NEW YORK – If the month of May is a sparkling sherbet of strawberries and cherries in North America, it is the taste of dainty lemonade, slices of ripe mangoes and watermelons laced with tulsi (mint) in India.
While the hot winds blow and ruffle the stalks of yellow mustard fields, and the parched earth grows heavy under the blaze of perpetual sunshine, there is always the iridescent hope of returning home to a tall crystalized glass of iced nimbu paani, which is nothing but squeezes of lime into iced water, made syrupy with sugar.
The summer drink, quaint and quixotic, swiftly becomes a therapy when miseries of heat strike the land. Transformed by love and memory, we find succor in its subtle nuances and ineffable colors.
To me, the likes of thickly churned smoothie or the caramel Frappuccino, delicious no doubt, could never really take the place of that ubiquitous and light nimbu paani.
The sentiment is akin to the way, the poet, Rabindranath Tagore, recalls the scent of jasmine in his lines:
“I have worn round my neck the evening wreath of bakulas woven by the hand of love.
Yet my heart is sweet with the memory of the first fresh jasmines that filled my hand when I was a child.”
While in India, I could never quite fathom the romance of the Indian summer and its blue skies as envisioned in Victorian poets. Summer, to most of us, was the most dreaded season of all with no respite from the reeling sunshine, except for the occasional downpour.
I remember returning from college with the inevitable stops at the puchka wallah, selling crisp puris, stuffed with potatoes, dripping over with spiced tamarind water. The strategy of the youth was simple: beat the heat with more heat.
And it still brings me back to my roots. It is not haute cuisine, but food of memory.
A walk down the narrow streets of Kolkata is an affair of the senses: stalls packed with jasmine and tuberose garlands, fruits cut open into glittering piles of mango, rubies of pomegranate, pink and white guava, and wheeling machines stirring up frothy sugarcane drinks.
There would also be the familiar sight of vendors pushing carts laden with large amounts of fresh fruit made into frozen popsicles, rendering them into an immediately addictive treat.
With a pinch of salt or lime, the sweetness of these fruits added a zing to the simplest flavor.
All of which meant home.
But beyond everything else, summers in India are awash in the green and gold lilt of the mangoes. Our old house in Jamshedpur, Bihar had a few mango trees that were a shining beacon of dreams, recipes, and indulgent wishes.
Every summer, the tropical grove would come alive with the florid cheeps of the bulbul birds making their nests in the ripened arbors.
Climbing those trees, plucking the unripe fruits and peeking at the little birds were a ritualistic composition of childhood riled with laughter.
And if mangoes are, indeed, the leitmotif of innocence, another image from literature that stands out, frozen in time, is that of Apu and Durga of Pather Panchali stealing mangoes and plums from their neighbor’s garden and getting into trouble by their parents.
Translated into English by T W Clark and Tarapada Mukherji, the book captures the ecstatic attraction of eating fruits in the wild:
“They were the children of a poor home, and like poor children everywhere they were driven to find their sweets on the jungle bushes…”
Time may have settled dust upon its covers since the novel was first penned, but villages in these parts continue to remain entrenched in these heart-tugging stories of dire poverty that ran amok with freedom and a sense of the carefree.
However, the big cities have shown an innovation of food and drinks that can challenge the repertoire in any of the posh restaurants of the western world. The large number of imported fruits under the deft hands of master chefs has yielded themselves to a variety of delectable cuisines.
Apart from the standard fruit chutney or aam ras, we now have the strawberry mousse, mango rice, the pineapple panna cota, and luxurious drinks that resemble hues from a Cinderellian gown.
If mango is the king of fruits in India, the watermelon, with its jewel-toned colors, is its distilled rival. With tiny sprigs of mint or cilantro, they recall the freshness of a tart citrus and a spritz of rose.
A quick and an easy perfumed drink is a glass of iced soda water infused with wheels of whole pineapple, cucumber, melon slices and sprinkled with herbs such as basil, thyme, or mint.
Celebrated saffron drinks like the rose falooda or the thandai, enriched with almond and apricots, carry Persian accents that offset July’s blistering haze. The creamy and floral notes in colors of pastels make them an elegant statement in warm evening air when the winds blew from the south.
But nothing quite replenishes the warm radiance to the heart as the dark, smoky tea made in our own kitchen hearth, stirred with sugar and love,
“The kitchen’s the coziest place that I know;
The kettle is singing, the stove’s a glow,
And there in the twilight how jolly to see
The cocoa and animals waiting for me,” write Jane and Michael Stern, authors of old-fashioned taste thrills, Square Meals.
Replace the cocoa with the masala tea and you get the message. The steamy vapor rising from the tea cup with the creamy milk, spiced in cinnamon and clove is a fragrance that can surely douse all our maladies.
Endless cups of tea, warm samosas in brightly lit dining rooms, charged with political debates, interspersed with song, were the sweet memories that spilled over from the summers of yesteryears.
(Poppy Mookerjee is a journalist and a writer for more than a decade with American and Indian publications)