses in anger and then figuring out their solutions once he had calmed down, but this seemingly simple request was a test of his intelligence. “No wonder women are cleverer. Men like me get upset quickly and act before fully thinking of the consequences,” he thought.

  ‘The sage prayed to Goddess Saraswati to give him the knowledge with which he could satisfy his wife’s demand. After a few minutes, he realized that he would be able to fulfil his wife’s desire. Thus he created the banana tree, which is found all over India today. Every part of the tree—the leaf, the bark, the stem, the flowers and its fruits are used daily. Raw banana can be cooked while the ripe banana can be eaten easily by peeling off its skin. It is also an essential part of worship to the gods. The fruit is seedless and presents itself as a bunch. A mature tree
lives for a year and smaller saplings are found around it.

  ‘Kandali was ecstatic and named the plant kandari. She announced, “Whoever eats this fruit will not get upset, despite the fact that it was created by my short-tempered husband.”

  ‘Over a period of time, people started using the banana extensively and loved it. Slowly the name kandari changed to kadali and the banana came to be known as kadali phala in Sanskrit.’ Uncle took a deep breath at the end of his story.

  I smiled, amused at the story that seemed to result from fertile imagination. I had a strong urge to grab a banana and took one from the plate in front of me. ‘You may have given me bland food today,’ I said, ‘but I really want some dessert.’

  Rekha opened the box. It was filled with different varieties of sweets. I saw gulab jamuns, jhangri (a deep-fried flour-based dessert) and gulkhand (a rose petal-based preserve). I can’t resist gulab jamuns, so I immediately picked one up and popped it into my drooling mouth. It was soft and sweet. ‘What a dessert!’ I remarked, amazed at how delicious it was! ‘Nobody can beat us when it comes to Indian desserts. I don’t know how people can live in other countries without gulab jamuns.’

  ‘Wait a minute, don’t make such sweeping statements,’ said Rekha. ‘Gulab jamun is not from India.’

  ‘Yeah, right,’ I said, not convinced at all. Before she could stop me, I grabbed another gulab jamun and gulped it down.

  ‘I’m serious. A language scholar once came to speak in our college. He told us that apart from English, we use multiple Persian, Arabic and Portuguese words that we aren’t even aware of. Gulab jamun is a Persian word and is a dish prepared in Iran. It became popular in India during the Mughal reign because the court language was Persian. The same is true for jhangri, which is a kind of ornament worn on the wrist and the jhangri design resembles it.’

  ‘You will now tell me that even gulkhand is from somewhere else!’ I complained loudly.

  She grinned, ‘You aren’t wrong! Gulkhand is a Persian word too—gul is nothing but rose and khand means sweet. Gul, in fact, originates from the word gulab (rose).’

  My brain was thoroughly exhausted with all this information. When I saw the oranges, I said with pride, ‘I will not call this an orange now, but its Kannada name narangi.’

  Uncle cleared his throat. ‘Narangi is an Indian word but it does not originate in Karnataka. It is made up of two words—naar (orange or colour of the sun) and rangi (colour).’

  The conversation was leaving me feeling truly lost.

  ‘When people stay in one place for some time,’ he continued, ‘they will unknowingly absorb the culture around them, including their food and language. At times, we adopt the changes into our local cuisine and make it our own. That’s exactly what happened with the foods we have discussed.’

  I glanced at my watch. It was time for me to leave. I thanked them profusely, especially Uncle, for enlightening me in a way that even Google could not.

  There was a huge traffic jam despite it being a Sunday evening as I set out for home, but I wasn’t bored on the way. In fact, I was happy to recollect Uncle’s words and perhaps, as a result, suddenly remembered an incident.

  My mother had two sisters. Though all three sisters were married to men from the same state, their husbands’ jobs were in different areas—one lived in south Karnataka in the old Mysore state, my parents lived in Maharashtra and the third stayed in the flatlands in a remote corner of Karnataka.

  After their husbands retired, the three sisters lived in Hubli in the same area. It was fun to meet my cousins every day and eat meals together. We celebrated festivals as a family and the food was cooked in one house, though everybody brought home-cooked desserts from their own houses.

  During one particular Diwali, we had a host of delicacies. My mother made puri and shrikhand (a popular dish in Maharashtra made from strained yogurt and sugar). My aunt from Mysore made kishmish kheer and a rice-based main course called bisi bele anna, while the other aunt made groundnut-based sweets such as jaggery-based sticky chikki and ball-shaped laddus.

  As children, my cousins and I had plenty of fun eating them but in the car, I realized for the first time that all the sisters had absorbed something from the area that they had lived in. Despite their physical proximity, the food in each household was so diverse. I couldn’t help but wonder how exciting the food really must be in the different regions of India.

  I thought of paneer pizzas, cheese dosas and the Indian ‘Chinese’ food. They must have originated the same way.

  Who really said that India is a country? It is a continent—culturally vibrant, diverse in food and yet, distinctly Indian at heart.


