I once spent twelve months looking at a Neem tree, or Neem gaach, as we call it in Bengali. I was six then, and Ma and I were spending a year in my grandparent's house in Assam. They lived in a city called Tezpur, which to me felt like a sleepy little village after the fullness of Calcutta. There, looking at a Neem tree for hours on end seemed as good a thing to do as any. The Neem tree lived in my grandparents' house, just outside my bedroom window, and in that year which passed slowly like years do in small towns, the Neem tree became my friend. I'd been told by wise books of Bengali lore that Neem trees were home to ghosts, but even as a six-year-old, I knew there were no dead souls sitting in my tree swinging their cold, rubbery legs; though sometimes I wished there were.
The house started where the roots of the Neem tree ended, and then spilled and scattered, like rain on a tin roof, in all directions. The main house had the drawing room, the bedrooms and a puja room filled with a gaggle of Gods. From here, an open corridor led to the dining house, which had the dining room with its long wooden table, a large pantry with jars of pickles and another open corridor that took you into the kitchen and vegetable patch. These separate buildings didn't feel separate at all; they were connected by gardens and tiled courtyards that stitched them up like a patterned, patchwork quilt.
On the left of the main house was our cook Ramlal's cottage, and behind the cottage was the mango tree. In the summer, the tree filled with sweet mangoes and wily monkeys. The monkeys fought and ate and threw mangoes at each other, but even after they were done, there were more mangoes than we could eat. Ramlal and his cronies would climb the tree, and in a few hours a mountain of mangoes would collect in the corner of the dining room. For months, the house would smell sweet and sticky, and the monkeys would come and go as if they were house guests instead of petty thieves.
Apart from the Neem tree, and various snails and butterflies, my main companion in the house was Dadua, my grandfather. He was a very quiet man, but even through his silence, I heard his love louder that any other sound in the house. My day always started with him holding my hand and taking me for a morning walk through mist and fog, before Ma woke up. We would walk in comfortable silence - he tall and straight, with his high forehead and shot of hair as white as his dhoti, and me ending at his knees with a head full of curly, wild hair and curly, wild thoughts. We stopped now and then to pick yellow funnel-shaped flowers called Allamandas for me to wear on my fingers like little yellow hats.
Didun, my Grandmother, on the other hand, did not bother with such silences. She was a woman with a strong personality, and stronger opinions. All morning, she would bustle around the house, from kitchen to garden to pantry, sending the servants scampering in all directions. By midday, she would settle in the Puja room where her Gods demanded uninterrupted attention; there, she would spend many hours, bathing the Gods, changing their embroidered dresses, giving them food and flowers. Her practical nature and political views stayed parked while she prayed. The only time I managed to break up her Puja was when I borrowed a garland of flowers from her Puja room and put it around a framed photograph of my mother smiling in her graduation cap and lit an incense in front of it.
My memories of that year in Tezpur are intrinsically attached to smells. The smell of flowers and insence from the Puja room, the smell of Joha rice from the dining table, the smell of mist and Allamanda flowers, of over-sweet mangoes, of bitter Neem leaves, of the Bihari food that Ramlal cooked for himself in his cottage every evening. When I think of Ma in the house in Tezpur, I can smell books; her bedroom was a library, unchanged from her college days, with shelves of books from floor to ceiling, and in one corner, a gramophone and a stack of vinyls. When I think of Dadua, I smell soap and coconut oil and patience. When I think of Didun, I smell starched sarees and her Yardley talcum powder. And the blood-red Hibicus she would pluck, for her Puja, from a caterpillar-ridden tree. If your hand ever brushed against a caterpillar, its prickles made your skin puff up in raw, red welts, which burned and itched all day long.
I can also smell Didun's pickles. For when Didun wasn't praying, she was pickling. There were jars and jars of pickles in the pantry - mango and lime and tamarind and koromcha - huge ceramic jars, or boyom, which would be sunned in the morning, and brought back to the cool darkness of the pantry when the sun set. I would steal bits of mango and koromcha out of their jars when they stood in the sun; the shelves in the pantry were too high for me to reach.
With age though, I lost my taste for pickles. Pickles are meant to be stolen from jars; by little fingers, by conspiracy, on sneaky feet. They're never as good when you can reach the shelves and need no permission. But yesterday, for the first time, I put lemons into a jar like Didun used to. No, they weren't for a pickle; I was making preserved lemons. But the smell of the lemon and salt and juice made my jaw cramp and brought back memories of Didun and her pickle-pantry.
And strangely enough, it comes at a time when the house is about to become a ghost, a dead old soul. After Didun and Dadua passed away, the house was home to my Chotomama, my mother's younger brother, and his family. But with them moving to Calcutta, the house is being sold off. By next year, it'll have been razed to the ground along with all its echoes; I don't think old sounds die - a laugh, a conversation, a glass breaking - they just keep bouncing off walls, their echoes growing dimmer till our ears can hear them no longer. What will happen to my Neem tree? I hope they keep him, so old ghosts can sit and swing their legs.
There are a few things you can still preserve, and one such wonderful thing to keep in your pantry is preserved lemons. Though they're most popular in Moroccan cooking, they can be used in anything - salads, dips, an Indian dal. Once my jar is ready, there will be recipes to share.
2-3 lemons, juiced
Coarse salt (I used a mix of sea salt and plain coarse salt)
Peppercorns (mine were pink)
2 dried chillies
Wash and scrub lemons. Take each and cut lengthwise in an X shape stopping about an inch from the bottom so they remain attached. Pack salt into the cuts; be generous - a tbs of salt for each lemon.
Take a clean jar with a tight lid and cover its base with salt. Put salt-packed lemons in the jar, and squish them in so their juices start to flow. Add the rest of the ingredients.
Press lemons firmly once more; they should now be covered with juice. Top up with more salt, cover jar with cloth, keep overnight. Next day, push the lemons down some more, put the lid on and keep.
After a month, the lemons should be soft and ready to throw into tagines, salads, dips and anything else you fancy. Keep the lemons in the fridge for up to 6 months once you've open the jar.