When I was growing up, the refrigerator was a rarity in most middle-class households. It was something to be inspected with great admiration and awe while visiting a rich uncle’s place! And the kids would hover around the fridge awating the hostess to open the door to enjoy the sudden gust of cold air. It was a delight to the senses! The source of cold water in those hot and humid days in the summers of Jamshedpur was a surahi or a ghada. We rationalized this by telling ourselves that the surahi water was much more “natural” compared with the ‘fridge water. Could the ‘fridge ever replicate the delectably earthy flavour of the surahi water? Never!
Just at the onset of summer, a new surahi would be purchased and installed in a corner of the kitchen. The narrow opening of the surahi would be covered by a little clay lid to keep the dust and flies away. You come home, take a steel tumbler, tip the surahi at an angle on its base, fill the tumbler and then enjoy the elixir! In a few days the lid would slip from someone’s hands and would promptly be replaced by a steel katori or a small steel saucer.
Those days guests would arrive unannounced. A knock on the door and there were the guests! Real ‘atithis‘. These were the days when the mobile phone was not there and even the now humble BSNL (then called P&T department) phone was hard to get. Well, nearly impossible to get unless you knew someone in the P&T department. Anyway this story is not about the phone, but about those summer refreshments served to the guest when they came in.
Mai would quickly prepare for the visitor a glass of “saunf-ka-sherbat“. She would get on to the sil-lodha set and grind some saunf. This would be stirred into a stainless steel glass filled with two spoonful of sugar and water from the surahi. I forgot, the saunf concoction would get filtered by the nearest available clean piece of cotton cloth (an old, washed cotton sari piece or a clean handkerchief) and off it would be sent, to the guest. Sometimes a pinch of kali-mirch (pepper) powder would be added as well. If there was some home-made snacks available (like belgarami or nimki) that would be sent along with the drink. I have not had saunf sherbat for several decades but I still remember the taste of this divine drink. Clear, tangy and with just a hint of an after-bite.
As the family disposable income increased (or more likely due to increasing rivalry with the neighbours) came the orange squash, Kissan was the brand name!. With the advent of summer Pitaji bought two bottles of the squash, just about the time the surahi was bought. The drink was simple to make. You pour out a glass of water from the ghada or the surahi, add a spoonful of squash, two spoonfuls of sugar, stir and serve! No fuss, no bother! Over the course of years, there was another brand of a soft drink concentrate added along with Kissan squash; Hamdard’s Rooh Afza. This was a much more expensive drink and was reserved only for those special guests or for those guests who would say that Kissan squash gave them acidity. (“Bada apach ho jaala!”). Never mind if these guests ate with gusto the “atta halwa” made in pure Dalda! And served with a saucerful of anchaar. For those wondering how did anchaar feature in the service of atta halwa, a sweet, this was the tradition in our community. If you serve something seriously sweet to your guest you must temper it with some spicy stuff! And if you were really someone special then an additional served dish was pakodas (called bajkaas in Bhojpuri) made from a multitude of vegetables, potato, lauki, konhda and onions.
There were some other summer drinks as well but not commonly served to the guests. Pitaji had this habit of having bel ka sherbet in the summers. I do not remember its recipe now but I remember it was a rather complicated one involving roasting the bel and then removing the shell to access the pulp which was then processed into the bel ka sherbat. Aam Panna was another one of those summer drinks.
No fridges those days, hence no ice cubes! Just the surahi water to cool down the system! While a surahi was good to cater to the regular domestic needs, alternate ways were explored when hosting a large dinner, say at a wedding or a mundan. Large slabs of ice would be obtained from the neighbouring ice factory. These would arrive in a rikshaw covered in a rather grubby jute matting. The slab would be hosed with water and lowered into a large drums pre-filled with water (. You know these large vessels used for bulk packing coal-tar, oil etc. Once the water was cooled down, a quantity of kewra extract was added to this to make a cool, fragrant drink. Empty jugs would then be dipped into the drum and the water would be thus served to the guests.
Years progressed and tastes changed. One big difference which came about was the advent of carbonated soft drinks. Coke! If you had Coke in your house you had reached the pinnacle of middle-class glory! Huge trucks would go around the town carrying crates of Coca Cola. Two dozen glass bottles in each crate. Those were still the days of 200 ml bottles of Coke, Fanta etc. This, over time, turned into 250 ml bottles and then into 300 ml (50 ml extra per bottle!) The saunf sherbat and the Kissan squash fell to the onslaught of the fizzy MNC drinks! The neighbours or relatives who served Coke were looked upon with awe and maybe a tinge of jealousy!
Rasna was an era I seem to have missed! Maybe the kids in my time loved it, I was too grown up by then! Frooti followed soon and then was ‘Appy. Neither was long-lived enough to be labelled a drink-of-choice.
As Coke went mass market, there was a need to upgrade! So back-to-nature it was with Real fruit juice. And a host of other fruit drinks. Have you noticed the clever nomenclature of these drinks? Some are fruit drink, some are fruit-based, while some have fruit pulp. Every day these days you see a new TV advertisement for a fruit based drink. Tropicana, Mazaa, Minute Maid. The list is endless. If you have arrived you served fruit drinks. Back-to-nature! And if you are still down the social ladder, you persist with the fizzy, artificial stuff.
I am sure that the circle will turn more and we will get back to my favourite saunf ka sherbat. May not be sil-lodha ground saunf, may be saunf sachets. I think there is a great marketing opportunity in bottled saunf-ka-sherbat and sattu sherbat. And who knows, there could be a great demand for designer surahis as well!
Shining India, here we come! Does someone want to join up with me to start a new business?