I wanted to make it a ritual for my R, just like my summer evenings and melon shorbets. So it was time to scrape the whole lemon for the rind, soak the right proportions of sea salt and sugar in a large jug, squeeze the lemons to their last lees – all the time carefully straining out the pips with my fingers ( a trick I learnt and expertised at an early age), stirring in the cubes of ice to cool the concoction. R, thrilled by the clinking ice cubes, wanted to stir in more, an eagerness so fresh that I wanted to play along, but from the fear of diluting the tangy, sweetness, I had to stop her . And now it was time to stir in the kaffir lime leaves (aptly called Gandharajin Bengali, meaning the king of flavours) and the lemon rind, for the ultimate citrus experience!
After I had handed out the glasses, I picked up R’s glass and mine and headed to the tiny 4×4 kotta stone sit out, right outside the french windows of the bedroom. The chiks swayed in the cool early spring breeze and I wanted to tell R a story of an evening of melon shorbet.
So there I sat in the ancestral courtyard of my grandfather’s house nestled in a blind alley in the heart of central Kolkata. I could smell her fragrant elaichi (green cardamom) breath as I sat snuggled up beside my Grandma on a cane mat spread out on the black and white marble floor with the kotta border. She was in her fine Tant saree with a cream body and an intricate red border, a custom, I presume, all grandmothers of my time and before followed wholeheartedly (taking to wearing white and red the moment they turned 40). The caged mainah was unusually chirpy today, the horde of cousins along with my sister cagey and restless to venture out to the stables at the end of our alley but detained till the sun had gone down, Ma and my other aunts fussing over some new recipes in the kitchen. But I didn’t want to bother with any of them today. Not today when I was awaiting one of my favourites, the melon shorbet.
Summer had just set in, Holi was just over, the courtyard had got it’s weekly wash. The otherwise hot and parched floor had soaked up all the water and as the cool early evening breeze rushed over it, it lifted the earthy fragrance stirring yearnings for some early showers.
“It is going to be a long and very hot summer this year, Anandabazar Patrika says so along with a met office report” I had heard Bhaiya tell Jethu over their rushed breakfast. “I’ll get Bel (wood-apple)today and prepare some belpanna (wood apple shorbet), it’s the best coolant that nature can provide to keep your body and mind cool from the inside.”
I wasn’t obviously interested in the bel panna. The idea of the thick, sticky, pungent cocktail of woodapple and other necessary evils sliding its way down my throat put me off so much that I felt a retching within me. I had to stop it somehow.
I remember spending the morning in agony, the afternoon in a restless frenzy and when the sun was tilting to the west, in a state of denial. Exactly at 4:00 in the afternoon my grandfather made his grand entry, back from his late afternoon stroll. This was a ritual that was typically followed by his invasion of the neighbourhood bazar and their evening fare. I was sure today being the belpanna evening, he must have visited his favourite fruit vendor, Mukunda for the season’s best. But when his hand emerged from his ever faithful jute bag, out came a musk melon instead of the much dreaded wood-apple. The constant drip from one of the corners also suggested the presence of a chunk of ice from the neighbourhood baraf kal (ice mills). Those were the days when common, middle class Bengali families did not need modern day luxuries like the refrigerators, tvs, mixers, washing machines (heard of but not in any “must have” wish list) . On a hot summer day one happily quenched thirst with water stored in large earthen pots and ice merrily procured from the neighbourhood ice mills. My heart skipped a beat!
To his dismay, “Mukunda had sold the dozen or so wood-apples he had got for the day, so I had to buy 2 kgs of musk melons! Anubouma (that’d be my mum) get them ready, peel and slice them along the ridges, soak the sugar along with some crushed ice . I’ll make some shorbet out of them for today, I have asked Mukunda to get some wood-apples for tomorrow.” That was the other ritual in our house, such delicacies would always be made, not under my grandfather’s supervision but by him, his way!
Didibhai fetched her tall gold-rimmed glasses that had come with a matching glass pitcher and the set made special appearances only for such family evenings when all gathered around it to share the “coolant” concocted by Bhaiya.
Two of the three melons, peeled and duly cut along the ridges, lay on a bronze platter. The sugar soaked in water along with crushed ice stood in the pitcher and some extra ice sat in a bowl beside the melon. By then all the kids, me included, hovered over this exhibition of fruit and wondered. My dad and uncles, washed fresh after a long, gruelling day, gathered round as well. Ma and the other aunts pottered around distributing steaming cups of tea and plates of their evening experiment. My grandma plonked herself on the mat again, this time with some sewing job she barely paid attention to. All this till Bhaiya descended from his first floor perch.
The giant, knuckled fingers wrinkled with seventy-three years deftly set to mash each slice of melon to perfection in a large, white and blue enamelled bowl (remains of “the military days of Kolkata”). Once done, Bhaiya added a liberal dosage of sugar to the mash and went off to wash off the pulp after a quick “let it soak and then strain it”. A “how much longer?” hung silently in the air as tea cups emptied with the snacks platters.
Finally, strained and blended to the icy cool water in the gold-rimmed pitcher, the shorbet had turned a baby pink and the fragrance was lifted by a quick breeze and spilled all over the courtyard. Added to it were a couple of drops of rose water and served in Didibhai’s tall glasses. The sugary cool rolling down my throat with the distinct aroma of melon and a hint of rose was heady. This , of course, wasn’t the first nor the last time I had melon shorbet but I remember it all, that and many more of my summer evenings of melon shorbet.