Carefully sliding the bitter gourd fritters under my porcelain dish that had three tiny imprints of some unknown east Asian fruit bearing tree, I felt relieved. My resentment towards anything teto – bitter in Bangla – was fairly high. In those days bitter gourd fritters, inevitable a starter on a Sunday lunch, were unsurmountable challenge, delaying the serving of a thin, indescribably delicious mutton curry, a Sunday special that I eagerly waited for the entire week. So I relate to the “resentment” factor with which Chitrita Banerji’s memoir, A Taste of My Life, begins.
Can resentment even be the starter to a memoir that has its pulse beating in food? Yes, it can, for this is the sentiment that leads to a space ever so personal in this memoir, including the author’s homes, kitchens, her mother’s prayer room, marriages, divorces, immigration, and travels. Ultimately, what withstands everything is Banerji’s love for life, tinged with the colour of a void.
If you have read Chitrita Banerji earlier, you know that she plays mostly on memory and mythology in storytelling. Naturally, it was expected that both these factors would act as the warp and weft of the book, knowing how well she has always woven them into her writing. But here she goes a notch higher by bringing situating whatever is personal as well as her memory in 1960s’ Kolkata.
In the process, a strange universalism emerges, as if some of her personal stories are a part of her reader’s experiences. You don’t have to be a Bengali in your choice of food or a lover of all things from Kolkata to read this slim book of 144 pages and say, “Okay, something like this happened to me and my Ajji, or Ammi, or Mausi, or Baba.”
Banerji practically compels you to be universal.
A platter of memories
Divided into three segments – Sundries, Mains, and Endings – the book takes readers through Banerji’s life and journeys – literal and metaphorical – from adolescence to adulthood via food. She talks of her travels to the United States, first as a post-graduate student and later as an immigrant, a food historian, an author and a resident.
Memoirs sometimes build an expectation of a chronological timeline, but Banerji does not take this route to describe her stories. Instead, she uses incidents and locations separated in space and time, putting them on a thala, like a large Bengali platter of various flavours and tastes.
The book begins with her observations of her mother’s skills as the latter goes about making the Bengali vegetarian delicacy plantain flower curry (mochar ghonto). Those familiar with Bengali food and its strict obedience to defined courses (order of starters, mains, etc) may wonder why mocha would come ahead of the bitter dish.
But these are memories, and they are never stored in order. Soon after the mocha story is initiated, we read her unbeatable lines: “The conical shape, slightly wider at one end resembled a boat. In the evening I would go up to the roof, fill a large pail of water, place a small clay lamp left over from a Diwali festival on a purple leaf and set it afloat.” We know what’s on offer – a menu of stories filled with cultural insights, intimate revelations, and recipes.
The plantain flower glides into the story of brave Behula, who journeys on a raft made of raw plantain. This leads to a discussion of Banerji’s mother’s love for paan and how disinterested the author was as a teenager in the trip her mother undertook every day to the local market, scouting for the best of mitha pata (sweet leaf) or bangla paan.
But Banerji does mention how the conical shape of a paan when dressed fully can be related to the shape of the mocha, in the process bringing in an emotional tale of loss and longing involving her youngest aunt’s marriage, where the very same paan leaf acts as a barrier between her and her beloved aunt. At traditional Bengali weddings, the bride hides her face with a pair of betel leaves till she is allowed to see her groom ceremoniously for the first time. Meanwhile, Banerji also informs us of an Arabic connection with paan.
And this is how the narration continues, as the writer looks back on her life through food, memories, and relationships. In one instance she compares berries of the west with the koromcha, golapjam, and jamrul (local berries of Bengal), to which she adds on the Bengali folk imagination of the power of the koromcha to ward off evil and how Satyajit Ray in Pather Panchali had echoed the folk rhyme featured in Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s novel.
Adulting with food
Without letting the reader consciously realise it, Banerji then transitions from a disinterested teenager who often sidesteps matters of food to someone intricately linked to them. We are invited to peep into the adult Chitrita Banerji’s life – her first magical experience of a cup of Darjeeling tea as a young student at Presidency College, Kolkata, and her long addas at the Indian Coffee House – a legendary institution of leisure, conversations and rebellions that has escaped the aggression of the Starbucks era.
The reader also travels with the author on her journey to the US as a post-graduate student, witnessing her search for the quintessential Kolkata chicken sandwich that she left behind. A vivid description of what she yearned for in America reads: “On rare occasions when people like us did splurge and eat out at restaurants that served so called ‘Continental’ (read Western) food, the chicken sandwich consisted of thinly sliced bread (each piece no more than three inches by three inches after the crust had been removed), sparingly buttered and enclosing several slices of plainly cooked skinless, boneless chicken.”
Banerji almost does not make a distinction between her life and food, describing the former – with her parents and husbands – with the same intimacy with which she details her fondness for Bengal’s gur (jaggery) or posto (poppy seeds). The ending is seemingly unexpected, practically fictional, reflective of Banerji’s entire life, which she sums up as epitomising food as the most “sacred” thing in human life, while conceding how “prosaic” it is.
I don’t recall a memoir like this in recent times. It is a template of a culture, its eccentricities, its joyous and sad moments – a story of a community told with passion and imagination.
Nilosree Biswas is an author, most recently of Banaras Of Gods: Humans And Stories.
A Taste of My Life: A Memoir in Essays and Recipes, Chitrita Banerjee, Picador India.