Saturday, March 20, 2010

Two Minutes Older: Vegetable Love

One weekend afternoon as I was cooking, the oil ran out. I upturned the whole tin and waited for it to give up what oil it had left, drop by slow drop. As each drop gathered at the rim, backlit by the window in front of me, I started having semi-apocalyptic visions.

I thought of what it took to make even this much oil. It occurred to me that I, who laughed at those old jokes about where milk comes from (answer, according to the spoilt brat in the joke: the supermarket), did not know what it took to make the couple of litres of oil that we used every month. Whatever the process, I knew it used a lot of energy.

As I stood with upended tin of oil, the electricity went off and my visions scaled themselves up from semi- to full-blown apocalyptic ones. What if the world had no more electricity? What would we do for cooking oil? What would it take for us to produce a spoonful of oil for one meal’s tadka?

Field, oil seeds, planting, watering (without the benefit of pumps), harvesting, pressing – I felt exhausted just thinking about it and I wasn’t even taking into account the months of waiting we would have to endure in between all the hectic activity described above.

The waiting seemed to me the most exciting and frustrating part. A few months earlier, my son had planted the eye of a potato in our garden and every day he would drag my mother and me out to monitor its progress. As long as it was sprouting and growing visibly, it was clear that much was happening out of sight and below the ground. Once the leaves achieved a uniform greenness and height, however, he no longer knew how to tell if the potatoes were ready to harvest or not.

“Shall we pull it up to see how big it is?” I asked.

Naturally, I did not expect to be taken seriously. But I didn’t think my son would curl his lip at me either. This was the same boy, who, just a few months before, had thought that burying a body was a good way of preserving it so that we could take it out from time to time to remind ourselves about how it used to look when alive.

 Children grow up so fast, I thought to myself and we sighed at how long it was taking for the potatoes to grow. Three weeks later, unable to bear the suspense any longer, we harvested the potatoes.

This is what we got: five teeny, miniscule white and skinless potatoes. We fried them (while giving thanks that we could just go and buy oil instead of making it) and thought philosophical thoughts in the few seconds it took us to consume the result.

Since that time, I have been paying more attention to process in the natural world. I’d like to be able to say I sleep better because of this new-found enthusiasm for all things cyclical, but that would be going too far.

Let’s just say, it’s soothing to see the seasons change – to enjoy the rain of leaves in spring before the flowers come, to collect the flowers when they fall, to dry and powder them so that there’s natural colour for next year’s Holi, like a memory preserved and then relived*. It is even possible to welcome the thought of summer just because it brings with the heat the promise of watermelons, aam panna and khus sherbet.

There’s also a sense of anticipation and contentment that owes everything to the time it takes for things to happen. This is what Andrew Marvell must have meant by ‘vegetable love’ in his poem, ‘To His Coy Mistress.’ He, of course, was urgently wooing his beloved so for him time was a wingèd chariot hurrying near. We’re in no rush here, even though we may sometimes be impatient.

Every time we eat a papaya from our garden or spend an afternoon shaking down gooseberries from the tree and argue about whether to eat them up or pickle them, I consider not just the day but the whole year seized.

(An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.)

*Just so you know: epic fail. We forgot we left the flowers out to dry and when we returned from a week-long trip, they were burnt brown. 


Bonus photo, found on Jenny Davidson's blog and saved in that choking feedreader I've talked about for nearly a year for just such a contingency.


ratna rajaiah said...

What a lovely piece, Dala...

km said...

..burying a body was a good way of preserving it...

Macabre. But great idea. (But please don't *ever* show him Sweeney Todd.)

My favorite line from this piece is: "Children grow up so fast, I thought to myself and we sighed at how long it was taking for the potatoes to grow".

Once again, an excellent column.

Cheshire Cat said...

Pickle, surely, always pickle.

Space Bar said...

ratna: thanks (and i'm back for a bit, so mail, no?)

km: thanks. :D (you've seen an earlier version of the thought.)

cat: that's totally debatable. have you ever had gooseberries (fresh) and then had water?

Cheshire Cat said...

I confess I have not. But could I speak with so much conviction if I were not ignorant?

JKD said...

Major smiles...! U lucky a 'garden' and all...! DO continue rubbing it in..! ;-/ Well.. I can still plant the eye of a potato (or many!) in pots and make it a summmer project, no..?! :-) Thanks for the idea....! Hugsssss.....plent