My existential fragrance
The astonishing smell of rice in the night sky.
It seems that some still cook rice,
Still serve it, still eat it.
And we are awake, all night.
With the astonishing smell of rice,
In supplication, all night.
I read this poem, ‘Ascharjyo Bhaater Gandho’ (The Astonishing Smell of Rice) by Birendra Chattopadhyay, in Supriya Chaudhuri’s translation, on September 2nd. It was his 100th birth anniversary, possibly the reason she’d shared it on Facebook. But I read it thinking of the people from the cities who had walked back home to their towns and villages in India in the summer of this year. Birendra Chattopadhyay had written this poem during the food riots of 1965. Coming from a family that had lost many to the Bengal Famine of 1943, I felt haunted by it. It is one thing to say that a poem has a haunting quality and quite another to feel that it is haunted by a history of hunger. It was a poem by a hungry people—and I say this not only because of the ‘we’ in the second stanza. The poem is about two neighbourhoods: of those who are cooking and eating rice and those that will stay hungry all night. That difference is emphasised by the number of verbs the rice eaters are given— ‘cook’, ‘serve’, ‘eat’—and the only one the hungry are allowed: ‘awake’. ‘Smell’ is a noun that comes to the hungry; ‘smell’ as verb would be giving them too much ‘allowance’. When I read the poem with my students in September, we spoke about the use of ‘night’—it occurs thrice in a six-line poem. The night is long, saying it thrice makes it longer, but the regime of hunger is even longer. Eating rice ends the day in a culture like ours, brings it to a naturalised close, said a student; to be deprived of that doesn’t allow the rice eater to sleep, the day doesn’t end because the hunger doesn’t end.
‘Ascharjyo’, the word that Supriya Chaudhuri translates as ‘astonishing’, is a rasa, the adbhuta rasa, the rasa of wonder. Invoking it for the most familiar smell of rice leaves the reader homeless, without the support of certainty, just as the people have been left deprived of the certainty of rice to seal the day. The word ‘bhaat’, meaning rice, extends to the idiomatic—Bengalis often use it interchangeably with ‘lunch’ and ‘dinner’: ‘bhaat khaoa’; Hindu marriage rituals include what is called ‘bhaat-kaapor’ (rice and clothes), a responsibility that husbands promise their wives; there’s the rice ceremony of infants, to inaugurate their rice-eating career; most religious rituals are incomplete without it. What might it mean to have the life’s staple, its smell taken away from us?
That the cost of an internet connection on the phone could be cheaper than a day’s meal of rice and vegetables would perhaps have never crossed my mind, given how pampered we are by inexpensive WiFi.
‘Most of us had bought a year’s subscription on our phones, Didi,’ Shibu told me.
When he and his friends began walking from Noida towards their villages in Bengal’s Dinajpur districts, they bought whatever they could with the money they had—muri, biscuits, bhujia, candies, sugar, onions and chillies. They were not thinking of food, he said. Something would be found on the way. One thing they were not sure of was the availability of electric power to charge their phones. So they decided to use only one phone at a time. They were a group of six. They were also convinced that they would reach home by the seventh day. It was in the ‘shastras’, he said—even the exiled is allowed to return in the seventh year.
They walked for days, but home didn’t come. After the third day, they felt crippled by their hunger for rice.
‘If they’d asked us to choose between reaching home and eating a thhala of rice, we’d definitely have chosen the rice, Didi,’ he said.
By the time they reached Odisha, they found people distributing food to workers returning home. They were grateful for everything, including the soap and Dettol, but there was no rice. And then it struck one of his friends…
For the rest of the journey, charging their phones whenever they had the opportunity, they began watching videos of rice being cooked on YouTube. No matter what it was that they were eating—muri, chanachur, biscuits or sometimes just water—they ate while watching rice cooking on a stove somewhere. Then they switched off their phones.
