Time to let go

I go through this every December. And then again, the day after New Year's Day. Rage grips me and oozes out of my pores until I rationalize, calm myself down, revert to a baseline of choosing to remember only the meaningful...and all is well in my little world again.

Soon after she died, we were informed that she had died at an inopportune time. Yes, according to the panchang, her exact time of death was inauspicious. I remember the scene vividly. My uncle, downcast and apologetic, as he stood there in our living room—my mother's living room. My sister exploded as she was wont to; whereas I stared at him, hurt and bewildered. Who chooses their time of death? Hadn't she suffered enough? That, even in death, you want her to suffer more, I accused him and his generation of believers. It was a while before he was able to get through to us. It wasn't about her anymore, he implored, it was about us.

The priest who would perform the ceremony on the 12th day would need more money. Maybe the fat Brahmins we were supposed to feed, would need an extra umbrella and a dhoti. Or maybe they would all need more money. That's who it was about. It was about making money off the bereaved by peddling fear in the guise of traditions.

We talked about it, my sister and I. We could choose to ignore it just like we had ignored everyone when we had chosen to go to the cemetery for her cremation. The last rites were performed by the men in the family but we made sure we were there. We wanted to be there till the very end, even though we knew it was already over. It was out of sheer respect for my uncles and everything that they had done for her—for us—that we decided to go along with it. There would be some additional money involved and there would be some additional ceremony, to avert any doom that may befall us and our progeny just because she had died at the wrong time.

We cooked for about 60 people, maybe more, on that day almost seventeen years ago. It was food that is usually made to honor one's ancestors. The fat Brahmins, entitled as they were, took the offerings with no remorse, burped and left. Family and close friends also paid their respects and hopefully, ate well. Those who arrived late had to be rushed through their meal as any leftovers had to be wrapped up, removed from the house and fed to the cows before sunset. Yes, cows. Not hungry humans. More rage.

Disrespectful was often the adjective leveled at me. But honestly, I'd rather that than uncaring. A little illogical maybe because I never cooked some of the simple flavors that are served at that meal. Until yesterday.

My friend Celia had given me a beautiful Musquee de Provence pumpkin from her farm, after our cooking class at the Denver Botanic Gardens in October. It matured while we were traipsing the highlands of Vietnam and was begging to be cooked. As were a bunch of gavar or cluster beans that I bought from my Indian grocer. I've made other dishes with cluster beans, but never this particular combination. It was time to cook this beautiful produce and let go of all the negative emotions that remained unnecessarily attached to a dish of simple earthy flavors.

Prepping cluster beans by hand is labor intensive but it was therapeutic, to say the least. I ripped the top and the tail off each bean and also pulled off any string from the sides that came away with it. I then tore each bean into three or four pieces depending on how long the bean was. With each rip and tear, I let go bit by bit until I found myself looking at fresh green produce that had been flown all the way from Florida balanced, in my mind at least, by the locally grown pumpkin. I was free. I am free.

Pumpkin and Cluster Beans Bhaji

  • 2 cups cluster beans, chopped
  • 1 cup pumpkin, diced
  • 2 tbsp oil
  • 1 tsp mustard seeds
  • pinch asafetida
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1 tsp red chile powder
  • 1 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 tbsp fresh grated coconut (optional)
  • salt to taste

pumpkin and cluster beans

  1. Tear the top and tail off each bean and rip them into 1 inch pieces.
  2. Chop pumpkin into 1 inch cubes.
  3. Heat oil in a medium kadhai or pot. When it shimmers, add mustard seeds.
  4. When the mustard seeds turn gray and pop, add asafetida.
  5. Turn the heat down and add turmeric powder and red chile powder. 
  6. Add the chopped beans and water. Mix well and cook covered on medium heat for about 5-7 minutes until the beans are half-cooked.
  7. Add the pumpkin, brown sugar and salt. Mix well and cook covered on medium heat until all vegetables are cooked through.
  8. Adjust seasoning, garnish with fresh grated coconut, if using, and serve with hot rotis.

