Andarsey-A Forgotten Monsoon Treat

They came in cheap, gruesome pink cardboard boxes; shriveled disks, dotted with sesame seeds-an unappetizing sight that hardly merited any gastronomic yearning. Yet my Nani and gaggle of aunts, congregating for the summer break with their brood, would send fervent demands for Mumtaz Bhai’s andarsey to be sent post haste from Rampur along with the essential monsoon paraphernalia. The requirement included succulent langdas, bright green and red kacchi bangles for the married daughters and daughter in laws and hand dyed, crinkled cotton chunris for all girls. The andarsey, lovingly refried and resurrected to their juicy crispness, were served at the barsati singing sessions, watching the rains pound the brick courtyard.

The Rampuris, with their latent agrarian consciousness, engage intensely with the monsoons. There is a sub culture of romantic charbait quartet songs and monsoon fare that comes into play as the first purple, pregnant clouds congeal in the sky. Sawanis or monsoon feasts are organized in mango orchards that edge the city with swings for ladies and children, soulful barsati songs, fried treats and freshly plucked mangoes in iced buckets. Invariably there are stories and  narratives  of magnificent sawanis held in orchards of Benazir Palace by the Nawabs. The historical records of sawanis and monsoon feasts goes back to the time of Nawab Kalbey Ali Khan (1865-1887). The Pathans migrating from the cool climes of Swat and Roh highlands passionately rejoiced in the relief of the monsoons.

The final flourish at all monsoon feasts is the piping hot, sweet andarsey brought from the local halwai. Andarsey, the traditional monsoon sweets, are an Epicurean delight with their crunchy, reddish gold crust freckled with crisp sesame seeds and fluffy, grainy moist insides. The earthiness of rice flour is balanced with nutty flavour of the sesame seeds. It is prepared from rice flour, ghee and sugar batter shaped into flat cakes (sometimes with a hole at the center) and deep fried. The conventional cooking wisdom dictates that it should be kneaded in rainwater to make it extra spongy. Rainwater containing bicarbonates must have helped the dough to rise. So, though some halwais prepare it throughout the year, it is believed that the true masters only start off the monsoon sweet after the first monsoon showers have brought down the dust and the rainwater is pure enough.

No monsoon is complete without the delectable indulgence of Mumtaz Bhai’s andarsey. People wait for him to begin frying the sweet and declare the season open. Mumtaz Bhai, the founder of the iconic shop, is of course long dead and his grandson claims that the recipe has been handed down the generations from his ancestors who worked in the Nawab’s kitchens. The Rampuris scoff at the claim-nearly every cook professes descent from the line of Royal chefs.

Mumtaz Bhai’s shop with its grimy awning, sooty walls and faded sign is an anathema to its glorious repute. It has not expanded or modernized since its inception which, he says, dates to right after the merger of Rampur State into Indian union in 1949. There must have been a series of ‘Mumtaz Bhai’s’, at least four, since the 1950’s, in greasy kurta pajama, face glistening from the heat of the fire, briskly frying andarsey and other sweets.

The current ‘Mumtaz Bhai’ starts frying the fritters around five in the evening and the large kadhai brimming with ghee and andarsey discs, is soon surrounded by customers pulled in with the sweet aroma watching the andarsey acquire a deep golden hue. There is a directness to the experience of watching the andarsey being fried, the personalized greetings and the casualness of the newspaper packets bearing the sweets.

 Lining up for andarsey is a male domain, but I cover my head with a dupatta, brave the curious stares trying to slot me and take my place in the expectant circle. I greet ‘Mumtaz Bhai’, tell him that I have heard so much about his andarsey that I had to come myself to see him make it.

He smiles, mopping his face and asks, ‘Bibi, where are you from?’

 I have to cite ancestral and mohalla references since all introductions here begin from grandparents or even great grand parents.

‘Do you still use rainwater?’ I ask. ‘Journalist’ I hear someone whisper.

‘No, no. Rainwater is so dirty now. We use soda,’ Mumtaz Bhai laughs.