‘It helped us survive, Didi,’ he said, turning to look away from me, hiding his tears. ‘We told ourselves that Covid caused people to lose their sense of smell. Though we did not have corona, our situation was similar to theirs… We could see the rice on YouTube, but not smell it. That kept us walking—the longing for the smell of rice… ’
It was after lunch on a Thursday, when he hadn’t been able to smell the Tulaipanji rice, that my brother finally decided to get tested for Covid. He’d been suffering from fever and headache, but was, like everyone else now, putting it to a seasonal fever and allergy. It was Covid.
Self-isolation of a family member brings in a new protocol of living, but also a heightened awareness of one’s body, of the senses. His children, nine and two years old, shouted their own versions of ‘Good night Baba’ to him from the first floor. I noticed that everyone at home had suddenly begun speaking louder. The water they drank now was also warmer. They seemed to notice things that they hadn’t before—kites and crows in the sky, blackheads on my father’s dry cheeks, nail marks on walls that they couldn’t remember making. Hearing, seeing, touch—they were being serviced in a manner I hadn’t noticed before. About one of the senses they kept quiet: smell. It was a kind of unspoken solidarity. Not my mother, who drinks tea by inhaling it first, not even my nephew, who complains about the smell of fish frying in a distant neighbour’s kitchen.
I watched my sister-in-law cut fat sweet limes into wedges and carry them upstairs to where my brother was. She left it outside the door. The smell of citrus took over the house. No one spoke about it at all. I mention this, because such is the nature of citrus—it makes the tongue run, into saliva and words; its nature is overindulgence. After 10 days, though, I began texting my brother, ‘Could you smell the sweet lime, bhai?’
It began to seem that the answer to that would never change: ‘No’; ‘No’; ‘No’.
I stopped asking.
My mother called me in the afternoon one day. She was uncharacteristically joyous. My brother had enquired whether it was Lakshmi puja from the smell of khichuri being cooked somewhere—the rice and lentils cooked for the gods as bhog.
‘He must have smelt the gobindobhog rice,’ she said.
IN A STORY, versions of which came to me both from the Birbal series and the Bengali Gopalbhar’s, Birbal (and Gopalbhar in the Bangla version) tells Akbar that the poor will do anything for money. The king disagrees, but Birbal soon finds a poor man who spends a night inside a freezing lake. When Akbar asks the man how he managed to do this, the man says that the warmth of a distant lamp kept him alive. The king considers this to be an act of cheating, and refuses to give the promised reward to the man. Soon enough, to show the king the fallacy of his reasoning, Birbal begins cooking khichdi on a fire that is five feet above the cooking pot. The king realises his mistake and gives the promised reward to the man immediately.
This was the difference between gold and rice, my grandfather said often—gold felt the same everywhere; rice, however, was another thing: the soil and the light and the water in which it was raised gave it a distinct aroma. Home, for him, was the aroma of rice being cooked
This is the kind of story that pursues one throughout one’s life. It transforms into different things at different moments. When we transferred little sums of money to various organisations working for people affected by the Amphan cyclone that devastated southern Bengal in May this year, we were often given an account of how the money had been spent. Rice, red lentils, cartons of milk and baby food, packets of biscuits, sanitary napkins for women, salt, sugar, cooking oil, often a set of clothes, the essentials. I had seen similar lists in my childhood—my father, actively involved in the bank trade union movement until his retirement, would get together with his colleagues and go to Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar districts in the monsoon, where there were floods nearly every year. What surprised me, therefore, was the request of one such non-governmental organisation—could I help to pay for the kerosene oil and stoves to cook the rice and lentils that had been given to the people left homeless by the cyclone?
Rimi, the person who had got in touch with me, sent me a short video of rice being cooked later. A kerosene stove had been bought and oil arranged for. Rimi’s video showed a woman behind the stove, her two children, both their heads shaved, playing behind her. The younger one—who looked like a boy to my eyes—began running towards the woman after some time. The mother turned to look at the child—he couldn’t have been more than six years old—and said, ‘Bhaater gandho peli, baba?’ (Did you get the smell of rice, baba?)
