A thick layer of grease lined the jar, as pieces of sundried mango struggled for their rightful place in the midst of water strongly impregnated with salt, mustard seeds, and fenugreek seeds. A strong yet inviting smell wafted as I toyed with the lid.
I plunged a finger in the bright red pickle and fished for a piece of mango but in vain. I retreated my finger to lick its residue off. The tangy smell greeted me before my finger could touch my lips. I licked my finger greedily in one swift motion like a homeless man deprived of food for days at a stretch. It made me cherish every bit of the red greasy substance.
Each piece of the mango dipped in pickle transported me back to my childhood. Reminding me of my father combing my hair and plaiting it with red ribbons whose tassels would tease me. Sitting by the kitchen slab while my mother would tirelessly make perfectly shaped rotis. The jar of pickle would be placed inside the glass cabinet and would be a silent observer witnessing me turn into an adolescent and acquiring a new found love for pickle.
My taste buds grew rather fond of this relish consisting of dried up mangoes preserved in brine. It made my gastric juices crave for more. The pickle seemed to blend effortlessly with every dish. Rice flooded with spiced yellow lentils or toor daal is a staple in every Indian household. The simple act of putting a spoonful of pickle on the steel plate would turn the humble meal into an elaborate royal dish. It made the gulping down of vegetables like bottle gourd a pleasurable task. These flavors of the dish would be emphasized only when eating it with one’s raw hands instead of using tools such as spoons and forks to mediate between the food and your mouth.
Little did one know that the pickle was made in kitchens of ordinary women; women that were a part of the crowd. It turned into sacred spaces where they would throw together spices that would become the object of envy. Kitchens would be consumed with the stench of lime, mangoes, and an assortment of items to be turned into this savoury. It stood incomplete without the clatter of bangles along the edges of glass jars. Mornings would be brimming with activity like milk boiling on the stove, threatening to rise, and spill over the edge of the vessel. The afternoons would turn into a lazy stupor with minimal movement of the body and a casual whisk of the hand. As the day neared its end, the kitchen would be left in a near state of abandonment; a group of women giggling by their jars like houseflies buzzing around the last crumbs of cake.
These age old recipes would then be passed on from one generation to the other. It would often be kept away from the male gaze. Ironically, it was only with the touch of a menstruating female that the pickle would rot. This belief was ingrained in Indian households and did not discriminate between social strata and class.
One could still sight the rare shadow of a woman clad in chiffon saree peering from the walls of the kitchen. The shadows lingered. You can’t shut shadows out when they come to seek inside; can’t sweep them out with a broom, scrub them out with a brush, wipe them out with a mop. They always come on top. They would linger around the space, turning it sour, and curdling the limpid air.
Eyeing the plates laden with pickles being served to guests and males who played minimal role in the making of the pickle, women seemed to feed their hearts instead of their mouths simply by gorging on it with their eyes.
But sight is a ruthless censor, stiffens your throbbing nerves, strangles your resolution, stifles your inner cry.
Cover Image: nguyenhuynhmai