by Kaveri Ponnapa
March welcomed me back home from my travels with a cool, breezy –and I imagined –slightly distant and reproachful air for having gone away for such a long time. The couple of rain showers that greeted me soon disappeared. Now, clouds of dust rise up without any reason, and dried leaves swirl to the ground: “the hot summer rustles like a carnival outside my window”, in the words of one of my favourite poets. There’s a beauty to every season that I look forward to and enjoy, and the Indian summer creates so many different moods. The searing heat of the North Indian plains that I was once so familiar with brought the fragrance of vetiver –khas, from soaked mats that hung on the verandah, or backed huge coolers to bring down temperatures. Out in the garden, tuberoses saturated the air with their fragrance. It’s fascinating how every part of the country we lived in had its own version of a summer cooler. The classic summer drinks were Rooh Afza, with chilled water and cubes of ice, or nimbu pani, salty, sweet and thirst quenching. The elegant aam ka panna; and vetiver, the scent I associated with summer, turned up as a delicious, syrupy drink too. The summer days went on endlessly; we cherished the cool hours, using them carefully.
Here in Bangalore, the summers are tame compared with the ferocity of the northern plains. Still, in the evenings we sigh, and complain that the heat is unbearable. Neem flowers, pale and subtle, invisible in the darkness, float down from the trees, their scent everywhere, seductive, unforgettable, getting stronger with the night. During the day, I spend idle hours outdoors, taking advantage of the spreading shade of that friendly neem tree. The sun filters through the leaves, casting faint shadows on the table. Tiny, exquisitely scented blossoms fall with any breeze, tangling in your hair and showering the ground around you. There’s a summer drink on a tray at my elbow, an old Coorg favourite, a glass of kaipuli squash. It is sharp and sweet, with chilled water, ice cubes and a sprig of mint. A few months ago, I squeezed out a quantity of juice from a batch of bitter oranges that had arrived from Coorg. The pale yellow halves and startlingly sour juice might have made you wonder if this was the right kind of fruit to make into a drink. But the mixture of juice and sugar needs nothing more than a good soak in the sun to become a rich, concentrated squash in a few days, which can enjoyed for months.
Kaipuli squash is a warm, liquid gold in colour, and the fresh, vivid taste of the fruit comes through. It reminds me of Coorg with every sip, and the summers there. Everyone is well-stocked with locally made juices and squashes: orange, ginger-lime, nellikai (gooseberry), passion fruit and of course, kaipuli, concoctions they have been making for generations. We’re very fortunate to have such an abundance of fruits growing locally, especially the citrus variety, and kaipuli shows off its flavour in many ways. If there is no prepared squash, you just have to pluck a fruit off the tree, slice it in half, squeeze out the juice and stir in some sugar to make a cool, refreshing drink for those unexpected guests who always drop by in Coorg.
Summer in the hills is brief and intense. The higher peaks seem to retreat far away into a haze of cloud, distancing themselves from the heat, and the deafening creak of cicadas echoes everywhere. Small streams run dry, and you can sink ankle-deep into dust on un-tarred roads. Hillsides turn russet with their cover of dried bracken fern, and small fires spread easily. There’s an air of restless anticipation, and nights are oppressive. Shadows are sharp and deep. Walking out on work in the heat of the day always brings you to long corridors of trees that cover paths and the narrow lanes typical of Coorg –canopies that offer a world of luxurious shade, so cool that it’s like plunging into a pool of icy water. Here, you rest, and want to linger forever. Afternoons are meant for siestas, still and silent when the rise and fall of the chorus of cicadas pauses for a brief break. A walk around a coffee estate is hot, dusty work at this time of year, but there’s always a drink made from local fruit set out on the verandah to welcome you back. The house is always pleasantly dim inside.
I haven’t seen those hills in a while, and right now they seem very far away. But I have a bowl of fresh fruit and a glass of chilled kaipuli juice, and I’m thinking of the changes in seasons that bring different light, colours, scents, and tastes to our table. Imagine the monotony of one, single, temperate season –or even just one kind of summer. There’s a cool breeze blowing right now. The whisper of summer is all around, and I’m set to enjoy it.
Cook's Note : The sugar in the juice is an ant magnet, to do take care to protect the bowl from attacks. If you live in the heart of the city, or an area where air pollution is very high, it may not be a good idea to leave the bowl outdoors.
Image Credits: Nithin Sagi
All Food Styling: Kaveri Ponnapa
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