ILAKSHEE BHUYAN NATH
Saima has been helping me for a month now in keeping my home. She is one of the many Bangla Muslim migrants in New Delhi who turn up to help in the house hold chores. For the past one week she seems pretty upbeat. Eid is just around the corner. She has not kept roza for the simple reason that she gets up at crack of dawn, walks 2-3 kms every day in the blazing dusty Northern Plains heat to begin work at 6.30 am at someone’s house. By the time she returns the sun is not yet done with the inferno dance. Married off by the time she turned 15 years and a mother of three now, she hasn’t yet lost some of her simplicity of her younger days. The evening before Eid she asks with a festive gusto, “Didi, tui Porbo ta maanabi na?”
I continue to look at the book in my hands for a few seconds without really reading it before I respond. And in my best broken Bangla I attempt to explain that I didn’t know the right way to offer namaz but I would definitely observe the day. After she leaves, I get a message from my husband that his flight couldn’t take off due to poor visibility and so his reaching would be delayed by a day. I return the chicken back into the refrigerator. The marination can wait for another day. Eid would come a day late to our home. Eid comes home every year as does Bihu, Diwali, Dussehra, Holi, Guru Parb, Christmas, Janmashtami, Shivratri, Sankardebor Tithi, Independence Day and New Year. And they all come with fragrances.
For some reason Eid comes to me as fragrances with a hint of smiles and echoes of laughter from a past by the river Dikhow. I choose not to use ‘aroma’ in its place for there is a forcefulness to that word, of overpowering the senses. Instead, fragrance helps me to linger on or nudge the memories to release the cascade of images that lie firmly in my mind but those that are buried with adult apprehensions of everyday living. Growing up in Assam in the 70 were the days of innocent charms of red tipped phantom cigarettes, of rushing out to play every evening dressed down to the socks and white canvas shoes, of rushing back home as the street lights came on, of calling on neighbours and friends in the evenings, of getting together for the weekend cinema at the colony club, of eagerly waiting for all festivities.
My earliest memories of festivals come paired with steaming bowls of food. During the month of Ramzan, we arrived spruced up to partake in Iftaar at my parents’ friends’ place, whom we always addressed as ‘mama’s and ‘mami’s. We ate and ate, avoiding our parent’s eyes, till we were ready to burst. We couldn’t be blamed, for the glutton in us was awakened by the tantalizing fragrances that hit our nose even as we unlatched the gate leading to their quarters. And then of course, there was the grand finale, Eid. On white embroidered table cloth, the table was loaded with Chicken Roast, Bhuna Mutton, decadent Chicken Quorma, egg curry, fluffy pulao, subtle biriyani, salad, lime pickle and bamboo shoot pickle, pudding, cake and sundry savouries. We almost burst with overdose of culinary goodness but that didn’t make us stop.
With fragrance of food, spread a feeling of goodwill that has lasted all these years. The times my daughters are growing up in are not the same for whatever reasons. It could be the hectic schedule, living in a big city where small details get lost or changing times. But for me those times existed and I try to bring its essence to this time and space. Therefore, in memory of all the goodness we shared with the Haques, the Zahirul Boras, the Idrises, Moti mama, his parents nana and nani, Zaheer mama across the river, I observe Eid every year. For myself. For my daughters. And the only way I can connect them to that reality is through food.
The fresh ginger garlic paste along with the curd, coriander powder, chilli powder, oil, salt, sugar and garam masala goes into the chicken the next day and let to sit for the night. The rice has been soaked and onions browned to prepare the pulao. For the kebabs, the mince meat boiled along with the chana dal, spices, ginger, garlic and onions are cooling under the fan while the sevaiyan is chilling in the refrigerator. While I heat the oil and fry the sliced onions for the Quorma, I remember my mother telling me how Haque mami’s quorma had a gorgeous pinkish maroonish shade and melt in the mouth texture. She guesses over the phone it must be tomatoes with the fried onions. We have no way to confirm the recipe. I add some chopped tomatoes to the browning onions and the image of Haque mami’s smiling chubby face floats up. She is no more, nor is Bora aunty.
A day after the entire country has celebrated Eid, we sit down to our Eid lunch. The husband is finally home and so we celebrate yet another festival. Festivals, I have realized, are all about the food shared and the memories made.
Ilakshee Bhuyan Nath is a writer based in New Delhi. She has worked on television and radio as a presenter, narrator for documentaries, trained corporate employees in effective communications. She has contributed travel articles for many journals, both the print and the digital. Most recently her short fictions and essays have been included in Jaggery Lit, Café Dissensus and in two anthologies – The Best Asian Short Stories 2017 published by Singapore based Kitaab International Pte Ltd and The Others published by Storymirrors.