First Place in the 2022 Food-Writing Flash Contest
Selina stared at the jar of jujube achar basking in the sunlight, quietly fermenting. It had been five years since she last made achar with her ma, five years since her life was split with India’s partition.
Preparing achar of fruits was a constant of the Bengal golden summer. Selina made achar with Ma. Ma with her grandmother. It was a tradition as old as pickles.
Ma brought out her cast iron wok and asked Selina to arrange the pickle spices. Paach phoron, queen of Bengali spice mixes, was essential to any achar. “Achar without paach phoron is like tea without milk,” Ma would often say. Selina fetched tangy mustard, licorice-like fennel, black nigella, fenugreek that tasted like burnt sugar, and earthy cumin seeds to flavor achar.
Spicy and subtle aromas wafted through their kitchen as Ma dry-roasted the spices. Her great-grandmother’s mortar and pestle rested by her side. Selina felt her ancestors guiding her while pounding the roasted spices. Ma promised the family heirloom would be hers once she was married.
Ma doused the wok with pungent mustard oil that tickled Selina’s nostrils. She tempered it with dry red chilis and paach phoron. In went a kilogram of jujube, a summer treat. Rich, sticky jaggery gave the achar its deep hue. Selina watched the jaggery melt to the consistency of honey. She admired her mother meticulously stirring the dense mixture, sweat condensing on her forehead. She helped Ma fill each jar to the brim. They would bathe in sunlight for two weeks before Selina could get a taste. But Selina never got to taste the achar.
Selina was aware of the protests taking place across India—protests of freedom, she was told. People were tired of being looted, oppressed, colonized by the British Empire. Many would now remain a memory.
But she didn’t know lines were being drawn on their land. “Borders”—demarcating who belonged where.
And soon one day, her family was no longer welcome to their land that was as old as their 500-year-old bodhi tree.
Rootless, they carried a few essential belongings on their backs. She trailed behind Ma, Baba, and her older brother, Sajjad. Selina thought of the family heirloom they’d left behind. Who would lay claim to it?
Her ruminations were interrupted by fast-approaching screams. Men stomped towards them with blazing torches that lit up their hostile faces. Baba yanked her towards the paddy fields. They ran and ran, but the screams grew ominous. Ma disappeared into the crops, and Sajjad scrambled to save her.
Selina’s memories failed after this point.
Five years on, Selina was left with shrieks that had stolen her sleep. Baba tried to make a home in their new country, but what was home without Ma’s laughter, Sohel’s jokes, and their families’ memories?
With no photos and possessions, Selina knew only one way to carry Ma’s memory. Every sultry summer, she lovingly labored over jars of sweet and sour achar, just like Ma.