Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Food prints of partition

Two women from Kolkata, whose families relocated from Sindh and East Bengal, share the role that food has played in preserving the memory of lost homelands

The wind that shook the rice fields

Sujata Saha’s family recreates their lost home in Hajiganj, now in Bangladesh, through food rituals and recipes

Sujata Saha’s earliest food memory is of her jethima (father’s elder brother’s wife) making khando—a sweet made from slow-cooking nolen gur (liquid date-palm jaggery) and coconut flakes, with the dough moulded into different shapes. It’s a tradition, passed down through generations.

When the family left their East Bengal home in 1947, it was the women who brought this and other seasonal rituals with them, making these part of the kitchen calendar in their new home, as they had been in the one they had left behind—thereby forging the continuity of old with new.

Through stories of her family, this spirited chartered accountant has helped me appreciate the narratives of loss that the partition of Bengal scripted for families, including the oft-overlooked subtle but profound ways in which the trauma of displacement was experienced in the area of food.

Saha’s paternal home was in Noakhali district’s Hajiganj. Her grandfather traded in spices with Myanmar, Sri Lanka and the region once known as the East Indies. Like most people, they owned enough land to grow rice, dal and vegetables for their daily needs; coconut, date palm, mangoes and guavas came from their own trees. In 1947, the riots propelled the family to leave for Kolkata. They lived in cramped rooms in central Kolkata till 1955, when they shifted to two large adjoining houses in south Kolkata, one occupied by Saha’s parents and their three daughters; the other by Saha’s grandparents, uncle and aunt, and their children. “We grew up listening to tales of our ancestral home, imbibing customs, and speaking the Bangal dialect."

Jethima’s khando would be the high point of the children’s winter holidays. Post-lunch, after she had finished the morning chores, jethima would sit on the floor, her bonti in front and a mountain of split coconut on one side. Working deftly, using the curve of the blade with expertise honed over the years, she would sliver the hard unyielding flesh of the coconut till there was a snow-white mound of tiny, even-sized shards. “All the family would get involved in the process," says Saha. “The gur would be poured into a huge degchi and placed on slow heat. Jethima’s husband, our jetha, would test the amber liquid and pronounce the temperature right for introducing the coconut. Once the flakes entered the dark bubbling depths of the molten gur, you had to keep stirring the mix for up to 2 hours." Once jethima was satisfied with the consistency, she would wait till it cooled to a temperature she could handle, oil her hands and begin working the pliable dough, swiftly shaping little animals, birds, dolls and flowers. These glossy, dark copper-coloured forms would be laid out on steel platters to cool and harden.

“This was the moment we had been waiting for. Selecting a shape, we would bite into our first khando of the season—savouring the hard, chewy, smoky-sweet, coconut-accented treat." Jethima would store it the traditional way—buried in large tins of puffed rice, the muri ensuring the khando retained its texture and stayed insect-free.

For jethima, continues Saha, it was part of a life-long pattern. Married at 11, she had been brought up in the traditions and rituals of her marital home. Under the tutelage of her mother-in-law, she had become proficient in the arts of the family kitchen, and learnt the seasonal rites till they were as natural as breathing. The rituals, learnt in Hajiganj and continued in Kolkata, gave structure to her life.

But, recalls Saha, “On these occasions, there was a wistfulness about her which I could catch even as a child." This wistfulness laced the stories and memories of the adults, most palpably at mealtimes.

“My family did not experience the poverty that thousands of East Bengal people did, but they suffered the common agony of losing their identity and bearings. In Hajiganj, they had status and social capital built over generations; here, they were suddenly nobodies."

Food underscored this loss, for it’s the everyday nature of food that makes it so powerful in creating—and nurturing—a community’s identity. Kolkata’s familiar yet alien food was a daily reminder of their rootlessness. “Here too, meals featured rice, dal, vegetables, fish. But they yearned for what their palates were accustomed to: ingredients suffused with the freshness, smell and taste of a landscape’s soil, water and air. For the humble greens and small fish that Kolkata’s urbane markets did not deem worthy of stocking. And most of all, for rice from their fields," says Saha.

It’s the everyday nature of food that makes it so powerful in creating—and nurturing—a community’s identity.-

Rice, more than anything else, underlined the loss: like the tiny kaalo jirey dhaan rice eaten every day, or pale pink phena bhaat (mushy rice) from paraangi dhaan for breakfast. They craved the simple pleasures of snacking on sweet, delicate khoi (popped rice) made from katak tara dhaan; the soothing comfort of snow-white payrar jaber chhaatu (a type of ground barley) mixed in milk or water. Initially, says Saha, “my grandfather ensured a regular supply of rice, khoi and chirey (flattened rice) from desh. In those first chaotic years after Partition, movement across the newly drawn border was fairly free and people travelled back and forth, maintaining connections with land and family left behind. By 1952, however, restrictions were fully in place, halting the easy passage of both people and goods." Saha’s family had to accept the painful reality that their home was now a foreign country. The foods they took for granted morphed into precious, carefully rationed treats—brought occasionally by relatives visiting from the East.

Saha believes this explains her family’s adherence to food customs. The profound compromises enforced on them in terms of basic foods fuelled a determination to maintain ritual patterns. “It was a way of regaining control, of reclaiming identity that you felt was being erased." Thus, in winter, the women would make varieties of pithes and payesh, many extremely time-consuming, requiring painstaking effort. The fact that her jethima made the labour-intensive khando every winter, till her death when Saha was 14, reflected that powerful urge to retain a sense of who they were. Similarly, Chaitra Sankranti, an important spring family festival with numerous food rituals marking the end of the Bengali year, continues to be observed. “We make the requisite five bhajas (fried vegetables), two dals, pachan (a dish using five or seven vegetables), payesh and sweets like pata pora (flat patties of gur-sweetened dough of flour and bananas roasted in banana leaves on the fire)."

