A Saviour In Summer?
The other day, after many years, i had a glass of sugarcane juice. Like many other habits of the past, including drinking water from the tap wherever available, including the dodgiest railway platforms, drinking sugarcane juice from the street is something that one avoids nowadays in the name of health, hygiene and happiness, so this was a carefully calibrated walk down memory lane. It was at one of those sanitised places that come with many guarantees of hygiene, including servers who slip plastic bags on their hands, and sure enough, it felt wrong. The taste was as one remembered it, more or less, but the experience just did not work. It was too self-conscious an act of nostalgic reach, with too meaning invested in every sip, and like many other acts of nostalgia, one was left dangling between memory and reality, losing something vital from both.
There is something magical about sugarcane juice, a sense of something wonderful being produced from something very prosaic. One understands the sweetness of fruits, for they radiate an ambrosial aura as they hang lazily from tree branches, with the nonchalant smugness of the well born. The fruit materialises from the branches, without too much effort, and hangs about until it is time to be picked and savoured. Year after year, the tree delivers its fruit, without any apparent effort; abundance is a sleight of hand, a parlour trick. The sugarcane comes from a much hardier world of sun-baked toil. It is a crop that needs hard labour in the fields. On the surface, it lives in the world of other crops, a world where food is grown and gathered grain by grain, and where the eventual bounty of a harvest is the outcome of an enormous amount of work.
Which is what makes its sweetness so miraculous. Its sweetness is not alien; the exterior is not a mere cover for something soft, squishy and sweet inside, sweetness is in fact the product of the stubby hardness of the cane. The beautiful and the sweet are not seen as a counterpoint to the everyday and rough but are inextricably linked to one another. Sugarcane reconciles the ideas of roughness and deliciousness, something that is most palpable when one chews through cane or eats ‘ganderi’ — pieces of sugarcane sprinkled with rose water that are quite popular in North India. The juice is extracted from the fibres of wood, leaving behind tasteless wads of pulp.
The act of watching sugarcane juice being produced is an oddly satisfying one. Rivers erupt from wood as the cane goes into the jaws of the crusher, as the wheel is moved laboriously at first, and then with increasing speed. The reluctance of the early stage gives way to a gush of magnanimity, only for the bounty to recede towards the end, as juice is wheedled out of increasingly lifeless looking cane. The final act of extraction involves twisting the reluctant remnants of the cane till some final sap is extorted. Even in the way juice is produced from the crop involves labour; juice here is locked up in the hardness of the cane and great force is needed to separate the sugar from the cane. In the world of sugarcane, nothing is easy, but with effort the rewards are very sweet indeed.
There is a quality to the sweetness of sugarcane juice that is unique. It is not merely sweet, but kind in its sweetness. It connects us with the essential nature of sugar, something that we have little familiarity with. The sugar we consume is a chemical concentrate that delivers sweetness in the most efficient way possible, but in doing so makes the idea of sugar itself meaningless. There is an innocence to the sweetness of sugarcane, an inclusive welcoming quality about it. It stands apart from the overeager cloying syrupiness of Indian sweets and has little in common with the worldly sensuousness of chocolate. Of course, in its street avatar, its taste is enhanced with the tang of lime and a hit of ginger and topped up with the mysteriously delicious masala that only street vendors have access to. The overall effect is of sweetness made a little more human, by adding a twist of the wicked to make ethereal innocence of sugar more real.
Sugarcane juice was the product of a time when the sun was not an enemy that one scurried away from. It was a reward for accepting summer as a part of one’s life. There were other summer treats available, each with their own little stories. Lemonade and sharbat made at home were the more commonplace among the options, fruit juices were expensive and exotic and somehow not satisfying enough, and bottled soft drinks were an occasional treat to be quaffed without mercy when available free at weddings. The masala soda had its loyalists with its combination of aeration and bite that delivered an abrupt form of freshness. The ubiquitous orange bar was the cheapest hit in town, and one got the tongue to prove it. The baraf-ka-gola or the chuski was a wonderfully inventive way of sucking on icy exotic flavours while beating the heat. The crushed ice acted as a screen on which to spray some lurid colours and fantastic, synthetic, and perhaps deeply toxic flavours.
But sugarcane juice was still special. A lot of the other treats were solitary pleasures of the child, to be enjoyed after some persuasion of a nearby adult but sugarcane juice cut across divisions of age. It was considered socially legitimate and seen as due reward for being out in the sun doing something worthwile. Some negotiation about whether to get the larger glass or the smaller one notwithstanding, it was rarely seen as an unreasonable demand, one that needed to be guarded against in the name of middle class restraint. To many, sugarcane juice is a lost joy, a part of one’s history that cannot be reclaimed in any meaningful sense. To value and enjoy sweetness of a certain kind, one perhaps has to lead a certain kind of a life.
(This piece has appeared previously in the Times of India)