When towns become cities and edge out the natural, relegating nature to a manicured nominal presence controlled by industries of different kinds, what persists as a kind of umbilical tie is the food we eat. Very often, memories of places and people are triggered in us by memories of food. Stories about various family members, relatives and friends followed me throughout my childhood and youth, sometimes to keep me awake on an evening if I happened to be drowsy by the fireside before dinner; stories at mealtimes; or a story evoked by a particular recipe. When I started cooking under the guidance of my mother at 15, the stories accompanied me until my own stories added to them when I cooked for my family and taught my children to cook.
Christian missionary activity in the Khasi and Jaintia hills began in the middle of the nineteenth century with the Welsh, Irish and Dutch. Later, there was the Ramkrishna Mission and the Brahmo Mission under the auspices of the Brahmo Samaj in Kolkata. The Brahmo Samaj grew to be a presence in the hills, particularly in Cherrapunji (now called Sohra), Laitkynsew and Shillong. The two Samaj houses in Shillong, one in Laban and the other in Police Bazar, were well attended. Brahmo hymns were translated into Khasi (by my grandfather), and they were sung at the morning services in Cherrapunji. The Samaj was also close to the Unitarian Church and each attended the other’s services on special occasions.
To start my story, in the early years of the last century, Binod Behari Roy, my maternal grandfather, left a promising career as a surgeon in Kolkata and went to the Khasi Hills to work as a preacher for the Brahmo Samaj. He first went to Shillong and then to Cherrapunji, where he lived for most of the year. My grandmother and the children moved to Shillong a few years after he had settled there.
There are two stories my mother always told me about my grandfather; one when she made semolina halwa for us at breakfast; the other when she made khichuri or pish-pash for lunch on rainy, or wintry days. With her expert mimicry, she would have me in splits. Let me tell you the semolina halwa story first.
There were two candidates for this post in the Brahmo Mission: one was my grandfather and the other was Nilmoni Chakraborty. The two were diametrically opposite, both in appearance and character. A prominent Bengali writer has described Nilmoni Chakraborty in one of her books as the incarnation of her image of God: he was a slender man with a long, white, flowing beard, and hair curling at the neck. My grandfather was stocky, had straight black hair and a thick black moustache, hardly the image of God. He was fond of food (my mother said he was capable of eating a whole chicken or a whole leg of mutton), which was perhaps one of the reasons he had an enlarged heart, though walking up and down the hills might also have taken a toll. He died of a heart attack at 50 when my mother was about 14 years old, leaving my grandmother with four young children of her own and a host of foster ones.
As things turned out, it was Binod Roy who was selected to go to the Khasi Hills, much to Nilmoni Chakraborty’s chagrin.
Though life in the hills was difficult at first for my grandfather, he embraced the other joys of living in Cherrapunji. He gradually learnt how to cook and fend for himself, and found that the freshness of the vegetables, the fragrant rice, the purity of the ghee and the orange honey made any food taste good. In the beginning, however, there were mistakes, like when he attempted a semolina halwa, his usual breakfast with crunchy puffed rice, for a friend and himself. He mistook the honey for ghee and tried frying the semolina in it. It soon turned black and stuck to the ladle and wok, rising up in a sticky mess when he tried to lift the ladle. They threw away everything, wok, ladle, black mess, and ate puffed rice with honey and ghee that morning. This is how the halwa is normally made.
½ cup ghee
1 tsp fennel seeds
¼ cup cashew nuts or peanuts
¼ cup raisins
1 cup semolina (200 gm)
½ cup sugar, honey or jaggery
½ cup wate
1 cup milk
- In a deep-bottomed kadhai, heat the ghee. Add the fennel seeds and fry until lightly browned. Throw in the nuts and raisins and fry for a minute or until the raisins swell and the nuts are browned. Add the semolina, turn down the heat and stir it often to fry it evenly.
- Add a sweetener of your choice, stir well to caramelize and then add the water and milk. Stir constantly until the liquid evaporates and the halwa comes off the kadhai.
- Serve on a bed of puffed rice, or with toast, or with hing kochuri.
Variations: This halwa can also be made with vermicelli or dalia (broken wheat). You can substitute the fennel seeds with 1 cardamom, 2 cloves and a small stick of cinnamon.
As I have mentioned before, my grandfather was fond of meat, of which there was a plentiful supply. But there was one phase in his life when he had to survive on very little, and this is my mother’s pish-pash and khichuri story.
The pristine surroundings of Cherrapunji attracted many visitors from Shillong. They came not only to discuss philosophy and religion but also to gossip about Brahmo Samaj politics. A favourite subject was Nilmoni Chakraborty. Not content with his situation, Chakraborty had sought to make things hard for my grandfather by trying to prove he was the more worthy candidate to spread the Word of God.
Once a year had passed after the Cherrapunji appointment, he decided to come in person ‘to see what Binod Roy [was] up to’. He came in the orange season when most harvesters went down to the annual village fair in Shella, which lay below Cherrapunji, to sell their oranges and buy livestock. My grandfather also went there, mainly to treat the sick with homeopathy, lance boils, remove thorns from callused feet and so on.
Nilmoni Chakraborty, on the other hand, went to deliver sermons. No one paid him any attention, and when he saw how people were flocking to my grandfather’s stall, he became even angrier, but there was little he could do. At the end of the day, when the market closed, and people trudged up the hills to their respective villages, Nilmoni Chakraborty was the only one being carried up on a coolie’s back.
At a distance, he saw my grandfather sitting on a rock to take a breather, and he shouted to his coolie, ‘Usko maro, woh chor hai! Hit him, he’s a thief!’ The coolie approached my grandfather threateningly with a stick in his hand, whereupon he got up and gave the coolie a gentle push. I can’t really vouch for how gentle that was, given his strength, for it sent both the coolie and Chakraborty (who popped out of the basket) rolling downhill till they reached the bottom. Neither was hurt since the hill was grassy. Nevertheless, Chakraborty filed a case against Binod Roy for wilful assault.
My grandfather’s defence lawyer was his friend and fellow Brahmo, Monmotho Das Gupta, who also owned a soap factory in Shillong. He advised him strongly against revealing that there was an actual push: He was to say that the coolie must have tripped and lost his footing. But my grandfather was adamant. Honest to a fault, he said, ‘I will neither lie in court nor in the eyes of God.’ So, when the court hearing commenced, he said, ‘Yes, I did push him, but under provocation. If he does it again, I will push him yet again.’ He was fined Rs 300, quite a sum in those days, and he paid it with his last penny.
He returned home expecting that he still had some money in the pocket of his kurta hanging from the bracket in his bedroom, but he found his dhoti and kurta, as well as his wallet, stolen in his absence. Yet, somehow, he made it back to Cherrapunji.
I don’t know what he did for food in that situation, although I don’t think he lacked basic stuff: most of his patients brought a little something from their farms in return for free treatment. ‘He lived on plain khichuri and pish-pash,’ my mother told me.
Excerpted with permission from Spiced, Smoked, Pickled, Preserved: Recipes and Reminiscences from India’s Eastern Hills, by Indranee Ghosh, Hachette India.