A raja once asked his two sons: “How much do you love me?”
The elder one replied: “More than anything in the world.” The raja liked the
reply. The younger one said: “I love you as much as I love chillies.” The raja
was offended. He kicked the younger one out of his palace.

Years later, the banished son invited his father to dinner
but disguised himself as someone else. When the raja sat down to eat, he saw
all sorts of curries in front of him. He tasted them one by one but found taste
in none. He shouted: “Why are there no chillies in them?” His son came out of
his disguise and replied: “When I told you I love you like I love chillies,
this is what I meant – that my life is tasteless without you.”

Younis Malkani, a school teacher, tells the tale and laughs.
For many in his village called Madave Solanki, in Sindh’s Umerkot district,
life without chillies is not just a matter of taste but also of survival.

Parsaan, 45, has just come back from her field after picking
chillies on a sun-drenched October day. It is getting late for lunch and her
husband is asking for food. She quickly prepares two dishes – one of fried
green chillies and the other of fried and crushed red chillies. Her husband
eats the two dishes along with roti, washing the meal down with lassi.

Most families here eat fried, curried or pickled chillies
throughout the year. Vegetables are rarely available and when they are, people
usually do not have money to buy them.

Chillies, indeed, are a way of life here.

Most traders in Umerkot town, some 300 kilometres to the
north-east of Karachi, string together seven fresh chillies and a lemon, and
hang them at the entrance of their shops. “We do not want the goddess of
misfortune to get in,” says Gowardhan, who runs a flower stall in the town’s
main bazaar. “(The goddess) loves hot, sour and pungent things. If she visits
my shop, she will eat the chillies and the lemon and will go away.”

Each chilli-lemon set is left hanging for seven days. After
that it is thrown away where four paths meet, Gowardhan says, “so that people
walk on it and crush the evil spirits it has captured”.

 Parsaan also uses
chillies to detain evil spirits in them. When her grandson, Sahil, was born
last year and people visited her house to congratulate her on his birth, she
“had to remove the effects of evil eyes on the boy twice each day” – first at
sunrise, then at sunset.

She would take seven dried chillies, seven small pieces of
coal and seven small pieces of rock salt in her fist and move them over her
grandson’s entire body seven times while reciting a prayer. She would then
throw the chillies in the fire. They would make cracking sounds and produce
smoke. She knew the boy was afflicted but would be cured because “the fire
goddess burns evil eyes caught in the chillies.”

Her 24-year-old daughter-in-law, Lilavati, recalls the night
when her three-year-old son Kishore woke up screaming. “I knew some evil spirit
was disturbing him,” she says.

 The next day at dusk,
she poured water into a stainless steel plate. She put seven pieces of dried
chillies, coal and rock salt in a small aluminium vase, added two burning coals
to the mix and covered the vase with a piece of cloth. “I moved the pot seven
times over Kishore’s head and prayed for the evil spirit to go away,” she says.

Lilavati then took away the cloth, inverted the vase on to
the plate full of water, placed an upturned shoe and a sharp iron knife on top
of the upside down vase and placed the entire contraption, which made bubbling
sounds, under Kishore’s cot.

In the morning, she took it out and threw away the contents
at a juncture of four paths so people would walk over the evil spirits and
destroy them. “I had to repeat it seven nights to save my child from

 Kunri, a taluka
(tehsil) in Umerkot district, grows around 55 per cent of all red chillies
produced in Sindh, according to an online “sector brief” by the Sindh Board of
Investment. The province, the brief reads, produces around 85,000 tonnes of red
chillies a year – roughly 85 per cent of Pakistan’s total annual red chilli

Chilli is sown in March and April in and around Kunri. Its
picking season starts as early as June and continues well into December.
Harvesting reaches its peak during October.

The main chilli variety sown locally is called longi dandi
kat. It does not have a stalk and is round in shape. Sanam is another variety
favoured by local farmers. Shaped like a long and progressively narrowing tube
closed at both ends, it is harvested and sold with the stem intact.

 Local farmers started
growing chilli decades ago, says 68-year-old Karimdad, a resident of Kunri
town. “My father used to cultivate cotton and maize but I shifted to chilli
because it is a profitable cash crop,” he says.

Mojan, 58, is sporting a shocking pink dupatta over a red
blouse and blue long skirt. Under the scorching desert sun, she is picking
chillies at her small family farm in Madave Solanki village along with her
daughter, daughter-in-law and granddaughter. They have tied their dupattas in
the shape of baskets to collect chillies in.

Mojan dries the picked chillies at least four days before
using, selling or storing them. Each day, she spreads them in her sun-soaked
courtyard and turns them over at least twice.

Mojan’s 12-year-old granddaughter is looking forward to the
day these chillies will go to the market. She will meticulously collect the
shredded chillies left behind during packing. Nothing tastes sweeter to her
than the sugar candy she acquires by bartering those leftover chillies with a