A hullabaloo wakes me this chilly morning. Far from amused, I open half an eye to probe what’s amiss. Then the other eye. Nothing that greets my still sleep-riddled eyes – the orange and yellow marigold in august bloom, the parakeets in the gnarled guava tree, the thin lace of mist over the neighborhood grey-green pond, explains the raucous fuss.
I sit up.
Annoyance written all over my face.
Dragging my pink and green blanket along, I follow where I think the clamour and commotion is coming from.
There stands Bhola. The farmers son. In a bottle-green pullover and khaki trousers.
Surrounded by a deranged confusion of gunny-sacks. Some fastened at the neck. Some mercilessly cut open. Revealing grains of rice. And if my sleepy eyes are not betraying me, there’s chire (beaten rice) and khoi (popped rice). And gorgeous golden brown murki as well – the sight of murki makes me salivate.
The typical effervescence of the carefree chatterbox that Bhola is, talking non-stop of cricket, his new transistor and his ambitions of becoming a wholesaler of grains, even turning his hand to bowl some overs to Dada and his friends, is missing this morning. He looks ashen, far from his vibrant, garrulous self.
It’s then that I hear Grandma.
I have never had such miseries with rice before. She hollers.
She picks a handful of rice from one of the sacks and holds it out for Bhola to inspect.
Half the grains are broken. And look at the colour of the rice. Not for me. Not for me. She continues unabated. Would your father or grandfather ever have attempted to pass such an inferior quality of rice to me ?
Grandma’s tantrums on rice. Dada winks at me.
That she was furiously finicky with her rice was an understatement.
The rice grains had to be perfect.
The colour had to be a pristine dull ivory. It was incomprehensible to Dada and me, how despite her fading eyesight, she could clinically distinguish shades of ivory, something we struggled with.
The age of the rice was yet another pet peeve – This has not aged enough. This looks like new rice to me. How can you be so confident about the age of rice ? Dada and I, unable to contain our curiosity, would keep bothering her. Grandma never answered. She just smiled.
And finally the fragrance of the rice. Or even the chire or murki. It was almost a ritual – Grandma would pick a fistful of grains, hold it to her nose, close her eyes and take a deep breath. Come, come, she would invite Maa in childlike enthusiasm, a glow illuminating her wrinked face, how divine the notun gur in the murki smells.
But today even by her typical exacting standards, her fastidiousness was overwhelming.
I wondered why.
Why did you scold him so much ? I quizzed Grandma, almost complaining, when I found her alone in the kitchen later in the morning.
This is Sankranti, my Princess. She explained. A celebration of harvest. The rice, the chire, the khoi and the murki are the cynosures of the show. They need to be the best. How can I compromise ?
This is the story of Grandma. And her fierce love for rice. Not just rice, any new harvest. Any fresh produce of the soil. Her soil. As she would proudly assert.
Wasting rice in our growing-up years was never an option. Not even a single grain. This is the labour of love. She would remind Dada and me whenever we fussed about food. This is the culmination of months of back-breaking labour. Respect the grain. Respect the farmer.
Cut to the present. My chire arrived this morning. Ordered online a couple of days back. Delivered at the doorstep by a logistics company. I am blissfully ignorant of what rice went in to prepare this chire. And the farmer shall remain an unacquainted stranger to me. As would his family who possibly helped as well.
Food has reduced, I ruminate, to being impersonal, hasnt it, the consumer and the producer separated by more degrees than my mind can decipher. The price I guess for the comforts of modern life.
Nevertheless, this fortnight I shall celebrate Sankranti in my kitchen. With the same gusto as Grandma. To celebrate the new harvest. Time for pithe, puli and payesh.
And this morning it’s Chirer DoodhPuli. Chire dumplings stuffed with a delectable mixture of jaggery and coconut. Fried to a splendid golden. Then added to milk, lazily reduced over hours, perfumed with the seasons new jaggery.
Enjoy my Chirer DoodhPuli and do stay with me this fortnight as I whip up more of Sankranti delicacies !!! And yes, do spare a thought too for the millions of our farmer friends without whom this harvest festival would never have been possible.