Imagining pickle

From Himal Southasian, Volume 20, Number 1 (JAN 2007)

There is a particular way to eat pickle. You reach for the earthen, porcelain or glass jar standing on the shelf, and open the airtight lid. First, let the oily, spicy aroma permeate your olfactory nerve-endings; dig in with a spoon and add the stuff to your daal-bhaat; and then ascend towards heaven. This is how it has been since time began in Southasia.

Cut to the seat 29D in cattle class, looking at the poor specimen of roti and mutter-paneer that the airline chef has deigned to make part of your destiny this afternoon on the Kathmandu-Delhi flight. All of it pretty bland, and the taste buds unanimously send the signal to the brain: “Pickle! We want Pickle! Help us tackle this loss!”

Brain gets the SOS. Instructs eye. Eye scours the tray for the pickle container, and finds the guy trying to hide behind the bowl of raita, staring up at you menacingly. Mixed Pickle, produced by Merry Food (Rasulabad, Allahabad-4), tries to sneak away. Grab it before it jumps off the tray.

Next comes the challenge of opening the Mixed Pickle container. Now, the opening of a small, sealed plastic-and-foil container is just about as far as you can get from the Southasian tradition – nay, the very culture – of ingesting pickle. And it doesn’t help that this container is designed not to be opened, as if the Rasulabad pickle-wallah were afraid the secret selection of condiments would become public knowledge if some brave adventurer actually managed to break into the strongbox and get at the innards.

Whoever thought the innocent act of eating pickle would require the resilience of an explorer in the deep Sahara? That is the level of perseverance and mechanical acumen needed to open this sachet (as some would call it, after Pan Parag) of Mixed Pickle, mixed because it contains 15 gm of seasonable vegetables, salt, edible oil, chilly, mustard, fenugreek, turmeric, and asafoetida powder.

There is supposed to be a flap here where it says “Peel”, but it is invariably impossible to locate, howsoever many flights you fly and howsoever many Mixed Pickle containers you are provided by the airline catering department.

The very idea of peeling requires that there be a section that can be lifted. It should be possible to get a finger-nail in there, lift the flap, get more of a hold on the foil, and pull it all the way back to reveal the tablespoonful of masalafied mango-citrus concoction within. But what do you do if the flap is actually pasted firmly against the container top, so that no act of peeling can possibly take place? You can keep trying, and so the hour-and-half flight is spent wrestling Mixed Pickle, while Lucknow passes underneath starboard, and then Faizabad, until it is time to prepare for landing and stow one’s tray.

The point being made by way of this foray into the technique and frustrations of opening pickle sachets is that in Southasia we must either do something well, or not do it at all. Getting an idea, or setting the agenda, is not enough. You have to have the ability and willpower to see the thing through. This rule of thumb goes for any activity: driving a bus, conducting an insurgency, being Prime Minister, running an airline, or placing pickle into pickle containers near the confluence of Jamuna and Ganga.

You, down there, in Rasulabad. Yes, you, Sir. Can we have a show of Southasian genius by ensuring that pickle is not only to be imagined to exist inside a very fine-looking container? The idea is to allow access, so that one can enjoy the mouth-watering achar that you have doubtless produced. Let us just get the technology of unbolting sorted out.

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