Sahana Rangarajan, Runner Up
I haven’t been to India in almost exactly a decade as of this month. The hazy aspects of it have blended together in a warm, humid stew in my mind—the relentless sun, the powerful monsoons; the incessant honking of the rickshaws’ shrill horns into the small hours of the night; the hot, sticky evenings when the power would go out, and with it the light and air conditioning; spices dancing on my tongue; my grandmother’s hugs.
In the midst of this mélange of memories, though, one has striking clarity: making vadu manga, pickled young mangoes in chili brine, with my mother and grandmother; three generations of Indian women, each more separated from our motherland than the last. The two women entrusted me with washing the raw mangoes. I diligently set to work, feeling the rough dimples in the firm fruits with my clumsy fingers as I rinsed them with mercifully cool water. Occasionally, my mother would cut a slice for me to suck on. The sour young fruit tickled my tongue and made me ache for more. My grandmother called the flavor pulipu. Pulipu is not just a regular sour, though. It curls your tongue. It makes your lips smack, and it’s so pervasive that the water you drink afterwards tastes sugary and sweet.
The two matriarchs labored over the rest of the process: preparing the spicy brine and pickling the mangoes in traditional earthenware pots. I had a small taste of the finished product and fell in love. My tongue smarted and sparks shot down my back, but I felt awake and alive as no flavor before pulipu had made me feel.
Through the years, my grandmother and I grew closer and closer, especially over cooking. Even when age had her bedridden, she narrated authentic Tamilian recipes to me like fantastical tales; I thirstily listened, clutching at any fragment of my culture I could glean from my strongest connection to India. As I matured, I realized that our time together was limited, and I enjoyed our visits less; they felt like the ticking of a clock waiting to put an end to our bond. Once, at the end of a visit that I felt would be my last, in her warm, soft embrace, my tears began to flow. She knew why already; she knew that I didn’t want her to leave me. Through my choking sobs, I heard her reassuring me that she would be at peace with passing, telling me not to worry. I allowed my tears to stain my face in inelegant trails down my cheeks, not caring sufficiently to dry them. They mingled with the bittersweet blood and saliva mixture already in my mouth from tensely biting my tongue. Salty; bitter; sweet; pulipu.
My grandmother passed on two years ago, but I miss her more every day. However, when I bite into an intensely pulipu pickled mango, I feel her sweet hugs, hear her soft voice. And I know that India runs through my veins.