My wife, when she fell ill, was advised by the physicians to chew on gooseberries in order to gain some vital energies. She kept salted gooseberries in a bottle and chewed on them occasionally. There is something very special about this fruit; may be it is the peculiarity shared by tamarind and mango too. I am told that the gooseberry (Ribes grossularia) is a fruit that is distributed fairly commonly in Europe and Asia alike. But not so the tamarind and the mango. While the former carries the scientific name (Tamarindus indica) and is a native of Africa, the latter is indigenous to the Indian subcontinent, and its name– Mangifera indica— is obviously a Latinized version of its original Malayalam, manga. Anyway, all three fruits share a common characteristic: when someone relishes them, biting into or gnawing on them and savouring the juices, it naturally makes any onlookers’ mouth water. Their essential rasa is spontaneous and immediate, and it enraptures the onlooker.
My boyhood days in Kerala in South India, were replete with the unique tastes of nature—sweet, sour, bitter, tangy and salty. There were several fruits and vegetables with distinct tastes that just appeared to grow all around, which was just natural for a small strip of land generally green and blue (perhaps, even emerald from above), with just about five hundred kilometers of coastal stretch, bounded by the Western Ghats and the Arabian sea, blessed by forty four rivers that rose and fell with the monsoons. They now call it the god’s own country, just perhaps to lure the eager overseas tourist. No doubt, it is a land blessed by bounteous nature.
Munnar, Kerala, India. Photo credit: Ginu C Plathottam
But then recalling the mouth-watering, palette-tickling tastes of our young days, the wayside bushes and green-leaved trees beside the ubiquitous water bodies (one must also count the large fresh-water lakes and huge backwaters) I must admit that the gooseberry’s rich taste is the most lingering and the most enduring. Perhaps it is not only unique to a vegetarian like me. To try to describe it as rich is far from doing justice to this globed fruit. It is something definitely more than just that. Karakkai, aavakkai, pulinchikkai, kannimangai, vaalanpuli, jambakkai—you name and it we had it all right there for us to pounce on and gorge and relish, on every bush and tree. The sheer excitement of walking to school with friends along the riverside, listening to the grass grow and singing with the birds, chewing on exotic wild fruits I would never ever have thought that I would have to speak of it all in the past tense at a later day like this.
I was the fourth child of a family of five and my father was in the state government service having opted to belong to Kerala shifting over from the Madras service when Kerala was formed in 1956. Wherever he was transferred we all went: I recall that I went to four different schools during my fourth standard alone! He must have found it extremely difficult to lug his large family alongside during all these transfers. But my father was the most tender-hearted soul I ever knew and his involvement in teaching us to be sensitive to nature was intense and profound. Whenever he was around he prompted us all outdoors, and till his passing there was no time when our front doors were ever closed. He loved the sun and rain alike.
Because of his special background and the occupation that was his (and our) livelihood, he couldn’t take to farming, otherwise we would have had a settled life, close to the earth. Till his death he never owned any bit of property, because as he always used to say: for a man who never owned anything the entire world was home! But then despite all this he was committed to see all his children through their higher education. The outdoors were with us even in our school. I used to wait for the long bell signaling the end of each day’s classes and burst out into the open like the sun breaking through the monsoon clouds. There were always new and newer tastes to discover and enjoy.
While we were in the hills of central Travancore we had to cross huge spreads of rubber estates where everything appeared dark and scary. But when we picked up berries and tiny fruits on the way life became chokingly tasty. When my family moved down toward the great backwaters our tastes also swelled like the tide. The gooseberry’s is the unique childhood taste that still lingers in my mouth. Chewing on the soft pulp of a ripe one and washing it down with handfuls of sparkling water from the wayside stream made life authentic and meaningful. Ah, the taste! Bitter sweet, as life itself.
Adi Shankara (Shankara Acharya) the extraordinary philosopher from Kerala in the 8th century who traversed by foot the entire length and breadth of India arguing with the intellectuals and scholars to establish what he considered to be the true truth of life, was once supposed to have begged at a poor woman’s home for food and, in her extremely poverty stricken condition, the poor woman could provide only a single ripe gooseberry to the mendicant. Shankara was so taken in by her genuineness that he composed and sang a sloka (verse) in praise of lord Shiva whereupon the skies rained golden gooseberries. The gooseberry thus is a profound spiritual sign, leading through the bitterness of life to the sweetness of spiritual ecstasy.
One of my poems entitled Grace (Conversations with Children, 2005) is about this:
That woman had nothing
to give when that little monk
in saffron thrust out his bowl
and cried bhavati bhiksham dehi
in front of her shack
except a ripe gooseberry.
The little sannyasin
took her offering
with a tender smile
that like clear water afterwards
her entire being with a radiance.
She stood there drenched
under a rain of golden gooseberries
while the little boy
turned and walked away,
his palms closed round
the still bitter-sweet fruit:
only he knew
how to take away
On one of the main followers of this philosopher, the guru himself is said to have bestowed the name Hastamalaka— Hasta in Sanskrit is palm and Amlaka, gooseberry, thus Hastamalaka means the one who held the knowledge of Brahman in the palm of his hand. To hold and cherish the essence of all as a globed fruit is to realize that quality as Brahman. Gooseberry is bitter and sweet, and so is life.
In Kerala we have a grand tradition of pickling. Food is preserved longer through a treatment in brine and chilies. The word Achaar is fairly common in South Asia signaling the fact that over innumerable years pickling had been practiced in this part of the world. Gooseberry also gets pickled and its taste remains like that practically for centuries when done properly packed, suitably air-tight in china bharanis . At home I recall mother made a special ritual when opening any one of these china bharanis on special occasions. The bharani is lugged out of the dark store-room into the sun-lit kitchen and its cloth cover untied. Several strands of cloth and string would fall in a heap all around. One of us children would be made to hold the fan right above and keep furiously fanning away the ubiquitous flies. The delicacies would be transferred into a bowl and find their special place on the spread banana leaf when the customary lunch is served later in the day. No sadhya or ceremonial lunch is complete without a dash of pickle. The gooseberry has a unique charm among pickles.
It was the tragic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who observed: Life is essentially tragic and I am willing to make it more tragic by reflecting upon it! Perhaps Schopenhauer sidelined the rasa of gooseberry in too much haste. The abiding essence of life, no doubt, is tragic, but reflecting on it recalls the lingering taste of gooseberry a-washed with a splash of cold spring water. What is left behind is the sweetness of memories, all bitterness removed.
Author: Murali Sivaramakrishnan // firstname.lastname@example.org
Poet, painter and critic, Murali Sivaramakrishnan, is the author of a number of critical essays, books, and volumes of poetry. His paintings have gone on display at several major exhibitions. He is Professor and Head of the Department of English, Pondicherry University, Pondicherry, India.
Please see his piece “Yam,” also on this site.
Ribes grossularia L. (synonym: Ribes uva-crispa L.) The featured image above was collected by Edoardo Rostan, in Prali, Italy (Piedmont province) in June 1863. Herbarium image © The Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.