By Aparna Pallavi
“Abhi Kaise Dikhayenga? (How do I show you now?)” Budhia’s voice is tinged with annoyance, “We do not have dried and pounded mahua now.”
I know. April is mahua gathering season, not mahua eating season. This is the time when the challenge is to get as much mahua gathered, dried and stored as possible, and the finer jobs of drying it to a crispness and pounding it to separate the ‘sukli’ – the pistils of the mahua flower, and also mud and dirt sticking to the fleshy part of the flower – comes later, and the actual eating, even later – during the monsoons.
I am torn between two conflicting needs. In my years of working among them, I have learnt that forest dwelling tribals live their lives with the seasons – they dance when they dance, sing when they sing, and cook mahua when they do. And I have also developed a great respect for this lifestyle whose very rhythm has embedded in it the instinct to do the right thing at the right time effortlessly. I wish to respect this rhythm and not tamper with it. But I also know that I am travelling for three, maybe four months, and can’t be everywhere just at the right time and in the right season.
And I am here, in the farm hut of the Dikar family in village Kotha in the Melghat hills of Maharashtra for just two days, and I simply have to see the Guthru and Bhopa – the favourite mahua dishes of the Korkus here – cooked before I leave.
I make my choice in favour of the second imperative, and calling the Universe to back me up, I push. “I will pound some mahua if you tell me how – just enough to prepare a small amout.”
The three Dikar women, Budhia, Mirkay and Sangeeta – all old friends from previous visits and stays in their house – consider this for a while, and finally Mirkay, the eldest, takes a decision. “Sharada (her daughter) will show you tomorrow morning,” she says. I let out an audible sigh of relief.
Next morning, I take out some mahua from my own farm that I had packed for this trip, just in case, and put it out to dry. Ratnay Dokri Maay, the grandmother of the Dikar clan, fingers it approvingly. “Last year’s?” she hazards, correctly, “Very good. Well dried. You dried it? Good! Good!”
The praise puts heart into me. I am not a bad mahua manager afterall!
At 9 AM, eighteen-year-old Sharada takes the Mahua off the thatch roof of Sangita’s hut where I am staying, and spreads it out on the beaten and cow-dung plastered earth floor. With a wooden baton, she starts pounding it.
I have never seen mahua being pounded before, despite my years of work around forest foods. I hang around, taking pictures. After a while, Sharada offers, “Tu karta?” (Will you do it?). I take the baton and tap timidly at the dark brown flowers, afraid I might pulp them up.
Sharada sighs impatiently. “Oh just let me do it.” She takes the baton back and gives them a good whacking, and I notice they are none the worse for it. I recall what the doctor had told me about babies the day after my daughter was born, eighteen years back, “They are not that delicate.”
“They have to burst, you understand?” she remarks, guessing my thoughts, “So the sukli can fall. And when she gathers up the flowers, a thick layer of sukli is left on the ground.
Inside the dark hut, she starts the mahua boiling, and soon, the little enclosure is filled with the heady aroma. Then Sharada has to go down to the river to wash clothes, and I am left to look after the boiling pot.
Not knowing what else to do, I fuss around, adjusting the burning split logs under the pot, every few minutes, lifting the lid to check if it is done. Ratnaay Maay watches my performance silently from her perch in her grandson’s swing at the other end of the hut, in tranquil silence. Only, every time I lift the lid to check on the boiling flowers, she remarks coolly, “Abhi nahi hua.” (It is not done yet)
At the end of a full hour, the flowers are finally done to Ratnaay’s satisfaction, though vastly overcooked by my standards. She gets up and removes the logs from under the pot, and leaves it sitting on the glowering coals.
With Sharada gone and the mahua done, I am worried about dwindling batteries of my phone and laptop. The Dikar’s farm huts, where they have shifted for the harvest of their wheat and chana, does not have any electric connection. So I take my gadgets for charging to the nearby nature camp.
When I come back after two hours, Sharada gives me the surprising news that Ratnaay has already started off on the guthru. I stare at her in surprise. Since yesterday, she has been repeatedly turning down my request to cook, telling me she does now know how. I rush to the hut, hoping to take a few pictures of her working. But all I find is the large paraat (large tray)with guthru balls already made, a few bhopa moulded, and the rest of the dough formed into a neat slab, sitting in the ‘aada’ – the storage shelf just below the roof, and Ratnaay nowhere to be seen. I look closely at the dough, and can see fine shreds of mashed mahua in it.
When I ask old Sukram, Ratnaay’s husband, about her whereabouts, and he tells me she has crossed the river and gone to Harisaal to attend a wedding – she will not be back before evening.
Snorting in indignation at Ratnaay’s capriciousness, I take the paraat back to Sharada in Mirkay’s hut. Sharada has already started water boiling for cooking, but she wants my help on something else. She and her cousin Sunita have been shaping each other’s eyebrows with a shaving blade, and want me to improve on their handiwork to make the effect measure up to city beauty parlours.
