(I dedicate this essay to my whats app femily group (family with a Bengali accent) who encouraged me to write this and more. Maybe I will.)
Bengalis cannot imagine life without digestive problems. The practices of their everyday life includes detailed descriptions about ambol, gaa goolono, delicate stomach, and of course gastric. Gastric, as far as Bengalis are concerned, is an organ in the body, next to the stomach, connected to the gut, attached to the gall bladder, liver and esophagus, and causes everything from bile to vile. Bengalis think, dream, talk and eat food with relish. I come from a family whose association with food and recipes, cooking and cookbooks is legendary. Tweaking an everyday Bengali dish makes the ordinary extraordinary—makes it part of the Thakur barir rannaghar. Take Thakur barir doodh katla, an ideal light fish dish for the scorching summers. The combination of katla maach, concentrated milk, whole milk and mustard oil, squeezed ginger and onion juice may not look like much, but one spoonful turns the skeptical diner into an enthusiast.
I grew up, though, disliking food. Mealtimes were excruciating for me and everyone around me. I was, and still remain, thin for my height. I weigh 135 lbs standing tall at 6 ft 1. An unusual Bengali woman. Growing up stick thin (kathir mathaye alur dom was a favorite insult aimed at me), my parents were inundated with instructions from family, friends and strangers about how to fatten me up, the potato on a stick. Feed her potatoes and rice. Perhaps that is why the Bengali staple, mashed potatoes and rice with green chillies, salt and mustard oil remains my favorite comfort food. I came up with creative ways to avoid drinking milk for example—flushed it down the toilet, made the wonderful woman who lived with us and helped us out drink it till she refused, tortured my younger brother, forcing it down his throat, poured it down the balcony till the neighbors downstairs complained to my parents. I played around with food on the plate, spending hours moving an unchewed lump from one cheek to another, staring into space, hoping that I would somehow be able to leave the table without being told, yet again, to swallow the food. I can hear my mother’s frustrated voice saying “Baby, khabar ta gel ektu”, and my father thundering, “There are people starving in Ethiopia.” I inevitably responded with the perennial food in my mouth, “There are starving people outside the gates, give it to them.” My parents took me to doctors who advised all kinds of protein drinks, stuff that tasted horrendous, like Complan. My mother came every day at lunchtime to school—special permission required—and she and I spent recess, me chewing, not swallowing and she, poor Ma, cajoling, bribing, pleading, ”Baby, open your mouth, please aarektu kha.”
On one of our annual trips to Calcutta ever dreaded by me because I found the city (then) uninspiring, parochial and provincial—men just sitting around and shooting the breeze, men who pontificated about everything, self-important and full of bloat, a gaseous atmosphere to say the least. They seemed very unlike my cosmopolitan father, who left the city at nineteen, who would return from work, shower and change into fresh and crisp clean cotton kurta- pajamas to sit down for a good dose of rumor and fun with my Boro Mamima. My Assamese Boro Mamima was a woman of beauty, suave and sophisticated, full of risqué limericks which had a lot to do with farts and food. I have vivid memories of her, all dressed up, tip top, unashamedly and visibly made up, emerging from her boudoir in Niharika, Alipore at 6 pm sharp to host friends and relatives with the ever-present glass of whisky and appetizers.Food and drink was an integral part of our lives; ubiquitous and essential. We were visiting my Shejo Mashi with my Choto Mashi and her daughter Munia di one year, when I must have been 12, an aunt who lived in an outsized home in Beliaghata, with verandahs that wrapped their red floors around the length and breadth of the house. Food was served, large quantities of rice, cholar daal, begun bhaja, mach majha, jhinge posto, chingdi macher bati chorchori, dimer dalna, and mangsho. My brother and I were running around the verandah, amazed at the freedom it offered, an infinite space, despite our considerably large flat in Bombay, when we were called to lunch. I remember sitting at the table reluctantly, ready for the inevitable instructions to eat something, anything. But brief visits are of a genre, and my mother demanded complete attention, being a sister, the youngest of nine, cherished and nurtured by all. Everyone forgot about the skinny young girl who would not eat, until half an hour into the meal, someone, my Choto Maashi said in a hushed astonished voice, “Dekho Baby khachhe?” I looked up on hearing my name and realized I had just devoured with relish a plate of daal, jhinge posto and a piece of fried fish and was ready for more. There is no explanation. That afternoon, I turned towards food rather than away from it and the gourmand was born.