 “The secret is our honesty. Most roadside shops fry andarsey in low quality oil which leaves an after taste. We only use ghee.’

I start munching from the greasy paper packet as soon as I get on to the rickshaw. The sweet is freckled with melon seeds rather than sesame seeds now but the flavour is sacrosanct. Or so I thought.

‘They don’t taste the same any more. There was a subtle caramel flavour that I miss.’ My mother has the most discerning taste buds and I scurry to the Raza Library in search of the missing ingredient.

 Several Persian and Urdu manuscripts on Rampuri cuisine dating late nineteenth century describe the process of preparing andarsey in some detail. The rice was soaked overnight and ground to a fine paste. It was then kneaded with ghee and sugar syrupto prepare the pastry. So, the sugar cooked to a thick syrup must have contributed to the caramel taste that Mamma remembers from her childhood. One recipe advocates mixing some curds to make the dough rise. I guess soda was not easily available or used in Indian cooking at that time.

On my way back from the library, I ask a frantically busy Mumtaz Bhai Jr. about the sugar syrup. He says he just puts in powdered sugar into the rice flour with some ghee and soda powder. The rice is not soaked overnight any more since rice flour is readily available. Somewhere we abbreviated the process, changed the ingredients and forgot the essence of the dish.

‘Don’t bother. No one eats andarsey any more. Children prefer ice creams!’ says Mamma.

The antecedents of andarsey cannot be determined. It is called andarsey only in the north Indian ‘Rohilla belt’ and Pakistan. The Sufi saint, Bulley Shah’s shrine in Kasur near Lahore is famous for several types of andarsey. It is generally called anarsa or adhirasa- a traditional festival sweet prepared during Diwali all over the country. The recipe is simple and quite similar everywhere with little variations; some use jaggery instead of sugar. On Diwali it makes sense to have andarsey or anarsa because of the rice harvest but the craving for andarsey watching burst of monsoon, is a cultural response. Lucknow and Jaipur have a similar tradition of monsoon anarsa. Which raises doubts about the Rampur oral tradition that andarsey are a sweet brought in by the Pathans from Afghanistan. Maybe it was a traditional Indian harvest sweet which was incorporated into the monsoon food culture of the region.

Andarsey are rarely made at home in Rampur and we wait for our crunchy supplies from the halwais. Mumtaz Bhai Jr. started frying andarsey rather late this year because of the delayed monsoons even though the ingredients have nothing to do with the rains any more. But there is a time for everything here and pleasures of the tongue dictate an expectant wait for the fullness of time and abundant rains.

Some of my non- Rampuri Book Club friends had never heard of andarsey, so we arrange a monsoon party at Sofia’s farm. We gorge on freshly fried andarsey watching the mango pluckers shimmy up the trees to pluck the langdas plumped up and sweetened by the rains and try to sing the simple lilting charbait barsati song composed by Nawab Raza Ali Khan (1930-1949), laughing at the quaint, ever pining heroine.

‘Hai ye sawan ki ghata hirday pe chayi jaaye hai,

ae sakhi aisey samay piya bina jiya ghabraye hai..

O friend, the dark monsoon clouds gather around my tumultuous heart,

At such a time, I’m filled with longing for my beloved.’

GHALIB’S RAMPUR

 

 

Rampur ahl e nazar ki hai nazar mein wo shahar

Ke jahan hasht bahisht aake huey hain baham

(In the eyes of the discerning, Rampur is a town where paradises have converged)

Ghalib

 

Mirza Ghalib’s relationship with Rampur dates back to the years when Nawab Yusuf Ali Khan, the crown prince of Rampur, was a student in Delhi. Ghalib taught him Persian. But for a few years before the revolt of 1857, there was no contact between the two. After the revolt of 1857, Ghalib was bereft of the patronage of the Mughal king and was struggling to make ends meet, refusing to leave Delhi, lamenting its devastation. At the advice of Maulana Fazle Haqq, a well known man of letters who had settled in Rampur, he applied to Nawab Yusuf Ali Khan for appointment as editor of his couplets, islah-e-ashar. The Nawab was a gifted poet and took advice from the Urdu poet Momin for correcting and editing his compositions. Nawab Yusuf sent some of his couplets to Ghalib and the relationship of the tutor and student resumed. There are manuscripts in the Raza Library with corrections and comments by Ghalib. It was on the advice of Ghalib that Nawab Yusuf changed his pen name from ‘Yusuf’ to ‘Nazim’, the composer of nazm poetry.

