The summer breeze sways bunches of green mangoes left and right on the neighbor’s tree which stretches its limbs into your courtyard. The fruit reminds you of the mango pickle you haven’t made in a long time—you made it last 30 years ago. You decide to make it this summer and pack it for your six married daughters to give them a taste of their mother’s recipe before you are too frail and forgetful to follow the multi-step process that spans across days.
You weave your silver-gray hair into a thin braid and take a rickshaw to the subzi-mandi to purchase raw mangoes. There, you bargain with the fruit vendors and buy six kilograms from the seller who offers to load the produce into your rickshaw. With your husband’s pension halved after his death last year, you spend wisely, watching each paisa. Next, you stop at the plasticware shop and press the shopkeeper for a deal—you are buying not one but six plastic jars after all. On the way home, as the rickshaw swerves along the narrow streets, your thoughts do, too.
The last time you went out to buy mangoes for pickling, your husband stayed home to watch 11-month-old Aalia—your first-born daughter. Having mastered the crawl, she used to race around the house, tumbling utensils stacked in the kitchen, scooping mud from the potted plants lined along the courtyard. When you returned from the market, you expected her to rush into your arms, but she was sleeping, exhausted like a runner. Her skin wasn’t warm, her nose wasn’t blocked. All she needed was some rest, you thought.
After the morning Fajr namaz, you pull your hair into a bun and check the mangoes for firmness by pressing them between your palms. Only the hard ones go into the pickle. You arrange the spices—hing, turmeric, red chillies, coriander, fennel, mustard, and fenugreek—in a platter and lay them out to dry in the verandah. The smell of hing dredges up more memories.
The last time you collected spices for the pickle, Aalia fussed and cried, rubbed her face against your shoulder. You applied a paste of hing and water—a remedy for bellyache—to her abdomen. The salve calmed her into a nap.
After the mid-day Dhuhr namaz, you fetch the mango-chopping apparatus—a sharp blade hinged to a wooden block—from the storeroom. You place the mangoes on the chopping block, one by one, and bring down the blade on them repeatedly until you have even one-inch pieces.
The last time you chopped mangoes for the pickle, Aalia awoke from the nap with a cough. You brewed ginger tea to soothe her throat but she hated its taste, turned her head away from the spoon you pressed to her lips. You pinched her nose to force the liquid down her throat. She wailed. Your breast comforted her.
You roast the sun-crisped spices on a tawa, constantly stirring until the sweet aroma of fennel balances the bitter essence of fenugreek. After the spices have cooled down, you grind them to a coarse powder in the electric mixer.
Last time, you used the sil-batta—a grinding stone kept in a corner of the courtyard— to grind the pickle spices as Aalia lay on a dhurrie beside you. You made silly faces for her but she didn’t chuckle, only stared at you with weary eyes.
You rub the spice mixture on the mango chunks, the earthy whiff of spices combining with the raw tanginess of the fruit. You heat mustard oil—the natural preservative that inhibits the growth of fungus—until it smokes. When the oil cools down, you pour it over the mango pieces.
The last time you heated mustard oil for the pickle, you set aside some for making khairuti—an ointment made by melting wax in the hot oil—as recommended by the lady next door. You applied the salve over Aalia’s ailing chest, and it eased her cough a little, but her face grew smaller, her cheeks leached color, her eyes sank deeper into the sockets, as did your heart.
You use a dry spoon to transfer the mango pieces into a ceramic pickle jar and shake it to avoid the spice mixture accumulating unevenly.
The last time you filled the jar with the pickled mangoes, your husband decided to take Aalia to the hospital. You cooked paranthas for the bus trip. The dough yielding under your knuckles, transforming into discs under the rolling pin, made you feel hopeful, in control.
With the mango pieces settled in the jar, you look for a cloth to cover the jar. The fabric should be strong and also thin to allow sunlight to permeate through it. You sift through your husband’s clothes in the bottom shelf of the almirah and pull out his white muslin kurta with an iron burn on the front.
The last time you ironed this kurta for your husband to wear on the hospital trip, he pressed a hand to sleeping Aalia’s forehead. Then, his scream—the guttural howl of a sacrificial lamb on Bakra-Eid. You dropped the iron and clutched Aalia, her head fell deep into your palm, cool and round like a cabbage. You swaddled her in your dupatta, the smell of the burning kurta swirling around you.
You consider using a square from your husband’s burnt kurta to cover the jar, but the fabric is too fragile. So, you tear off a piece from your faded linen dupatta instead and tie it around the mouth of the jar.
Last time, the covered pickle jar stood in the kitchen as women wrapped Aalia in a white kafan, sprinkled her with rose attar. Your husband carried her out in his arms. Women held you back as you ran after him; then, you fainted. When you came to, you heard your child crying at a distance. You grabbed her rattle and shook it, but her wails didn’t stop; you shook it harder and harder, then smashed the toy on the wall.
You keep the jar out in the verandah and pray to Allah to hold the rains so that the sun can broil the pickle to tender perfection for your daughters—six more girls after Aalia.
Last time, your pickle didn’t see a speck of sunlight. After Aalia left, you abandoned the mixture. Its oil turned black, gray-green mold hair grew on the mango pieces.
Days Five – Fifteen
You keep the jar in the sun every morning and bring it inside at sunset right before your Maghrib namaz.
After fifteen days, when the pickle is ready, you line up the six new plastic jars on the kitchen counter. As you scoop the pickle into the containers, your fingers tremble, a tightness grips your chest—you don’t have six daughters, but seven. You slip your outdoor shoes on and rush to the market for another jar. After you’ve distributed the pickle among the seven containers, you place six of them on the top rack, mentally marking on them the months of your daughters’ annual visits.
The seventh jar, you place in front of your eyes, on the slab by the window. A ray of sunlight shines on it and you see her in the golden pool. Not with her sickly skin but the full-moon face she was born with, her black, button-like eyes gazing at you. Aalia.