If not liking food was one kind of problem, loving it was another. I could not and still cannot bear to eat unappetizing food. I see no reason why anyone should not make the effort to eat something, if not delicious, at least worth actually putting in your mouth. Cooking is my act of meditation, a way to still my mind and focus on the dish I will make and eat. While I was always surrounded by food, with cooks who, provided by the bank where my father worked, preparing wonderful meals often supervised by my mother who made a special dish everyday she knew my father would enjoy, I learned to cook because I had to. My father, a man of small but adventurous appetites was torn away from us in seven seconds, a ruptured aneurysm at the age of 48 in Mauritius. It changed our lives instantly because as a young widow of 40, my mother could only think about returning to a city that she had left the day she got married. The city housed her extended relatives, her sisters, brothers, their spouses and, above all, my Boro mama and Mamima and her own widowed mother.
So to Calcutta we returned, broken and unable to fathom what life would mean hence. We lived with my uncle at first, as finances got sorted and we discovered how much money a man of 48 could have left for his family. It was not a small sum by any measure, but it also could not indefinitely support a family of 3, a young girl of 17, her brother, almost 15, and a former wife, a mother who had never worked despite an MA in History. Reserve Bank of India (RBI) where my father worked had a policy of giving a job to the best next of kin which happened to be my mother. A woman of extraordinary tenacity and capability, she went to work, starting as a coin sorter in the bank where my father had occupied powerful seats. While my father received a state funeral with a gun salute in Mauritius, we were packing up to live in a city that was and had never been home. However, before we left Mauritius, a friend of my father took me to a French restaurant in Port Louis because my father had mentioned to him how he could not wait for me to eat there and sip a glass of champagne. Thus, despite the austerity that shrouded a mourning family for 13 days, I took that drive from Quatre Borne with Dr. Lall and ate and cried and raised my first glass of champagne to my prematurely departed father.
In Calcutta, my mother was immediately cradled by her siblings and not allowed to dwell alone in her grief. They surrounded her with stories about him, with love and the dishes she prepared for him and which he always complimented her on and made her wear the clothes he loved to see her in. I cooked alongside my mother and the part-time maid who cut, chopped and ground the spices needed on the sheel nora. I was good at it and very soon I was making hakka chow and chili pork, sometimes on a kerosene stove when the gas cylinder ran empty. I made friends and did change my blanket opinion about Bengali men. I ate great food, only the kind Calcutta could offer, from kathi rolls to puchkas; from Mocambo’s sizzler to Barb B Q’s fried rice; from Jimmy’s Kitchen Chimney soup to Elgin Road thukpas; from Nizam’s Biryani to early morning Chinese dumplings and pao buns sold by vendors while folks walked by brushing their teeth and getting ready for the day. But the city always seemed like a distant relative, someone to put up with but not embrace.
I left six years later to come to the US, to get an MA followed by a PhD in Comparative Literature, in a small town in the Midwest, a shock to my system, different in kind and texture from the sudden death of my father. It was the chicken I picked up from Kroger’s, an icy cage with aisles and aisles of stuff that I hoped one day to explore, that perhaps best captures the sense of displacement and initial disappointment in the land of the free. I would discover the endless aisles slowly during my time there, but that first week, looking to eat something, I thought I’d make a simple chicken stew. Some onions, carrots, green beans, potatoes and chicken. I had some salt and pepper, Worcestershire sauce, some butter, a little flour. The person accompanying me suggested I buy a bottle of something called mixed herbs. I made it with care, salivating as the smells filled my small efficiency on the ground floor. I made some rice and sat down to eat. One bite of the chicken and I felt sick, nauseated, and spat it out. What was this foul fowl? I had done everything right. The stew itself was quite delicious but the chicken was all wrong. I learned that day that size matters nought. In fact the inverse. The larger the chicken the worse it is for the taste buds.
