Dida bought oranges, but never ate any herself. “Have another one,” she would say, as she passed a plateful of peeled fruit to us.
“Why don’t you eat one too, Dida?” I would ask, curious why she always gave them to us.
“Oh, no. These oranges are not to my liking. They’re too sour and too small. You should’ve seen the oranges we had when we were kids. Baba would buy them by the dozens on his way back to Singur from Kolkata, and mind you, for only a few annas too. And so sweet! We would eat them to our heart’s content and when we were full, we would use the other ones to play a game of catch.”
“But Dida, that was so many decades ago! Surely, you’ve felt like eating oranges since then?”
“It is true, that as a child I loved oranges,” she would say pensively. “But you’ve never tasted those oranges. They were the best oranges I’ve ever had. They were juicy and had just the right amount of flesh. The flavor is still in my mouth. Why lose that memory?”
To say that Dida grew up in a middle-class family would be an overstatement. She was the eldest daughter of a respected, but poor scholar in pre-Independence Bengal. My great-grandfather was a renowned scholar, who authored one of the key Sanskrit textbooks for students learning the language for the Matriculation examination, but he was not a member of the landowning gentry. Back then Bengal was still very much a feudal society, and Dida’s family in Singur had no land. Dida’s mother, my great-grandmother, died when Dida was a child, forcing her to have a truncated childhood. Although Dida never mentioned the hardships of her youth, it must not have been an easy life to suddenly have to run the household and take care of her younger siblings.
Let me tell you another story I vividly remember about Dida. Many years ago, Dida showed me a wooden jewelry box that she had kept for decades. The intricate wood-carvings had smoothed over and the bright red velvet interior had faded. In it, she kept the medals that she had been awarded in school as a child. She had been an outstanding student, and had stood first in in every class. All her teachers agreed that were she to continue her studies, she would make a name for herself. But she was the daughter of the pandit-moshai, and it was her calling to sacrifice her wishes to help her descendants make a name for themselves. So, when she was fifteen her studies abruptly ended, and she married my grandfather. Moving from her father’s home, she quickly adjusted to a joint family, and she raised my father and my aunts, teaching them the ideal that an education, even if you had land to live off of, was important. Dida never spoke about her own wishes or her own education being cut short. But she did not let the fire die inside her, ensuring that my aunts were one of the few women to go to college and to seek employment, at a time when neither the education of women nor their possible contribution to society was given much value.
Dida also helped raise me during two of the most crucial phases of my childhood, neither giving in to my whims, nor ever losing her temper. She loved us dearly and often repeated that children were principal, but grandchildren were interest: and that the moneylender is more enamored with the interest than the principal. Like other women of her generation, she was a well of such homespun sayings. She passed away over a decade ago, leaving me a wealth of memories, fables, and moralities.
For no reason in particular, I recalled her fondness for oranges and her reluctance to eat them today. Nowadays, whenever I want to savor the flavor of oranges, I can open the refrigerator and pour myself a glass of orange juice. I can pick a choice fruit from the fruit-bowl in the kitchen and peel it myself. But the oranges of childhood were much sweeter.