Every morning, Dida (grandmother) would walk down the garden to her kaji nemu (lemon) tree, and pick enough to cook for the day. She was averse to keeping them in the fridge when there was a tree at hand. Besides, one must never take more than what one needs.
Dida was born in Tinsukia, Assam, the third daughter in a family of seven siblings. She had no idea of her birthday or her age. When she married my grandfather (Dadu), he decided that she was born on January 1. And that was that.
Dadu was a man of his times. His wife had borne him strong children, cooked amazing food and did not talk back. He was content.
They lived in Sibsagar, a small town in upper Assam. Early in the morning, someone would go to the haat (local market) and buy the produce for the day. These would be inspected and handed over to be washed, cleaned, and chopped. Dida would then churn out four meals a day for a very demanding husband, and occasionally, children and grandchildren.
Breakfast could range from English (toast, perfect poached eggs, beans) to very Bengali luchi and alur dom. Lunch and dinner were the usual Bengali staples of dal, vegetable, and the protein of the day. Sometimes she made Assamese curries, sneaking in a tenga, but very rarely. Dadu did not care for it very much.
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My first memories of Dida were the vibrant sweaters and winter caps, and jars full of pickles and murabba that Dadu would bring during his trips to Calcutta. I knew her through stories from Mum, and heard her voice for a few seconds over very crackling long-distance calls. Until one year Dadu decided to fly down and brought her along. Mum decided to go back with them for the summer and so Dida and I found ourselves sitting next to each other on a flight to Jorhat – a first for both of us.
For a kid growing up in a Calcutta apartment, Sibsagar was a revelation. Summers were spent running around in the giant backyard, climbing trees, making friends with dogs, sitting on the kitchen stairs and smelling food as it got made. And Dida.
Dida was tiny, quiet, and smelled slightly of cloves. Her children and her husband would tower over her, both in stature and in personality. However, the kitchen was her domain, one she guarded and protected zealously, even from her daughters. The granddaughter, however, had a free rein and would get the first taste of everything.
Afternoons went by in stories, of her childhood, of gods and demigods, of rivers which shaped her land – the Dihing and the Brahmaputra. It segued into an evening stroll, which turned into an impromptu botany lesson – the mango tree, jolpai tree, rose bushes, coconut trees, and of course, the lemon tree.
Then, one fine day, Dadu decided to move to Calcutta. For good. He found an apartment in one of the city’s newest high-rises, a gated community with manicured lawns and 24-hour security. Dida was heartbroken, but she kept mum, except occasionally complaining about the lack of sunlight and wind, completely disregarding his insistence that at the 12th floor, they got plenty of both.
“Okhan e onek bhalo chilo (It was better there),” she would mutter to herself, before retiring to the kitchen.
She revolted, in her quiet way. Classic Assamese dishes, like dhekia bhaja (vegetable fern), maasor bilahi tenga (fish in a tangy tomato gravy) or boror tenga (lentil balls in a sour curry) started frequenting the Calcutta dining table. Khagen Mahanta’s sonorous voice would float around the house, once she figured out how to work the tape recorder. We would have conversations, her in Assamese, me replying in Bangla, until she gave up trying to make me speak, but still joyful at speaking herself.
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Was Dida Bengali? Or was she Assamese? Her name and official identity were defined by the Bengali household she was born into, and the Bengali man she married. But the only home she had known was Assam, the only places she had been allowed to travel were in Assam. The Assam valley, the rivers and the mountains, the culture, music and food were probably a bigger part of her than what her documents could proclaim. Now, how does one prove the identity of one’s soul?
Many years later, she stopped cooking, regressing to a point where she couldn’t recognise faces, started speaking only in Assamese about Sibsagar and her rivers. I had moved cities by then. Soon, as I boarded my last-minute flight to Calcutta, I remembered our first flight together, and how she never got to sit on a flight back home again. Grief tasted sour then and smelled of kaji nemu.
Years later, in Bangalore, I tried to cook her sour fish curry. I couldn’t trust my memory of how it used to taste; I could only remember with sharp clarity how her face looked as she fed it to me – joyous and defiant, both in Sibsagar and Calcutta.
My dinner was a quest for my inheritance: sunshine and lemon trees, sour curries and pickles, and long afternoons talking about rivers.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty