Makar Sankranti – Boromani’s Day
I always associate Makar Sankranti with Boromani. Dida would call the last day of the Poush as Poush Sankranti but Boromani would invariably call it as Makar Sankranti and give it that extra ritualistic flavor with which she always celebrated the day. My generation in Bengal never quite knew the seriousness of this festival except that we would have a chapter here and there in our school’s vernacular texts saying how Makar Sankranti was a day of reaping the bountiful harvest, how one invariably made a variety of sweet meats and savouries on this day and often would go out far into the mouth of the Ganges where it mingled into the inexhaustible Bay of Bengal to take a holy bath in the freezing cold of the middle of January. But Boromani made this out to be a day of delectable feast for us. She would make pithey and payesh, koraishutir kochuri and aloor dom. And all the while we stuffed ourselves with these delicacies with greed overtaking appetite; Boromama would stand with a bottle of Carmozyme to control any damage that such gluttony would bring with it. The picture would be filled with exclamations and high pitched cacophony of all heads talking all at once with the sheer joy of partaking in the grand gastronomical feat. This is how I best associate Makar Sankranti and Boromani.
Boromama is my mother’s first cousin, the son of her father’s oldest sister. Boromama was called as Borda by my mother and her siblings to denote not only his seniority in age but also his superiority in his position as the eldest in the family of my maternal grandfather. He was much older than the children born to my maternal grandparents and yet one of the same generations as my uncles and aunts; Boromama seemed to occupy the interstitial space between the adult world and the world of the children. In Bengal, this space has been valued and the series of “Da’s” such as Feluda, Tenida, Ghanada, Motada and later Rijuda seem to occupy this space somewhere between an adult and a child and become the repository of all kinds of fun and adventure. Boromama introduced my mother and her siblings to Shonibaarer Chithi, Sandesh, Shuktara and to music played on the radio. He was the one who would devise endless tricks to play on his cousins and their friends. He invented interesting ways to scare the young children and had this endless reservoir of ghost stories. Boromama’s stories were varied and almost always from another world of the villages where trees grew dense and dark, where in the secret of shadows lurked dacoits; or of strange dak bunglows where spirits stalked him, or of sit outs by ponds and damps where petnis could be seen with burning eyes. These stories thrilled us; he also knew of Freedom Fighters, of members of the Anushilan Samiti, Raj Kapoor and his monimela, and many budding young Bengali authors, poets and radio artists. He also knew some of India’s Presidents and Vice Presidents. Boromama’s employment as an officer of the State Bank of India had once taken him to head the bank’s branches in the Andaman Islands where he received many eminent Indian celebrities as his house guests. Boromani was his wife, again a much older Boudi to my uncles and aunts, old enough to seek various indulgences and young enough to pull her leg and tease her. Boromama and Boromani’s home with their three daughters was an open house with unlimited parties.
I was too young to partake in these halcyon party days at Boromama’s residence; except for a brief and hilarious visit to Burnpur where I saw my life’s first steel plant breathing and spitting burning fire and belching thick black smoke. In my profession as a steel policy economist I seem to have surprised my colleagues and my unit by always being extra favourable to IISCO, not letting out my subconscious secrete that I associated the plant with Burnpur and to Boromama.
But I was in the right frame of mind and appetite when they came to Kolkata and took up residence at Palm Avenue, close to our home in Dover Lane. This was the time when we visited Boromama’s home every evening; the evenings of Makar Sankranti were among this routine. Families such as ours had practically never known this festival and my grandmothers, both paternal and maternal, despite being gourmet chefs never quite retained the art of pithey making. This art of savouries had something to do with the structure of families, position of women, layout and architecture of kitchens and helping hands and in this lay a deep sociology of the Indian families, urbanization, social mobility, middle class mobility and other features of the Gemeinschaft.
Families on either side of my parents were in many ways rootless and displaced; my maternal grandmother, Dida came from a broken home in the sense that she lost her father very early in life leaving her mother as a young and disconsolate widow. As soon as her father died, Dida was taken out of school and married off to my grandfather, a young officer of the Imperial Bank who was posted for most of his life in West Punjab, now Pakistan. Here she lived a life among Punjabis and Sindhis and while she picked up enormous skills from these women, she never knew the Bengali delicacies of Makar Sankranti. Dida had large kitchens but she never had women to help her out with the kneading, rolling and shaping of the pitheys; she had a family of eight children who she was too busy feeding with regular meals and had no time to spend on the luxuries of Makar Sankranti. On my father’s side, we had small families with little custom of shared meals and so the reason and the opportunity to fry on pitheys with platefuls were being brought on to the table in an unbroken flow simply did not exist. With both sides of the family having no rural roots ever had bounties of coconut, sweet potatoes and sweet vegetables delivered at home by share croppers and lessees on land. With both sides of the family living in city homes with no shared community life with neighbours had little incentive for women to roll up savouries while chatting away in afternoons and keeping one another company.
Boromani came from a family with roots; she had seen and known of communities those that were not yet nucleated in the waves of urbanization and competitive examinations. This was amply evident in the way she related to her neighbours in the city, giving away precious rations of sugar and rice to those she felt were in need of these. Though she was a banker’s wife and had three daughters to dowry off, she refused to save money. She never let considerations of the material world come in her way of building enormous levels of human relationships. Her way of building bridges among people was through gifts, nothing elaborate but extensive, rice, paan, sugar, gur, mosquito nets, duster cloths, just the way it would be done in the feudal world. In many ways she resisted modernity in its self seeking, individualistic, reified avatar, instead retained and extended the web of the Gemeinschaft, through gifts and givings in order to build a labrynth of human relations around her. The feast that she threw for Makar Sankranti was a representation of the world she inhabited; the festival she chose is such a misfit for the city life, a festival where bountiful of food is used, food that is not usually bought off shelves or shacks of the market place, but food that one usually gathers and collects as part of the larder in the home, food that is usually exchanged through goodwill of neighbours, shared through an informal camaraderie. I loved this world of Boromani’s, a world of the old world, a world of secret continuities of tradition, a world that refused to mingle into a mindless modernity.
I can see myself so far back in time; sitting on a formica top table in the narrow space of the dining area, stuffing myself with chaanaar jilipi and ranga aloor pithey with Boromama assuring me with generous supplies of Carmozyme and my cousins Shwetadi and Chhandadi preparing rolls of khili paan as mouthfresheners. After this grand feast we would end by talking of the weather and how after the last evening of Poush, early spring would set in Kolkata. In those days, I took Boromani and her culinary spread for granted; never imagining a time when all of that would no longer exist. These days I am more respectful of things that I have, knowing that like the Poush all will end one day and the new spring would open for someone else, not me.