Recreating the Magic of Makar Sankranti For My Daughter
A mother reminisces about Sankranti celebrations as a child and tries to hold on to the tradition for her daughter.
Come January, the festive spirit fills the air in Bangalore. The familiar smell of avarekai (hyacinth beans), known to Kannadigas as sogadu, is everywhere, and the sight of all the ingredients that make up the ellu-bella mixture (a mix of diced jaggery, coconut, roasted chana, til and groundnuts) in the grocery stores are a delight to behold. Heaps of sugarcane beckon from the wayside markets, where hawkers watch over mountains of ash gourd, Indian jujube, mango fronds and coconuts.
All this wasn’t as much of a symbol of tradition to me as a child, as it is today. Sankranti, or the harvest festival, was always a big deal in my family as it ushered in the new year and marked the beginning of the festival calendar for the rest of the year.
Sepia-Tinted Memories of Childhood
Preparations would begin a month before, as my Mother hulled the roasted groundnuts and their papery skins swirled around me like fairy dust, she chopped the de-skinned dried coconuts into squares, the jaggery cubes into mini-cubes, and threw in some colour-coated sugar balls for good measure. She’d melt and strain sugar through the finest muslin cloth and the family would fight over who got to eat the sticky “dirt”, which tasted like khoa as we watched her pour the melted sugar into moulds to make ducks and deer, bananas and pineapples.
The evening before Sankranti, the front yard would be swept and washed, then decorated with elaborate and intricate Rangoli designs, depicting motifs of the harvest season like pots (filled with festive delicacies), sugarcane plants and the sun. Mango fronds would be hung on a string above the front door, interspersed with flower garlands.
The morning would begin with a Puja and the sounding of the sacred bell. The kitchen would suddenly come alive with action as milk boiled until it was twice as thick, rice and moong dal came together in distinct sweet and savoury varieties spelling Pongal, puffy, ghee-roasted raisins deflated gradually once the heat was off, and pods of cardamom were ground to a fine powder. Coconut gravies simmered to a perfect finish, bearing the enticing smell of pumpkin and avarekai while the hing-laced rasam boiled until the redness of the masala turned a noticeable, tamarindy brick-colour, calling out to be sampled.
After the festive lunch and a much-deserved siesta, the evening brought its own demands and charms. We’d be sent off to the neighbouring houses in our finest new attire with trays bearing gift packs of the ellu-bella mixture, fruits, and sugarcane.
Looking back, I feel like it was our own version of Halloween as we hauled back our own loot from the neighbours and friends we visited. We’d scurry to the terrace and bite right into the sugarcane, sucking the sweet juice until the fibrous mass in our mouths felt like clumps of sawdust. We’d follow it up with the sugar figurines, and the ellu-bella and when the sugar rush had got the better of us, pop the jujubes in our mouths for some sourness. We’d then spit out the seeds on newspaper sheets, diligently roll them up and dispose of them.
Recreating the Magic for My Daughter
Years of this ritual had primed me well enough as I traveled the world and took its essence with me. In America, I’d take my daughter to a couple of friends’ houses to deliver the ellu-bella gift packs, sometimes procured from the Indian store or sometimes put hurriedly together by making do with jaggery powder and coconut slices – both readily available at the grocer’s, and Planter’s peanuts and cupcake sprinkles from Target. There was no sugarcane and no moulds in which to make the figurines so we substituted with candy or marzipan. There were no jujubes, so we packed a bunch of blueberries in little Ziplocs instead. I am not sure how much of this registered in my daughter’s mind as a cultural exercise, but she was happy to share and bring back goodies, even if what she got in return was something entirely different from the contents in our gift packs – there’d be a fruit, Hershey’s kisses and in some cases, packets of bindi and bangles.
We persisted with this ritual, turned on its Indian head, until it started to resemble an American celebration to some extent, and yet never confused it with the trick-or-treating we embarked on during Halloween. We moved back to India a few years ago, and I started re-creating my Mother’s magic in my own little way. We are on the nose with most of everything: right from the Rangoli to the mango fronds, the festive meal platter (we even use millets in our Pongal, for a healthier approach to eating) and the ellu-bella platter. But the sweet sogadu of the avarekai has vanished like a soapy bubble and everything is embellished beyond recognition. There are orange cows and green elephants in the sugar figurine lots, earthenware pots painted with colourful vines in which to take the ellu-bella mixture – now made and sold by condiment stores with psychedelic, spiky sugar balls.
Mother’s soft humming as she undertook the festive tasks, and the functioning of every other assigned duty like clockwork as members of the family and community came together are locked in sepia-tinted pictures of Sankranti’s past. My daughter’s memories will possibly be in a scroll of pictures on a cellphone and in the aftertaste of the overload of coloured sugar. But the show must go on and so it shall, even if the commercialisation of everything is simply scoring big on manufacturing consent and a fleeting sense of happiness.
(We Indians have much to talk about these days. But what would you tell India if you had the chance? Pick up the phone and write or record your Letter To India. Don’t be silent, tell her how you feel. Mail us your letter at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll make sure India gets your message.)
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