But triumph I would. In between trying to read Of Grammatology and Ecrits, I experimented with chicken. I stuck with wings and drumsticks because they were cheaper and had bones. In the end I learned that the only way to save these cut up mammals was to rub them with lime and salt for a bit. Then wash clean and pat dry. Make gashes and stuff with garlic, ginger and if possible other aromatics and bake for at least 15 mins before attempting to make something stove top. I cannot say that my dishes were fabulous, but they were the best chickens anyone ever ate in that small town. I made chicken curry, chicken teriyaki, chicken meatballs and roasted chicken. I learned to cook with minimum ingredients and devised dishes with new spices and herbs, but I was quite happy when the time came to leave the Midwest for more tasteful pastures in Seattle, a beautiful city nestled between mountains and water, a bay and the ocean, made for eating and more eating. A city where I first learned about the delicacy of sushi and Vietnamese rice rolls, of Phở and spicy Sichuan cuisine, of Ethiopian injeras and Thai curries, the flavor of King salmon and big prawns, golda chingdi as we would call them in Calcutta, and leafy herbs and greens I had never before encountered. I would take the bus to Pike Place Market to watch the fishmongers sell their fares. Something about the place reminded me of the fish markets in Calcutta, cleaner and more sanitized. I saved my money, the only time I was ever frugal, to enjoy a good lunch or dinner in the not too expensive places that dotted every neighborhood in Seattle. When my mother visited, we spent a bit more going to slightly upscale restaurants that my mother discovered while I attended my seminars. Coffee became a passion and I finally discovered the joy of wine. I began to organize my trips around restaurant availability; I have learned the art of cajoling even the French to squeeze us in to hard-to-get restaurants.
Then my mother was hit by a West Bengal State Electricity Board van. It was a terrible death, still impossible for me to recount, two days after my tenure celebration. It filled me with a sorrow so deep that I still have to pause whatever I am doing and take a deep painful breath when her memory vividly flashes in front of me. The many dishes we cooked together sustain me now: chicken cutlet, whole prawn fry, potatoes and beet salad with the best homemade mayo, Anglo-Indian chicken roast, and Thakurbarir aada maach and niramish pathar mangsho. Her love for ovens, discovered when she first visited me, produced bakes and cakes in abundance. Ovens, she once remarked, were the hallmark of civilization. Her veal ossobuco from Silver Palate is something I still struggle to replicate as I do her coulibiac of salmon from the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook.
And then came another rupture, this time a bodily one, a breach unimaginable. Inside my body was a conjoining of organs that should not have occurred; my lower colon and spinal sac met in a dance of death, sweeping waste into my brain and causing a massive unrelenting headache. Rushed to the local ER, I was immediately taken to Hopkins where, I learned later, they performed spinal surgery separating the two organs with a bow and then flipped me over and gave me a colostomy. It took them 10 hours and it was touch and go. Imagine waking up in terrible pain on an ice sheet to bring your temperature down with tubes sticking out from everywhere, nurses constantly asking you the year, the date, the month, the name of the current President every five minutes, and looking at a gaping hole on the side of your stomach, a part of the colon. It was a mouth of course, one to expel food as waste to keep me alive. Somewhere even then, hallucinating as I was, I kept thinking of Becket. Maybe I survived because I thought I was performing in a Becket play. Two-and-a-half months later, after far too many complications, I came home, learning to walk and eat again. Colostomies are nasty buggers. They have to be covered with the right size topper with a proper seal and the bag must attach just right so that nothing leaks. It sounds great in theory. In practice it often failed, but just as I milked what taste I could from those chickens that looked plump and edible, I learned to master the art of maneuvering with my colostomy and colostomy bag. Giving up food I liked was never an option; neither was giving up travel. Embrace the body, I told myself; don’t fight it, but don’t let it dictate how you live your life. Three months after coming home in November, I flew to Paris and ate my heart out with glee. I learned to change bags in the smallest of bathrooms; I was always acutely aware of an impending accident and I carried spare bags, underwear, soap, wipes, and, often, even a change of clothes. I ate and drank, travelled and lived.
