As a young girl I had imagined myself doing all sorts of things. These ranged from teaching in schools to working in a bank, from being an actor and giving interviews for magazine (yes, yes!), to living in a foreign land as a scholar (don’t ask!), but never had I imagined myself making achaar.
Making achaar was task reserved for the oldies of the family. Much like any other family of the time, my middle class, small town clan had a host of them. My grandmother, her siblings, her sisters-in-law, her aunts and friends — the list was endless. Every summer and winter, they would assemble in the sprawling courtyard of our Kanpur home and fuss about the cut of the raw mangoes or the quality of the chillies. Then there were the lemons, fragrant and bright, partially sectioned and rubbed with a mixture of salt, sugar, and spices; aamla, poked a thousand times with german-silver forks, cooked with sugar, and preserved in large martbaans, and beautiful florets of cauliflowers, dunked in large jars of spiced water along with radish, carrots, and the odd beetroot. It is strange though that I recall these details now, for at the time I was gleefully unaware of their existence even. But, like any Indian household, pickle was always a part if the kitchen, resting in large glass bottles, being fussed about by someone or another.
One reason for my indifference to pickles could be that I am not a fan of them. I hardly ever eat them and when I do, I am extremely picky. I would only eat a certain type of achaar, made by a certain person, with a certain preparation, in a certain weather — too many things have to fall in place for a tiny piece of mango or chilli to be consumed, if at all. Another, perhaps, was that it was a task that in my mind, was supposed to be done by the older women in the house, so it was something that nanis and daadis did, and when they retired (which hardly ever happened), mothers and aunts took over from them.
Nothing changed for many years. After the passing of my grandmothers, in quick succession, mother and aunts took over the charge of keeping the large greasy jars full, even if they were much fewer in numbers now. And I kept dismissing them year after year.
Then in the winter of 2014, my mother fell sick. She spent months in hospital fighting for her life, and I, saddled with responsibilities of home and children, sat at home helpless. It was also the time when red chilies were in season. Every morning, the sabjiwala outside my mother’s house would call out to me with his stock of bright red peppers. “Make some achaar didi”, he’d nudge me every day, and everyday I dismissed him. Even though I had bought them for mother every season, I had no idea of what to do with them without her. And I did not know if mother would ever return to pickle them.
But God is great, mother did return from the hospital. She also made some achaar that spring (some chillies were still out there in the market.) Even though it was the worst achaar she had ever made, I ate every last bit of it.
I did something else. I learnt to pickle these red chillies.
For past four years now, every February, I buy the plump chillies from my sabziwala. I wash them and wipe them, dry them and cover them. I then call mother and ask her what to do next. My mother being my mother, has no recipe or measurement to give me. She instructs me to take a handful of this, a pinch of that, and combine it with a little love and lots of patience (something I completely lack). Armed with the non existent recipe, relying completely on memory — just like mother herself — I set out for my achaar adventure with the borrowed patience in tow. But let me tell you that despite all this my achaar has no flavour of my of my grandmothers’ expertise and no trace of my mothers love. The only thing it has is the genuine effort to retain all that I can of my aging mother and my lost grandmothers.
Every spring afternoon when I sit down with messy hands to fill the whole red chillies, fussing over the amount of masala and the length of the cut on the fruit, I can see myself turning a little bit into my mother, and eventually my grandmother. And for once I am not worried about it.
P.S. You are welcome to come over and sample some achaar, just remember to say its nice.