who had mastered the art of preparing delicacies out of sun-dried vegetables
That time of year, when yellow leaves, hanged on colonnades of poplar trees waiting for a cold wind to shake them, grandmothers and mothers had their pastimes, and we had ours. Like red, brown and black ants carrying every grain and straw to their underground nests, our grandmother and mothers filled the stores with everything; they got hold of to gear up for harsh winters. In early springs making garlands used to be our hobby and at the fall, it became their pursuit. In spring, as almond trees blossomed my siblings, my buddies and I, the children of lesser gods and elitists brash all armed with tiny needles, thread reels arrived into the big almond gardens at the foothills of the mount Koh-i-Maran to make a beautiful garland. On the onset of autumn, it was the turn of our mothers, equipped with sack packing needles and balls of jute twine they sat on hay mats and made garlands of sun-dried tomatoes, brinjals, bottle gourds, red chilies, quinces, and turnips. Like big rudraksha malas in the necks of sadhus and stone rosaries in friars, the dried vegetable garlands adorned almost every house- the number of dried vegetable garlands hanging outside the house also had a tale to tell about the affluence of the house. Some families’ even sun-dried green vegetables like spinach, tender leaves of turnips and radishes called mause.
The only fresh vegetable available during winters were collard greens with stems (munja hak). The stems of collard greens were not cooked, but we relished eating them raw, despite parents warning against catching a cold. On the onset of autumn, it was not attic of the house abode of ‘paasicdar,’ the mythical supernatural supposed to guard the house but Kani – the top floor that attracted us. There was a mysterious aura around every abandoned item in the attic; corroded kerosine lantern, a mace with crystal top and locked huge carved box that never opened. The lantern had a story that our grandfather purchased it in Lahore from a soldier who had fought in ‘German War,’ the mace was believed to be used by ‘paasicdar’ when wearing wooden clogs he comes down to the ground floor at midnight for ablution. No one told us about things inside the carved box.
When the last faded-leaf also said good-bye, the attic lost all its allurements for us. It was the top floor that in summers was three in one for the family, kitchen, drawing room and bedroom for children was converted into a store for storing the winter stocks that caught our fancy. In the middle of the hall, a large bin was made out of ‘Wagu’s (weed mats) or patej (hay mats) for storing the paddy. Potatoes, onions, and shallots were not kept in vats but spread on the floor. Garlands of tomatoes, brinjals and chilies and rosaries of turnips on white clay daubed walls with a green tincture made the hall look like an art gallery. Small bunches of dried Tethwein, the wormwood, red cockscomb and dried twigs of broom plant hanging from the walls to the envy of interior makers also added to the décor of the hall. On the mud shelves of the hall, I would often spot one or two huge pumpkins; in the backdrop of the light green walls, they looked like the moon in the sky. The pumpkins were cooked on special festive occasion, more particularly on Shab e-Meraj. Children were told Prophet Mohammad (SAW) among other things liked pumpkin- it ‘strengthens the heart.’ On the festive occasion in our home, it was boiled and then made into a fine paste, mixed with curd and sprinkled with cumin, and bowlsful distributed amongst the immediate neighbors.
Our mothers and grandmothers were chef de cuisine, who had mastered the art of preparing delicious delicacies out of sun-dried vegetables tantalizing one’s palate. It is hard to forget the variety of dishes: dried tomatoes and bottle gourd, brinjal and lentils, turnips and red beans, turnips and mause, ducks and dried spinach, mallards and spinach, lamb meat and turnips, dried quince and minced meat and so many others.
Those were days of hardship but fabulous with their romance.