The summer (vacations) nostalgia
Summer vacations are a very complicated time for parents nowadays. Should one send one's daughter to a Vedic Maths class? Is one's son old enough for a Shiamak Davar dance class? How about the NSD theatre workshop? Or should one pack one's children off on a trekking holiday in Uttaranchal? Decisions, decisions! Oh, to be able to return to the summers of my childhood, a far simpler time...
Summers as a child revolved around two things-books and food. Summers meant no school and no homework, just the luxury of curling up with a new story book everyday and racing through it by the evening, so that one could move on to a new one the following day. I would set off for the Oxford Lending Library on Park Street, a short walk from where we stayed, and spend a couple of delightful hours browsing through the dusty, dimly lit interiors, filled from floor to ceiling with scores of enchanting children's books.
I would whet my appetite by dipping into some of them, the Chalet School series by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, books by Angela Brazil, comic books by Herge and Goscinny and Uderzo, and, of course, books by the queen of children's fiction, Enid Blyton, firmly resolving not to read a line of the ones I intended to borrow that week. As almost every girl who grew up in the sixties and seventies knows, Enid Blyton and Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's books are full of the most glorious, detailed and mouth-watering descriptions of food. In the Asterix books these are even accompanied by illustrations-wild boar roasting on a spit, huge vats of cheese fondue, kegs of beer. Whenever the Chalet girls are taken for an expedition over Half Term, be it to Innsbruck or Vienna, they feast on heavenly iced coffee with a cascading tower of cream and the most luscious Alpine pastries. Come the time for Kaffee und Kuchen-that's the musical name for Tea in Austria-and the Chalet girls, their appetites hearty after sight-seeing or going for a long trek in the mountains, tuck in gleefully. Size zero, anorexia, bulimia-happily these were all unknown terms.
Who can forget the memorable Midnight Feasts in the St. Clare's and Malory Towers books of Enid Blyton? When Carlotta celebrates her birthday her grandmother sends her a generous cheque and she spends it all on buying the most outrageous snacks for the midnight feast-tinned sausages, sardines and pineapple, a huge, gooey chocolate cake, mini sandwiches of every description, chocolate biscuits, buns and of course lots and lots of fizzy ginger ale. Whenever the Five Find-Outers and Dog are worrying their brains over a new mystery, they meet in a cafe where Fatty generously treats Pip and Bets and Larry and Daisy, not to forget Buster, to chocolate éclairs (he usually eats three or four forgetfully himself) and macaroons, just hours before the children's lunchtime. With the Famous Five the meals were usually picnic lunches which they devoured with a hearty appetite while sniffing out a new mystery on Kirrin Island or on the Yorkshire moors. Hard boiled eggs, ham sandwiches, sliced tomatoes, sausage pies, generous slices of pound cake, all to be washed down with homemade lemonade-George's mother certainly knew how to pack a picnic hamper!
Now, absorbing as the escapades of Joey, the triplets and Mary Lou, and Julian, Anne, Bobby and Darrell were, all these descriptions of frequent repasts certainly made me long for a little something in between the invariably hearty breakfasts, lunches and dinners that my mother and the cook prepared every day. "Ma, I'm hungry!" would be the usual refrain, and my mother would oblige with the Bengali equivalent of all the English and European delights served up by Brent-Dyer and Blyton. A nice, juicy, Himshagor mango, pockmarked, dumpy and unprepossessing to look at but yielding the most heavenly orange sweetness within, would sometimes do the trick, cut swiftly and expertly on a bonti or curved knife, held down by one foot by the cook as she used both her hands on either side of the dangerous looking blade to slice and dice the mango with the terrifying speed and dexterity of a Las Vegas croupier dealing cards.
After the long drive to my grandparents' home in Ballygunj where I would go armed with The Put-'em Rights or Joey Returns to the Chalet School and a few years later with Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, we would be greeted with long, icy glasses of bel smoothie, a concoction of the pulp of the bel fruit, strained and mixed with beaten yogurt and sugar and cooled and iced-it would miraculously cool your body even as it soothed your tongue-and my grandmother's famous mutton kebabs.
If it was tea time, or a time for jolkhabar-snacks-Khoka, the lad who ran errands, would be sent to the neighbourhood eatery Nironjon to buy huge, beefy brown squares of fish, crumbed and fried and served with a pungent mustard sauce or, as a special treat, Nironjon's humongous devilled eggs-but devilled eggs that bore no resemblance to their pale and bland English cousins. These were huge duck's eggs, covered generously with a spicy mincemeat coating, and then breaded and deep fried. Sometimes the snack would be a modest one made at home-jhal muri-a spicy mixture of puffed rice, finely diced onions and chillies and cucumber, mixed with mustard oil and sprinkled with lots and lots of lemon juice-or alu kabli-tiny new potatoes boiled and halved and served in a divine sweet-sour-spicy mixture of tamarind paste and finely sliced green chillies. If the hunger pangs struck me at the time of elevenses, when Fatty and the rest would be devouring macaroons, Ma would take a piece of rohu from those to be cooked for lunch and fry it for me.
I particularly enjoyed the fatty yet crisp skin of the peti, the piece cut from the stomach of the fish and having the fewest bones, tasting faintly of salt and a harbinger of the sweet white flesh to come! You can probably tell that I did not have the usual Bengali sweet tooth. But my brother made up for that. He was famous for having innocently enquired, after having been served a propah Anglo-Indian meal of fried mutton chops, boiled vegetables and a caramel custard, "Doi nei?" Isn't there any dahi?
More about Shormishtha Panja
Shormishtha Panja teaches at the University of Delhi. She writes books on critical theory, gender studies and visual culture. She loves being a mom and enjoys travelling to new countries. She is borderline obsessive about food and Renaissance art and guards her collection of children’s fiction fiercely.
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