One autumn evening, Bapi brings home a pair of binoculars. A childhood friend of his had been visiting and he had brought this for us all the way from Germany.
Dada and I are elated.
I am just entering the magical world of physics and the science of optics, the tantalizing world of convex and concave lenses and the so-ridiculously-simple-once-you-get-it principles around focal lengths, has just started to enthrall me.
And one sultry afternoon, once Grandma has retired to her room for her customary postprandial nap and Maa is engrossed in a novel, I surreptitiously head to the backyard. Once I am certain that no one is around, I stealthily sneak out the ancient magnifying glass that I have fished out of the corner of the top drawer in Grandma’s armoire and hold steady the handle of the steel-rimmed lens to receive the mean rays of the sun. Just as the picture in the book had indicated. I now try and adjust a ruled sheet of paper that I have torn from my notebook below the lens. And wait for the rays to converge on the paper.
Nothing seems to happen.
And then just as I am about to give up, the miracle happens.
The paper starts to smoulder.
That I can start a fire without a match-stick is nothing short of magic.
I am ecstatic.
I confess to Bapi a good couple of weeks later about my secret experiment, almost expecting a sharp reprimand for him.
I too did that the first time we were taught about magnifying glasses, Bapi whispers to me, Don’t tell Grandma though.
Both of us burst into peals of laughter.
But do be careful, he cautions, do not burn yourself. Remember Archimedes destroyed an entire armada of Roman ships just by using mirrors to concentrate sun rays on the attacking fleet.
Don’t underestimate the power of sun rays.
One morning, tyrannized by a colony of fiendish red ants that I had mistakenly stepped on while playing in the backyard, I decide to teach the tiny brutes a lesson, Archimedes style.
And armed with my lethal weapon, the seemingly innocuous magnifying glass that I focus on the ant nest, I unleash havoc on the busy colony, leaving armies of ants charred to death.
I proudly narrate my heroic exploits to Bapi when he returns home in the evening.
But today he is far from amused.
Science is a blessing, he solemnly asserts, meant for the good of the world. Not a weapon of destruction.
Simple words that stick with me forever.
Back to the binoculars.
They shrink distance for me, bring the far so near, I can almost touch and feel the distant now.
I discover novelty in the ever-familiar surroundings of our humble home and backyard.
Suddenly the cantankerous parakeets seem so much closer, I see sublime beauty in the iridescent green-purple band on the pigeons neck, I finally spot the enigmatic cuckoo pining for his lover high up in the mango tree and Bapi points me to the the cute owlet napping blissfully in the gnarled guava tree.
One afternoon, Mejomama accompanies me on a walk to the Kushiara.
The ageless grey-green river, the fishing boats returning to the bank, the chatter of people congregating on the river banks waiting for the day’s catch to be offloaded, the hawkers selling a paraphernalia of goods – blankets and woollens to weather the impending winter, sinful tele bhaja straight out of the ancient kadai filled to the brim with smoking hot oil, piping hot tea poured in flamboyance into terracotta bhnaars from the battered aluminium kettle, evening dailies and magazines, balloons in a frenzy of colours and plastic dolls with hidden whistles, I am clearly distracted by the cauldron of activity.
Mama bargains for kucho chingri fresh off the boats and once convinced he has a fair price, picks up some shrimps.
Do you see those people on the other side ? Mama suddenly taps me on my shoulder.
I strain my eyes to take note of the microscopic humans as they go about their daily chores.
Try your binoculars, Mama suggests.
I see them so much clearer now, I respond. My eyes now focused on the horizon through the binoculars.
And then as an afterthought add, but what’s so special about them ?
That’s Bangladesh, Mama declares.
But the men look just like us, I assert quite confidently.
Mama looks puzzled. Yes, they do.
But you just said it’s a different country. I am still trying to decipher what’s unique that I am missing.
We were one country, Mama explains, till the British decided to partition us just before they granted us independence.
It’s getting late, let’s head back, Mama suggests.
We walk back in silence, my yet-to-reach-teens brain trying hard to fathom why someone would want to draw a line that divided people who were so alike.
Maa cooks a delectable Chingri diye Kolai Dal with the shrimps we get back home.
In Mama’s honour, Bapi says in jest, your Didi doesn’t cook her Chingri diye Kolai Dal unless you come over.
Chingri diye Kolai Dal is indeed Mamas favourite.
Chingri diye Kolai Dal. A symphony of Kolai Dal and shrimps. Earthy yet finger licking delicious. And quintessentially Sylheti.
Do give this a try the next time you get home some kucho chingri !!
Chingri diye Kolai Dal (Urad Dal with Shrimps)
- 1 cup urad or kolai dal husked and split
- 250 g shrimps deshelled, deveined and heads removed
- 3 onions cubed
- 1/2 tbsp ginger paste
- 3-4 green chilies slit
- 1 tsp turmeric powder
- 2 green cardamom
- 2 cloves
- 1 one inch cinnamon stick
- 2 bay leaves
- 1.5 tbsp mustard oil
- 1/2 tbsp ghee
- salt to taste
- Dry roast the urad dal till golden brown. Wash and drain the dal, keep aside.
- Cook the urad dal with 11/2 cups of water until just cooked. Care needs to be taken that the dal does not become too mushy.
- Marinate the shrimps with a little turmeric powder and salt. Keep aside.
- Heat 1/2 tbsp oil, lightly fry the shrimps, keep aside in a bowl.
- Add the remaining oil to the pan, when smoking hot, add crushed cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and bay leaves. Allow the spices to splutter.
- Add the onions, cook till they become soft and translucent. Add the ginger paste, saute for 2-3 minutes over a medium flame.
- Pour in the boiled dal, sprinkle in the turmeric powder and salt, give it a hearty mix. Bring to a gentle simmer.
- Keep checking the consistency of the dal, it should not be too runny, neither too thick, if needed, add some warm water to get the consistency right.
- Throw in the fried shrimps and slit green chilies, bring to a boil. Adjust seasonings, finish with a dollop of ghee and serve hot with rice.