Sharat Hemanta Autumn

Sharat – Hemanta – Autumn :-

As an old Bengali proverb says that if the Kash has started flowering, you know that rains are over and the autumn has begun. More than spring, it is this season, compounded of early autumn or Sharat and late autumn or Hemanta, is a time of hope. One more monsoon has been lived through. One morning harvest awaits the grower of rice. In the countryside the white, broom like kash flowers grow besides the ponds and rivers mirroring blue skies with fleecy white clouds.

It’s the season of festivity. First too come is Lord Biswakarma (god of tools) in which day fire is not lighted in any household. So, all the foods are cooked a day prior and hard. Next, to come is goddess Durga – goddess of deliverance. Daughter of Himalayas, she symbolizes the triumph of good over bad. The day of astami is purely vegetarian, whereby for lunch we have khichuri, with papors and pickles, and at dinner after spending the whole evening Pandal hopping, there would be round golden fried luchis, puffed up like a balloon. However, if a lot of fat is observed during the process of making the dough, the bread instead of becoming puffy becomes flaky and is known as khasta luchi. Though luchis, can be eaten with anything, the two classical vegetarian dishes associated with this ceremonial occasion; a potato dish called alur dam, and a dal made with yellow splitpeas and tiny pieces of coconut. Alur dam to Bengali means a dish of potatoes, usually whole or quartered, cooked with a thick spicy sauce. It is usually eaten with luchis or wheat-flour chapatis, but not rice. And the dessert course being kheer (simply reduced milk) or payeesh (rice cooked in milk and cardamoms flavour). Navami, being the last day of Durga’s stay, is gastronomically opposite of Ashtami, meat eating is the order of the day, but without any onion or garlic. And on the evening of Bijoya Dashami, the images in the community pandals are loaded on to trucks and taken to the nearest river, the Hooghly in Calcutta, for the final site of bhashan – throwing them into water. It is then in the wake of departed Goddess, that the most beautiful aspect of Bijoya Dashami comes discarding all ill-feelings of hostility, anger and enimity. Within the family the younger people touch their elders’ feet (pranom) and receive their blessings, while contemporaries embrace each other with good wishes. As the evening deepens, relative's friends and neighbours drop in to convey their Bijoya greetings. They are offered sweets, which cannot be refused and even the diabetics put fragement into their mouth to honour the custom. The most commonest sweet is the sandesh, because it is dry and easy to carry. But there is nothing to stop you from bringing an earthen pot of rosogollasswimming in syrup, or even like rajbhog or pantua. Next comes Lakshmi Puja (goddess of rice) and then the Kali Puja.

By the end of the month of Kartik (October), urban Bengalis resume there normal pattern of life in school, college and offices. But in rural Bengal this is a time of great expectation. For the following month, Agrahayan (November), is also the time to harvest the rice that gave the region its soubriquet, ‘Golden Bengal’ (Sonar Bangla). The name itself, Agrahayan, is compounded of two words – agra (best or foremost) and hayan (unhusked rice).

In the countryside, Agrahayan is full time of hard work outdoors. In good years, when the monsoon has been just right, the fields are full of the standing rice crops that needs to be harvested and brought home. Under the bearable autumn sun, the peasants cut the rice with their sickles and tie it in golden bunches to be transported by bullock carts. Slowly, as the days progress, the once golden fields become stretches of shebbles, the dead remnants of the plant being later gathered for animal feed and supplementary fuel. In the evenings, as the first chill of oncoming winter is felt, some of the rice straw is used for small fires in front of which people can sit and warm themselves. Once the rice has been harvested and stored in woven-straw, covered bins, the work of threshing, husking and milling begins. Once the rice has been harvested and stored in woven-straw covered bins, the work of threshing, husking and milling begins.

In the olden days, before mills or any kind of technology, it was the women who did the backbreaking job of husking the rice. The tradition Bengali instrument of taking the husk off the rice is called dhenki, a long wooden board mounted on a short pedestal, in the middle, much like a sea-saw. One end of the board has a short pestle-like attachment ground where the unhusked rice is kept. It requires two women to handle a dhenki. One stands near the end without the pestle and presses it down with her foot. As soon as she releases her foot, the board dips down to the other end, the pestle hitting the rice with force, thus separating the husk from the grain. As she press with her foot and lifts the board from the rice, then other woman turns the rice over with her hand, so that all the grains can be hit evenly. It is an infinitely time-consuming process, and is no longer viable. But, some food aficionados claim that rice husked by a dhenkis far superior in taste to rice processed in a mill. This may be based on the fact that the dhenki always leaves some of the inner husk on the grain, whether parboiled or atap, thus making it more nutritious.

Once the rice has been harvested, rural Bengal propitiates the gods for their bounty through the joyful festival of nabanno' which literally means 'new rice'. An offering to god of milk, gur, pieces of sugar cane, bananas and above all the new rice.

Puja holidays are also the time for picnics. When, the weather is very pleasant, gentle cool breeze blowing and the sun shinning with the utmost modest, any outing besides running streams, in dak bungalows or in the mangrove forests, seems to be an ideal destination. And despite the presence of driving cars, the best part of this journey usually consisted of opening up your ‘tiffin carrier’ and consuming the luchis, alur dam, dry curried meat and the mistis brought from home. Added to it, the tranquil fullness, of nature in the autumn also imbues the water of Bengal and people can sometimes indulge themselves with amateur fishing, and spending contemplative afternoons with bait and live.

Bori making is another way of living exclusively feminine art, during the months of autumn. As with all art, the boris reflected the hand that made them. The consistency of the dal, the degree of spicing and the intensity of whipping the paste before making the pellets, all varied from woman to woman. Kalaidal (urad dal) for instance, is used to make variety called phulboris, which are feather light and melt in the mouth once fried in oil.

And with the chilly winter ahead, everybody quite unwillingly let the autumn pass by and wait for the advent of sheet – winter.