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Neembu Ka Achaar or Maa’s Lemon Pickle

Flash Fiction by Suyasha Singh

 I loved Maa’s lemon pickle. The blazing temperatures of Delhi and inedible hostel mess food, both made me long for that lip smacking sweet-sour delight. When we were little, Adi and I would tip-toe towards the kitchen in the afternoon as Maa took an occasional nap and scoop a spoon or two from the glass jar. Placing it back in the exact position without a chink was the hard part, where my little brother’s agile-as-a-cat skills came in handy. And by chance if they didn’t, I was already far, far away from the crime scene.

The thought of our childhood shenanigans made me smile.

When her call came in the evening I whined about the nightmarish aloo in the dinner, the only dish no one could go wrong with, even the ones who leap two feet away while launching the vegetables into bubbling hot oil. She patiently listened with intermittent consolation as I continued my grumblings about how she would never understand the torture I was going through. And how I wished I had her lemon pickle with me to make it all bearable. When I got off the phone, I realized Maa was awfully silent throughout.

Semester exams ended and I arrived home. I didn’t even enter the gate when Maa took my bag and asked if I had eaten on the journey. Of course I had. But the sight of Maa-made thali evaporated any residual food in my belly. I washed my hands and changed clothes in a hurry. Along with soft steamy roti and curry, there was one other condiment on the plate. I drooled. After the dinner was done papa and I went for a walk. And I came to know why she sounded different on the call that day — Naani had passed away. Nobody told me, my exams were still going on at that time. She thought it was better not to tell. I pushed back a sob in my throat. As I entered through the door I observed Maa, her eyes seemed puffy. I slept koala-hugging Maa that night.

Later Adi told me the story behind the heavenly condiment that magically landed on my plate. Maa had picked the freshest and ripest of the lemons for the pickle almost one month before. Washed and dried them when the sun was at its brightest in the day. Sat beside it on a dari like a watchman and glared the crows and monkeys away.

She had prepared the garam masala and kept it ready beforehand. Nothing in the market smells or tastes authentic, Maa lived by this belief. In the month’s ration she had specifically added more of daalchini and laung. The day sun-dried lemons were cut into smaller pieces and smeared with black pepper, garam masala, chili powder and a little sugar; papa went to office with previous night’s curry in the tiffin dabba. She kept the huge glass jar filled with the pickle to bathe in the sunlight covering it with one of papa’s old unusable cotton handkerchiefs. Maa said, it was because lemons were breathing, you couldn’t just suffocate them with a plastic lid.

Some of the days she would dash leaving her puja in the middle to make sure sun had not given way to an overcast sky. It was extremely important to shelter pickles from the moisture. Other days a faint thud would wake her up from her nap and the jar would be cradled inside. The pickle had softened just to the right extent with the sweet-sour flavour permeating through the delicate membranes of the lemons. Black pepper created the perfect zing and the garam masala added that burst of flavours in every dab. It also kept the stomach well during the hot, dry summer days, Maa believed. The lemon pickle was ready just in time for me to return.

I was glad I had the whole of the summer vacations to stay with her. I could not even imagine what she might be going through. She had the habit of calling Naani around noon every day, now Maa and I spent that time sharing our stories with each other. I felt sad but it seemed inconsequential against the grief of a daughter.    

After I had licked the whole of the pickle jar dry, one night while we sat with our cups of milk in front of the cooler which seemed of no use in such humidity, I asked Maa to tell me the exact recipe, without overlooking even a tiny detail. She smiled and took out from the drawer which was stuffed with various recipe cuttings from Grihshobha and hand-written final versions of sweets and curries, a tattered moth-eaten pale yellow diary. She opened a page, carefully caressing in the process every leaf with her gaze, the title said ‘Neembu ka Achaar’ and she narrated it to me step by step.                                                           

 As Naani had done thirty years ago… 

The day I packed the bag for my return, she handed me a plastic tiffin, wrapped and double-knotted in a plastic bag. This time, I securely placed it along with my belongings without the flurry of complaints of how it would leak and spoil. It was not just a lemon pickle that I was taking with me — it was boundless love of mothers, warmth packed in time capsules of food, an affection passed down that swept me in its folds…it was magic that transcended everything…

A plate of Lemon Pickle. Courtesy: Creative Commons

 Glossary                                                                                                  

Aloo (as they appear on the mess notice board): Potatoes

Thali: a large round platter

Roti: chappatis

Naani: maternal grandmother

Dari: a cotton carpet/ mat

Garam masala: a mixture of ground spices such as cumin, coriander, cinnamon (daalchini), clove (laung) etc.

Puja: prayer

Grihshobha: a biweekly magazine for women

Neembu ka Achaar: Lemon pickle

Suyasha Singh spent her formative years in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, before moving to New Delhi. She is a graduate from Miranda House, Delhi University and is currently pursuing her Master’s from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her short fiction has been published in The Bombay Review

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

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