Grandma carefully pulls out an old Britannia tin, the colours faded with age, the surface dimpled having survived many a fall, from a shelf in the pantry. She uses the end of a spoon to prise open the lid that sits snugly on the tin.
Can you get me an old newspaper Princess, she requests me.
Of late, any errand that I am asked to run, however mundane the chore might be, makes me beam with pride. I am a grown-up now, I chuckle as I dart off to fetch a newspaper.
It’s not todays daily, I have checked with Maa, I tell Grandma, keen to impress her, before she has even had the opportunity to enquire.
Grandma overturns the tin now on the paper and the black stone moulds, long held captives in the darkness of the tin, scatter around the black and white print in carefree abandon.
How pretty is that rose ? Grandma holds up the rose mould for me to admire.
And look at this gorgeous butterfly.
Do you want to eat this fish ?
And can you read what’s etched on this one ?
Shy-bho-bi-jo-ya I read.
Good, my Princess. She smiles. This one is reserved though for the mishti that your Maa and I shall make for Doshomi, not one for now. And the mould reverts to the prison of the tin.
And this one ?
Bha-I-phno-ta. I read comfortably.
Grandma gives me a hug. So this too should return to the tin, shouldn’t it ?
Now which one do you want for tomorrow ? Grandma asks me.
I dilly-dally, pick up one, then another.
This one, I finally hold up the conch.
Didi gets entrusted the job of washing the conch mould and drying it under the sun.
The others return obediently to the tin. Rather short-lived, this freedom, they sigh.
Cut to the morning after.
Wake up, Grandma whispers in my ears. Wake up my Princess.
I open one eye, then the other, struggling to keep both eyes open.
It’s still not morning Grandma, I complain, it’s dark outside.
Today’s Mahalaya, don’t you remember ? Grandma reminds me. The Pujos are just a week away.
I drag myself and my quilt to the daalaan, rubbing my eyes, trying desperately to fight the sleep demons and stay awake.
Everyone is already there, congregated around Bapis ancient radio.
It’s like a surreal dream.
Birendra Bhadras baritone voice. Punctuated by chorus songs. Welcoming the Goddess as she leaves her abode in Kailash to descend to the Earth.
The perfume of dhoop.
The mystical smoke veil of dhuno.
The fragrance of the Jui that has blossomed overnight.
The symphony of conches from the neighbourhood.
The first vestige of crimson on the eastern horizon.
Isn’t this ethereal ? Bapi exclaims. The world is conspiring to welcome their daughter back.
I don’t know when I fall back asleep.
It’s mid morning when I wake up.
Where is everyone ? I wonder. Voices draw me to the kitchen.
Maa is sitting on her pniri infront of the oonoon. Grandma’s kansa kora (kadai) is nested on the flame, the dancing flames colouring the kansa a stunning gold. Maa patiently stirs a dough, Grandma watches like a hawk.
What’s that Ma ? I question unable to contain my curiosity.
This is your favourite norom paker sandesh in the making, Grandma advises.
I think this is done now bouma, she counsels Maa, her eye never for once leaving the kora, if we don’t get the texture right, it won’t taste as good.
Maa gets the kora off the flame.
The norom paker sandesh, shaped beautifully like a conch, is a delight.
Can I have one more please ? I ask coyly.
Of course, Grandma submits.
Norom Paker Sandesh. Quintessentially Bengali. A mellifluous symphony of chhana and sugar. (Even better if it is jaggery.) Enjoy !!!
Norom Paker Sandesh
- 300 g homemade chhana or cottage cheese
- 5 tbsp patali gur or date palm jaggery grated
- 1.5 tsp ghee
- wooden or black stone sandesh loulds
- Place the chhana on a flat surface and knead it with the heel of your palm. About 4-5 minutes.
- Now add the grated jaggery to the chhana, mix well and continue to knead for another 5 minutes or so till the jaggery is almost incorporated into the chhana. (This recipe is all about kneading the chhana, a bit of patience makes a colossal difference :-))
- Take this chhana-jaggery mixture in a pan, cook over a low flame, while stirring continuously. About 8-10 minutes or till the dough just starts leaving the sides of your pan.
- Add 1 tsp of ghee, give it a hearty mix. Remove from the flame, allow the chhana-jaggery dough to cool down completely. You may find the dough little soft, but it will harden as it cools.
- Grease the moulds with ghee, tear a small ball from the chhana dough, press it gently over the mould to transfer the design. Remove to a serving plate. Repeat for the remaining dough.
- Allow the sandesh to cool down. Serve.