Farhana’s Reflections: Coconut and Jaggery

By Farhana Islam

In the village of Banskhali, named for the local banskh or bamboo, my father was highly revered. He was among the few that left for bidesh (foreign lands), found riches abroad and was considerate enough to return home with Samsonite luggage filled with evidence of his good fortune.

Aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, distant relatives and even neighbors were gifted with seemingly priceless jars of Pond’s cold cream and Suave shampoo and the ubiquitous tins of Danish butter cookies.  It was amusing to see the women of each household barter the blue Royal Danish tins as one would in a stock market. The children followed suit and argued bitterly over whether the rectangular or faux pretzel shaped cookie was better. What did it matter? There was an entire layer underneath. I stepped forward and removed the parchment paper. This evoked a collective gasp of amazement. There was more than one layer of Royal Danish biscuits!

After reading ten pages of a novel that I wasn’t particularly fond of, I found myself very tired. The misery of the long journey and the incessant eyes upon me from every direction, of being recorded and commented on by my kin sapped my strength. I unceremoniously closed the door of the room that I was assigned and pulled the mosquito net across the bed. I was bargaining, begging and praying to God for sleep that eluded me.

I woke up the next morning to the smell of coconut and jaggery, the pungent and sweet aroma of breakfast. It wafted in like a seductive lover stealing a kiss when eyes were averted. A savage pang of hunger drummed from inside me. Several of the women had woken at the crack of dawn to prepare bhapa pitha. The sweet, succulent cousin of the South Indian idli, it was an ambrosiac rice cake that was stuffed with fresh, shredded coconut and pounded, sticky jaggery and subsequently steamed.

Having arrived from the States only a few weeks before, I was battling diarrhea and dehydration. I was certainly in no mood to venture off of the safe path of sealed jam, sterile toast, boiled tea with milk, boiled water and boiled rice for my daily meals. When I was feeling very adventurous, I ate a package of Parle-G biscuits. Still, the pithas smelled divine.

The eldest aunt or Auntie Number One as I referred to her, had taken special pity on me. She knew that American children were used to having their native relatives wait on them hand and foot and I was certainly no exception. She prepared my breakfast of Lipton English tea and special toast that my father purchased from town earlier. She slathered the Meyer Lemon marmalade on each slice. She did this only after gingerly washing her hands with lime-verbena soap. She ensured no one touched my rations. Number One did this daily and did so without complaint.

Dressed in a pristine white sari trimmed with blue edging that was redolent of sea-spray and homemade starch, she reminded me of Mother Teresa. In appearance, and quite possibly in temperament. She had, at most three teeth mottled with betel juice that had survived the storied chapters of her life.

Number One was always laughing, full of wistful stories. She spoke in a Chittagonian dialect that I failed to understand. Let me rephrase this: Made no attempt to understand.

After Fajr prayers, she fed the livestock, swept the rooftop of the house, and drew water from the well. After she groomed the horses and scattered fresh sawdust in the stable. She would walk from one end of the village to the other, stopping for tea and bhela biscuits. She would hear the stories of her neighbors: the romances, illnesses, births and deaths. She would dispense of sage advice and move to the next house, repeating the pattern. Number One was welcomed with open arms as if she, herself was a member of family.

She would look at me when I would finally wake up after eleven in the morning every day and begin clucking like the chickens she fed corn to in the early hours of the morning.

“This bideshi bachha, this ma’am sahib! This girl will waste her whole life away sleeping the way she does”.  She wasn’t speaking to me when she said this. This was merely an announcement, an edict of empirical fact. She would follow this with a liberal dose of tsk tsking.

Inwardly, I had come to despise her in a way that I hadn’t despised a total stranger before. She would comment on how I never dressed my hair with coconut oil like a good Bengali girl. She commented that I was sulky and moody. She mentioned to the other aunts that I didn’t address her with the correct honorific.

I was standing in the doorway of her kitchen watching her prepare lunch. She was hunched on a small wooden stool. On the adobe floor was a straw mat with all manner of saabzi strewn across it. She used a dhow to slice the red onions, garlic and green peppers razor thin. She did this at a blazing pace. The herbs were mixed in a giant metal bowl with slick, plump, de-veined tiger prawns. I knew from experience that it would later be mixed in besan and spices and then fried till golden. My mouth watered.

I was fascinated at how meticulous she was with her preparation.  She did not use measuring cups or utensils, yet the meals she prepared were lauded for miles around. I bent to watch her work. Because I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, she had me quickly change into the white salwar kameez that she had gifted to me before the ‘men-folk’ came home. She explained that they would talk if I didn’t, and I would bring shame upon my father’s name. I rolled my eyes with the hopes that she would understand the gesture.

