Nostalgia is like sugar. It sweetens everything. It has been six years of living away from India and this month while we are here, everything that I didn’t realise I had missed, springs back, like a startled reflection caught in a mirror.
1) Parakeet laden trees
Their slender bodies, tails like a fork, the black ring around their necks and red beaks. Wild and tame, their screeching echoing in the evenings. Looking out of the window and seeing them flock a neem tree, or just sitting around on the electricity cables.
2) Monkeys on terraces
Jumping, caring for their babies, eating the flowers and fruits – much to the annoyance of those who have tended to their rose bushes with care, teasing the stray dogs and moving about with abandon. How human-like in their expressions and especially in the way they care for their young.
3) Silver anklets with little bells
That tinkle as the women move their feet. I have so missed silver anklets laden feet.
4) Stray dogs with attitude
That come up to you for a Parle G biscuit, or bark and chase cars. Most of them kindred, friendly souls born to the street. Living on kindness of others and their sheer need to survive.
5) The dhobi or the laundry man ringing your door bell every morning
With freshly ironed shirts, skirts, blouses and tops. Pants, stoles, saris, salwars and kameezes – creases ironed out, all neatly arranged in a pile.
6) Thin long aubergines, small round aubergines, white aubergines, green baby aubergines, throw in big fat ones too
Alright, I am aubergine fan and simply miss the variety of aubergines available in the Indian vegetable markets. And what we do with them. Stuff them with roasted and crushed peanuts and fresh coriander and grated coconut and a variety of masalas. Slice them and add them to whisked yogurt with a tadka. Pair them with sliced potatoes and make a semi dry curry. Make an aubergine pulav. Make them tangy by cooking them in a tamarind paste. Have them with fresh green beans, yam, sweet potatoes, and raw bananas – the Gujarati delicacy called undhiyu.
7) The sound of pressure cookers whistling in the morning
A lot of pressure cookers are put to work in the morning – in preparation for lunch and tiffins being packed for work and for school. If you live in an apartment block, it isn’t unusual for you to hear several whistles going off together in the same time frame.
8) Jagte raho – the night watchman’s call as he taps on your gate
Keep awake, keep vigilant – calls out the night watchman as he makes his nightly rounds. For those who have never lived in India, it might sound absurd or you might even find that your sleep is disturbed when a watchman calls out and taps on your gate with his bamboo stick or iron rod. Why on earth would one do that, you would say. Isn’t it noise pollution? For a lot of Indians, it is the opposite – they hear it, but sleep through it, finding it reassuring that the night watchman is doing his rounds, keeping them safe from thieves and robbers.
9) Women selling strings of fragrant Indian roses, jasmine, mogras, marigolds…
I love the cherry blossoms, daffodils, snowdrops and tulips – flowers that I made acquaintance with only when I moved to the UK. But I also miss the colours and fragrance of the Indian flowers. I miss the sight of women wearing strings of fragrant flowers in their hair as well.
10) Shops stocked from top to bottom with shiny, stainless steel utensils
Sometimes, I feel the urge to go into these shops and buy a set of everything – stainless steel plates, bowls, glasses, jars, round boxes, small boxes, khakra dabbas, pressure cookers, sugar jars, tea jars, spoons, baby spoons, rice serving spoons, roti dabbas, small kadhais, big kadhais, masala dabbas…
11) Every corner, every street bursting with delicious food preparations
The sweetmeat shop selling pendas that are dusted with crushed sugar, the chaat-wallah selling chaats and samosas, the woman selling sliced pink guavas sprinkled with salt and chilli powder, Chinese ‘hakka-noodles’ and manchurian at the crossroads in your neighbourhood, hot jalebis being fried in a kadhai full of simmering oil, idlis and medu vadas brought fresh to you by the bicycle man, vada pavs at the corner shop, pan filled with gulkand and khatta, bhel with slices of raw mango and tamarind chutney. The tea vendor with his cutting chai of fresh ginger, mint or masala tea. Your mother preparing your favourite meals – fresh aubergines stuffed with masalas and crushed peanuts, dal dhokli and tuvar kachoris. Alphonso mango ras stored in the freezer – one that is taken out when the non resident son or daughter comes home. Friends and neighbours treating you to lovely, homemade dinners and lunches.
12) The pasti-wallah calling out ‘Pasti, bhangaar’
All homes have their own pasti-wallah. The man who collects your cache of the month’s newspapers, old notebooks, oil tin cans, metal scraps, cardboard boxes and weighs them and pays you for what he takes. You know he is around as he calls out his arrival – his voice strong and clear, echoing down the alley. I remember my maternal grandmother waiting for him, and saving the money we got from the sale of newspapers and alike in a steel dabba. She would collect the money for a year and then buy something for the house from it.
13) The neighbourhood fruit and vegetable bhaiya
Delivering fresh fruit and vegetables at your doorstep in his handcart. Bunches of coriander and spinach, mint and dill. Aubergines, tomatoes, potatoes, string beans, raw mangoes, ladies finger, papayas, ivy gourd, bottle gourd, ginger, garlic, bananas, apples, chickoos, custard apples, oranges, grapes, limes and lemons, sweet melons, bitter gourd, drumsticks… No need to head to the supermarket. Plus if you have missed his rounds, he is only a WhatsApp message away.
14) Kyare ghare avo cho jamva? When are you coming home to eat?
The quintessentially Indian non-formal way of inviting you home for lunch or dinner or chai. You meet someone on the street and they greet you with – kyare avya? When did you come here (to India)? Ghare kyare avo cho? When would you come home (to eat)? I must admit that this practice might be waning, especially when it comes to the younger generation. Because they are busy and cooking an elaborate dinner or lunch doesn’t fit into their schedules. However there will always be family friends, neighbours, friends and ex colleagues who would invite you home and cook for you. With so much love that you melt like a blob of butter left out in the Indian sun.
15) The sounds
Of temple bells and the call for prayer from the mosque. Of the evening aarti at the neighbourhood temple. Of Carnatic music that your neighbour plays. Your neighbour calling you, chatting with you over the compound wall that is common to your tenements, asking you about your day, asking you for a potato, or a bowl of sugar…The chatter of women and men buying fruits and vegetables from the street vendors, the bargaining, the jostling. The sound of parakeets and koels, and mynas. The loud cawing of crows. Bollywood music suddenly blaring past from a passing rickshaw. The early morning call of young boys selling rock salt or sabras for good luck on Diwali day. The calls of the bhaji wallah, pasti-wallah, dhobi, watchman…The sound of your mother tongue. The sound of the ceiling fan as it wages a war against the heat and the humidity.
These are but just a few of the things I miss and revel in when I am in India. Tell me yours please.