I’m not sure if this is common occurrence, but when someone tells me a story, it plays out like a movie in my head. A complete picture, full of complex details and personal iterations of the words that I hear. Some in colour, others in black and white, but all in similar motion. This attribute of mine has often led me to picturise many scenarios in my head and come up with my own renditions of stories I’ve heard throughout the years.
Think; 80’s big screen blockbuster, at times sepia toned and no lead characters. Over the years it has been a way for me to create memories of times that I haven’t lived but still feel connected to. It’s my own personal dairy, that connects me to my family and the lives they lived before me. Each time I hear tales of the olden times, as I like to call them, or stories of my parents, aunts or uncles about their childhoods, it plays in my mind like a movie reel, sometimes even in slow motion!
I’ve often heard from my mother that in the times she grew up, most food items were made at home, due to either lack of availability or affordability. Pickle or achaar, was one such thing that was most certainly a family affair. Indian pickle is known for it’s complex flavours and is usually made using fruits or vegetables preserved in edible oils along with various spices.
The process of making an Indian pickle is laborious and can take a lot of elbow grease. It’s an art, whose recipes and techniques are passed down through generations like a family heirloom. Listening my mother’s stories, my mind has picturised a bunch of children, the boys wearing dark coloured shorts and checkered collar shirts, while the girls donning their favourite dresses, sat around in a circle, making mango pickle in the summer heat. I’m not sure if this was their ideal summer vacation, but I’m pretty sure it would have been a productive one.
The kids gathered in their aangan, or front courtyard with everyone doing their individual duties. A few of them prepping the spice mix, some chopping the unripe mangoes to be pickled, others sealing glass jars and I’m guessing at least one, trying to push their work onto another sibling. On a separate chatai or mat in the corner, a pile of bright green kairi or unripe mangoes kept, while my maternal grandmother or nani, in her peacock printed saree (a green one to be precise), sitting with multiple barnis, or clear glass jars and filling them with pickled mangoes.
Colourful, handwoven chatais laid all over the dusty floor of the aangan and all neighbours sitting outside in their respective homes, collectively making their own barnis full of achaar. My mother’s maternal home was in a small society, a first in their city, with flats and bunglows all overlooking each other. I imagine the walls were a simple white colour and the courtyards and balconies filled with lots of laughter, talking and excitement when the seasons changed and the neighbours sat outside their homes preparing food for the times to come. Endless gossip, domestic advice, chatter and tricks to cooking that we may have lost over time, this is what I imagine a well-connected, warm community looks like.
I often think of how this memory is such an integral part of my mental diary, even though I’ve never lived these times. Isn’t it funny how the brain finds a connection among things, even with such little information to hold onto?When I hear stories of how food was prepared in communities, I wonder if we’ve lost the essence of our society. Making food together is a language of it’s own and when the people around you speak the same language, it cements relationships unlike any other. In a world where we link our identity to the food we eat, is it possible that we’re loosing it to methods more mundane, like instant food packets and take-outs?
We’re human and a part of what makes us that is cooking and the spirit of community. If we lose this attribute of our society, we may as well lose ourselves. But in the midst of all this, I still have memories of days gone by, hoping that I can live these times as well, where families and neighbours got together to celebrate changing seasons and changing times, all through the labour of love.