She certainly did. Number One complained to the most important person in the village: My father.

Dad was a bit funny about the whole business. When I was a child, I was the proverbial apple of my father’s eye. We were much closer when I didn’t have breasts. Without question, puberty was what definitively drove us apart. After I was thirteen, conversations were random and occasional at best.

He looked odd standing there in his navy Polo shirt, khaki shorts and Birkenstocks lecturing me about traditional dress. He began with “Say, listen. You need to wear some more respectable clothes around my family. Your Aunt’s been complaining about you”.

He didn’t mention which one. He didn’t need to. He and I exchanged glances from across the room. I wanted to tell him that back home, a T-shirt and jeans were standard issue. Back home, T-shirt and jeans were modest in comparison to some Bengali families. I was the child most of my American friends’ parents dreamed about. They gushed over me. They never complained about me.

I said nothing. I swallowed my rage and it stuck in my throat, like the time a fly accidently flew in my mouth and I was convinced there was a colony of worm-y larvae in my esophagus.

Later, in my moment of lucidity I thought what I could’ve asked my father was just how much longer were we going to stay in this God-forsaken place? To be effectively asked, of course would require that I raise my voice. That would have alerted all manner of reinforcement, including of course, Number One who would ask: Who’s shouting? Bay-sharam! Are you shouting at your father? Is that what you learned in America?

Even at the mere thought of her, I had to roll my eyes.

I was miserable in a way that couldn’t be expressed. I felt that every minute that I was there, I was trapped and my life was evaporating like the hot steam that rose from the rice paddies, vanishing and never to return. One morning, I treated myself to an unofficial orientation of my father’s homeland. It was verdant, lush and perfumed with time that the world had forgotten about in other parts of the world. The rice plants peeped out daintily in neat, green rows in each flooded field. It was these same paddies that I happened to cross one night, with a lantern in hand and heavily chaperoned. In the reflection of the pooled water in the fields, I saw the night sky.

The inky, sapphire expanse was larger than anything I had ever seen.  The sheer breadth seemed to bear down its massive weight on me. Its dimensions were incalculable. The stars were without competition of light pollution. Each flickered, sparkled and shimmered like diamond daggers. It was outside the scope, beyond my ken and years ahead of what I would be able to process as perhaps the most beautiful, perfect thing I had ever seen. I was an insignificant quark in the great, cosmic scheme of the universe. I was humbled, dry-mouthed and teary-eyed. I began to bawl like a newly abandoned orphan. I felt incredibly alone.

Number One retraced her steps in the dim light and stopped to look up. She smiled and nodded. She said in her best Bengali, slow and stammered, “It is bigger than you and me. It is like this every night”. She put her arm around me and we walked back home.

She came into my room later that night and offered a glass of tepid, boiled milk and a bhapa pitha for my dinner. To her amazement, I was not my normal ornery, disagreeable self and ate the delicious rice cake savoring the sweet flakiness of the shaved coconut and the dark, glossy molasses that oozed from the center.

“Your father says you will be leaving in the morning.”

Startled, I looked up from sipping my milk. This was revelation because, of course, my father did not mention any of this to me. I was surprised and very, very sad.

What a terrible guest I was! I had made Number One’s life difficult and certainly filled with unnecessary daily chores. Guiltily, I had just remembered how she had to boil a large cauldron of water every afternoon because I couldn’t bathe in the communal pond where all the other villagers did, segregated of course by gender.

I cleared my throat, attempting to express my gratitude. Number One was quick on her feet to hug me. “I shall miss you, my bideshi bachha”.

At the train station my father was paying the porters to transfer our bags onto the dusty locomotive. Though we were in the First Class compartment, the slipcovers were stained and the china was yellow from heavy use. My nausea was held as bay by a cold swig of sterilized water. I looked out the window at the passengers boarding. There were two brothers mingled in with the sea of vendors, one selling combs and the other selling medicinal supplies.

I assumed because of their size and age, they were allowed to roam freely between compartments. The younger boy stopped and asked if I wanted to purchase anything. I wanted to turn away, but his face captivated me. His eyes were round and hazel, almost regal for a boy so small. His head was shaved as a preventive measure against head lice. His brother, more seasoned in the affairs of commerce and trade urged his younger brother to move on. I reached in my purse and offered the smallest American currency I had, a five dollar bill. In gratitude, I was given a small tub of Tiger Balm ‘for your tension, Sister’. They were gone in a flash.

It was my father who told me on the train later that day, Number One spent her mornings telling her neighbors and practically anyone who would listen, how proud she was of me.

Top image by Farhana Islam ©2011 used with permission

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