cluster beans and pumpkin bhaji


  • Since the cluster beans we get are free of any tough fibers that are typically found along the length of the bean, it is usually faster to use a knife to chop the beans than tear them by hand.
  • The sweetness of the pumpkin is a perfect foil for the earthiness of cluster beans. If your pumpkin is not as sweet as mine was, you may need to use more brown sugar.
  • Any pumpkin can be used. Shilpa uses butternut squash just as effectively.
  • Jaggery is the more traditional ingredient that is used instead of brown sugar. If you have jaggery or gul on hand, you could use that for a deeper flavor.
  • Just before serving, I like to cook down some of the juices by continuing to cook on medium-high heat, while stirring continuously.

full of hot air

What made the effort even more worthwhile was this:

no hate, only joy


Anonymous said...

this recipe looks so good. simple seasoning. great color scheme.

GB said...

Sorry to hear of your loss Manisha. Totally get your frustration: I've never really understood the logic behind a lot of the customs that we follow either.

Hopefully the cluster bean therapy worked its magic on you--it looks wonderful.


Mythili said...

my youngest sister cremated our dad. There were no provisions in our vedas/mantras about a girl-child doing the final rites. we just wanted to do it...and my male cousins were not willing to do his final rites just to spite us ..so my sister just did it. i think i can understand your rage. that day we went through so much rage, pain and sadness at everything - the system, the male-dominated hindu rituals..everything!!

fuquinay said...

That's tough. We are a lot alike. I could feel your righteousness and your right-ness throughout this piece. And yes, delicious.

Miri said...

We lost my mom when I was 5 and my brother was 12. I barely have any memories, but it must have been so difficult for you and your sister. Luckily my grandfather was a rationalist and did not believe in rituals or traditions despite being deeply spiritual and translating the Tamil saints literature to English. We didn't have any of the ceremonies which involved feeding hordes of people- the first time I saw this was when my FIL died and was quite shocked at how publicly one's grief had to be combatted when it should be such a private affair.
I have inherited my grand dads and dads healthy disrespect for illogical traditions and as you rightly said, unless in deference to someone's feelings, usually tend to do what' feels right rather than whats expected .
Kudos for being able to let go Manisha, it takes a lot of fortitude and maturity. And that bhaji takes a lot of love and a touch of fresh veggies :-)

Aparna Balasubramanian said...

Never ever cooked pumpkin and cluster beans together. Should try this one.

Manisha, I feel the same way about many of the ceremonies we have. Some of these are no longer relevant and are meaningless, socially or otherwise, while many do have relevance, still. They're a form of closure which is very necessary for the people who are left behind.
But I cannot stand the level of commercialisation that has crept in.

In my parents case, we had a similar dilemma as we have no brothers who have the "authority" to perform these rituals.
Soon it will be time to perform my mother's first death anniversary rituals.
I have come to terms with it like this. Would my mother want us to do this, even though we might not believe in it all? Yes, she would. So we will do it for her because she would have wished it. That's all, and that's closure for me.

I'm happy that you have found yours, Manisha.

Anjali Koli said...

It takes a lot to let go and you final did it. There are certain things that go on that feeding the world after the 12 day plate which we find so difficult to make on a regular day. I shared the same feelings about the Rice kheer, just hated it so much. Worst part of the ceremony is, we have to invite people to be part of it! Ofcourse our loved ones come to support us but the others still wait for the invite. It is torture for the person in grief.

sra said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shammi said...

My 11-year-old baby brother, who had an inflammation in his ribs and could not even breathe without pain, was forced by the priests to walk in floods of dirty water (it was the monsoon season in Madras - end-October) to the cremation ground because they insisted that only the son should light the pyre or my dad's soul would not be at peace. I was furious (and 16) - I said I was the oldest so I should be the one, or one of my uncles could do it - but noooo... it had to be my ill, grief-stricken, frightened little brother. It was SO hard to let that go. I couldnt forgive or forget until my brother finally talked about the experience (15 years later!) that I managed to achieve some amount of peace.

sra said...

