THE WAY IT WAS: A bowl of pumpkin soup —Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Something less serious and more nutritious than cabbage and pumpkin soup is a 1000-calorie sandwich invented in Scotland. The sandwich consists of two slices of white bread smothered in chocolate sauce, dipped in batter and deep-fried

There is nothing like being in a comfortable bed. I have a tendency to roll off the mattress, unless I have a pillow at the edge, tucked under my thigh, to protect me. The old charpai held you better. I confess it was rough and hard but also cooler to sleep on in the summer months.

It seems as if we are going to have a long hot summer. We must do something inventive to bear it cheerfully. There aren’t many options. Escaping to the hills is not being inventive. Moreover it is not an easily accessible option even for those who can afford it. What else can one do? If nothing else a sack full of sattoos and shakkar can help. There is no comparable drink for summer. It will cool your innards even in the hottest months. My friend Syed Iqbal Hussain of Sher Garh swears by it. I am told a glassful in a haughty radiator can keep it in good humour, even in first gear. I believe this is what the truck wallahs do while going up to deliver heavy loads of building material at Murree.

There is not much a cabbage can do. But we are people, and can cook a cabbage in all sorts of different ways. Among vegetables I cannot think of one more friendly and suppliant. I wonder why it is considered denigrating to be associated with a cabbage. It isn’t as inert as it is commonly believed and is in fact quite resilient. It can for instance help make a crunchy sandwich, be dressed in a salad, or sliced and served mixed with mayonnaise. We desis like to cook our cabbage with spicy ingredients though I find it tastier when it is slightly undercooked. The Chinese stir-fry their cabbage. It can also be boiled to make soup. I prefer cabbage soup to pumpkin soup, which reminds me of a short story by Mao Tun, titled Autumn Harvest that I read in the 1960s. Those were the days when most of us were not like cabbage but full of chilly sauce, on fire at both ends.

Sometimes memory does wonders, as it has done now. Autumn Harvest is included in a book of the same title containing selections of early creative writings from the People’s Republic of China. The book was edited and published in July 1966 by the Afro-Asian Book Club of Pakistan. It is the story of an impoverished peasant family slowly starving to death.

The Old Tung Pao has recently begun to recover on his own. There is nothing to eat in the house except a portion of an old dried pumpkin, which has been put to boil in a pot. When the pot on the stove begins to emit puffs of white steam, little Pao, the hungry grandson sidles close to the pot and complains, “Pumpkin again! Niang (mother) why do you make that old pumpkin?” The old Pao assures the boy, “Your Tieh (father) has gone to borrow some money for us. When we get the money we’ll buy rice and cook it up for you.” But Little Pao doesn’t believe his grandfather. He had been hearing his Tieh and Niang talking about borrowing money to buy rice for weeks. But they still eat nothing but pumpkin and yams!

“In the pot the pumpkin was done, sending hissing jets of steam. Old Tung Pao raised the lid. There was less than half a pot of pumpkin, dry, the bits against the side of the pot, crusted brown. The old man frowned. His daughter-in-law was too wasteful, he thought.”

The old man is angry. He thinks it should have been cooked with plenty of water to ensure several bowls of pumpkin soup for everyone. Angry and irritated he scoops out a dipperful to put in the pot but his daughter-in-law forestalls it by pouring the contents into the serving bowls. “Don’t add any water”, she says in a hoarse voice, “there’s only the three of us.” The mother then pleads with her son to have the stew, promising it wasn’t very watery this time and would taste better. Then deftly she proceeds to scoop the bits of crust from the side of the pot.

Finally Old Tung Pao’s elder son A Sze returns without the expected money but with three pecks of rice on credit in return for five at harvest time. The old Tung Pao is suspicious of his son’s explanation. The old man is honest, loyal and subservient and lives by the traditional religious and social codes. Even when the family is starving he lives by the axiom of sages, “however poor, a man must remain righteous.” Contrary to him his daughter-in-law cannot help snapping at him, “You can’t eat righteousness,” adding that righteousness wasn’t even as good as a pumpkin, which at least could serve as a substitute for rice!

Old Pao struggles to the very end, endeavouring to pay off his debts and dreaming of improving the economic conditions of his family. But all his efforts come to nought. His last hope is the expected harvest from a field of paddy in which the family invest everything it has and can borrow.

In the beginning the saplings grow extremely fast but also consume water like ‘mad’. Soon, ‘like a fiery dragon’, the sun drinks off most of the little streams which the peasant families use to water their fields. The rice shoots, originally ‘lusty’, grow brown and wither by the day. Every paddy field in the village dries up and starts cracking like an ‘old tortoise shell’. The last chance to save the crop is to hire a lift pump from the nearest town. When the pump arrives Old Pao begs Li and Huang the priests to be his guarantors and promises to pay eight Yuan plus twenty per cent monthly interest to the pump operator after harvest.

“Old Tung Pao’s illusions had again taken full possession of him.” Tentatively hopes return to the village. The cool fresh breeze of autumn begins to blow, ending 40 days of scorching weather and Old Pao begins to dream of reaping five loads. With one good harvest he could get back on his feet.

But the merchants in town had eyes too and they saw only their profits. The price of rice in town falls before the harvest even begins and goes on falling. By the time some of the farmers reach town it is difficult to find a buyer at even one-third the price. Creditors descend on the village like a swarm of locusts and take rice in payment at even lower prices. “Old Tung Pao’s illusion burst like a soup bubble.” His earlier experience with raising silkworms had laid him low, now his bitter experience with the rice harvest sends him to his grave. As he breathes his last, though he has lost his power of speech, ‘his eyes are clear’, which evidently are expressive of a new realisation. He gazes at Ah To, his younger son, forsaken by him for participating in the peasant revolt directed against the exploiting merchants and wealthy townies, as if to say: “So you were right all along! Amazing! Who could have believed it!”

Getting back to something less serious and more nutritious than cabbage and pumpkin soup is a 1000-calorie sandwich invented in Scotland. The sandwich consists of two slices of white bread smothered in chocolate sauce, dipped in batter and deep-fried. It’s then, according to The Times, covered in sugar and more chocolate sauce and served with vanilla ice cream. I am afraid it doesn’t seem very inventive to me. It is moreover much too messy. Imagine chocolate dripping all over. Ever heard of a sandwich with ice cream topping.

I know of something far handier invented in the 1970s by the Maliks of Sanda Kalan. It is the simplest things to make. You don’t need two slices of bread but only one thick slice of common fruitcake, which should then be abandoned in a frothing sweet mixture of hand-beaten chicken eggs with a dash of cream rich milk. Once the slab of fruitcake has been indulged to satisfaction in the dazzling mixture, it needs just a moment to sizzle in butter before being served. It is the most seductive thing I have ever eaten, you may name it whatever you like. Its ‘inventors’ consider it a nice starter for breakfast. What do you think?

But to prepare soup, without a single calorie, out of dried portions of an old pumpkin, sufficiently thin to travel twice round a famished family is even more inventive, but rather tragic. What do you say?

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist