An Ode to the Heat
Summertime Nostalgia of Pickles, Folklores, and Profiling of Ghosts
Welcome to Berkana! First of all, I regret my long absence from publishing weekly. I figured it is best to rest when the mind is loud because art takes mediocre forms amid mental noise, and mediocrity is not what I promised to deliver to you. Awe is the antidote for most of our anxieties because awe and wonder can create immersive experiences. Such experiences make us aware of the moment. It gently pushes us into the space of deep now, which directly provokes creative impulses. But such shots of awe are not always readily available to us. Under such circumstances, I recommend a home remedy of meditative slumber - a space to surrender, listen and rest. When everything seems futile, I wait for that glimmer of hope peeking stealthily from behind the moments of hopelessness. To create meaningful art, we need plenty of grace but also plenty of rifts in our souls that push us to create from the center of our being. My friend Dave and I were recently talking about such mental rifts which make us vulnerable and yet fuel our creativity. To express this complex epiphany, Dave offered me a special tool, finding music through synchronicity by setting an intention and then creating your own interpretation, meaning, and inspiration out of your induced serendipity. I was mind-blown by this method of designing reality through awareness of the self. I have a few revelations for you. Here is the piece Dave and I worked together to achieve. Needless to say that I am immensely grateful to him for opening an unknown avenue for me to experiment with mental shifts whenever I might feel stuck in the future.
Our illusion of control often leads us astray. The farmer controls the crop growth in a monitored environment to prevent mutations, and diseases, and to ensure high yield. An unruly crop is useless because it doesn’t serve its expected purpose. It might be wild, beautiful, and unique but ultimately labeled as an anomaly and thus rejected because it doesn’t fit into the human construct of healthy agricultural produce. All such constructs have limited our understanding of the ineffable mysteries of life. We roam about this planet generation after generation lost and blinded by our illusion of self-importance and sense of control. This grand delusion of control chokes our creative instincts because we think we know what we are creating. However, we are mere instruments of creation. The act of creation itself is a transcendental experience of flow. What creates through us is an omnipresent source that creates and manifests similarly through all objects, beautiful and bizarre. And thus, in my opinion, it is in vain that we try to control so much of what is supposed to happen around us. Most of us create while channeling the flow of life. We are only so much in control, but we can choose to change our perspective of the outcome. The only control we have is on how we respond to our inner callings and inhibitions. Therefore, to unblock the creative vision, a unique technique is required to train our minds to see things differently. The seedless sunflower is of no use to the farmer who cultivated it for oil, but it is still beautiful in its uselessness. It still decorated the room of an impoverished and maverick painter who in his manic creativity turned the sunflower into a masterpiece worth more than $100 million today. (Referring to Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ collection). The universe hides inspiration in the crudest of its creations.
The method of mental modeling I am working with is to architect more creative triggers by transforming the subject of disdain into the subject of curiosity. This is to counter the popular argument that only beauty inspires creativity. I intend to create a solution for creatives limited by the mundane that overshadows beauty and awe. One such subject of my curiosity has inspired this piece. I invite you to analyze this technique in your creative pursuits and build your breakthroughs when a creative stimulus is absent.
Now without much delay, let’s dive into today’s subject.
Lucidly meditating on summertime of Eastern Ghats
Indian summer is disliked by young and old alike. The heat makes the head hazy, and the dry earth mocks the routine of daily life. It is as if the planet stands in unison to humiliate human resilience. The Indian subcontinent blazes up in a frenzy ranging from dry in the central and western parts to humid in eastern and southern parts. Schools are called off for the months when the heat is at its peak. It is time to go indoors, cool off, and relax with family. Summer is not just a season in India, it is a whole cultural phenomenon. It is time to take vacations and travel to the mountain-locked Northern states where the Himalayas wait patiently to embrace the climate refugees. It is time for the tourism industry to flourish. It is time for advertisers to sell as many exclusive ranges of summer products as possible. And for the entertainment industry to release a variety of TV shows, movies, and summer camps for kids. But it is also time for reading, writing, and storytelling.
