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Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Before we get to the sharbat part, the stories need to be told.I've always spoken fondly about our summer vacations in our grandparents' home in the village. The village is about a couple hours give or take from my home town, and used to be a quiet, sleepy place that only came alive during it's annual church festival. Every summer though, after the report cards were delivered to the house, and the usual congratulations/ recriminations were doled out, mother packed us up that weekend, and off we went to the crowded, dusty bust stand. Various drivers and conductors added to the cacophony of the stand, yelling out destinations and times, and fares, honking their horns to indicate a determination to depart, whether or not you got on board. There is no rhyme or reason to the bus stand. You just have to catch a bus, and hope it takes you to where you want to go. My mom, of course, being the expert, bundled us into the best (and fastest, shudder) bus, and off we went, my sister and I fighting over who would get the window seat. An hour and half later, the bus screeched to an almost halt, dumping us off on the side of a deserted village road, from where we we found our way to our grandparents' home.

It was about an hour's dusty, hot walk there, or joy of joys, we found an autorickshaw who would consent to taking us till the churchyard close to the house. On the non-rickshaw days, we trudged along the road, hot and annoyed and bugging my mom no end, covering ourselves in copious amounts of red dust along the way. If my mother was feeling generous, we cut our journey in half, as she led us through the cooler forest way, as opposed to the road.

The forest way was certainly an adventure. You had to know the right place to leave the road and climb the hills that blanketed the side of the road. Then follow a faint trail, that led to a larger trail. once we hit the larger trail, a few minutes later, we had to find the right place to turn into the forest again, and this was always my favourite part. The trees were scrubby, but dense, cashew trees, mango and eucalyptus, playing in the faint breeze, canopied and so much cooler. We knew our way through the trees, following the right shaped ones though the forest floor.

Every so often, if the time was right, there was a brilliant flowering tree, right at the edge of where we turned off to head into the path that would take us to the house. This tree, it had a veritable waterfall of bright yellow flowers. We gazed longingly at it, until my mom gave us permission to climb it, and gather handfuls of the flowers. I remember my mother one time, that cynically ruthless, practical woman, turning back to look wistfully at the tree. When I asked her why she looked back, her face softened, as she muttered, "it's such a beautiful tree"... this look of my mom's made her so much more human than the superhuman mother we were used to, that I still remember that moment, thirty odd years later.

When we finally made it to the house, all hot and sweaty and so thirsty, we plopped down on the cool stone verandah, fans blowing air all around us, and listened for my grandmother, whose voice told us to get into the kitchen and drink the sharbat waiting for us. Oh that cold, tangy, sweet drink that soothed our parched throats and gave us the energy to start exploring.

Now I am not going to handing out recipes for sharbat. Every Indian worth their garam masalas knows that sharbat is a form of long, cold, non-fizzy drink. Ideally, made with some sort of home made or shop bought concentrate, not fruit juice, mind - though, there have been mutterings about lime juice being a sharbat - but otherwise, anything goes. In our grandparents' house it was made with bindan concentrate. Bindan, a fruit similar to the rambutan, but without the spiky exterior, grew wild in the woods behind the house. Every so often, an enterprising cousin would knock down a load of fruit with a stick and a hook. We ate the creamy interior fruit, and kept the smooth, plum coloured shells. Grandmother would dry the shells with sugar, then boil them down to a thick, sweet/ tangy syrup, which then became bindan sharbat, when mixed with sugar and the cold spring water that fed the house. When the bindan syrup was not available, we had cold, sweet lime juice instead. Served in cold steel tumblers, every sharbat was a delight to all the senses, as we slowly got used to the cool, dark interior of the house we would spend summer in.

Roohafza, on the other hand, is the more well known shop bought version of a sharbat, though, families had their own recipes for this drink, debates to be had on whether or not you should add lemon to it. My mom never did, but I have, and I find that the citrus cuts through the almost overwhelming floral nature of this syrup.

The other popular addition to sharbat, was basil seeds. We had basil seeds growing wild on the roadsides, and every so often, we would go and shake out a bunch of dried seeds that we could plop into the sharbats, watchins, as they grew fat and fuzzy, similar to chia seeds. They were considered fairly cooling and healthy, so a handful was almost always kept on hand to add to cold drinks.

I debated whether to add a recipe to this post, honestly, I did. I mean, how hard is it to add concentrate to water and make a sharbat? Not hard, right? So, sorry, no recipe, but more of instructions.

Recipes: 

Add lime juice to water. Sweeten with sugar and drink cold.
If you can find it, add bindan syrup and sugar to water, to taste. Stir and drink cold.
Add a teaspoon of Roohafza to cold water. Stir in a teaspoon of lime juice and drink chilled.

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