A dubious drink made from the sap of the palmyra tree brings back my childhood and my grandmother

BRUNCH Updated: Apr 28, 2018 21:34 IST

Shoba Narayan
Hindustan Times

Come summer and I think of the time my grandmother and I got drunk together. Our libation was the sap of the palmyra tree and it appeared like clockwork this time of year. Called padaneer in Tamil and neera up North, this sap of the Borassus flabellifer tree tasted of jaggery, coconut, and water. The men who sold it to us insisted that it had “no kick,” but was full of “strength and vitamins.”

Even though my grandmother hadn’t studied beyond high school, she understood the pacing and rhythm of a story

My grandmother loved it because my grandfather disapproved of her drinking it. He was a medical doctor and a lifelong teetotaller. The notion of his chaste wife downing glasses of dubious drink and then giggling like a schoolgirl was horrifying to him. That left me – my grandmother’s unwitting sidekick – in her escapades. Mostly, we drank when my grandfather left for his clinic.

We tried every variation of this plant. First was the tender fruit that we called nungu. Men in pushcarts would bring piles of these round black fruits, bulging and shiny as a toad’s eye, round and large like elephant dung. Using a machete strong enough to chop off a finger, the man would cleave the fruit to reveal the translucent seeds inside. Each was a pouch with a shot of liquid inside that tasted like coconut water. We ate the nungu like we eat pani puri these days: standing beside the pushcart, watching the vendor carve out a piece of the white wobbling jelly on our palms and then dropping it whole into our mouth. After downing about a dozen nungu fruits, we walked a few yards to the street corner where men and a few women milled around a padaneer vendor carrying his terracotta pot. In swift movements, he poured the drink on a curved palm leaf. The first time I drank it, I thought it was vile and spit it out. “In our village, everyone – A to Z – drinks this,” said the vendor disapprovingly. “Full of strength. Good for the summer.”

The taste of a memory

Over time, I got used to the taste, but what I really loved was the memory of how relaxed it made my grandmother. We would come home, have a full lunch and then nap together on the grass mat from a tiny village called Pattamadai in Tamil Nadu. I lay in the crook of her arm, cushioned by her generous belly, listening to her gentle snores, and inhaling the scent of palm.

It was later when I discovered how useful this palm tree was. Organically grown with very little pesticide, the leaves were used to write Tamil inscriptions centuries ago. The trunk and branches were used for house building, the fruits could be eaten and the sap drunk. Country jaggery called pana-vellam was made from the mature fruit and sap. My Bengali friends told me that a popular song ‘Taal gaach ek paye daariye’ referred to this plant.


The frailty of love

My grandmother, like yours perhaps and most people of that generation, was full of contradictions. She would piously tell us stories from the Panchatantra about the virtues of honesty and then steal extra brinjals from the vegetable vendor when he wasn’t looking. She was a dutiful wife on the face of it – eating after my grandfather finished – but really, she ran the show at our house and family. More than anything, she was a great storyteller. Even though she hadn’t studied beyond high school, she understood the pacing and rhythm of a story. The best ones came after she and I went out drinking.

Then and now

Two days ago, I spotted the nungu vendor in Indiranagar in Bengaluru. I asked if he had neera but he didn’t. Palm trees didn’t grow in Bengaluru city. You had to travel two hours outside to find palm orchards where men would climb up to tap and bring down the sap. You had to drink it on the spot or it would ferment.

Which was how I found myself speeding outside Bengaluru to Kengeri in search of padaneer. My driver woke up the tapper from his mid-morning siesta and paid him handsomely to climb up the palm tree and bring down one of the pots that were collecting the sap. Within minutes, he had poured us the fresh palm sap, which we cupped in our hands and slurped up. I told myself that I was drinking it because it was seasonal and healthy, but really, I was searching for the taste of my childhood.

(This fortnightly column addresses the issue of parenting our parents, an integral part of This Indian Life and our culture. If you have stories about the weird and wonderful relationships that enrich or enervate your life, write in.)

From HT Brunch, April 29, 2018

Subscribe to my newsletter