Fragrant connections


One of my dear friends has invited me over to to her house to celebrate Sankranti, the Indian harvest festival. As part of the rituals, my friend dabs a little perfume on the back of my palms. The perfume is of the champak flower. I inhale deeply, the perfume is fresh and fragrant.

The fragrance transports me to my husband’s childhood home, where his parents had planted two champak trees, when they started construction of their home after marriage. The trees are more than fifty years old now, and form a fragrant archway at the entrance to our home. Both trees are still flowering.

When he was still with us, it was my dad-in-law’s job to collect the champak flowers from both trees. Since the trees straddle three floors, one has to go up to the terrace on the third floor to pick the flowers. A specially designed long stick, with a small hook at one end, was the tool of choice to gently nudge the fragrant flowers from their branches. The flowers were collected in an orange bag (a wire bag made at home by my husband’s mom). The beautiful creamy yellow of the champak flowers beautifully contrasted with the orange of the bag. Once he was done, my dad-in-law would leave it in the living room. My mom-in-law would retain a few flowers for herself, to offer at the altar during prayers. The rest were for neighbours, who would drop-in at various times to take the champak flowers. Some would call from the gate, and my mom-in-law would pass it to them after a quick chit chat. Some neighbours would come home and stay for a cup of coffee and exchange local news.

By noon, the orange bag would be empty and go back to its rack in the store room, till the next time. In the evenings, when the sun would go down in the sky, and a gentle, cool breeze would blow, the delightful and invigorating fragrance of the champak flowers would waft in the air. We would usually stand at the entrance and close our eyes in bliss.

All the nostalgic memories come back to me now, as I bid bye to my friend and thank her for her hospitality. Beautiful champak flowers, fragrant memories and deep friendships. I sigh in pure contentment.

Celebrating Pongal


Our home is usually bathed in sunlight in the afternoons, from 2 pm to around 6 pm. However, come January and we receive sunlight for longer, till about 7 pm in the evening. From January, the sun’s light is like molten gold, lighting up our home and raising our spirits.

Barely two weeks after we ring in the new year, it is time to celebrate the festival of ‘Pongal’. This festival is quite significant for many reasons.  The festival is also known by the name of Makar Sankranti, which signifies the day each year, on which the sun enters the zodiac of Capricorn, and transitions from the southern hemisphere to the northern hemisphere.

This is also the harvest festival in India, when farmers harvest rice and sugarcane, and people express their gratitude to the Sun, to farmers  and to cattle, who are all very important members in the value chain that brings food to every home.

In the Tamil language, the word Pongal, in addition to being the name of the festival, also refers to the name of a South Indian delicacy (both salt and sweet), and also refers to the act of milk ‘bubbling over’.

At home, just like we do every year, I mount two bronze pots on the gas stove; pots that were given to me by my mother, when I got married.

I tie baby turmeric and ginger plants around the neck of each pot. I decorate the pots with rice flour.

I decorate my foyer with a traditional rice kolam, making drawings of pots, sugarcane and the rangoli.

I get started with the cooking of both the sweet and salt varieties of Pongal. The smell of jaggery, ghee and milk waft around the kitchen.

When the milk starts boiling over, I call my husband and kids. We all shout, “Pongalo Pongal”. We wish each other and all our friends prosperity and happiness.

We sit down to a yummy breakfast, and wash it down with filter coffee. 
My children participate with gusto. Hopefully, they will remember the aroma of pongal and retain these memories, and carry forward our age-old traditions with their children.