Yesterday April 8th was Ugadi. This New Year’s Day for Telugu and Kannada people of India is celebrated with the freshness of the spring season and a punch like drink called Ugadi Pacchadi. The pacchadi has six different tastes, sweet, sour, spice, salt, vagaru and bitter that symbolize happiness, disgust, anger, fear, surprise and sadness of life respectively. To experience life fully, one must experience all the six emotions! That too, in the right proportion!
Before talking more about Ugadi and the pacchadi, I have to explain the tasted vagaru. It’s often described as tangy or tart, but it’s not a translatable word. It’s the taste of not just an unripe fruit (e.g., a spring/summer fruit like mango or plum) but the taste of a baby fruit that is still green and not yet reached its full size. It’s a raw, immature taste. When the Telugu language becomes extinct as they say it would when only six of the world’s languages remain because everyone will self-select to speak one of these six major languages (Arabic, English, French, Mandarin, Persian or Spanish), I am afraid that there may not be a word to describe this taste.
The Telugu calendar or the Shalivahana calendar is a type of Hindu calendar which is a lunisolar calendar from the Vedic times. Per this calendar, there are four eras. The fourth and the last era or Yuga is the one we are currently in. It’s called the kaliyuga and it began in 3102 BCE. Kaliyuga is considered to last 432,000 years. It is an era of declining human spiritual values and this is the root of a common rhetoric among Telugu people, “This is kaliyuga!” Every grandparent has been heard to say this at least once during interactions with their teenage grandchildren. There are sixty year names that run in a cyclical manner. The year that just began is called Durmukhi (literally translates to ‘someone with a bad face’; it’s a negative sounding name, but names like that are supposed to ward off the evil eye. More on that at another time.) Each month has 28 days as you would expect in a lunar calendar, each beginning on New Moon day. Every twelve years or so, there is an extra month in the year so that the year synchronizes with the solar calendar. That’s where the Telugu saying, “When there is famine, there is an extra month in the year” comes from!
Ugadi while growing up was fun. In addition to the vast variety of yummy dishes, there is always the pronouncement of the coming year’s gains vs losses and praises vs insults per the Telugu horoscope. My mom used to go to the temple in the evening, stay till the horoscopes are read by the temple priest from the newly released calendar and make notes for each of our raasi (zodiac sign). She would come back and read out everyone’s. “Your raasi phalam (translation: zodiac sign result) is excellent this coming year. 9 gains, 4 losses, 6 high praises and 3 insults.” ‘This year doesn’t look good for our youngest one. Lots of insults and lots of losses.” We would dwell on the counts for a bit, and then go back to our routine lives. Only to remember them whenever we suffer a major pain and we try to recall what the year’s prophecy had been…
So, the making of Ugadi Pacchadi itself – I have a lot of fun making it. There is hardly any skill involved, but I often don’t have all the ingredients. To make it properly, you need tamarind, salt, jaggery (one of the many intermediate products during the making of sugar from sugarcane), pepper or green chilli, dried neem flower petals and baby mango. You just chop up everything, add to drinking water, allow them to soak for a bit and add a dash of cardamom for flavor. It’s that simple! The problem is the availability of neem flower petals and baby mango on the day of Ugadi. I have always managed to find something in my pantry that’s bitter – it’s usually methi (fenugreek) seeds that are a common spice. As for baby mango, I have often used the skin of a raw plum or a very raw pear that do taste vagaru. On occasion, I have substituted sugar for jaggery, lemon juice for tamarind, and red chilli powder for black pepper or green chilli. It’s the symbolism that matters, at least in my books. Hey, whatever it takes to remind myself (and the poor household victims of my heavily substituted Ugadi Pacchadi) of the six fundamental tastes of life! I love the taste when it’s made properly. When I don’t make it properly, I still drink it reminding myself that life is what we make it to be!