A raja once asked his two sons: “How much do you love me?” The elder one replied: “More than anything in the world.” The raja liked the reply. The younger one said: “I love you as much as I love chillies.” The raja was offended. He kicked the younger one out of his palace. Years later, the banished son invited his father to dinner but disguised himself as someone else. When the raja sat down to eat, he saw all sorts of curries in front of him. He tasted them one by one but found taste in none. He shouted: “Why are there no chillies in them?” His son came out of his disguise and replied: “When I told you I love you like I love chillies, this is what I meant — that my life is tasteless without you.”
Younis Malkani, a school teacher, tells the tale and laughs. For many in his village called Madave Solanki, in Sindh’s Umerkot district, life without chillies is not just a matter of taste but also of survival.
Parsaan, 45, has just come back from her field after picking chillies on a sun-drenched October day. It is getting late for lunch and her husband is asking for food. She quickly prepares two dishes — one of fried green chillies and the other of fried and crushed red chillies. Her husband eats the two dishes along with roti, washing the meal down with lassi.
Most families here eat fried, curried or pickled chillies throughout the year. Vegetables are rarely available and when they are, people usually do not have money to buy them.
Chillies, indeed, are a way of life here.
Most traders in Umerkot town, some 300 kilometres to the north-east of Karachi, string together seven fresh chillies and a lemon, and hang them at the entrance of their shops. “We do not want the goddess of misfortune to get in,” says Gowardhan, who runs a flower stall in the town’s main bazaar. “[The goddess] loves hot, sour and pungent things. If she visits my shop, she will eat the chillies and the lemon and will go away.”
Each chilli-lemon set is left hanging for seven days. After that it is thrown away where four paths meet, Gowardhan says, “so that people walk on it and crush the evil spirits it has captured”.
Parsaan also uses chillies to detain evil spirits in them. When her grandson, Sahil, was born last year and people visited her house to congratulate her on his birth, she “had to remove the effects of evil eyes on the boy twice each day” — first at sunrise, then at sunset.
She would take seven dried chillies, seven small pieces of coal and seven small pieces of rock salt in her fist and move them over her grandson’s entire body seven times while reciting a prayer. She would then throw the chillies in the fire. They would make cracking sounds and produce smoke. She knew the boy was afflicted but would be cured because “the fire goddess burns evil eyes caught in the chillies.”
Her 24-year-old daughter-in-law, Lilavati, recalls the night when her three-year-old son Kishore woke up screaming. “I knew some evil spirit was disturbing him,” she says.
The next day at dusk, she poured water into a stainless steel plate. She put seven pieces of dried chillies, coal and rock salt in a small aluminium vase, added two burning coals to the mix and covered the vase with a piece of cloth. “I moved the pot seven times over Kishore’s head and prayed for the evil spirit to go away,” she says.
Lilavati then took away the cloth, inverted the vase on to the plate full of water, placed an upturned shoe and a sharp iron knife on top of the upside down vase and placed the entire contraption, which made bubbling sounds, under Kishore’s cot. In the morning, she took it out and threw away the contents at a juncture of four paths so people would walk over the evil spirits and destroy them. “I had to repeat it seven nights to save my child from nightmares.”
Kunri, a taluka (tehsil) in Umerkot district, grows around 55 per cent of all red chillies produced in Sindh, according to an online “sector brief” by the Sindh Board of Investment. The province, the brief reads, produces around 85,000 tonnes of red chillies a year — roughly 85 per cent of Pakistan’s total annual red chilli production.
Chilli is sown in March and April in and around Kunri. Its picking season starts as early as June and continues well into December. Harvesting reaches its peak during October.
The main chilli variety sown locally is called longi dandi kat. It does not have a stalk and is round in shape. Sanam is another variety favoured by local farmers. Shaped like a long and progressively narrowing tube closed at both ends, it is harvested and sold with the stem intact.
Local farmers started growing chilli decades ago, says 68-year-old Karimdad, a resident of Kunri town. “My father used to cultivate cotton and maize but I shifted to chilli because it is a profitable cash crop,” he says.
Mojan, 58, is sporting a shocking pink dupatta over a red blouse and blue long skirt. Under the scorching desert sun, she is picking chillies at her small family farm in Madave Solanki village along with her daughter, daughter-in-law and granddaughter. They have tied their dupattas in the shape of baskets to collect chillies in.
Mojan dries the picked chillies at least four days before using, selling or storing them. Each day, she spreads them in her sun-soaked courtyard and turns them over at least twice.
Mojan’s 12-year-old granddaughter is looking forward to the day these chillies will go to the market. She will meticulously collect the shredded chillies left behind during packing. Nothing tastes sweeter to her than the sugar candy she acquires by bartering those leftover chillies with a shopkeeper.
This article was originally published in the Herald's November 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
All photographs are by the author, who is a travel writer and photographer.