I learned to write my thoughts down in a diary gifted by my father during a specific summer break. I was 10, squeezing in time to write in between holiday assignments, and art projects, helping my mother with random chores like filling up the desert water cooler or making popsicles. When I was not doing any of that, I read borrowed copies of favorite classics like The Count of Monte Cristo, Silas Marner, Little Women, Emma, Oliver Twist, and many more. Curiosity did its job to transform me into a little story gobbling monster during the summers. The stories were elsewhere too, the summer special showtime aired on television every year and drifted me into a realm of magic. With Willy Wonka exhibiting his astounding chocolate-making skills, Harry Potter attending the wizarding school with his friends and battling a dark lord, Peter Pan taking Wendy away to show Neverland, and the sour-faced orphan Mary Lennox becoming a happy child and helping her cousin heal from his terminal illness in the process of building a magical secret garden left by her late aunt - I traveled in and out of the beauty and magic of these fictional dreamlands. I inadvertently learned the power of friendship, love, honesty, loyalty, mother nature, and exploration.
Later during the summer, I would travel back to my parental hometown of Calcutta from Central India where I attended school. For a child comfortable with the dry climate and desert coolers, Calcutta was a whole another world. The summer of the Eastern Ghats is surely not as treacherous as that of the west but the Bay of Bengal has its fallings. The humidity sticks around the air like a slow melting pot of liquid sugar candy - burning hot, dripping with the sweet fragrance of ripened jackfruits, mangoes, and lychees. The raw mangoes went into the jars after being blanched and dried, some mixed with sugar and jaggery, some left to soften after being rubbed with spices and dropped in ceramic containers half-filled with mustard oil. The sweet, sour, tangy, and spicy aroma hung about the air in my beloved grandmother’s house. The pickles waited endlessly stranded in a barren desert of hope. They were kept in direct sun for months on the cemented rooftop of my grandmother’s house until they were ready to be served as a side dish with steamed rice, lentil soup pressure cooked with thin slices of raw mango, fried strips of potato, and poppy seed fritters. Like the mangoes, life waits, sometimes for days on end, in heat and trapped moisture to turn into a sweet and spicy side dish to our dreams of doing something meaningful in this world. I have learned to patiently observe the bubbles emerge from the bottom of the jar as my grandmother taught me. “You don’t open the bottle till the bubbles are on top and the mangoes are soft and juicy,” she said, “only then it will taste good”.
Only then, perhaps.
Roughly translates to Grandmother's Bag of Tales or Old Wives Tales.
My friends would all be gone to their respective parental home states during the summer break. Each one to their own geographies and cultures, except for mango pickles and Grandmas that remained ubiquitous across all the households. Every summer, I longed for my grandmother. Her soft white cotton saree washed in caustic soda and starch, neatly folding and sitting in her colonial-style almirah, stacked one over the other in a pile of white and cream. Her golden and yellow laced saree borders unfolded as she draped them in country style and glided gracefully across the household. She had very little wealth, but she was abundant in love, and somehow that abundance overflowed into our lives. I never felt the dearth of anything in her house. There was plenty of food, water, ventilation, and homemade confectionaries like pickles, curd, and ghee. And stories, an unlimited collection of stories waiting to be told beside oil lamps dispelling the darkness of those long and humid summer evenings. At that moment we were rich. She was rich with creativity, and I was rich with curiosity. Like the cracking mud floor of her open veranda, I used to be parched for stories. I waited for her to open her bag of tales and pour out the nectar of magic, wonder, and morals.
