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A recipe to preserve

Sumana Roy | Updated on January 10, 2020 Published on January 10, 2020

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It is possible to imagine life and Indian culture as a pickle, one that has acquired taste and body through assimilation over time

From where I am, I can see nothing except a sense of winter — the five senses seem too luxurious; at this time the cold is the sixth sense, the only sense that feels relevant. Usually unwell at this time of the year, I spend most of my time in bed, waiting for light. And I often feel like a vegetable being pickled.

Pickles we associate with sourness. Saliva rushes out of the chambers inside our mouths at the mention of the word. For most of the last few weeks, almost willing myself to recover from what seems to be an accumulation of fatigue, not just of the cells in my body but of the world outside me — even as one grows alienated from and unsure of this world — I have thought of preservation. That has led me to think about the different processes of pickling, and how they must have emerged from the urge to prolong the sense of the kinder seasons. I am distracted by the forest fires in Australia — images of dead animals and trees do not let me sleep. I wake up in the middle of the night feeling the taste of death in my mouth. I cannot exactly say whether it is the dead I feel inside my mouth or the taste of an impending death. Last night, for the couple of hours I slept, I felt haunted by the bleeding face of Aishe Ghosh, president of Jawaharlal Nehru University students’ union. It is perhaps wrong to waste column space talking about one’s nightmares, and I have tried to resist bringing her here, but it would be emotionally dishonest not to do so. All through the night I saw the girl’s bleeding face against the background of the burning forests in faraway Australia.

Fire and blood are mostly unnecessary to the process of pickling, and yet, for reasons one cannot explain rationally, they have kept coming back to me as I have watched cauliflower florets on the window sill trapping light and the heat of spices. Unable to think of anything much except physical violence in the last month — bleeding wounds, broken noses, blood streaming from heads, the helplessness of hands flailing for support — the mind misses an anchor. For most of my life, though I have realised it only recently, that anchor has been the elements: Water, earth, air, fire. The air in Delhi makes the sky look sick, the water is contaminated by factories, the soil is mostly invisible except in parks, and in the last couple of months, I’ve seen not fire but its by-product ash, from crop burning. When I leave the NCR to come home to my small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal, the character of elements no longer differs very much, except by a small degree.

To escape from blood, again not quite a conscious decision, I go to those who do not have blood: Plants. I chance upon a video of an American farming family in Alabama pickling their fall harvest of vegetables and fruits to last them through long winter months. At first the sight calms me — the images of human hands interacting with soil has such natural grace that I sometimes find my eyes closing from the quiet. But soon after there is dismemberment — cucumbers and radishes and carrots and cabbages are cut or shredded before being caged in jars full of liquid that will keep them alive.

I have begun to think of life as pickling — a process of preservation, but life is also preservative itself. The primary ingredient in this is time. For, pickling is not cooking — one cannot try to defeat time by revving up the fire. There’s a line in a Theodore Roethke poem that makes that clear: ‘Eyes rimmed with pickle dust’ (Pickle Belt). Like dust, pickling takes time. To try and do that quicker will cause rubble, not the sophistication of dust — rubble is, we don’t need reminding, produced by violence. I think of Indian culture as a kind of pickle that has acquired taste and body and delight over time. It has learnt to preserve itself — like life. Like the human heart, which can accommodate more than it thinks it can — the living and the dead, the continents and the seas — the idea of India was expansive: It derived from the philosophy of accretion, not subtraction. Like plants which took only what — and how much — it needed from the elements, Indian culture derived its unique texture from degrees of assimilation, from pickling. The violence of the new regime comes from its urgent need to subtract — Muslims, and those it wants to reject to achieve its absurd ambition of the pure, the Hindu rashtra. Anyone who’s savoured a pickle knows that it derives its taste from being impure, from having lived in many neighbourhoods inside a jar.

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Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became A Tree

Published on January 10, 2020
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