In the August of 1947, thousands of people across the Indian subcontinent woke up to the realisation that a line had been drawn across their nation rather hastily and without much thought, giving birth to an entirely new geography.
As an inevitable consequence, thousands became refugees almost instantly. But human beings are tenacious creatures. In the midst of losing much, they carry within themselves an entire world of traditions and culture that almost nothing can separate them from. One such thread is that of food. So even while yesterday’s neighbours became enemies in the name of different nations, the food that they ate miraculously survived, added elements of newness and even flourished under the discerning eye of the primary cultural bearers, the mothers in most of these households.
The idea of what is home undergoes radical transformation for those who have become exiled in their own backyard, or even those who become islands of their own, in lands familiar, yet not. It is with this understanding that we come to realise that man doesn’t leave behind land or homes for the generation next — for history has taught us the fragility of such permanence. The only permanence thus comes from the stories and memories of home, food and laughter that one generation leaves behind for the other.
For many such children of shifting locations, home is a concept — a land or bhite (address) they have never seen but felt. This, in turn, forever changes notions of what is home — is it what we carry within us that we can call home?
Living thousands of miles away from the small town in the northeast that my parents called home, or the hilly city of Shillong that my grandparents called theirs, I now try and dig up memories of the endless stories I heard as a child. Like many others, my stories, too, start from the family kitchen and go beyond. My grandparents had landed property in Sylhet district in what is now Bangladesh. Like many other families, they had a dighi (large water body of fresh water) from where the fish for the family came.
My father, a toddler when he left that land, still remembers the dighi, where the fish would breed, where villagers from near and far would come to fish or spend numerous hours idling. That home is no more, the waters, too, perhaps, but memory and childhood stories are strange creatures, they cling and make a pattern out of almost nothing. In their family home in Shillong, there would be much talk of the fish that would come from the dighi and how my grandmother would cook it. No matter how well the new brides in the family tried, nothing could come close to the kangla macher jhol that used to be cooked originally. Much later, I did eat the same fish curry cooked by an aunt, but apparently it was not the same taste.
My father and uncles would go into raptures over this particular dish, which was usually cooked with the head or the tail of the fish (while the other parts were saved for another day or simply not bought because they were too expensive). Small potato wedges would be diced and cumin seeds added for subtle fragrance. There was always a lot of gravy, ensuring that the large family was satisfied.
There would be much leg pulling when a new bride in the family was requested to make a macher kodu, a dish that was prepared from fish gone slightly stale. In cases such as these, food had subtly adapted to the lifestyle that people had come to live. So while kangla macher jhol remained a fresh-fish favourite, macher kodu was made with vegetables like pumpkin, squash, egg plant, otherwise not added to fish preparations. It made an excellent combination that not many knew about. This was often eaten with panta bhaat (stale rice kept in water overnight), another excellent improvisation of rice that needed to be preserved without refrigeration. Videos on YouTube now extol the health and beauty benefits of panta bhaat or faan bhaat (rice water extracted from boiling rice) — all of which were simple methods and recipes that immigrants devised to preserve the very little they had.
In recent years, like a cartographer designing maps from memory, I delve into each of these recipes. It makes me realise that eating nutritious food and trying to save whatever little they had went hand in hand. The real challenge was in making such food tasty.
The times when I visit my parents in their home now in Kolkata, my father and I often conduct an elaborate tour of the vegetable and fish market. At times, Ma puts in a request to bring home some lai pata (a variant of mustard leaves found in the eastern parts of the country). In spite of my many attempts at trying to explain to her that one doesn’t find lai pata in the Kolkata markets, this remains an unwavering request. Much like other subtle flavours of the dishes from the Northeast, the lai pata has a soft underlying flavour that blends beautifully with either meat or fish when cooked with a minimum of spices and makes for quite an exotic dish. Much grumbling later, a gentle plea would then go down to my aunt in Assam, from where a packet would magically arrive with the leaves packed multiple times to retain the freshness. I am certain at times like this that ultimately people live in nuggets of hope stashed safely in the pockets of memory, which ultimately make up our food history.
As third-generation Bengalis from East Bengal, we might not have seen much of the utbastu (immigrant) culture or tried food that was an inevitable part of our forefathers’ way of living. And yet, such is the power of stories that I can clearly feel the essence of the food cultures practised, recreated and remembered even today in our lives.
It is these stories of food linked with home that I often think, co-join the lives of so called modern immigrants of today’s world — people who move cities for work, thriving often in the isolated metropolises, where each of us are often abandoned creatures without the comfort of the taste we inherit.
Maitreyee B Chowdhury is a poet and writer in Bangalore.