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A Vintage Lohri, from Simpler Times, Remembered Once Again

Shakuntla Malhotra, who writes the Mama’s Punjabi Recipes column, shares homemade popcorn and gur to toss into the bonfire lohri with her eldest grandson Sanjay Stefan and his fiancé Alexandra Shepherd

Shakuntla Malhotra, who writes the Mama’s Punjabi Recipes column, shares homemade popcorn and gur to toss into the bonfire lohri with her eldest grandson Sanjay Stefan and his fiancé Alexandra Shepherd

By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: She was stretching back 73 years in time, when there was a naiveté about the world around you, even among murmurs of cracks in the British Raj. News traveled at the speed of a bicycle postman carrying telegrams and if you were lucky – and of a certain class – a black rotary dial telephone.

Mama, my 89 year-old mother, wistfully remembered this period of her life in Lyallpur in the western corner of Punjab an hour from the Chenab River and how the cold wind blew in the winters during the month of Poh, in the Hindu lunar calendar. Even at that time, the British system of the weekend had become commonplace and people worked half days on Saturdays (Shanicharvar) and had Sundays (Aetvar) off. In the winter time, Sundays were big bathing days.

The trio celebrated lohri on Saturday, January 13 with mama sharing some tales of her youth in Lyallpur, British India.

The trio celebrated lohri on Saturday, January 13 with mama sharing some tales of her youth in Lyallpur, British India.

During Poh, which lasts from December through January, mama remembered that every Saturday people would sit around bonfires they would light in front of their homes and share the food they had prepared. The fires were called dhoondi or smoke (after the smoke they would give off) and people would make them with spare firewood, sticks, twigs and goye (dried cowdung patties) also called upale in Hindi.

“And on the last day of Poh, which is always January 13, we would celebrate lohri, which is a bonfire with a special meaning” mama told her eldest grandson Stefan who came with his fiancé Alexandra to celebrate with her in the backyard. “Lohri is to give thanks for the successful passage through the first winter of a young couple’s marriage or a newborn child (usually a boy),” mama went on.

A micro-bonfire of twigs collected from the garden burns in a clay pot

A micro-bonfire of twigs collected from the garden burns in a clay pot

This “bonfire” was a clay flower pot into which we threw in twigs and branches and then lit up. Soon it was a healthy crisp fire which crackled as each new branch was added, and a plume of smoke rose upwards. Mama brought out a pot in which she had roasted some corn kernels till they popped soft white bellies and in another bowl she handed out broken pieces of gur (jaggery or solidified brown sugar cane juice) and some til or sesame seeds. We followed her lead and threw in some of each into the fire, and mama softly said a prayer and remembered her other children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

In her younger days in Lyallpur, people would prepare a week in advance for the lohri night, which was a major celebration. The house celebrating lohri would gather the wood, send the dried corn kernels to the bhatti (central oven stall) to get it popped and then bring it back in large baskets and bring bags of gajjak (sesame seeds pressed into gur in small candy sizes), peanuts and fruit. The women would gather around and sing folk songs accompanied along on the dholki (double-faced long drum). And at the end, people would give out bags of all these things to the others who would come,

Early in the morning, the teenage boys of the neighborhood would dance in front of the home holding the lohri and ask for money. “We would give them 5 paisa or an anna or two,” mama recalled with a smile because these units went out of circulation 50 years ago. There were 3 pies in one paisa, 4 paisa in one anna and 16 annas is a rupee when an English pound was worth 13 rupees (it is now worth 90 rupees).

“And if they didn’t get any money, they’d sing-song out loudly ‘hookah, bai hookha; eh ghar bhuka’ (hookah, oh hookah, this house is heartless’,” mama said with a giggle, recalling those days of long ago.

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