Winter is different for each of us! The churning continues… sometimes frothy, sometimes dark, bubbling and boiling, slowly, quietly.
Winter has a smell, especially when it leaves. It is pungent initially and then at the parting time develops into a heady fragrance like the thin sugarcane juice which when boiled slowly turns into the thick syrupy jaggery.
Round and round goes the wooden ladle in the rusty rugged square, deep enough to hold the jaggery for half the village. Froth forms and accumulates at the sides of the darkened syrup as it bubbles slowly in the fire. The same white froth which Manoda has at the corners of her lips. When she speaks they keep building at the sides, a tiny spot slowly consuming the whole attention. It is not repulsive but annoying, I explain it to myself. The syrup agrees unanimously and it boils a bit more in distaste. Manoda hardly cares. She speaks mostly to herself all the while, how the last night’s chill soaked into her blanket and the cotton comforter, as lumpy and old as her granny’s breasts were, not enough for three.
Goes the wooden ladle and the syrup thickens to form more froth at the sides. Her shoulder muscles, dark, lean and tough, glisten with sweat loaded with her own salt, unlike the sweet syrup she churns. They show up on her forehead, tiny droplets of monsoon clouding in a chilly winter afternoon.
‘Churning cane juice is a woman’s job!’
Manoda tells me. There is enough white foam at the side of her lips to make me feel uncomfortable. I look down in guilt. My big toes try to act friendly with each other every time I am in an unsure state. They poke each other trying to make fun of me. Disgusted with them I choose to look up at Manoda. But she has a short attention span and by the time I am about to come up with a response to ‘woman power’, she has drifted to another different topic altogether. She speaks but to herself now, how the man at her house can’t even milk the cow, forget about boiling without spilling. Her younger one, a month or two old, stirs and cries in hunger probably from the hammock, made from her old ‘saree’. Maybe the word milk has a magical power over the breast-fed ones.
Manoda completely ignores the complaining animated form hanging in the shade a little bit away.
The udders need to be aimed at the bucket before milking but who will teach that to my bull, she hisses underneath her breath.
I have seen the white liquid shooting in the bucket when they milk our ‘Kali’ right before evening. A froth forms on the top of the accumulation like Manoda’s words. A white frothy layer which has the same smell as Kali’s little four legged brat. Somewhere they burn the hay to beat the chill and the evening with its smoky grey smell burns deep down in the nostrils. Every extra word she utters leads a bit more of froth, just like every squeeze and pull of the udder.
The child whimpers. A cold tired groaning sound. This time Manoda looks at him, who appears to be a bit quieter in the hammock. She stops stirring and wipes her hands quickly on the front of her cloth and drags herself to the child. Every mother, just like Kali, has her own smell. The little one gets impatient.
I turn my attention to the dark syrupy sticky fluid. The ladle looks bored as it rests at the side of the square. I steal a quick glance at Manoda underneath the tree, and softly touch the edge of the ladle where the jaggery is glued. Hot and sticky it burns the tip of my finger but I have to lick the forbidden juice before she returns. Still thin and less dense, it smells and tastes like the parting winter, mild and sweet. The white froth waits at the edge of the square which Manoda will carefully pick up with her ladle and dispose in the earthen pot kept below at the ground. They are the excess, the unnecessary, the waste. Just like Manoda’s words, they float and wait for her to return to be trashed.
I quietly try to move the wooden stick in the dense fluid and realize a ‘woman’s job’ is quite tough. The fluid, however tempting and easy, is quite stubborn to manage and threatening when it boils wildly. I step back a bit from the heat, and more from respect.
I look back at the captain of the ship, alone and lonely sitting under the tree cradling and aiming her baby’s head right and with every passing minute white froth accumulates at the sides of her lips. She resembles the rugged square in my front which holds the sap slowly boiling to the right sweetness in the heat to become the treat for half the village.
Winter is different for each of us and while I snug the wrapper tightly around for warmth, Manoda wipes the sweat that drips at the side of her brows only to drop in the sweet syrup to add the pinch of salt that was missing in the making.
(Artwork: Piu Mahapatra)
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