On Gur: Sweetness & Light

In the city of Kolkata, it is universally acknowledged that nolen gur, date palm jaggery, is the very elixir of life. 

The earliest memory I have of my grandmother is her hands. The skin lucent against the lazy winter afternoon sunshine, as her soft, dark fingers made narkel narus. She would pull out little lumps from the amber-colored mound of grated coconut, cooked in nolen gur, and gently, lovingly, shape them into delicious balls of sweet delight. Her fingers moved gracefully as if of their own accord, remembrances of movements past embedded in the fine hairs of her skin. She loved to sit and work on the threshold of the door to the terrace, where the sunlight tipped over its warm, golden light on her. Her skin would then take on the color of nolen gur, a dark, rich honey color. She seemed to burn at the edges, lit from a fire within, her face lowered, and her eyes focused on making narkel narus for the few weeks of winter that lay ahead.

In the city of Kolkata, it is universally acknowledged that for a Bengali, nolen gur, date palm jaggery in its liquid form, is the very elixir of life. During winter, when the sun shines listlessly on the waters of the Dhakuria Lakes as elderly gentlemen turn out in their best monkey caps for a morning walk, hope swells in the hearts of the city dwellers. In most neighbourhoods of Kolkata, the arrival of gur sellers marks the advent of winter. At Ballygunge railway station in the south, descending upon the city by the dozens, these men come from different villages in West Bengal.

Gur or jaggery is a winter speciality in Kolkata

One of these men, Dholu, used to come to my locality every year and set up a seasonal outpost in the neighborhood of Haltu where I grew up. Dholu was a small-time harvester and our neighborhood’s seller of gur. With his little son in tow and two large cloth bags full of pots and packets of gur slung on their shoulders, they would walk down the road that led from the railway station to their makeshift stall. The little boy’s feet, unsocked, shod only in a pair of flimsy plastic slippers would turn icy. Shivering, he would sidle up next to his father for warmth, and Dholu would draw his son close to his own body that was sweating and steaming even in the cold, like that of a horse.

As Dholu and the gur sellers set up their shops in the early mornings, the scent of gur would rouse people from their sleep, and they would awaken to find sweetness and light from the winter sun filtering into their homes. That scent lingered in our homes, nuzzled against us persistently, and drove us to Dholu’s stall. Gur turned grown men and women into children; they came flocking to Dholu, beguiled by the heady aroma of nolen gur. Bose Dadu, a stately man with stern, patrician features would dip his finger into the pot of gur that he had just bought for his grandchildren and stick that gur-coated finger into his mouth, licking his finger appreciatively, then ruminatively, reliving the scent of his childhood, of a warmth that gur suffused into one’s memories. Mitali Mashi, a middle-aged mother of two children, would break off a small chunk from a hunk of patali gur and put it in her mouth, her eyes closed, the gur melting on her tongue, filling up her mind with pure and pristine nostalgia. Dholu never mixed refined sugar into his gur as some of his peers did; he trusted nature to do its work. He sold the sap, the liquid nolen gur, in tall terracotta pots, and the hardened, half-moon shaped hunks of patali gur wrapped in paper packets. He also doubled as a magician, creating all kinds of sandesh animals and birds from a trough of sweet dough generously infused with nolen gur. He made ducks and elephants and frogs and sparrows and fishes, even the shape of a hilsa fish laden with roe, and set them up on the countertop of his little shack-like shop. As a little girl, his shop was my wonderland. Bundled up in sweaters, and of course, the bane of all Bengali childhoods, a monkey cap, I would walk to that shop with my grandfather, my hand in his warm, reassuring grasp. Dholu, tall and wiry, skin as brown as the bark of a sun-browned mango tree, usually held on to his silence with the same resolve as a man fiercely guarding his wealth. But he liked my grandfather, so while his son manned the shop, Dholu would take a break and chat with us. Clad in a raggedy sweater and a gamchha (cotton towel) hitched up to his knees, Dholu talked about his life back in the village.

Traditional sweets made from gur in Kolkata

Dholu’s life revolved around his beloved date palm trees. He tended to the trees like they were his own child. As if it wasn’t blood that flowed in his veins, but the same sweet sap that was in the barks of those towering trees. Back in his village, Dholu would leave the house at dawn, when the light in the sky was a roseate blush and before even the roosters had risen. Tying a corded rope around the bark of a tree, he would climb each one with an easy agility, almost gliding upward. He would check on the terracotta pots hanging on the sides of the trees, meant to collect the sap. Incisions on the stem of the tree, near the crown, would drip sap into the pot overnight. He would then collect the sap in the morning and spend the rest of the day boiling the sap in large open bronze cauldrons, annealing it to the desired consistency. Under the bald sky of late November, the sap would boil and bubble, its rich aroma catching the breeze, signaling his son to start packing for their nearly two-month stay in the city. Dholu’s wife had passed away shortly after his birth. It was then that Dholu, previously only a harvester, started making the trek to the city to sell his gur instead of depending on middlemen. Thus, year after year, father and son came to the city in the winter, and lived, ate and slept in that little shop.

Gur or jaggery is a winter speciality in Kolkata

Returning home from the shop with my grandfather, our hands laden with a tall terracotta pitcher of nolen gur, a few hunks of patali gur, and at least two boxes of the seasonal Joynagarer moa, it felt like my body too was redolent of the sweet scent of gur. The sweetness of gur is unlike the maudlin sweetness of the flowers of the chhatim tree; it contains a few notes of bitterness, from the liquid being contained within the walls of an earthen pot.

Dholu passed away a couple of years after I left the city. But the tide of people, who still come to peer into the depths of the sweet, clear liquid of nolen gur or break off a small bite of the patali, is ceaseless, eternal. My grandfather is no more. My grandmother’s arthritic limbs are recalcitrant creatures, especially her hands. She can no longer make narkel narus. Winter is particularly hard for her to bear these days. Occasionally, when the strings of light, sharp and lancing, come in through the window in the afternoon, so clear that I can see the threads of sunshine before they are woven into a tapestry of light, my grandmother sits down by the window to warm her body in the sun. Her hands neatly gathered in her lap, look young and smooth in the light. I look at her fingers and wonder if they have retained the sweet smell of gur, like muscle memory.