Remember the time when Iftars were family affairs? Saleha Singh reminisces about her childhood Ramzan days in Asansol.
It was an unexpected call from Dadi last night that made me suddenly yearn for a Ramzan that I had left behind in Asansol 40 years ago. Sitting around the table—having iftar with a much-dwindled family—my 90-year-old Dadi was remembering a time when breaking the fast was a family affair.
I am transported into my family home, savouring the love, warmth, aroma, and the joy of breaking bread together after fasting for the entire day. For the little me, Ramzan was more of eating than the abstinence that is the tenet.
My earliest memories are of the muezzin pounding doors and waking us up around 3.30am —a ritual so eerie that I still get goosebumps thinking about it.
Soon however, it was time for ‘sehri’—eating before sunrise—where the family sat along the open kitchen corridor, with Dadi serving parathas with shami kebabs, nihari, haleem, and dhukis (rice cakes) with paya. The smell and taste of the succulent paya overwhelms my olfactory glands—the paya cooked overnight on the chulha. Had with birista onions, coriander leaves and a squeeze of lemon, this dish and its fragrance defined my childhood. Sometimes Dadi made kosha gosht—the meat so intense in colour, that I wondered if she had poured red ink into it.
The Iftar was no less lavish with dates, juliennes of ginger, black chana with onions and tomatoes, phuluri (flat daal pakoras), pyenaji (pakoras), beguni (battered and deep-fried eggplant), ghugni (round chanas with cubed potatoes), and fruits, washed down with orange squash or home-made lemonade—all eaten around a dastarkhan. If Ma returned early from work, she took over the cooking and gave it her own special touch—peas kachori, malpuas, halwas, payesh (Bengali rice pudding), phirni, and gulab-jamuns. Sometimes my Phuphus (aunts) joined us—each bringing their own speciality of home-made amriti—the size of pinwheels—aloo-kabli (chaat) and rosogollas.
You would think, with all this, there would be no space for dinner but not at the Begg household—no siree, no! For my aunts this was the opportunity to showcase their cooking prowess and most days dinners would be chaap, rezala or meat curries with roomali or dosti rotis, or macher kalia—all Bengali delicacies.
Within a week of this heavy food Ma—brought up in a Hindu Brahmin household—would revert to vegetarian dinners for us. So, while the rest of the family had meat-laden dinners, Ma cooked us a light raw-banana stew and a bottle gourd sabzi—the staple for chronically upset stomach Bengalis. Some days we had masala dosas from Bharat Coffee House, chowmein from John’s, or Mughlai porota from Valley View—the ‘it’ places in town.
I was about 10 when I kept my first roza and it wasn’t so much the hunger but the thirst that did me in. But Ma was so happy that she bought me a Sound of Music dress—the kind Julie Andrews wore on the poster.
What are festivals without new clothes? And sometime mid-way through Ramzan, Ma would take us shopping. While I had my pick of shararas, gararas, lungis and tops, my brother—a Rajesh Khanna fan—found solace in his guru-shirts. Next stop, the footwear store, which had the most beautiful wedges, platforms and block heels—carefully chosen to match my clothes.
The last day of Ramzan—chaand raat—was as exciting a day for us. The girls would sit around the huge courtyard to apply mehendi on our hands—blobs of freshly ground leaves. Sometimes Dadi in her excitement to make designs would drop hot wax into our palms and rub the mehendi on top of it to make flowers with leaves. I can still feel the sting and heat of the wax now.
In the evening we youngsters would leave our unfinished Iftar and run up to the terrace to sight the ever-elusive moon—signalling Eid the next day. It didn’t matter that it was the slimmest of crescent; it was enough that someone had sighted it and we would celebrate Eid the next day.
On Eid day we were ready in our new clothes since early morning, impatient to rush to the Eidgah. Nearly 40 of our relatives would gather at our house and we would excitedly board our very own bus to travel only 3 kilometres to the Eidgah—a ritual I miss so much.
For as long as I remember, we had Eid lunch at Afzal chachaji’s house, which Tabassum chachi cooked so lovingly. The menu was the same every year—biryani, kebabs, a gosht curry—swimming in oil but oh-so-delicious—sewai and ended with mattha. By evening, we were exhausted—satiated with the most amazing food—and sad that the day had ended so quickly.
It’s been more than 40 years since I left Asansol, and every year I yearn to go back to celebrate and recreate my childhood Ramzan. Over a period of time, I have tried to recreate Ma’s peas kachuri, phirni and malpua, and Dadi’s nihari and paya but somewhere something is lacking. Is it the touch, the love or the warmth with which these foods were created that’s missing? I will never know and will forever go back to my memories during this time in a faraway land that I have now made my home.
Saleha Singh is a Communications professional and freelance writer who loves to tell stories. Her passion, however, lies with discussing South Asian community issues, which she broadcasts from her bi-weekly webcast, Chai, Chat & Community. She is also on the Board of IndianCare and PeaceMeals – two NFPs – where she gives her time pro bono.