Nawab Yususf wrote six letters to Ghalib entreating him to come to Rampur from 1858 to 1859 waiting for his visit after every letter. The tone of the letters is humble and respectful reflecting none of the arrogance of a young Nawab. But Ghalib was awaiting the decision of the British Raj to his appeal to resume his pension. When he final lost the appeal, he came to Rampur in January 1860. Nawab Yusuf had already granted him pension of one hundred rupees in 1859 which he continued till the end of his reign and which was renewed by his successor, Nawab Kalbe Ali Khan.

The Nawab gave him a house in mohalla Rajdwara which, till recently, bore a stone engraving -‘Qayaamgah-e-Ghalib’, the house of Ghalib. He was also allotted a servant and a cook as well as conveyance when required. He would get two hundred rupees salary when he was stationed at Rampur. It was a cushy life and Ghalib enjoyed a close bond with his student, the Nawab who spent hours alone with him even neglecting state affairs. No one was allowed to interrupt these sessions. But Ghalib didn’t stay in Rampur for long and returned back to Delhi even though he was impressed by the sher goi aur sher fahami, the writing and understanding of poetry by the people of Rampur which he compared to Shiraz and Isfahan.

An incident during his sojourn in Rampur is narrated by Mumtaz Ali, the biographer of the poet Ameer Minai. A blind barber used to serve Ghalib by pressing his feet. Ghalib came to know that the poor barber is unable to marry of his daughter due to abject poverty. When the time came for Ghalib to leave for Delhi, the Nawab sent him five hundred rupees for the journey. He called the barber and gave him the money for the marriage of his daughter.

Ghalib wrote three qaseeda composition in Persian and one in Urdu in praise of Nawab Yusuf Ali Khan and was richly rewarded. When Nawab Kalbe Ali Khan succeeded Nawab Yusuf Ali Khan, he sent invitation to attend the crowning ceremony and Ghalib wrote a composition in his honour, attended the ceremony in 1865 and stayed in Rampur for some time.

A master of repartee, once the Nawab was leaving station and said to Ghalib ‘Khuda ke hawaley-I leave you to the care of God.’ Ghalib replied, ‘Khuda ne to mujhe aap ke supurd kiya hai aap phir mujhey khuda key supurd kartey hain– God has entrusted me to your care and now you are entrusting me back to his care!’

ART OF THE DASTANGO

‘The best conduct (for the storyteller) is to expend in God’s path whatsoever he acquires and to behave with humanity towards everyone…. Perhaps this way he will win the heart of some afflicted person, and ease a frustrated mind-so that it may be the cause of expiation in this world for the telling of his lies, and of an honorable acquittal (surkh-rui) in the next.’

Tiraz Al Akhbar-A Handbook for story tellers

Fakhr Al Zaman-1631.

The ‘Handbook of Storytellers’ writes about the essential moral code of conduct for the dastaango. He should be humane and he should empathize with people, ease their hearts in the hope that his sins would be forgiven for his career is a career of telling lies after all. The dastangos were liars, dissemblers, actors and poets. They were highly paid and valued by the kings. The salary of a dastango like Mir Ameer who was a master storyteller from Lucknow was sixty rupees per month at the time of Kalbe Ali Kahn of Rampur (1865-87). That of his disciples Amba Prasad and Mir Asghar Ali was fifty rupees each besides other emoluments they got for writing the dastans. It was a high salary at that time comparable to singers and poets at the court. The highest salary of a singing maestro and a lady dancer was recorded at a 100 rupees. Ghalib was  paid 100 rupees around the same time.

