Home / Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday /  Memoirs of hunger: Bengal famine and thakuma’s kitchen

We ate flowers, especially, marigold fritters. Spices were never used for flavouring. We ate the cinnamon bark, chewed up cloves and cardamoms; it was brutal. In my grandmother’s farmhouse, not a morsel of food was ever wasted. There were dishes made of veggie skins, pumpkin seeds and cauliflower stalks. In a nutshell, we ate almost everything. After a storm, we had to eat every fruit that fell from the tree, and if a bat had nibbled on one, you just chopped that part off and ate the rest.

Our village was a few hours away from Kolkata in 24 Parganas. My grandfather had decided to buy the land next to a village graveyard to ensure our isolation from the rest of humanity. My grandfather passed away before I was born, and my grandmother (thakuma) looked after the farm all by herself. She was completely self sufficient; owned rice fields, grew veggies and fruits, had cows, chickens and a little fish pond. Yet she would ask us to collect wild vegetables (dumur, dhundhul, I don’t know their English names) from the graveyard land. My cousin became an expert in identifying greens; her job was collecting all kinds of shaak (greens) that would be cooked up in a mess and served to us.

It mattered because my thakuma was a terrible cook. Thakuma hardly used oil; we had an inside joke that she used homeopathy vials as oil cans. The only flavour it had was of lemon, because we had plenty of lemon trees. She reused tea leaves, diluted the milk, and made watery thin curries. Her egg curry was made from scrambled eggs accompanied by plenty of potatoes, and she would thicken it with some starch, so it was heavy. One egg was enough to feed four.

Her rice pudding was used as a threat; if we didn’t do our homework, we would be fed her rice pudding. Her bad cooking never took away our love for the farmhouse and her. Plus, the fresh fruits always made up for all the bad cooking. In retrospect, it must have done wonders to my health. I almost never fell sick. Later, when she was in her 70s, she decided to live a little. That’s when we discovered that inside this terrible cook, lived a mediocre cook, who made very good egg kachoris.

Only recently, more than a year after her death, did I understand why she was so fixated with saving food. It came to me after I attended a talk on hunger museums in Russia, where they preserved memories of major famines. The talk included recipes of bread made with grass and clay—ways to use ingredients one wouldn’t normally eat. I realized that thakuma had survived the notorious Bengal famine that started in 1941 and lasted until 1946. There was no actual famine. Churchill was instrumental in actively implementing it. When Japan entered the war in 1941, Calcutta became very important to the Allies. With the fall of Burma in 1942, Calcutta became the easterly Allied front against the Japanese. The colonial administration had to defend Calcutta at all costs, and cut the Japanese access to any resources—especially food. Surplus production from all districts of Bengal was directed to Calcutta. The famine reached its pinnacle in 1943. The estimated number of deaths was about five million, mostly from rural Bengal.

No wonder thakuma was obsessed with reducing wastage. She lived in rural Bengal, and her life must have revolved around food shortage, even though she never really talked about it. She told us stories about ghosts who stole leftover food from plates, or ghosts who raided the larder. There were endless tales of offending the goddess Annapurna, who punished little girls who didn’t eat everything that was on their plates. We were always afraid that Annapurna or some ghost would find out that we had secretly thrown away some food and she would punish us. We were made to associate wasting food with immorality.

It took me very long to understand how my thakuma’s fixation had also shaped my own disposition. Wasting food bothers me much more than I am willing to acknowledge. I remember being extremely agitated while watching an American show where a teenage girl threw away a whole tray of cupcakes because they were delicious, and eating them would make her fat. I found myself yelling at the screen, “Freeze them, give them away. Don’t do it."

We now live in a culture where wastage is normal. It is very difficult to discuss food wastage without sounding sanctimonious or preachy. The adage, “eat up your veggies because children in Africa are going hungry", doesn’t work. We have taken our privileges for granted, and hunger is often a choice for many. In these times of excess, famine is unimaginable. All that lingers on is a lonely, dying memory of being hungry long ago. Very, very hungry.

Aditi Sen is a historian based in Queen’s University, Canada.

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