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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Warm Sweet Flashbacks

It's a typical Karachi winter night with just a slight chill in the air and the lights go out. The neighborhood is dipped in darkness during another power loadshedding planned by the city. At this time, another far away part of the city is washed in lights after their own few hours spent without power.

This is the time the neighborhood buzzes the most. The TV sets are off, the kids cannot do their homework anymore and the best thing to do is to hang out in the gardens, courtyards or verandahs of the houses. Each family probably has the same impromptu set up as we did in our home: chairs and tea tables are brought out and set up in a circle. The parents chat with each other and with the older children, while the younger kids run around in and out of the homes finding their pals in the dark.

This one of the fondest memories I have treasured from my home in Karachi, Pakistan. Long before the terrorism started, we'd never heard of shoot outs and the only gun I'd ever seen was a BB gun that we shot the feral rats with. Late into the night, or early hours of the morning depending on whether it was a weeknight or not, the children would run without fear as far as several blocks away from homebase.

If there was one thing that was successful in collecting all the AWOL children, it was the mong-phali waala, the peanut-seller. In pitch darkness, we'd hear his copper bell chiming, as he'd roll a rickity rectangular rairi , a largish flat bed cart, piled high with roasting peanuts and myriad sweets into the street.

Long before you hear the bell chiming, a few seconds before you can see the halo of lantern light near the corner at the end of the street, you can smell the fresh roasting peanuts. Our sudden calls to Abbu, Baba, Daddy, Ammi, Mom or mama for money are drowned by the mong-phali waala's now loudly chiming bell.

The women shout out their own requests "Aik rupay ki revri bhi lena!" "Mere liye chilli hui mong-phali!" as we sprint to the mong-phali waala, trying to get there before others and beat the crowd. Washed by the yellow light of the lantern, warmed by the slow roaster sitting on the rairi, you see all your pals waving money and being rewarded with steaming packets of peanuts, roasted corn or digging in immediately in the cones of candy being handed out. One of them, my favorite and that is all I'm here for. Gijjik! I may mix it with my sister's shelled peanuts order, and I know she won't want any of my Gijjik. Most of it ends up on the eater's clothes and hands, so kids are usually the only ones who truly appreciate the fluffy, flossy goodness.

Years later, having married into a new culture, I am pleasantly taken back to my childhood whenever I see Pismaniye, or Pashmak as the Iranians call it. A desi version of cotton candy, before machines started spinning colored bits of sugar into a cloud, we had Gijjik. Pulled sugar, often spikey where the sugar strands crystallized too much, was still a pleasure to pull with your fingers and carefully place in the mouth trying not to lose the powdery bits too much.

Pismaniye is the grown-up version of Gijjik! Sprinkled with pistachio powder, the pulled sugar is softer and finer than I remember. It's a light delicate taste that melts in your mouth almost as soon as it appears. Also known as Dragon's Beard to the Chinese, it is perhaps one of the most tangible, most available treasure keeper of memories most fond to me.

I've been having pismaniye on special occassions when we find it in a store and I wrote this for my friends and family to understand where my obsession for this otherwise ordinary sweet comes from. Those nights are special to me, as they preceeded all that happened in my life after: moving to a new neighborhood, losing my friends, growing up in a household rife with financial troubles and me a 12 year old suddenly realizing that I can understand what not having enough money means! Onwards to losing my father, losing so many loved ones as I am moved to a different city....on and on...and on goes my life.
Even in the darkest times in my life to come, dark nights like this, of running with friends and shelling roasted peanuts on an utterly dark night, always shined the brightest in my memories, and I was able to escape in my mind to that innocent oblivion. So when I keep talking about pismaniye, I hope my friends now know, what I'm really talking about in between my lines.

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