  Three Handfuls of Water

  When I was young, I lived with my grandparents in a tiny village in Karnataka.

  My grandmother, Krishnakka, was a good-looking lady. But I rarely saw her dress well, unless there was a festival or an important event.

  When I came back from school one day, I found her just about to open a big wooden box containing her silk saris and a few dear possessions. Since she rarely opened this particular box, it always carried an air of fascination for me. I’d always drop whatever I was doing to join her. This time was no different. I dropped my bag and ran to her. I peeped inside and saw a silver kumkum bharani (a box used to keep the red powder used for social or religious purposes), a small mirror with a silver handle, a broken, yet useful ivory comb and a few silver vessels.

  ‘My father gave these to me on my wedding,’ said my grandmother with pride in her voice. Her father had been gone a long time.

  I took the kumkum box in my hand and stared at it. It was a round-shaped box that looked like a miniature pagoda. I removed the cover and opened it without a second thought. There were three parts to it—the first one contained honeybee wax, the second was a small round mirror and at the bottom was a space to keep the kumkum. I was fascinated. ‘Avva,’ I began, a little hesitant. ‘Out of all your gifts, I love the kumkum bharani the most. Will you please give this to me when I grow up?’

  ‘I have thirteen grandchildren. Each of them must get something. But I will keep this for you,’ she smiled as she replied candidly.

  Later, she sat unhurriedly in front of a full-length mirror, brushed her hair, wore a nose ring and a nine-yard green Banarasi sari with a yellow blouse. She put on a big bindi and pretty pearl earrings, and decorated her hands with green glass bangles and two gold ones. Then she circled her bun with flowers. She perfectly fit the image of an elderly woman from north Karnataka.

  ‘Avva, there is no festival today. Why are you dressed up like this? Are you going somewhere?’ I asked.

  ‘I am going out for lunch and you are going to come with me. Get ready quickly.’

  When I paused for a few moments, she added, ‘Don’t worry about your afternoon class. Your teacher is also coming there.’

  In the village school, this kind of adjustment was not unusual. Sometimes, we got a day off in the middle of the week and it was compensated for on a Sunday. Things were more fluid and life was simple, and I was but a bud flowering in this forest of my own.

  I didn’t need to be told a second time. I was happy at the thought of attending a lunch party and ran to change my clothes. Even in those days, I never took more than a few minutes to get ready.

  Avva wasn’t usually a talkative person, but she was in a good mood that day. As my grandfather wasn’t inclined to accompany her for such functions, she told her husband, ‘I am going out for lunch to Indira’s house today. I have kept your meal covered with a plantain leaf. Please have it as soon as possible.’

  My grandfather, whom I affectionately called Shiggaon Kaka, nodded and continued reading the newspaper.

  Within minutes, we stepped out and started walking towards Indira Ajji’s house.

  ‘What’s the occasion?’ I asked.

  ‘My friend Indira has come back from Varanasi and has invited all of us for lunch. It is a wonderful celebratio
n called Kashi Samaradhane.’

  ‘What is that? If Indira Ajji has returned from a visit, then why do we have to celebrate it? Isn’t it like going to Hubli or Gadag and coming back? We don’t have any party or celebration then!’

  Avva sighed. ‘There is a lot of difference between going to Kashi and going to Hubli. Kashi is one of the most sacred places on earth. The river Ganga flows there. It is believed that Lord Vishwanath, the Lord of the universe, resides there and gives boons to everyone. It is his favourite place on the planet. There are eighty ghats to bathe in there. Thousands of Sanskrit scholars live in the city. The sari that I am wearing today is known as a Banarasi sari. If you get such a sari as a wedding gift, it is considered to be very lucky as it is from the holy land of Kashi.’

  I wasn’t fully convinced. ‘Still, why is such a lunch organized?’ I persisted, despite my desperate desire to eat the goodies at the celebration anyway.

  ‘It is not easy to go to Kashi, no matter how rich or devoted you are. Going there and coming back is an arduous journey. You have to switch many trains and buses. First, people there speak a different language called Hindi. Second, we don’t have any relatives to lean on or direct us. Third, it is so cold during winter that you can’t even submerge your feet in the freezing river. Fourth, in the summer, the heat makes the ground so flaming hot that you can’t walk barefoot for the pujas. Fifth, if the locals there find out that we are outsiders, then more often than not, they try to cheat us. There are stories of people going to Kashi without ever coming back. So when someone returns, we consider them blessed. That’s why they give us a feast and we exchange gifts.’

  ‘What are you going to give, Avva?’ I was curious.

  Avva opened the bag that she was carrying. There was a nice cotton sari inside, along with plenty of fruits and flowers.

  ‘And what will she give us?’

  ‘We will get a Kashi thread and some water from the Ganga, both of which are precious. Wear the thread on your wrist or your neck every day and God will protect you from difficulties.’

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