Saffron Dreams – Esther David

Yesterday, I was re-organizing my kitchen and discovered a few bottles of different sizes. I could not recognize their contents, as I had them for a long time, but for one reason or other, I had never used them. On close scrutiny, I noticed that these bottles had small quantities of saffron stuck at the base of the bottle. The saffron was very old and I knew, I would never use it, yet I tried to open the lid of one of the bottles, but could not. So I placed them behind containers of other spices. I did not know what to do with so much saffron and nor did I want to throw it away, as I knew saffron was a precious condiment. Ruefully, I looked at the saffron bottles, standing amidst containers of cumin, coriander, cloves, cinnamon and cardamom.

That day, when I tried opening the saffron bottle, I felt transformed into another world, as I felt; I was drowning in a sea of memories.

I smelled my fingers and saw that they had transformed into strings of saffron, as their fragrance enveloped me in a cloud, from where, the past emerged and I remembered the time, we had lived as a joint family.

I became nostalgic and wanted to break open the cloud, which held me captive. All, I wanted to do; was to remove the fragrance of saffron, which had enmeshed me. From this cloud, another form emerged; it was that of my grandmother clad in a white sari. She always kept her precious saffron in a coin-size box, which was hidden in her cupboard; in between the folds of her neatly folded saris or in a tiny pocket stitched inside her sari-blouse. Interestingly, when she needed it most, she always forgot where she had hidden it; and searched for it, all over the house.

Whenever, she opened her cupboard, the fragrance of saffron hit me; and made me dizzy with desire. When, she did not find the saffron in her boxes full of old photographs and mementos or the cupboard, she upturned all her belongings, worried that she had lost it. She perspired profusely and wiped her face with her sari and eventually found the tiny box, tied into a knot in her pallav, which was tucked into the soft folds of her waistline. Relieved, she would smile, unknot it, hold the box in her palms, open it and sprinkle saffron into her favourite recipes, saying, “Saffron is precious, it is as expensive as gold…” And, when we sat down for dinner, we bonded, like one big family, as just one pinch of saffron worked like a magic potion.

As a child, I often slept in her lap and felt myself floating in saffron dreams…which were forgotten when she passed away and only returned, when I found the bottles of saffron.  Memories of the past blossomed like the bewitching saffron crocus flowers in my being. This feeling was so strong that it took me backwards into time and I felt locked in a diorama. I felt blinded as the fragrance of saffron became a metaphor to memory, leading me through a path, towards the rose-wood dining table, where we ate together in the old ancestral house in the walled city of Ahmedabad. And, as our plates were piled with chicken kesari, coconut rice or biryani made with a sprinkling of saffron, it filled with euphoric aromas.

I knew that fragrance and memory had a deep connection with the past. Yet, I wanted to dust them away from my hands, my clothes and the very air I breathed.

Again, I reached for the bottles and magically the glass-cage disappeared. I lifted the bottles, placed them in the front row of the kitchen shelf and moved the spice bottles to another shelf. I saw the saffron had dried with age, but had the power to move me…

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