Posted by: gdevi | January 9, 2014

The Most Beautiful Fruit

January 10 update.

The young man who works in the produce section found some pomegranates for me today! Wow. That was quick. God bless you. Thank you, young man; I really appreciate this.

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My daughter loves pomegranates now; it is her favorite fruit as of late. The local grocery stores carry the usual fruits–apples, oranges, grapes, strawberries, bananas, kiwis etc–not very many “exotic” fruits. Just last month, I found some pomegranates in the store and bought some. My daughter loved them when she tried them, so I went back yesterday to buy some more, and the produce person told me that they have stopped carrying pomegranates, because no one was buying them. But I was! I was, good man; please bring back the pomegranate!

I wonder if folks are not buying pomegranate because you don’t know how to eat it. It is actually quite easy. Here is how you eat a pomegranate, nation. Just take the fruit. See if it is ripe enough. It will give a bit when you touch the skin. Cut the pomegranate in half. If it is ripe, you can even split it with your hands. You will see the beautiful garnet red seeds arranged in quarters. What I do is, I just use my fingers to scoop out the seeds. If you are persnickety, you can use a spoon to scoop it out too. Eh, voila, pomegranate for you!

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We had a pomegranate tree in our house when I was growing up. In Kerala, in Malayalam, pomegranate is known as “maathala naranga.” In Northern India, in Hindi and Urdu, the fruit is known as “anar,” from its Persian equivalent. Iran and India are two of the largest commercial producers of pomegranates. The fruit has long been associated in Indian popular imagination with the apocryphal story of the beautiful slave girl, Anarkali, who became Prince Salim’s lover, only to be entombed live to her death by Salim’s father, the emperor Akbar. Though apocryphal and probably fictitious with some truth to it as most apocryphal stories do, “Anarkali” is believed to have been a dancing girl brought to the Mughal court in the 16th century and quickly became Akbar’s favorite. “Anarkali” was her sobriquet–it means “pomegranate blossom.” As it so happened, Akbar’s son, Salim (later the emperor Jahangir) falls in love with Anarkali, while watching her perform at a mujra. Anarkali falls in love with Salim as well, and when they decide to elope, because Salim is a prince and she is a slave girl, Akbar finds them and proceeds with the live entombment etc. The story has been made into movies in almost every decade, and has given birth to some great poetry and lyrics and songs. I used to sing this song all the time when I was growing up: Bekas pe karam kijiye sarkar-e-madina. Beautiful song, isn’t it? Also, this one–Yeh zindagi usi ki hai. This is the ultimate coup of the movie death-bed song. In the movie, Anarkali sings this song while the masons build her tomb around her. And wounded Prince Salim rushes to her deathside on his horse. This is a 1950s film. Anarkali dies inside this tomb. (You can see Anarkali’s tomb in Lahore, now in Pakistan.) Despite this death-bed film context, it is a gorgeous song. It is rather a difficult song to sing, because it is a ragamalika, with varying ragas, in varying octaves. But it is an exciting song to sing. It is the ultimate coup of a song, if you are singing with the family. Everyone sits silently when this song is over.)

In the west too, pomegranate figures most prominently in another love story. In Greek mythology, Persephone was the virgin daughter of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and fertility, and Zeus. Persephone, also known as “Kore” or “the virgin,” is also the goddess of fertility and death. One day, according to Homer’s “Hymn to Demeter,” Persephone was out picking flowers when Hades, Zeus’s brother, sees her and falls in love with her. Hades, who rules the underworld, makes a crack on the surface of the earth and shoots up, catches Persephone and takes her to the underworld. Hades does this with Zeus’s knowledge. Zeus allows Hades to take Persephone since he knows that Demeter would never agree to Hades marrying Persephone; marrying Hades means Persephone would have to leave earth and live in the underworld. Thus Zeus allows Hades to “kidnap” his daughter. Hades’s kidnapping of Persephone is the subject of many poems and paintings, almost all of them titled “The Rape of Persephone.” Anyway, Persephone lives with Hades in the underworld. Meanwhile, back on earth’s surface, Persephone’s mother, the goddess Demeter goes out of her mind with worry for her young daughter who has seemingly vanished from the face of the earth. She asks Zeus, but Zeus says nothing. The Homeric hymn to the goddess is incredibly beautiful. Demeter walks all over the earth, bereft, mourning for Persephone. In her grief, she causes plants to stop producing. All earth’s vegetation becomes barren. People start to die from hunger because Demeter stops agriculture and fertility. Seeing Demeter’s grief for her daughter, the all-seeing Sun comes to Demeter and tells Demeter that he knows who took Persephone, and points underground, to Hades and to the underworld. Demeter goes to Hades for her daughter, and tells Hades, Zeus and all the gods that she will curse the earth with permanent barrenness if Persephone is not brought back to earth. Seeing Demeter’s profound grief, Hades allows Persephone to go back with Demeter to earth. Demeter is happy, and tells Persephone that she can come back to earth with her forever IF she had not eaten any food from the underworld. If you partake of the food of the underworld, you can never go back to earth. Persephone tells Demeter that she had not eaten anything from the underworld, except six seeds of a pomegranate fruit that Hades had given her. Six seeds. Demeter is crestfallen. She tells Persephone that Persephone henceforth will have to spend six months underground with Hades, and six months with Demeter on earth.

This is the myth of seasons in the Greek myths. The six months that Persephone spends with Demeter on earth are the spring and summer months, seasons of fertility and growth. The six months she spends with Hades in the underworld are the fall and winter months, when the seeds are dormant. In some tellings, the season is 8 and 4, where Persephone eats four seeds. Beautiful story, isn’t it?

Demeter and Persephone are goddesses associated with the Eleusinian mysteries. Persephone is the goddess of death, afterlife and rebirth.

Here is a Greek vase etching of Hades offering the pomegranate seeds to Persephone:

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