IN THE MIDDLE of November, on the first day of the month of Agrahayan in the Bengali calendar, my father’s family in Balurghat eats a meal together. Balurghat is a small town near the Indo-Bangladesh border, and many of my father’s siblings have settled there after moving out of Hili, the tiny border town where my grandparents built a home—and their life—after walking from Bangladesh in the first week of August 1947. My grandfather came from a family of farmers, but having no land in this new country, he had to find a new profession—a goldsmith’s apprentice. He complained about the darkness of the antechamber in this new life, even when he had earned enough to own a tiny store himself—it was the light on the fields he missed. The fire he blew into metal to give it form—‘roop’— was no comparison for the early morning sun in the fields. He was certain that it was that light that gave fragrance to the crops, to fruits and flowers. He was no scientist, and these speculations might have come from a sense of deprivation. This was the difference between gold and rice, he said often—the metal felt the same everywhere; rice, however, was another thing: the soil and the light and the water in which it was raised gave it a distinct aroma. Home, for him, was the aroma of rice being cooked.
In the village where he lived for the rest of his life, raising seven sons and five daughters, a space so self-sufficient that he did not feel the urge to travel outside it, he continued with a ritual of his ancestors. It was the nabanna—naba: new; anna: rice, or grain. A celebration of the harvest season, its rituals are joyous—one shows gratitude to the earth and its generosity through ingestion, eating the new rice with the seasonal produce. I remember one such day in my father’s village. The four of us, my parents, my brother and I, had taken a bus from Siliguri, about 300 km away, to Hili. My brother and I had motion sickness, and we’d struggled all through the journey. By late afternoon, just as the bus, blue from outside but almost colourless inside, was about to enter the village, we met a smell.
It was the smell of rice being cooked. The aroma of rice—its different kinds of preparations—hung like a halo around the village. It was hard for us to imagine this—every kitchen in the village was cooking almost the same thing.
When my uncles and aunts and cousins meet on Nabanna every year, they try to remember a smell that was dear to their father, one last connection with his abandoned childhood that he had tried to recreate. When they meet at Buro Kaku’s house—he’s the fifth son of the family—they cook the same food that was cooked in the village. The courtyard of the village house is gone—Dadu, my grandfather, sat in the centre, his sons and grandchildren around him in a longish circle, banana leaves in front of them. They asked for permission to eat, thrice, all of them individually, and to all of them Dadu said “Yes.”
Now there is his photograph, and they still ask him for permission. Buro-kaku goes to the village to the same rice-selling family from whom my grandfather bought sacks of rice. It is not the length of the grain he inspects but its smell, touching palmfuls of rice to his nose.
This year—last month—Buro Kaku and his family cooked the same rice. We watched his wife cook the same food on Google Meet from our homes in different towns and cities. Some didn’t speak, still shy to this new manner of sharing. Some spoke more than usual, recounting details of Nabanna from more than three decades ago.
Before they were about to say bye to each other on the video call, Buro Kaku asked, “Can you smell the rice?”
YESTERDAY, I READ about a farmer from Uttar Pradesh, one of the many thousands protesting in Delhi, telling a reporter, “Aap ja ke Modiji se keh do ki yeh digital India se sab nahi chalega. Google se roti download nahi hoti, uske liye to kisan ki hi zarurat hai” (“Tell Modiji that digital India cannot make everything work. You cannot download roti from Google; for that you need a farmer”).
A compulsive rice eater, I found roti becoming rice in my head subconsciously. I thought of my two-year-old niece, who touches the food she sees us ordering on Zomato and ‘feeds’ it to us. Once she kissed the phone when I was ordering prawn fried rice. My nephew, slightly older, scolded her: “Can’t you see that this fried rice has no smell?”
I WILL remember 2020 as the year I learnt not to take the smell of rice for granted.