I look at the blade in Sharada’s extended hand in rising alarm. I have always worn the eyebrows given me by God, because I am too chicken-hearted for the prospect of those delicate hairs being plucked. And I think the luxuriant bushiness of Sharada’s brows is so much more beautiful.
My confessions are received with disappointed equanimily. Sharada and Sunita get down to shaping the remaining dough into fine, cup-shaped bhopas. They take a portion of soft dough between the palms, mould it into a smooth ball and then with the help of a little dry flour, mould the cup shape.
It looks simple enough. But at my first attempt, Sunita points out a deep crack in the cup. “You have to smoothen the dough out well, or the bhopa will crack while boiling,” she laughs, her hands working in delicate patience even while she talks. I feel a faint shame at the nervous impatience of my urban hands.
By the time the bhopas are all neatly stacked one on top of the other, the water is heated just right – to the point when the first little swirl of steam starts rising off its surface. This delicate coordination of timing is so characteristic of tribal life – I have come across it again and again, and never been able to crack it.
The girls drop all the guthrus and bhopas into the water, and cover the saucepan with a plate. The water is level with the rim of the saucepan, but that is not apparently bothering them.
“I will clean some wheat now,” announces Sharada, signaling that there is a long time to go before the stuff is done.
These long, slow, relaxed cooking sessions send my urban blood racing with stress. I can never put something on the stove for half-an-hour and forget it.
But Sharada has already settled down with wheat and winnow, so I decide to use the time to practice my fledgling winnowing skills.
Soon, the water boils over and sizzles down into the flames of the wood stove. “Oh oh!” I scream, and rush to attend to it. Sharada follows my example and when I raise the lid, she draws off some of the doughy water with a plate and conserves it in a small pot. I would have liked to leave the pot open to prevent further spills, but Sharada firmly covers it up again.
One more time she allows me my fuss, and when it happens a third time, she tells me, “Just let it be. It is spilling because there is too much water.”
It is very difficult for me to watch the glutinous liquid spilling onto the stone, making a mess, and making the rim of the saucepan messy to the point of repulsiveness. Then I remember that an outdoor wood stove, unlike a gas stove, cannot be damaged by a mere flour-water spill. And that cleanliness means different things on a granite-covered gleaming cook top and a mud-plastered court-yard.
But the time the food is at last done – after many more sizzling spills that continue to set my teeth on edge – Sharada has already finished cleaning 10 kgs of wheat, and is in the last stages of dung-plastering the floor of the hut.
“It is done!” she exclaims sharply at one point, my cue to take the pot off the fire. At long last I can lift the lid and actually look at the contents. The water is reduced to half and thick with dough and the bhopas and guthrus are swollen larger. The cooked dough smell is soothing.
Sharada washes her hands and uses a long spoon to take the bhopas and guthrus out of the thick gravy-like liquid onto the paraat. She immediately serves me about eight guthrus and a large bhopa on a dish. Sakina, her younger sister, spreads a blanket for me to sit. “You sit and eat first.” Comes the command – loving but firm.
I know this is the honour – ‘maan’ of the guest. She is to be offered the first share of anything good, and these little girls know the motions just as well as their mother. I would have liked to eat with the rest of the family in the evening, but I can’t flout the decorum.
So I just insist that the four Dikar children who are around – Sakina, Kusuma, Vishal and Durga – take a guthru each out of my plate.
Then I bite into my first guthru. It tastes just like it looks – boiled dough with a gentle tinge of sweetness. Over years of eating among forest people, and thanks to my own experiments with raw food, my palate has been deaddicted enough to be able to appreciate this taste, but only just.
At first I wonder if this is how this food is supposed to taste. Maybe Ratnaay added more flour than needed, making the balls less sweet than they should be? But the children are all eating with every sign of enjoyment.
My mind is groping around for ideas to make this food ‘tastier’ by my standards. What about adding a little ghee to the dough? Or curd, maybe, to soften it? Maybe add spices and cook it in a spicy curry?
But this only brings home to me how addicted our urban taste-buds are to certain concepts of taste, concepts relying heavily on additives like fat, spices and other taste enhancers.
I look at Sakina’s face as she smilingly bites into a second guthru she has picked off my plate. I feel grateful that she felt it safe to do so.
And I watch carefully as she chews, masticates and swallows in contentment. Why am I not able to enjoy the taste as much as she does?
I remember Sharada had said that Guthru and Bhopa can be eaten with dal. I ask Sakina for a little dal to go with the bhopa, and immediately feel the relief and familiarity of the strong salt and lentil taste. Against this flavor, the next bite of bhopa makes more sense because I can feel its sweetness more strongly.
I know I will be eating more of this food with dinner when the rest of the family is back from the farm. I am now looking forward to it.