In this Cook Your Books series, I have chosen 15 books to read in 2017 based on somewhat arbitrarily chosen categories. My theory (bogus it might turn out to be) is that all 15 of these books will somehow connect to food. And I plan to write about that food. This second installment is a book with fewer than 150 pages. (Here's your second warning: It turns out these entries on Cook Your Books are long ones. Time to settle in.)
In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs appears on this list simply because of its length. My arbitrary category dictated a book with fewer than 150 pages, and a quick Google search for "Best Books under 150 Pages" launched this one to to the top of my possible books to read.
And what a book it was.
The book opens with an unnamed narrator who has been thrust back into the world after having spent the last 15 years in a Pakistani prison. His crimes? The unblemished connection to Saba, the daughter of a powerful politician, and the defense of his own life. While in prison, he endures torture, sexual abuse, malnutrition, disease, and overcrowding--all of which Hobbs writes with a painful, spare clarity. His survival in prison is dependent on his memory of love and of freedom embodied by Saba; and once out of prison, his survival is due to the generosity of a scholarly poet Abbas, who discovers the narrator unconscious by the road and saves him from certain death.
In the present day, the narrator daily visits his family's former pomegranate orchard----his father's labor of love and the place the unnamed narrator spent a chaste night with Saba so long ago. Now he sits beneath neglected trees, watching as the blossoms grow into crowns of fruit with "slim and green" flesh (26). The summer passes, and we watch as he composes a letter to Saba and the pomegranates ripen.
This seems simple enough. Indeed, Hobbs' story is simple and its telling straightforwards, but it is also haunting in its spareness. For this is not just a tale of a young man falling into middle age after his youth is stolen from him; it is also a political tale of Pakistan, as corruption takes root while war grinds on in Afghanistan.
However, Hobbs' focus always is on this love story, not because it supersedes war in terms of importance. No, it's because it helps to contextualize hope in the face of such devastation--both within prison and without.
Fifteen years ago, the unnamed narrator, then only a teenage boy, gave a gift to Saba while in the fruit stalls of the market:
I bent down to my bags, and took from one of them the finest pomegranate I could find. Then I walked up to you, and waited for you to look at me. Your stopped talking, and stared at me curiously. Then I held the fruit out at arm's length. I placed its weight in your hand--which you had put out almost in surprise--and then I walked away. I gave you a pomegranate, then I walked away...And that was our first meeting. (30)I love the simplicity of that: "I gave you a pomegranate, then I walked away..." His sweet simplicity and the seriousness of the gesture.
And she returned the gift with her name, which the narrator carries with him, "the most precious thing [he] owned" (31) and he is careful not to speak it often. However, later, in the dark of his imprisonment, he whispers her name so that "something of you would be restored to me, and something of myself would be saved" (31). Fruit for a name. A name for a life. Sure, this could almost smack of sentimentality: however, in such a pared down book that does not shrink from spare descriptions of torture and neglect, this focus on a simple pomegranate in exchange for a name seems transaction enough to sustain both narrator and reader.
Upon the narrator's release from prison, we watch as he details the process of learning to read and write with the poet Abbas. Daily, he sits beneath the ripening orchard, remembers his short time with Saba, and speaks of endurance and healing. Later we learn that he is writing this to Saba, and we hear him describing not just the pomegranates, but himself and the healing he is undergoing beneath these trees:
Among the branches the pomegranates are ripening. The last of the petals from their flowers has fallen. I was tempted to take one, but they are not yet at their best, the colour of their skin not yet warm, and so I will be patient. The promise of a fruit freshly opened, its juice running from broken arils, is exquisite, and will enable the walk to come easier still. I have longed to taste one again. The thought of it is enough to cause my mouth to water, my stomach to gurgle. The memory of that taste is no less than the memory of my childhood. Whenever my sisters or I suffered an upset stomach we were given a cup of juice morning and evening while we were ill, to settle our bellies once again. We were given pomegranate to soothe cuts and grazes, to ease coughs, to cool fever. (108-9)
And soon the descriptions become those of pleasure and care, even when both have been denied the narrator for so long:
Today I broke open a pomegranate. I have been watching them carefully, and the earliest among them are beautifully ripe. I know I should not take one, but I could not resist. Its absence will hardly be noticed, and my body has been so thirsty for the taste. Eat of their fruits when they ripen, says the Qur'an. I spent a long time choosing the finest one I could find, whose skin was firm, glowing like your cheeks in the morning light. I picked it carefully, so as not to disturb the other fruits around it, and then I held its weight in my hand, gripping it with my palm and fingers, skin against skin. To test its ripeness I held it to my ear and tapped it, and was regarded with that strange and perfect sound, almost metallic in its tone. (115)The pomegranate that was once given as a gift to Saba becomes a gift to himself, a gift of remembering her childish cheeks, her innocence, and as such his own innocence in a world that can be known through the simple tapping of the fruit. The pomegranate is something solid, knowable, and to be held dear, yet it is sacred, unknowable, and a precious vessel for faith. He continues:
When we were young my mother told us this hadith: that the pomegranate was among the trees grown in the gardens of paradise, and that all such tress are descended from it. So within each fruit is a pip that belongs to that original tree, and when we eat, we must not miss a single aril, in case it is the sacred one. (115-6)Within each pomegranate holds the potential for the sacred, for precious care. During the mornings, Abbas and his daughter teach the unnamed narrator to read and to write in Abbas's back garden. And so he writes, directing this slim book as an apostrophe to Saba. He compares his writing to her as to eating fruit: "I have had so much to say to you, and had wondered for a long time how I might do so. In person, it would come in a rush. I would have too much to tell, and no way to begin. This way, I have not needed to tell you everything at once, but just one piece at a time, measured out in bites, as though you were eating a fruit" (126). The act of writing slows him down, ensures he savors each word, each moment, including the torture, the imprisonment, the neglect, for it is as much his story as is the gift of her name, the night spent beneath the pomegranate trees, and the confrontation with her father.