When the mid-June drew a dark threatening veil of cloud, and the storm carried a gust of dust on its wings from the open fields inside the home, grandmother would shut all the doors and windows, put the oil lamp in low flame, burn camphor with coconut husk inside an earthen bowl to get rid of the mosquitoes. She will then sprint up on the bed with a bowl filled with puffed rice mixed with grated coconut and batasha (flat sugar candies), and then we started the journey into the worlds of fairies, saints, gods, demons, ghouls, and ghosts. All the children would fall into a self-organized circle around her to be able to absorb all the magic from her stories and be able to take a handful from her bowl of delicacy. She would wait for the punchlines and deliver them effectively when the thunder roars outside. Enraptured by her immersive storytelling, we would all scream and immediately laugh in unison. The Eastern ghat monsoon would slowly take over the whole city day by day, and before we know it, the summer would end, and it would be time to go back to school.
In the last few days of the summer break, the evening story-time would not be enough, at least for me. I wanted more, so at night, I would creep up next to her in bed and insist for more stories. At first, she would shrug it off and ask me to sleep. But on nudging more, she would reluctantly open her heavy eyelids and whisper under her breath that if I don’t sleep bhoot (ghosts) will come and take me away. Then she would explain in unusual detail the grotesque appearances of the ghosts and their method of devouring young children like me. Each night the names and appearances of the ghosts would change. She would refer to the stories of ghouls and demons from her long-lost land of Bangladesh. It was clear that the lost land still haunted her in one way or another. She would sometimes chuckle a bit immediately after successfully scaring me to sleep and would eventually wrap her arms around me to assure me that she would keep me safe from the evil entities of her stories.
I carefully profiled every ghost and their ghoulish appearances so that I never have to be reminded again about them. There were so many, here are some that I can still recall
1. Petni - the ghost of a married woman who usually wears a special kind of traditional bangles made of shell. They haunt unsuspecting strangers at night and feast on the hearts of little children
2. Besho Bhoot - Baash means Bamboo in Bengali language. So evidently, these ghosts lived in bamboo farms where they kill travelers who cross the path after dusk
3. Nishi - It is a night spirit that lures its victim at midnight into a secluded area by calling them in the voice of a loved one. According to folklores, Nishi cannot call more than twice, so it was a superstitious belief in Bengal that at night you should only respond to your name when called thrice.
4. Pishach - Supernatural entities that can change form at will. They feast on the human flesh and often haunt cremation grounds.
The superstitions were so profound, that there is even a festival called Bhoot Chaturdasi to acknowledge and pay respect to these unsatisfied spirits. It is usually celebrated during the Hindu festival of Diwali. It usually comes around the same month as Halloween. On this day, we light up 14 oil lamps for the previous 14 generations of our ancestors to illuminate their path in the afterlife and pray for our protection.
If you ask me now whether I would have preferred to be in a house with air conditioning rather than the heat and moisture of my grandmother’s house, I would probably say yes, and that would be a lie. Although I was repulsed by the heat, my granny’s love was unparalleled and unconditional. She taught me the importance of kindness, patience, and storytelling. I look at beauty differently only because I knew her. I would stare long into her eyes when she spoke to me, holding me in her lap. Her hazel brown eyes were ageless, they spoke of beauty and resilience far greater than I would ever encounter again. She was beautiful, I recognized that even as a child, but I never knew how strong she was until now. If you ask me now, if I would have preferred to be anywhere else during those summer breaks, perhaps in a holiday resort, a water park, or a summer camp, I would probably say yes. But to think that being anywhere else would have made me miss this beautiful lonely woman and her bag full of absurd folklores makes me ache with longing, even today. I believe I was right where I was supposed to be, working upon mysteries of human existence that her narration inspired. Although I prefer the snowy mountains of the North, there is no denying that the generational deliberation of sweat, melanin, and the hauntings of a lost land made me who I am.
Your love for your granny, and her love for you is incredibly touching. As I don't perceive reality to be just one life lived in a linear line of cause and effect, the power of what made you, you with all your gifts you offer to the world is, simply put, beautiful.
And like I always say, your writing is masterful!
Swarnali, this is so beautiful and evocative of your experience of the land and your grandmother, the stories and the cooking that meld with the heat. I loved reading this and to hear of generations of women valuing one another as you and your grandmother did. What a gift she gave you in those stories.