Good that you found a way to let go. When my maternal grandmom died, someone said it was a good day/time and believe me, it was no comfort - my mother was so bewildered she asked how there could be a good day for death, loss.

About 25 years ago my mother's cousin cremated her dad despite murmurs. My maternal grandparents didn't believe in post-death rituals and we didn't do any for them, though we did immerse their ashes in the Krishna.

That first photo is really vibrant.

marla {Family Fresh Cooking} said...

Looks wonderful & I love that you added pumpkin :)

Anita said...

Traditions change. My FIL performed all the rituals for my MIL himself, with no help from a priest. My MIL did not wish for them but he needed that closure I think. Then, all of us, her grandson included made a trip to Pushkar to immerse her ashes into the lake which had also received her mother's. We all felt happy that day, as if she had gone to another place where she would be loved.

Recently when my young friend passed away, her daughter was there at the cremation as were so many of us.

I could really feel you letting go as you broke the beans- bit by bit... Peace and joy to you.

I spotted some cluster beans in the marker the other day so I might just make this. Else, remind me when it is summer! [Not that it feels much like winter right now - unusually warm, yes.]

Barbara said...

Grrr - religious rules - infuriating sometimes. At first I thought the Brahmins were horses. I think I'm thinking of a kid's story about a donkey.

I have never heard of cluster beans. They look like what we call green beans maybe?

Bong Mom said...

Hugs Manisha, loads of tight warm ones

Indian Food Rocks said...

Shu-Huei, thanks! Its simplicity makes it a winner for me!

GB, it's been a long time but some things take their own sweet time to resolve. I believe that most of the customs are really there to help those left behind but that message seems to have been lost somewhere along the way.

Mythili, your sister is awesome. We don't subscribe to the view that a son is better than a daughter or that a daughter can be a son, because both place a premium on the boy-child. I'm really sorry that you, too, had to deal with anger along with all the anguish of losing a parent. I hope you can come to terms with it and let go. Many hugs to you!

Leslie, the Libran charm has got to hold for something! Also, your lips curl down at the sides when you smile, as do mine. ;-)

Miri, I think the intentions were to help the grieving through prayers and chanting. If only it were still like that.

Aparna, it's a very common combination in Maharashtra. The sweetness of the pumpkin helps balance some of the bitter undertones of the beans.

I agree with you about closure but I think we don't need the added burden of fear. I've never understood how feeding fat undeserving strangers would help anyone find peace.

Anjali, bhoplyachi bhaji for me, kheer for you. I understand that it's meant to bring people together at a difficult time but we really didn't need so many people in our apartment at that time. The clean up thereafter is physically exhausting, too.

Shammi, I'm glad that both you and your brother were able to come to terms with it. I would have been angry, too. It's fear, no? So we toe the line. There are very few priests that I have respect for.

Sra, I hear you. I guess the good time was the opposite of the bad time that we were subject to. I wish I had had the courage to be like your mom's cousin.

Marla, thanks! The pumpkin adds color and sweetness to the dish!

Anita, they do change which is why they are what they are now, morphed from what they were meant to be.

Try being the woman who brings about the change or tries to do different.

Barbara, I'd feed horses without second thoughts! :-D Have you heard of guar gum? Apparently, it is made from these beans!

BM, thank you! And back at you!

cybergabi said...

That sounds very tough. I hope that one day you will be able to truly let go. We can't change the past and all.

Kulsum said...

I can related to so many emotions here. And yes sometimes I have let go of my rage just in respect of the elder person in question and then the rage comes back every few months or years. Letting go is so important. But that is the only way to move on. This simple recipe sounds really nice. I love cluster beans but not so much of a fan of pumpkin. May be together would change that?!