Saha admits her generation may be the last to follow the food traditions that have played such a critical role in keeping alive the ethos of their homeland. Her sons and others of the next generation do not see the point. Nor do they speak the distinctive Bangal dialect. She argues that’s inevitable: “Our kids are citizens of the world: Borders and cultural identity have far less resonance for them. Home is wherever they are at the moment".

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Bangladesh in a basket

Photo: Saibal Das/Mint
Photo: Saibal Das/Mint

After Partition, the number of people from East Bengal who took up permanent residence in Kolkata increased greatly. The numbers swelled further in 1971-72, during the Bangladesh war of independence. The Bangals, as they are called, longed for the food they had left behind and inevitably, the markets responded.

Soon, the greens that used to grow in Bengal’s verdant countryside but were never considered market-worthy in Kolkata started showing up in the temporary markets as well as regular bazaars. Vendors started bringing in baskets of notay saag, paat saag, kochu saag and shaaphla. Small fish like amodi and loitta became available; larger fish like chitol and aar, not traditionally popular in Ghoti (natives of West Bengal) kitchens, were now in demand.

Some dried fish was always available in the city’s markets, but the people from Chittagong and Barishal demanded a regular, substantial supply of their shutki—especially loitta and chingri (prawn) shutki—and Kolkata’s dried fish business burgeoned (it’s one of the best now). Today, these items can be found on all Bengali tables, whether Bangal or Ghoti.

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Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

‘Khoya’ and sherbet: foods that bind a family

From Shikarpur in Sindh to Kolkata, the dishes in Kavita Panjabi’s family keep alive the connection with the past

When I entered Shikarpur in Pakistan, I felt I had reached the lost horizon" says Kavita Panjabi, professor of comparative literature at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, women’s studies scholar, rights activist and cook extraordinaire. “This was the town once emblematic of Sindh’s cultural grandeur that my family had called home; the place and life they had to leave, abruptly and chaotically, in 1947. They left knowing they would never return. It became their lost horizon."

Unlike those who left their homes in East Bengal believing they would return, the Sindhis left knowing they would not. And this knowledge of finality, Panjabi says, steeled their determination to focus their energies on rebuilding their lives in the towns and cities of India, their new home.

“My parents, then strangers to each other, and their families left the newly emerging Pakistan for India in 1947, sailing from Karachi to Bombay (now Mumbai). On my mother’s side, it was her eldest brother Ram who saw his siblings through the ravages and impoverishment of Partition, nurturing them as a dad would. And his wife Suman was the materfamilias. Even when the family scattered—my parents, for instance, shifting to Calcutta (now Kolkata) after their marriage—she kept the family connected." She knew intuitively, muses Panjabi, the power food could have in binding a family, that family dishes could establish an unbroken connection with the past. Thus, “she carried some of the earlier life into our extended family with delicacies like Shikarpuri Khoya".

Panjabi laughs, saying this is one recipe I won’t find on the internet. “It’s made with rough-ground poppy and coriander seed kernels, roasted crisp in ghee, then cooked with dates to sweeten. Suman mami would slow-simmer the milk all day till it thickened to a rich brown. Right at the end she would stir in sugar, powdered cardamoms, a fistful of almonds and pistachios, and a dollop of fresh ghee. She would make at least four or five such degchi-fuls. The contents would be poured into clean Monaco biscuit tins, stitched securely into coarse white cloth, then labelled and parcelled off to loved ones across the country."

It was her way, Panjabi explains, of knitting the far-flung family together. “The terrain of Sindh had to be left behind in the new nation state of Pakistan, yet the ways in which they had belonged in Sindh could be, and had been, recreated in Bombay and Kolkata."

The terrain of Sindh had to be left behind in the new nation state of Pakistan, yet the ways in which they had belonged in Sindh could be, and had been, recreated in Bombay and Kolkata.

During the hot summer months, Panjabi’s mother would make a delicate, fragrant sherbet from belphul (a variety of jasmine), thereby “recreating in her Kolkata home the cool pleasures of hot afternoons in Sindh—of the rabel, as they called it there". Winter weekends were a time to look forward to her mother’s special cokie, Sindhi pan-fried flat bread seasoned with onions, green chillies, coriander, salt and ghee, eaten at breakfast with yogurt. Winter was also the time when her mother would make Sindhi pickles—“cauliflower and carrot pickled in turmeric, mustard, red chilli powder and vinegar".

The process was time-consuming; the scale (especially Suman mami’s khoya) large. Yet both her aunt and mother persisted in the rituals of cooking these items. The food connected their generation, and also Panjabi’s. But, she notes, there was always an air of wistfulness around these culinary projects for, inevitably, they were reminders of loss.

Her father would enjoy the cokie made by his late wife (and now Panjabi) but his pleasure is still laced with bittersweet memories of long-ago Shikarpur family picnics where it was made on a clay tawa whose smell would permeate it; that earthy aroma is what he misses deeply.

Today, Panjabi makes the khoya, packing it in coffee tins and speed-posting these across India. In summer, her fridge is stocked with belphul sherbet. Like Sujata Saha, she accepts these foods do not hold the same value for the next generation. Both women emphasize that the young must build their own identity, mining from their native culture and the cultures they interact with as they travel and settle seamlessly across the globe. Come winter, however, both Saha and Panjabi will be spending precious leisure time ensuring pithey and payesh and khoya remain living traditions for just a little while longer.

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