Two years later I was given the all-clear to reverse the colostomy, another difficult surgery with its own complications. Hurrah I thought, I have made it. But wait a minute, my body said. Two months after the reversal, I could not keep anything down. I shat blood even as doctors said the colon was adjusting. Finally, after three months of not eating and losing weight rapidly (25 lbs). and several colonoscopies in rapid progression, I was diagnosed with stage four ulcerative colitis. When they showed the pictures to me and my partner, then just a new boyfriend I had met two months before the planned surgery, after the painful dissolution of a 21-year- old marriage, my colon looked like an inflamed weapon, red and white scooped out with an ice cream spoon. It was livid and incensed and was letting me know it should never have been allowed to be set free and reattached. I knew I was going to have to appease her to allow me stay alive with some dignity and hope. What a disease for a foodie to have – this was my first thought after the fear subsided. So much worse than the imagined gastric. It has been ten years now living with the disease managed by medicines that help and harm; auto-immune suppressants like Humira and Mercaptopurine and something else called Mesalamime. I remember ads on bus stops: women’s feet with shoes tapping, sitting on invisible toilets. I can so relate to the ad. I want to be in one of them. Learning to live with UC is a different beast than living with a colostomy. Qualitatively, life is easier; there is less to camouflage. And, of course, if I were not me, things could possibly be easier. I could eat more sparingly with greater discernment, drink less so as not to aggravate my colon. But eating a baked sweet potato all day and sipping water is an unappetizing impossibility.
My gastroenterologist, also a foodie, had these words of wisdom: you can either let the disease dictate what you eat or you can train your body to accept what you eat. You can either be scared of food or…. I had to stop him. Me, scared of food? My first real dinner after my first dose of Humira took effect included sweetbreads with the boyfriend trying his level best to not say anything. I did pay a small price that night, but it was so worth it. Isn’t that why bathrooms exist? The boyfriend is now my partner in illness and in poor health. I have managed to shed some of my haute behavior. Knowing where the bathrooms are is key. Anticipating a brisk trip while sharing a meal is often a real possibility. When I teach, I eat around my schedule often going 7-9 hours without food, buoyed by the idea of the meal I have planned to cook that evening and the bottle of wine I will open and sip while cooking. Or perhaps the take-away from the lovely Thai restaurant that uses up to 5 chili peppers to indicate the level of spiciness. I have eaten at the fanciest of restaurants from Ushuaia, Patagonia to roadside diners on the way to Ajanta and Ellora. I make sure to wash my plate and silverware and the ubiquitous salad of onions, tomatoes and cucumbers in bottled water in India. I still lack the courage to eat Indian street food, but maybe one day soon.
Over the years I have developed a close relationship with my body. I try to listen to her but at times I have just said, do what you will, I am going to have brain fry in a restaurant. And just like that she will not act up. Two days later a simple baked chicken will rile her up so much that I have to ride her anger out. We manage, she and I, inseparable, and at times incompatible, much like any worthwhile relationship. We have learned that legumes are hard. Daal for a Bengali is essential food, but I can only eat it once in a while. Raw vegetables and salads are a definite no, but I don’t care since I am not a rabbit. I eat everything else though I tend to eat less read meat at home; more fish and chicken. I still plan our travel around restaurant availability, and I cook up a delicious meal at home every chance I get. I love to host dinners and I like to cook dishes without trying them first. I am a great cook (no lies, no false modesty), and I come from a family of even greater female cooks who wield their ladle proudly. I am not giving up that easily on food. I am a Bengali and my parents’ daughter. I live to cook to remember them, taken away from us so young and in such an untimely fashion. I have a terrible disease and it is not gastric and I will persevere. Right now, I could really eat a lovely chili omelet.
Coda: In the last ten years I have traveled to Kolkata more often and I have begun to love the city. Its colonial hangover; the Bengal Club that serves the best chili chicken; the lovely people who will invite you to great dinners and conversations on their terraces; an easy relaxed living (less of the hustle and bustle of Delhi and Mumbai), and above all a sense of camaraderie and goodwill that now seems increasingly welcome. While COVID has cramped my ability to travel, I hope to very soon and I have a list of things I am going to eat the first day I land in Kolkata: Bhetki fry; daal, chorchori and pabda macher jhol.