Prof M. Pasha Khan at Mc Gill University writes that Nawab Kalbe Ali Khan of Rampur would listen to Amba Prasad’s dastan before he went to sleep, often making a noise if he rose to go. I can picture the corpulent Pathan king lying on his ornate bed with the swarthy Amba Prasad whispering the tale lulling him to sleep, waiting for the first snore, to creep out. So enamored was the Nawab of the story that he won’t grant him leave to go to his hometown. Once he was granted leave for urgent work in the middle of the story and his disciple took his place. The point in the story was crucial, the hero was going to step into a house or step down from the horse for his wedding, the accounts differ. The disciple suspended the action at that point till Amba Prasad returned after many months, with great skill. This is the art of the dastango – ‘dastan ko tool dena’ or to elongate the story yet engage the listener. Maybe people had more patience in those times to sit and listen to an endless story, of story within a story-qissa dar qissa. The skill of the dastango was to branch off from the main narrative to a subplot and then get back to the main plot at that point in time. The story itself was simple but embroidered by descriptions and poetry – it would take the listener in another world-the world of tilism.

A number of dastangos who developed the art in Lucknow and later came to Rampur were inspired by the art of narrating the marsiyas-Urdu poems based on the tragic events of the death of the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson, Hazrat Imam Husain and his family at karbala. The marsiya khwans and nasr khwans of Lucknow narrated tales of the martyrs dramatically often moving their audience to tears. The dastangos of Lucknow who came to Rampur undertook the Herculean task of penning the timeless dastans preserved in the Raza Library.

Hanaway describes a contest between two dastangos in his book ‘Love and War’. There is appoint in the story where the lovers, poised on two sides of a curtain are about to be united. The dastango described the intense feelings of the lovers, embellishing emotions with poems and every day the audience would return to hear the tale hoping the lovers would be united. It took a week of suspense before the curtain was lifted. The dastango who could hold the story there for the longest time without losing the audience, won the contest.

The toolbox of the dastango consisted of a vast repertoire of poetry that he could insert to enhance the imaginative appeal of the episode. He was a walking encyclopedia on types of costumes, jewelry, medicines, herbs, animals, weapons of war, strategies and enumerated them in great detail during a scene. If there was a war scene, he would talk about the weapons, the types of saddles and horses and the strategic formations till the picture, the tasveer, would be in front of the listeners. It was believed that the listeners improved their knowledge listening to dastans, became mature, came to know about the world and the kings could think of imaginative ways to win a battle and rule.

The basic storyline of a prince venturing out for a hunt and seeing the princess, falling in love with her, going to war against the evil Sorcerer, is embellished with descriptions of the beauty of the princess, wars, fantastic beasts, magic and the trickery of Ayyar, the character who has the ability to take any form, to cover himself with a shroud and disappear much like Harry Potter. And much like Harry Potter fans the listeners and readers were enthralled volume after volume, session after session invited to disappear into the world of tilism magic.

 

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Dastangoi- The Storytellers’ Last Stand in Rampur

 

The year is sometime after the revolt 1857 and the destruction of Delhi. The great Dastaango, Mir Baqar Ali sits on a takht in his courtyard dimly lit by a single lantern. The hour is late and it is winter time. He wears a kantop- a cotton wool filled topi, a black and red quilted sadri over his scrawny chest, beige colored tight churidar encases his spindly legs with hand knitted striped socks pulled over their ends. He is completely cocooned in a thick cotton wool filled quilt. The latter he defends as being important for a winter evening serving as odhna aur bichhona –that you can cuddle into and sleep after a long night of dastaangoi (story telling). Right next to his takht are the tools of his trade-a box of opium and a silver bowl. With great elegance and style he mixes the black knob of opium, slips into an intoxicated haze-a world filled with tilism (magic) as the listeners file in keeping one or two annas in an alcove.

Mir Baqar was the last of the great dastangos, a supreme artist describing war with such ferociousness that the listeners were convinced that it had been recently fought, he spoke of love quoting nazms and ghazals, enacting the passion of the besotted prince and the comedy of the sidekick, imitating voices of the king and the toothless crone, becoming the imaginative dream-the nazr i-tasawwur. The dastaan continued for twelve years drawing people to his place who still believed in the Delhi that was lost.

