NON-FICTION

Published:  12:53 AM, 24 August 2017

Flashback to the taste of winter's delight

Flashback to the taste of winter's delight

After the rains, after the heat envelopes me once more in this month of Jaistha, I sit in my netted verandah in the dusky evening and look at the kathal tree on the south-eastern corner of the boundary wall. Heavy, pot-bellied fruit cling haphazardly to the trunk and scores more hang precariously from several limbs. The suffocating heat stifles me, and the enervating humidity unites the foliage and me in listless dejection. Looking at the limp leaves and the silent jutting branches, I yearn desperately for the jagged kalboishaki lightning to rend the sky with torrential hail.

I imagine the taste of icy water on my skin, and suddenly, sentient tactile association makes me meditate on the various categories of taste felt fruitfully upon the tongue -sweet, salty, bitter, sour, astringent, and pungent. Inexplicably, possibly in response to the impulsive drive towards wish-fulfillment, my mind entices me out of the present moment and takes me back in time to a bright winter's day in the year 1959.

I am five years old, in Quetta, Baluchistan, and we live in a row of connected homes for Army officers and their families.  Under the shadow of the distant tall peaks of the Chiltern Hills and the green slopes of dense pine trees, I stand in awe in my wool red-caped duffel-coat (with its wood bullet-shaped looped buttons) and look in wonder at the far mountains. Having heard the adults talk of the fierce tribes of this rugged frontier province, my imagination conjures up images of caravans of warriors in flowing cloaks and coiled turbans.

I am a red dot in a sea of white snow. Soft, mushy, squishy, clean snow piled in some places as high as my waist. In my tough leather boots, I walk with the slow deliberate plod- pull- plod rhythm of a workhorse testing unknown treacherous ground.  The air tastes fresh and sweet with the scent of pine cones. Baskets of fruit, overflowing with winter's abundant produce of rock-hard walnuts and green pistachio and almonds in their beige perforated husks and black thin tear-shaped pine nuts, lie on the open verandah, drying in the sunlight. 

Inside the house, in the dining room, glass jars and bowls are filled with dried nuts. The remains of the surfeit of the rich harvest of perishable grapes and plums and apricots are still displayed on large wooden trays, but lie neglected and wrinkling brown with the tinge of decay.  I sit with the other children in the formal sitting-room, happy in the radiating heat of the tubular 'Quetta' stove in the fire-place. We sit in a circle and laugh and sing favorite nursery rhymes and tell jokes and howl like wolves, wild with the joy of getting mounds of assorted nuts to devour.

We sing, and stop, and munch, munch, crunch on the shells of the pistachio and the almond and the little pine nuts, and chew the buttery mixture of flavorful paste, and roll it on the tongue and push the gummy wad into one cheek pouch and then the other. Swallow, and dive into the bowl for another fistful, furiously racing with our fingers to crack, break, crush the shells and pop three fingers-full of nuts into greedy mouths. Again, and again, bending forward from the waist, lifting the hip lightly, and back up in a fluid continuing motion.

We fall back, finally, stuffed, with tight tummies.  Grinning, we look slyly at the disheveled piles of crushed shell, and quickly bend forward to measure the height and breadth of each pile, small hillocks of discarded skin speckled cream and mossy green and streaked dark chocolate. Soon, we are all shouting and screaming, 'I win. No, me. I win'.  Pushing and pulling at shirts and dresses and falling over each other, and into the dry, powdery husks.

Late evening, and a vigorous warm bath for me. Then, snug inside the lovely satin quilt, brightly embroidered with the distinctive mirror-work of the Baluchi women. No dinner, no hot 'chappati', no 'keema' curry that night. The nostrils flare with the delicious smell of baking chappati, but the stomach declines the olfactory overture, remembering still the afternoon's nutty repast.

From my bedroom window, I see starlit silver waves of snow. Eyelids softly close in sleep, to dream of trudging through the snow on the morrow to catch the school-bus in my red duffel-coat and matching red mittens. Anticipating, in delight, the glowing charcoal braziers in between neat rows of cute comfy chairs in the class-room.

Rebecca Haque is former chairperson, Department of English, Dhaka University and a writer

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