In the present day of the book, the war in Afghanistan escalates, and the Taliban move in, bomb girls' schools, impose sharia, and kill teachers. Corruption infiltrates and some men exploit the US desire for an easy justice: Pakistani men claim that other innocent men are terrorists and sell them to the US.
And still the unnamed narrator writes his love story to a girl who is now a woman, who may not even know he is alive, who has probably married and created a life of her own, separate from him. Still he writes and tells his story to her. To us.
This is a deeply personal book about a boy who innocently loved a girl and a man who watches as his country divides itself on a political and communal level in order to appease those who do not fully understand. I hate to be reductive, but reading these kinds of political books, where the personal is profoundly political seems important right now.
So then Hobbs comes back to the food. Mostly pomegranates. Almost always the pomegranates. As the book begins to wind down to its close, the narrator sees the potential for devastation as the farmer neglects his crop:
In the orchard the pomegranates hang ripely on the trees, their red skins darkening by the day, turning to crimsons and purples. They should have been picked by now. Every morning I arrive expecting the branches to be emptied, but still they are full. It is clear that the owner is neglectful of his crop. Perhaps it is simply that he does not know what he is doing or perhaps he does not need the income, and the orchard was indeed merely a gift he did not want, a payment for some service rendered or some loyalty proven. It would make me terribly sad to think so, to see land that was tended for years with love given over to greed and waste. The fruit will begin to split if it is left for much longer. Soon, the touch of rain on its stretched skin will be enough to cause it to swell and open. A storm will devastate the crop (123).Time is beginning to ravage this fruit, and if nothing is done--if the fruit is forgotten--it will be destroyed.
In the final pages of the book, the pomegranates are finally harvested but done so carelessly (127). Here, among a ground littered with wasted and neglected fruit, pushed aside out of negligence or greed or waste, the narrator imagines that Saba will find him again in the orchard and he will give her his notebook: "He will stand, and carefully, like a child offering a piece of fruit, he will hold out the book to you. 'Here,' he will say. 'Take this. It is for you. It is finished'" (137).
He imagines that he will pass on the preventable loss of innocence that was based on the whims and desire of her father and his captors--those with an unexamined power. She may never return to him. He may never be able to give her the notebook. But in the act of our reading this notebook, we can see that he was once able to give the gift of the fruit with each aril holding the possibility for the sacred, and that now he can give the gift of this notebook with its ability to name things as they are, carefully and sparely.
Pomegranate and Raspberry Chutney"I dug my thumbs together to break the outer rind, and then prised the fruit apart, opening it into two halves, watching the inner cells tear away from the soft, bitter tissue that holds them. My hands shook as I raised it to my mouth. And the taste of the juice on my tongue! It was so sweet my lips quivered, but with that faint dry sourness in my mouth afterwards. It was wonderful. I gulped the pieces, careful not to miss a single aril" (In the Orchards, The Swallows 115).
Adapted from Summaya Usmani's Summers Under the Tamarind Tree: Recipes and memories from Pakistan.
This is a gorgeous little recipe from a delightful cookbook that focuses on Pakistani cooking. With the brightness of the raspberries next to the acidic dryness of the pomegranates, you're working with what would otherwise appear to be a sweet chutney. However, the cumin seeds and the black pepper blast this into a sauce that is perfect alongside lamb kofta, which is how we ate it. Bonus, Summaya Usmani is a blogger at My Tamarind Kitchen, although her site seems a little quiet these days. That still won't keep us from looking at gorgeous older posts.
1 pint of raspberries
½ pomegranate, de-seeded
½ tsp freshly ground black peppercorns
½ tsp black or pink salt*
½ tsp dry-roasted cumin seeds
juice of ½ a lime
*black salt is quite sulphurous to me; I used pink salt
1. Put the raspberries and pomegranate in a bowl and crush them using the back of a fork until mushy and the juice from the pomegranate mixes with the crushed raspberries.
2. Add the spices, the salt, and the lime juices, and stir. Serve cold and eat within 24 hours.