 

Shams ur Rehman Farooqui, the great Urdu scholar said in an interview that were it not for Nawab Yusuf Ali Khan of Rampur supporting the British in the Revolt of 1857, all cultural treasures of dastaan would have been lost. As the dastaangos of Delhi like the great Mir Baqar Ali were reduced to penury and the dastaangos of Lucknow tried to find patronage, libraries were ransacked and burnt, Rampur became the last stand for the dastangos. Under Nawab Saeed Ahmad Khan, Nawab Yusuf Ali Khan and Nawab Kalbe Ali Khan the dastaangos congregated in Rampur and were commissioned to commit the great dastaans to paper for posterity.

Meer Ahmad Ali, the great dastango under Wajid Ali shah came to Rampur before 1857 and completed the ‘Tilism i-Hoshruba’ which is a part of the great Dastan of Amir Hamza. The manuscript is in the Raza Library, Rampur. His famous student, Hakim Asghar Ali also came to Rampur to write Tilism i-Hoshruba with his ustad and published Tilism i Haft i-kawakib under the patronage of Nawab Kalbe Ali Khan. Amba Prasad, another disciple of Meer Ahmad Ali came to Rampur from Lucknow at the age of 10, became a great dastaango, also assisting his ustad in writing the Tilism i-Hoshruba and publishing several other dastaans.

Since dastaans were oral narrations they were passed down from ustad to disciples who added something of their own-a living, mutable form. Gyan Chand Jain’ writes in ‘Hamari Nasari Dastanein’, the dastaan of Amir Hamza has many sides, many branches and originated in Persia. In India it took on another color with the tilism – the magic, becoming an integral and most captivating part of the story.

Nawab Kalbey Ali Khan of Rampur was most interested in prose and himself wrote stories. In a reply to his query on Dastaan Amir Hamza, Ghalib writes:

“After salutations I would like to to put forth that Dastan i-Hamza is an imaginary tale composed in the time of Late Shah Abbas of Iran’s reign. It is called Amir Hamza Ki Dastan in India and Rumuz i- Hamza in Iran. It is 200 years old and still famous and will always be.”

A Cyber Bullied Teen

Vinita (name changed) was new to the school. She had been admitted late because she could not adjust to the boarding school her parents had sent her to. Unable to cope with homesickness, her grades dropped as did her weight. The parents panicked-she was an only child and this was an all important year for her. They pulled her out of school and admitted her in a premier school of the city. She did not want to go back to her old day school and be called a looser. Vinita had always been an emotional, highly strung child.

At the new day school she was happy. She was admitted in the new ‘Smart School’ wing with air conditioners and wi-fi. She was allowed to take her iPad to school and surf educational sites. Vinita made friends with Shruti, a plump and fun loving girl. Shruti often praised Vinita for her complexion and petite beauty. She was a friendly girl and through her Vinita became part of a group of boys and girls. School became a lively ,fun place and Vinita settled into the school routine.

All the students in the ‘Smart Class’ were allowed to bring their iPads or Tablets. Often homework and assignments had to be downloaded on the tablets. During the break,the students used to click pictures on the tablets and fool around. Though most of the tabs had disabled cameras,some kids could break the lock.

During one of these breaks, the group decided to click cool pics in the auditorium. So they stuck different poses,paired up and clicked pictures. When Vinita came home, she found a number of these snaps on her mobile sent by one Aditya. Only in all these snaps Vinita was posing with a different guy. A number of these pictures also had Shruti but had been edited.

