‘Achaar’ – A Legacy of Spices, Care and Afternoon Tales

Summer at my grandma’s house was all about sunshine, green mangoes and mustard seeds. I remember drifting off in the afternoon, lulled by the rhythmic thuds of spices being ground in the mortar.

I would look at the quartered mangoes laid out in the sun and would be tempted to taste them. Soon they would be in bottles swimming in tangy mustard oil, waiting to be sent out to the loved ones. The taste of my grandma’s pickle has spoiled me – so much so that even today I refuse to taste any store-bought pickle now when my grandma doesn’t have the energy to make some.

One fine day, during the lockdown, I decided to call my grandmother and ask for the pickle recipe. As I started crushing the roasted mustard seeds, I was reminded of an account in Audre Lorde’s novel Zami – of coming into womanhood and pounding spices. She writes,

“As I continued to pound the spice, a vital connection seemed to establish itself between the muscles of my fingers curved tightly around the smooth pestle in its insistent downward motion, and the molten core of my body whose source emanated from a new ripe fullness just beneath the pit of my stomach.”

In that moment, I felt a similar raw and primitive connection with all the women in my family who had come before me – each motion of the pestle echoing across time. I thought about women confined to a family life expressing themselves through flavours of the pickle. Half of white, half of black mustard, four spoons of oil, dried in the sun for seven days – are lines of an oft’ repeated rhyme.

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The taste of the spices took me back to grandma’s soft cotton sari, smelling of comfort and love. To afternoons filled with tales of princesses and magical creatures in lush forests. I felt connected with her and the other women in my family, who gracefully carried the legacy of spices and care forward – bottled up with salt, turmeric and a generous squeeze of lime with an everlasting shelf life.

It fills me up with joy knowing that there still exist a lot of things that elude the claws of capitalism. Like the preserved memories of watching my grandma deftly de-seed raw mangoes. Back in the day, she would say, making pickles brought all the women of the house together on sultry afternoons. Amongst the spices and drying mangoes, daily lives were laid bare. Women tired of tending to husbands and demanding children would let their hair down and indulge in comforting communion.

At a time when we feel the need to constantly document and sell a version of our lives to be relevant, I think about those women, their everyday lives, their conversations around the pickle jars.

We don’t exactly know what they talked about, but we do have hundreds of scattered stories (oral literature) of a time spent caring for families. Maybe they had dreams and aspirations peeled and discarded like the many mango skins. Perhaps they aspired to live in the stories of happy children who talked about a wholesome thali of dal, rice and their mother’s unparalleled achaar.

Monami Goswami is currently pursuing a degree in literature at Visva Bharati. Her interest lies in oral literature, post-colonial, language and gender studies.

Featured image credit: SearchYogi/Flickr