HOW THE NAWAB OF RAMPUR HUMILIATED HIS PROUD BEGUM ON ‘NAUROZ’

My grandfather, Zaigham Husain, would seat me and my sister in his tiny room and talk about Moharram rituals, cry listening to marsiyas and exalt the wonderful spread of sweetmeats on Nauroz. Sitting on his prickly, wool blanket, the crying at the martyrdom of Hazrat Husain seemed unreal to us but we were caught up with fabled Nauroz dishes, colours and celebrations. Even as little girls we knew that it was impossible to celebrate Nauroz in our house because our mother is a staunch sunni Muslim and Papa had given up his shiah religious practices when he got married, much to the angst of our grandfather. But Dada gave us the alternate shiah reality that our lives could slip into, valiantly trying to bring us back to the true faith. He even gave us shiah names. Mine was Nargis and as I was born on Nauroz, it became my favourite imaginary festival which I ‘celebrated’ in the persona of the elegant Nargis, my younger sister, in her shiah identity of Shirin, assisting me in laying out the sweets and welcoming the new year.

Nauroz (lit: New Day) is celebrated on the 20th or 21st of March as the sun enters into Aries as the beginning of the Persian New Year, a traditional spring festival that got integrated in the socio-cultural milieu with religious overtones. It heralds new beginnings and spiritual regeneration with prayers said over new fruits and grains. The shiah community in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Turkey celebrate it with rich symbolism of life in the form of mirror, newly sprouted wheat, candles etc. It is also celebrated by the Zorastrians all over the world as the beginning of a new year.

The Nawab of Rampur, Hamid Ali Khan, a deeply flawed, gifted and complex character, was the first Nawab to declare himself a shiah at the turn of the last century under the influence of his foster mother, Janab Aliya, who belonged to Jansath near Lucknow. Thereafter, the Nawab set himself to the task of emulating all the practices of his new faith. A glorious imambara was established inside the Rampur fort and the Nawab observed Moharram rituals to mourn the martyrdom of the grandsons of Prophet Mohammad. This adherence to forty days of mourning during and after the lunar month of Moharram is the cornerstone of faith for the shiah sect of Muslims.

THE QUEST FOR RAMPURI PULAO SHAHJAHANI

I’m not a foodie or a recipe fanatic. Or maybe, like for a lot of things in my life, I am in denial. So it was by chance that I came upon this hundred-and-fifty-year old Persian manuscript on Rampuri cuisine at the grand Raza Library in Rampur. I was basically researching for my novel at the library which is housed in the erstwhile court of the Nawab of Rampur and peopled by crusty librarians who guard the ancient manuscripts with illogical doggedness from all researchers unless they are foreigners. The gentleman in charge of the manuscript section sits in a gloomy room surrounded by huge steel almirahs with their precious stacks-a caricature of librarians with his stiff, dirty white, threatening beard, scrawny frame and thick glasses. He is only affable towards scholars from foreign lands who come armed with the knowledge of Persian and I can just manage basic Urdu. He had banned one of the research scholars from assessing the recipe manuscript because he found him too casual. The researcher chanced upon me pottering around, trying to find clues to the vanishing culture of Rampur and handed me the names of the recipe manuscripts that held the key to pulaos, kababs and qormas. Food is an important part of Rampuri culture and I presented myself to the librarian asking for the manuscript. He looked at me with disdain over his rickety, steel framed spectacles.

‘It’s in Persian,’ he remarked. ‘Can you read Persian?’

‘Umm, a little bit,’ I lied. I had been warned by the rebuffed research scholar that it would be nearly impossible to get the manuscript from him. I had taken care to cover my head with a scarf which is the basic requisite for a Muslim woman in this crumbling town.

‘What is Ta’am?’ he asked suddenly.

I had no idea. He sighed at my ignorance.

‘Its Persian for art of cooking. How can you read the script if you don’t even know the subject?’ So I was summarily dismissed.

Small towns have a deep respect for connections and genealogy and very soon I found myself back in the inner sanctum of the library facing the slightly mellowed librarian.

‘Why didn’t you tell me that you were the granddaughter of Jabbar Khan engineer?’ he demanded a bit miffed at being commanded by the Director to assist me. Thus the treasured manuscripts were opened to me and I was allowed to secretly take pictures on my iPad.

But that was just the beginning. I could only read the title of the recipes-pulao saada, pulao shahjahani, qorma pulao etc. etc. I committed them all to the memory of my iPad with basically no idea what to do with the closely handwritten Persian script.